Choose Your Friends Wisely (My 2017 PDS Commencement Speech)

choose your friends wiselyThe following script is from my commencement speech on choosing friends wisely that I delivered to my graduating 6th graders at Presbyterian Day School on Friday, May 26, 2017.

Mr. Hancock, Ms. Glenn, Mr. Fruitt, members of the board of trustees, colleagues, family and friends of our graduates, and boys of the Presbyterian Day School class of 2017,

I am honored and grateful for the privilege of speaking with you this morning. I’ve been struggling for weeks trying to decide what I want to say to you today. After all, today is an important day, and I felt pressured to deliver a speech that would impress even Kemp’s late great-grandmother. So with Nan-Nan in mind, I asked myself, “What parting words do I have for these boys? What can I say to inspire them and set them on a path to greater success? What should I tell them that they’ll always remember and hold dear to their hearts?”

I considered it. I wrote down a bunch of ideas and found some inspiring quotes to share, too. I watched several excellent commencement speeches trying to figure out what I might say to challenge and motivate you, but none of the topics seemed the right fit for you and me and what I believe you most need to hear today. So, I kept on deliberating.

As I was brainstorming, I reflected on my sixth-grade graduation–way back in 1983, and the wisdom shared on that glorious morning. And I remembered…well, nothing. In fact, I’m not one to forget things, but I can’t even remember who spoke to my class that day. Not only that but as I thought on my high school graduation in 1989, I couldn’t remember who gave that commencement address either. Nor could I recall the points he made that night.

So I guess the pressure is off, huh?

As I reflected on my elementary school graduation and the years that followed, I realized that it wasn’t long after sixth grade that everything started to change for me. Oh, I’m not referring to puberty, but yes, that happened, too. What shifted as I became a teenager was who my primary influences were. In elementary school, my parents and teachers mostly swayed my thoughts, feelings, and actions. However, in junior high, their hold gave way to the influences of my friends. Sure, my parents continued to be a significant part of my life. They still are. But as I look back now, I realize it was my friendships that shaped so many of my thoughts and decisions. I’m incredibly thankful I chose good friends. A large part of who I am today is because of their positive influence on me.

Boys, my message this morning is simple: choose your friends wisely. The man you’ll become is going to be strongly influenced by your choice of friends. You are starting a new chapter at a new school next year. Many things will change. Some of you will attend schools where everyone is new. Others will enter situations where you’ll feel as though you’re the only one. Regardless, it’ll be a new start for each of you, and you’ll have the opportunity to meet many new people and build new relationships. Choose wisely the people you invite into your close-knit circle of friends. Your good friends will have a vital role in what happens to you over the next ten years and beyond. As Proverbs 13:20 says, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.”

So, what makes a good friend?

First, a good friend is loyal. Through our seven virtues, you’ve learned that a true friend leaves no man behind. He should be there through the joy, the grief, your successes and your failures, and everything in between. Being there is important, but it’s more than just being present. A good friend should be trustworthy and willing to call you out gently when you’re in the wrong. And he should forgive you when you blow it and make of mess of things, too.

Melissa was my first girlfriend way back in the fifth grade. She was a cute and fiery redhead, and she liked sports. What more could an eleven-year-old want in his first crush, right? Things didn’t work out for us romantically that year, but we stayed close friends from middle school until today. As you guys know, my mom died when I was in the 6th grade, and I went through some tumultuous peaks and valleys as I worked through my grief over the next few years. Melissa had a front row seat to view much of my struggling, and sometimes she bore the brunt of my hurt and pain. Somehow, through it all, she never turned her back on me, and I’m thankful that her loyalty and her forgiveness has allowed us to remain friends for almost 40 years.

Find a friend like Melissa––someone true, who’ll stand by you to the end.  

Second, a good friend is kind. He’ll treat you with respect. He won’t put you down or do things deliberately to hurt you. He’ll help you see the good that’s in you and encourage you to be true to yourself.

Kelly is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. Back in school, he was the guy that everyone wanted to have as their friend. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying he was Mr. Popularity. He wasn’t ever the life of the party, the best athlete, or the funniest guy in the room, but he probably was always the kindest. I can’t remember anyone ever talking badly about Kelly, but then…Kelly never said anything bad about anyone else either. He was always humble, thoughtful, and kind. I liked being around Kelly. Hanging around a bunch of guys can be exhausting with fellows picking on each other and trying to “one up” each other for laughs. It makes it tough to let your guard down and to be honest about who you are. I don’t ever remember feeling that way around Kelly. I never had to pretend around him. He wasn’t that kind of friend.

I hope you find a friend like Kelly––someone considerate, who you can be your genuine self around.  

Third, a good friend makes you want to be a better person. He’s not only someone you trust but also someone who brings out the best in you. His character is one you want to copy. He wants to do what’s right and inspires you to want to do right, too.

Kevin is one of my oldest and closest friends. Back in school, Kevin was known for being an excellent soccer player and for having a great sense of humor. Sometimes he’d do the most unexpected and hilarious things. But Kevin was also known as a hard worker, and he was very active in our church youth group. If our youth minister scheduled a service project like raking leaves or working at the community food pantry, it was a good bet Kevin would be there helping right in the middle of it all. Often, I’d join the work team just because Kevin was going and I liked hanging around him. Kevin was that guy. We don’t look like each other as much anymore. He’s still pretty skinny, and well, I still have all my hair. But back in high school, we had similar features and were often seen together. People would occasionally get us confused. I’d get called Kevin by mistake, but it never bothered me because Kevin was such a stand-up guy.

Find a friend like Kevin––someone who helps you become the very best you can.

Finally, a good friend prioritizes the friendship. All relationships require an investment of time, and a good friend makes himself available. Life through junior high and high school gets busy with school work, church activities, family obligations, sports competitions, extracurricular ventures, social commitments, community service, and yes, gentlemen, the pursuit of girls, too. A good friend should make time to hang out, to have fun, and to talk. If not, the friendship will never fully develop or will merely fall by the wayside.

Eric is a free spirit and a dreamer. He’s been a good friend to me through middle school, high school, college, and into our adulthood. One of the things I appreciate most about Eric is how he’s always demonstrated that our friendship matters to him. Eric was the friend who’d come over unexpectedly. He’d ask me to do something after school or to sit with him at lunch. In college, he’d frequently invite some guys and me to his room to play Tecmo Super Bowl or to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation with him. I’ve never wondered whether Eric wanted to be my friend because he’s always shown that our friendship matters. Even now, rarely a month goes by that I don’t receive a text from Eric checking in and asking when we are going to get together.

I wish for you to have a friend like Eric–someone who places great importance on having you as a companion.

That’s my challenge for you as you leave PDS, guys. Choose your friends wisely. Choose people who are loyal and individuals who are kind. Find friends who make you better and who think spending time with you is important. Choose wisely, my young friends. But maybe, before you start picking who you want to have as friends, reflect on what type of friend you already are. Then, choose to be the friend that you want to have. Be a wise friend, gentlemen, and choose your friends wisely. I love you.

Thank you.

Here’s the video of the entire commencement as PDS shared it on Facebook. My speech came after an excellent speech by one of my students. Kemp’s talk begins at the 29:00 mark. My speech follows at the 37:20 mark.

Be Present

be present.Life moves at much too fast a pace. I’d prefer things move a little slower. My dad turns 72 today. I can still remember his surprise 40th birthday party like it happened yesterday. In a few weeks, Evelyn will turn 7. How can that be? Wasn’t her birth just a few minutes ago? The older I get the faster time flies. How is it possible I’m going to be 44 years old next month?

I had a bit of a scare this past weekend. Late Saturday night, I received word that one of my closest friends was in the hospital in Nashville battling a dangerous infection. I hardly slept that night. I kept waking up checking my phone for updates on his condition. Worry overcame me. Throughout the day Sunday, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. Sure, I was praying for him, but I needed to do more. I needed to be present with him at the hospital. I couldn’t do anything for him medically, but I could be present. Fortunately, my wife realized this and suggested I drive over as soon as she got home from work Monday afternoon. I did and I’m glad I went. There is power in being present with the people you love.

My friend is better. He went home from the hospital yesterday. He’ll still be recovering for a little while, but he’s going to be okay. I didn’t do anything to help his situation. I didn’t do anything tangible. We talked and laughed. We remembered past days. I walked with him to get some testing done. I listened. We hung out in silence some, too. And yet, being present with him and his wife mattered. We don’t have nearly enough time together. We need to make time to be together more often.

Life is full of busyness and distractions. My family life gets filled with appointments, practices, ballgames, daily commutes, and making sure everyone has done his homework and washed behind his ears. It’s easy to get caught up in good things that aren’t the best things. The same can be said of my school life, too. It’s easy to get caught up in school assemblies, report cards, committee work, daily schedules, and workplace politics. Add social media, email, RSS feeds, etc. to the mix, and it becomes easy for me to miss what matters most. I need to be present–fully engaged with the people who matter to me.

A few weeks ago, I posted my professional development goal for 2014-2015. I’m excited about that goal, but it isn’t the most important goal I’m working on. My greatest goal, and perhaps the most challenging one for me, is to be present fully with those I love. Whether spending time with my wife, my children, my friends, my students, or my colleagues, I want to be present physically, mentally, and emotionally with them. I want to cherish our moments together.

A while back I gave notice to notifications on my phone, but somehow they’ve managed to creep back in to my life. I’m taking care of that problem today. I’ll continue to engage in online spaces. Those relationships matter to me, too. Some of my best friendships started online, but I’m going to be intentional about being present where I am—both in person and online. And I’d appreciate your holding me accountable for it, too. Time flies by. I want to make the most of each moment.

Yesterday Alex Couros shared a video of three German students surprising a homeless guy. The video really resonated with me as I watched how they chose to be present with this man. The video is worth watching.

How will you be present today?

Yep, About Five Seconds

The Twitter BirdI like Twitter. It’s an interesting medium for connecting with people, particularly other teachers. Through my interactions on Twitter, I’ve developed some great professional connections. I’ve made important friendships there, too. In fact, some of my closest friendships started on Twitter. My current job teaching at PDS, which I love, came primarily through the connections and relationships that started on Twitter so obviously, I think it’s an important place to be, and I urge every teacher I know to start using twitter and making connections there. It’s been one of the most important tools for my professional growth and development.

But. . . Twitter is a weird medium. By limiting posts to 140 characters, Twitter makes having deep conversations difficult. So while I find Twitter chats interesting and sometimes insightful, I don’t find them deeply challenging. Of course, I’d rather sit down with a great cup of coffee and talk, anyway.

Another thing that makes Twitter weird is the follower/following mechanism. For some reason, those numbers matter to some people. If I’m honest, there are times when they matter to me, too. Then, when I really think about it, I realize that’s kind of silly. I’m there to make connections and to learn. I’m not building a brand, and I’m not interested in making a name of becoming famous. I want to be the best teacher possible for my students, and yet I still have to decide who I will and will not follow.

Recently, Doug Peterson wrote an interesting post about the process he uses in determining whether he follows someone on Twitter. Doug’s is an interesting checklist as he  mentions that one only has about five seconds to make a good impression online. I’d say five seconds is just about right. My process isn’t as well thought out as Doug’s, but I have done some thinking about what goes through my mind when it comes to following folks on Twitter:

  1. I don’t follow every person, or even every educator, that follows me. There are people who do and I think that’s great, but that doesn’t work for me. I like using my “home” stream, and I prefer that it be filled with tweets from people I somewhat know and recognize. I do follow people back, but usually it’s because they’ve engaged in dialogue with me over some idea a few times. If you want to connect with me, I’m open to the idea, but don’t expect me to follow you just because you chose to follow me.
  2. If we meet in person, I’ll usually follow you. Of course, if you don’t share periodically or what you share is of little interest to me, I’ll probably unfollow you at some point. It is what it is.
  3. If you are following me only because you want to sell me something, we might as well end this now. I’m not interested.
  4. If you act like a jerk, I’m not going to keep following you. Life is just too short.

I’m sure I have a few other guidelines, but my Pomodoro timer just sounded so I’m going to stop now. What about you? How do you decide whom you will follow online?


This is a pomodori post. My pomodori posts stem from my use of the Pomodoro Technique. I spend the first 25-minute interval writing a post and a second interval polishing, editing, formatting, tagging, and scheduling it. At the end of the second interval, the post is done.

My Homework

homeworkSo… This morning, my friend Bill tagged me in a “Homework” blog meme. I have no idea how this whole thing started, but according to Bill, “this meme has an important purpose: To give readers a look behind the digital masks that writers show outwardly to the world.” So what masks am I wearing as I share in this space? Hmm. I guess I need to spend some time reflecting on that. After all, the goal for this blog is to have an open, honest space where I share about my life and professional practice. I’m going to need to come back to this idea in a future post. For now, I have a homework assignment to complete (and papers to assess, too), and I’ve needed to update this blog anyway. (Okay, task number one is complete.)

The second task of my assignment is to share eleven random facts that readers of my blog probably don’t know about me:

1. When I was 13, my dad took our family to Los Angeles for the 1984 Summer Olympics. We were in the stadium for the women’s 3000 meter final, and I was less than 50 feet away from the spot where Zola Budd and Mary Decker had their collision.  

2. I am a total chicken when it comes to horror movies. I absolutely refuse to watch them. In fact, I’m still traumatized by the original movie versions of Carrie and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

3. I have a crush on Dame Judi and have for a long time.

4. I love teaching 6th grade, which is funny because I always wanted to teach high school seniors and then become a principal. I struggle with a tension between wanting to teach students and wanting to lead a school.

5. I start reading lots of books that I never finish. I feel a sense of shame about it. What is that all about?

6. My wife is a better reader than I am. I love to read, but she’s a voracious reader. In fact, I dream of being able to read like she does. Seriously, she’s amazing. She’s also a better teacher than I am. It’s not a competition; if it were, it wouldn’t even be close.

7. I could easily eat a box of frozen fruit popsicles every day. Every. Single. Day.

8. I prefer books, movies, or music to sports. I don’t really follow sports. I do have season tickets for University of Memphis football, but they don’t really inspire fanaticism. I occasionally enjoy watching professional tennis, and I like GolTV on nights when I cannot sleep, but I’m not “with it” when it comes to sports. Having said that, I should tell you two things. First, I read Geoff Calkins almost every day. Second, my team is in the finals of my school’s fantasy football league championship. Go team!

9. I’m getting ready to train for another marathon even though I haven’t run my first one yet. How’s that for complexity?

10. There’s a fine line between faith and doubt. I always seem to walk that line teetering from one side to the other. I wish I didn’t, but I do.

11. In another life I’m a performer.

My third task is to respond to eleven questions from Bill:

1. Grande Soy Green Tea Frappuccino with Extra Whip or House Blend Black? I’ll have the black coffee, but I’m hoping you have enough sense to serve this.

2. If you were going to write a book, what would its title be? Shut Up And Keep Spinning the Plates (Honestly, I have no idea.)

3. Rate graphic novels on a scale of 1-10, with 1 representing “useless” and 10 representing “simply amazing.” 5. I’m kind of indifferent in this debate. I’ve never seen a graphic novel turn a reluctant reader into a passionate reader, but some people may find them useful so I don’t have a problem with them.

4. What member of your digital network has had the greatest impact on your professional growth?  I cannot differentiate between my digital and non-digital network any more. I just have a network and those relationships develop in many places. I cannot name just one person either. After all, one cannot quantify learning no matter how hard he might try. Having said that, I admit the folks that immediately came my mind are Michael & Melanie Semore, John Spencer, Bill FerriterHadley Ferguson, Alice Parker, and Jill Gough.

5. How do you feel about the holidays? Stressed.

6. Rate the following movies in order from best to worst:  Christmas Vacation, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (animated version). Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street (the original), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (animated version)

7. What is the best gift that you’ve ever gotten? Romans 6:23

8. If you had an extra $100 to give away to charity, who would you give it to? HopeWorks would get the first $100. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital would get the next $100.

9. What are you the proudest of? Debbie and I have been together for 9 years. We will celebrate our 9th wedding anniversary next June. I’m crazy about her and our family.

10. What was the worst trouble that you ever got into as a child? As a teenager, I told a whopper of a lie to my parents. It was a big deal and it was awful. I won’t share the details. I just won’t. It was a day I’ll never forget, but I wish I could. I did other things that were stupid and/or mischievous, but this one haunts me. Now let’s move on.

11. What was the last blog entry that you left a comment on?  What motivated you to leave a comment on that entry? I left a comment on Bill’s blog primarily because he called me out in it. Sometimes Justin Stortz’s posts resonate so deeply in me that I feel compelled to comment.

The fourth task is to create a list 11  bloggers that now have to answer eleven questions from me. Here’s my list:

  1. Stephen Davis
  2. Bob Dillon
  3. Hadley Ferguson
  4. Jill Gough
  5. Yoon Soo Lim
  6. Jennifer Orr
  7. Alice M. Parker
  8. Edna Sackson
  9. Chad Segersten
  10. Justin Stortz
  11. Wanda Terral

The fifth task is to create a list of eleven questions for the above folks to answer:

  1. If you could take a “dream” vacation, what would it be?
  2. Hollywood is casting a biopic about you. Who should be cast in the lead role?
  3. The director changed her mind and has decided to create a reality show about you instead. What should the title be?
  4. What’s your favorite book?
  5. We take a trip to Yolo, one of those fill-your-own-cup frozen yogurt shops. What all do you put in your cup?
  6. It’s a busy night at the karaoke bar. You’ve got one chance to blow away the crowd and leave your mark. What will you sing?
  7. Who or what inspires you most?
  8. What was your favorite class in college or graduate school?
  9. If you could snap your fingers and magically change one thing (only 1) about your job, what would it be?
  10. Name one important thing on your “bucket list.”
  11. What’s your favorite holiday tradition?

So tag–you guys are it.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

Post back here with a link after you write your response. Go ahead, you have homework.

10 Sticky Things from ISTE 2013

Gum WallI’ve sat down several times to write a reflection on my #ISTE13 experience, but so far everything has been inadequate in capturing my thoughts and feelings about my trip to San Antonio. Thanks to Amanda, Paul, Michelle, and Bob for encouraging me to get it together and share something. Amanda suggested a list of the thoughts about the experience. So, here is a list of things that have stuck with me since ISTE:

10. There’s a lot of money being made on schools. Walking through the vendor expo agitated me. I’m not against entrepreneurship or technology or tools, but something didn’t sit right with me as I saw all the stuff being peddled to educators. It made me uncomfortable. Tools are helpful, but students really need good teachers. (And teachers deserve to receive fair wages, too.) Schools should invest in good teachers before pouring funds into technology. If they don’t, they are wasting money.

9. It stinks to miss the session you most want to attend. I was early but in the wrong room, and I’m still unhappy about it. By the time I discovered my mistake and got to the right room, the session was full. The Gestapo had barred the doors and wouldn’t let me enter. Seriously. I’m not still irritated about that. Really. I’m not… #YesIAm

8. Teachers, particularly PBL teachers, are a generous bunch. I went to the PBL Birds of a Feather session and loved it. It enjoyed hearing other people’s experiences with project-based learning, and receiving some tips and ideas to further my thinking and planning. I really appreciate their willingness to share their stories and tools, too.

7. Bigger isn’t better. Yes, the conference was in San Antonio, and ISTE was definitely a Texas-sized conference (13,000+ attendees). I went to large sessions in enormous rooms surrounded by hundreds of people with gifted presenters (only when I felt I had to), but my most memorable learning happened in small groups in quiet corners through conversations. ISTE was the biggest conference I’ve ever attended. I enjoyed it, but I prefer the smaller conferences, TeachMeets, and Edcamps over the massive convention gathering.

6. Numbers cause strange things to occur. I understand our fascination with numbers, but they really mess with our heads. At ISTE, a friend asked me what I think about the idea of social media without the numbers. No Klout scores. No number of Twitter followers. No count of Facebook friends. No tally of Instagram likes. No total of blog post views. Personally, I really like the idea. After all, what do those numbers really mean? How does one accurately interpret them? And what does our fixation on those figures show about us?

At the airport on my way home, I was waiting with a friend. He’s a nice guy. He’s generous, funny, and thoughtful. He’s also a well-known educator. He’s been on Twitter for a long time and has many followers. While we waited for our flights, one of his followers identified him, approached, and asked to take a picture with him. He kindly agreed. What struck me most about the interaction was the woman never introduced herself to him. She never told him who she was, what she does, or even what her username is. She just wanted a picture with him–as if he were Bono or someone. I wonder if quantifying everything is actually making us all somewhat crazy.

5. I’d rather be friends than a PLN. Don’t get me wrong. Being a connected learner is important, and I value the network I learn with online. I’ve invested a significant amount of time into developing that network. Somehow a small number of those connections grow into true friendships–even though we may never meet in person. I’m amazed by this. At some point personal learning network no longer accurately describes these relationships, and honestly, I’d prefer a few true friends to a vast network of learning connections. Being at ISTE solidified and renewed several friendships. For this I’m thankful.

4. “Walk and talk” is my favorite learning method. Don’t get me wrong. Reading and writing is valuable me. Project-based learning is powerful. Class discussions are insightful. Simulations can drive home a point, and I still benefit from the occasional lecture, too. But I find walking and talking truly transformative. I had several walk and talk “sessions” at ISTE, and they were some of my favorite learning experiences. I’m trying to figure out how to merge more of them into my learning now that I’m home.

3. Our faiths and philosophies of life shape who we are and how we learn and teach. We don’t always talk about those things in our interactions. To do so is risky and requires transparency–an intimacy, that isn’t always comfortable. And yet, when we know these things about each other–when we share our hearts, our stories, we can connect with and learn from one another at a deeper level. I had several risky conversations while at ISTE, and I’m a better teacher and person because of them.

2. It’s good to hangout with guys. I love my colleagues at work. They are amazing teachers and incredible people. I’m blessed to teach with them and to learn from them. I cannot imagine a better group of co-workers, and yet they are almost all women. I’m the only male homeroom teacher at my school, and I am one of only two male teachers that isn’t an administrator or coach. My male colleague teaches music in a different part of the building so we don’t see each other much. It’s a strange dynamic being the only guy. (This is my first job in an elementary school.) Connecting with guy friends outside work hasn’t happened either over the past few months. At ISTE, I spent a fair amount of time just hanging out with guys. I needed it, and am thankful for the time. One of the main reasons I went to San Antonio was to meet and hangout with John. Fortunately, I also spent some quality time with Chad, Rodney, Thomas, Jeremy, Tim, Tony, Paul, Stephen, Will, Tim, Steven, and Nick. It was good to listen, to laugh, to share with them.  Now, how do I convince them to move to Memphis?

1. You can’t beat face to face. I love reading and commenting on blog posts, engaging in Twitter chats, and talking via video conferencing. They are valuable learning experiences. It’s handy to connect asynchronously with others and to learn together even though miles apart, but it doesn’t compare to being side by side or right across the table.

What about you? What stuck with you from ISTE 2013?

Find Your Yoda

One of the great blessings of my first year at PDS was finding a mentor in Alice Parker. Alice has a background in gifted education and teaches small group reading next door. For the first part of the year, Alice and I divide my classes so that each of us could work with the students in small reading groups, and we work closely together through the process. Watching Alice interact with the students, I knew immediately that I had much to learn from her. She is a master teacher with many of the characteristics I want to develop and incorporate into my teaching and learning. She is also willing to listen and offer help. In many ways, Alice became Yoda to my Luke Skywalker as we met regularly to talk about the thinking and learning happening in classroom.

While many schools assign new teachers a mentor, the best mentors are usually those we discover for ourselves. After all, the school’s vision for the teacher isn’t as strong as the one he has for himself, and one is much more likely to form a strong connection when he develops it himself. Remember the force was strong in Luke, and he sought Yoda out on his own. So, how do you find your Yoda? I’m sure there are many ways, but when seeking out your Yoda you might want to keep the following things in mind:

  1. A Yoda has uncommon skills. One of my goals for the year was to incorporate Visible Thinking into my instruction. Alice had already been to Project Zero twice. She understood the thinking routines and had already deftly infused visible thinking into her classes. The way Alice interacted with the students inspired me, too. She has a positive outlook that is contagious, and her classroom was warm, friendly, and inviting. She also has a deep knowledge about her subject matter.  If I ever had a question about reading, Alice either had an answer or knew where the answer could be found. When you seek out your Yoda, be sure you look for someone who is a true master at our craft.
  2. A Yoda thinks in object-subject-verb word order. A great teacher thinks similarly. Alice always considers her students first. She considers them as individuals and as a class by assessing where they are and addressing what they need. Then, she tackles the subject matter–the text or reading and how she will help the students develop a deep understanding of the content. Finally, Alice emphasizes the verb. The learning in her classroom is all about action–the doing. Students aren’t allowed to be passive onlookers. Alice designs activities and experiences that encourage her students to think, act and share, and she’s right there in the middle of all of it.
  3. A Yoda foresees greater problems. Just like Yoda foresaw the recklessness in Anakin, a Yoda teacher is able to see the big picture and spot the dangers that lie ahead. Many times in conversations with Alice as I would lay out my grand plans for what I wanted to accomplish, she would pause and say, “Have you considered…?” or ” You may need to think about this.” Alice never told me what to do. She listened. She asked good questions. She helped me discover areas that I hadn’t fully considered, and she helped me avoid some major snafus. I still failed occasionally, but many times I was more successful because Alice had helped me consider all the possibilities.
  4. A Yoda walks with a cane. As wise and talented as they are, Yoda teachers realize they have areas of weakness. They are humble. They know they still have things to learn. Whereas Alice’s skills lie in engaging students, designing lessons, communicating expectations, using visible thinking, and assessing understanding, she walks with a cane when it comes to integrating technology. Yet, she’s willing to learn, and I appreciate her seeking me out for help as she seeks to grow in this area.
  5.  A Yoda has a great sense of humor. Just like Yoda is a practical joker, Yoda teachers recognize the need for fun. One of the things I appreciate most about Alice is her sense of humor. We work hard, but we laugh often and have lots of fun. When looking for a mentor, make sure you find someone who seeks balance and can appreciate the lighter side of things.

What do you think? What characteristics do you think are important in a mentor? Are there Yoda-like characteristics that I didn’t consider? Feel free to share them in the comments.

My Twitter Story #mytwitterstory

I cannot believe that I am only a few weeks shy of my 3rd Twitter birthday. Or is that my “twirthday?” In 2008, I was working as the Director of Development at a local independent school. I was trying to finish my M.Ed. in school administration and supervision and looking for ways to connect with school alumni, parents, and friends. A few years earlier the school had responded rather negatively to student use of MySpace. At the time, our response had been to send out a big warning and tell parents to keep their kids away from the medium. However, by 2007,  the tide of opinion on social media had changed, and I had led the school to use Facebook as a way of building and establishing relationships for our physical and virtual community.

Angie was a friend on the school’s board. Over the course of several conversations, she convince me to also give Twitter a try. So on December 4, 2008, I joined twitter and immediately started following Angie, her sister, and a few of the people they were following. The tweets were random, usually funny, and well, pretty inane.  I gained a few followers and tried to follow most folks back if they didn’t appear too creepy, but in all honesty I never found much use for Twitter. In fact, I was not exactly sure what I should tweet or even why I should tweet. In early 2008, I was listening to the radio on the way to school and the announcer was talking about how narcissistic Twitter was. The criticism matched my experience and within a few hours I had deleted my account. I saw no value in reading what others were having for breakfast, watching on TV, or thinking about politics. Why did their posts (or mine) need amplification or my (other’s) attention? I shut down the account and quietly walked away. I’d spend my time on Facebook.

I was away from Twitter for a few months. In the meantime, Twitter grew. From February to June 2009, Twitter use exploded. People, organizations, and businesses began jumping on the Twitter bandwagon, and I started hearing talk of Twitter everywhere. It was inescapable. I started rethinking Twitter and decided maybe my problem wasn’t with Twitter but rather with how I used Twitter. How could I use it differently? I reopened my account and began to be much more selective about who I followed. I wanted to connect with other educators. Within a few days I was following some wonderful teachers from around the world–people like Monte Tatom, Clif MimsShelly Terrell, Tom Whitby, Eric Sheninger, Vicki Davis, Roger Zuiderma, Patrick Larkin, and Jason Flom. I closely watched how they used Twitter and began using it the same way. Tom and Shelly invited me to participate in #Edchat. I did and loved the conversations and added many other educators to my network. I also learned about RSS, social bookmarking, wikis, blogging, etc. Twitter was a learning goldmine!

One of my richest Twitter experiences occurred one Saturday morning. I was engaging several teachers in conversation about learning when Russ Goerend and I struck up a conversation about social bookmarking. Russ had made several videos for his own students about how to use Diigo. He kindly shared them with me and suddenly I understood the possibilities of web 2.0, networked learning, and the cloud. The conversation was career altering.

In a matter of a few weeks I had developed a good friendship with Clif Mims, attended a local Barcamp, and started a new blog. All because of what I was learning online. I quickly became addicted to Twitter and the opportunity it provided for continuous learning. My online connections introduced me to new ideas, new tools, new philosophies, and new methods, and they were always sharing–24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. I was so excited by what I was learning on Twitter that I couldn’t quit checking the feeds. (It took a while to find a better balance.)

By the spring of 2010, I had become a Twitter-evangelist. At Dr. Tatom’s suggestion I presented “The Value of a PLN” to the West Tennessee Administrators’ Technology Academy and connected with Jason Bedell to offer a Twitter for Teachers Workshop at TeachMeet Nashville. While there, I met Melissa Smith, Steven Anderson, Nancy Blair, Adam Taylor, John Carver, Shannon Miller, and Deron Durflinger. These connections have developed into real friendships and into other professional opportunities as well. My connections with Clif and Melissa led to an invitation to present at the Martin Institute’s Fall Conference last year and to our first InnovatED workshop in Memphis–both of which led to my current role teaching 6th grade reading in a 1:1 setting at PDS. Honestly, I’m amazed at how much networked learning and Twitter has reshaped my professional landscape.

I have met some incredible people, learned with some amazing educators, and developed some life-changing friendships–all through connecting with others on Twitter. In just the past few weeks, I’ve Skyped into a Visible Thinking study group in Australia, had brunch and talked connected learning with a prominent marketing/blogging guru, and had lunch to discuss project-based learning with a brilliant IDT professor–all because of connections made on Twitter.

So what about you? Do you have a Twitter story? If so, please share and make sure you tweet it with the hashtag #mytwitterstory. You can link to others’ Twitter stories from Dr. Michael Grant’s original post.

Going Deeper, an open response to @intrepidteacher and @theteachinggame

This post is a response to posts by two other members of my PLN. Jabiz Raisdana is an educator in Jakarta, who I have been following on Twitter for some time now. His blog is one of my first stops in my RSS reader. This is a personal response to his post Next Level. However, Jabiz’s post was an open response to Katie Hellerman‘s Getting What I Really Want Out of Twitter and The Connection Challenge. I didn’t know about Katie before reading Jabiz’s post, but I now follow her on Twitter and subscribe to her blog. (That’s how Twitter and blogs work together. Someone you trust shares about someone they admire, and you choose to investigate the new person’s work for yourself possibly making a new connection.) Thank you, Jabiz, for helping me make a new connection. The main reason I am choosing to write my response here rather than on Jabiz’s or Katie’s blogs is because I want to extend their challenge to a broader audience – my readers (not that my blog will increase it by much). Nevertheless, I think this is a great idea so please read the original posts (linked above) and comment there.

Dear Jabiz and Katie,

First of all I accept your challenge and I’m going to connect your work back to me, but first, let me share a little of who I am.

I am a dreamer. I’ve always been this way. While I love people and really enjoy a deep, open conversation that allows me to connect with a friend. I could also sit for hours with my own thoughts and consider all the “what ifs.” This makes me continually restless, but fortunately, I married an extremely patient woman.

Speaking of Debbie, she is the most amazing person I have ever known. She is a beautiful, brilliant, and talented, and I am grateful that I have her as my partner on this journey. Debbie was widowed with three small sons when we married, but we have known each other since middle school. I actually had a crush on her when we were younger and co-starred together in a high school musical. Our youngest is our daughter, who has total control over me.

I have been an educator since January 1999, when I left full-time youth ministry to take a brief interim as a 7th grade English teacher. I was then hired full-time to teach 8th grade English and have been in a teacher or administrator role ever since in both independent and public school settings. Currently, I am serving in both roles. While I am loving being in the classroom again (I really missed it), I am finding it a real challenge to do both roles simultaneously and do them both well. I’m burning the candle at both ends and trying not to neglect my family. I confess I haven’t struck the right balance yet, and two things I have cut back on are time spent dreaming and reflecting and time interacting online. I’ve been “marking all read” and lurking more than engaging in conversation lately.

So what does this dreamer dream? I, too, have dreams of rock-stardom, Jabiz. Okay, not really. I would love to learn how to play the guitar again. I played when I was younger but haven’t practiced for…decades. I used to write lots of poetry and lyrics, and I’d love to write some music and perform for a live audience again. I do love to sing. I also dream of writing a book – perhaps a novel, but I’m afraid it would be rather autobiographical in nature, and I’m still working on the whole “transparency” thing. I also dream of traveling, moving from place to place, seeing the world. In this way, I am really jealous you, my friend. You have lived in places about which I have only dreamed. We are very connected with our extended family (they live nearby) and our local church. While I may talk often of moving to Iowa, Colorado, Majorca, or Patmos, the thought of being far away from those we love is always a cold shower of reality.

Jabiz, if I had to pick a post of yours that most challenged and connected with me, it would probably be Life as an Open Book. It’s not that I completely agree or disagree with your post, but rather how much it left me conflicted. (Full disclosure: I didn’t read the post when you originally posted it, but found it later.) I long to be transparent and known while I also desire to be protected and distant. I am a paradox, and at times, I question my own motives for why I share what I share. (Perhaps this is why I also connect so deeply to what John writes.)

Katie, your blog is new to me, but I have read through the most recent posts and will explore it more later. Your Getting What I Really Want Out of Twitter post resonated with me because I wrote a similar post last fall entitled Rethinking My PLN. You’ve also renewed my interest in a PLN road trip. Maybe we could go visit Jabiz as a start? :0)

I look forward to continuing to get to know you both (and be challenged by you), and thank you again for your willingness to share.

Warmest regards,

Philip

Rethinking My PLN

Three recent posts by members of my PLN have had me thinking. First, in September, Mark Schaefer pricked my heart g in his post “Social Media and the Big Conversation Fail.” (That post led to a cool Skype conversation with Mark.) Then, William Chamberlain posted “EdCampKC: A Rather Painful Reflection” in which he revealed his pain that his online connections are not a meaningful substitute for the face-to-face relationships he needs in his building every day. Finally, Hadley Ferguson wrote in “Why We Go to Conferences” about the need to solidify online connections by spending real, quantity time in each other’s physical presence. These posts struck a chord deep within me, and I’ve been stewing over them for some time now.

For the past year I have worked hard at developing an online presence and connecting with other educators online. I have built a personal learning network (both digitally and face-to-face) of folks that have become quite dear to me. Some are here in Memphis and West Tennessee while others are scattered around the globe. I have done this mostly through web 2.0 technologies and a handful of conferences, face-to-face meetings, and Skype phone calls. Most of these folks are professional educators, but not everyone is. My knowledge has grown exponentially and hopefully my practice has improved as well. The number of connections in my network has grown tremendously as well – a situation that is both a blessing and a curse.

What I long for is genuine connection and friendship within my network. I don’t have a personal need for lots of close friends, but admittedly I long for close friendships. I want to connect with educators around the world, but I want several of those connections to be real, primary connections. I want to know and be known in my network not just as a professional, but also as a real friend. I also want to be faithful in my relationships with my family and my off-line friends. So, I’m making some decisions about what I want to do with all of this, and I think I’m going to take a step back.

At one point I subscribed to almost 250 different blog feeds in my RSS. It was a lot of good stuff, but keeping up and reading that many feeds became oppressive. In trying to consume that much information, I wasn’t able to slow down, reflect, and comment on what I was reading. I also found myself spending way more time-consuming than creating. I want that to change. So, over the past few days I’ve unsubscribed from a lot of great blogs. I’m sure I’ll miss out on some great learning and conversations, and I’ll still check in occasionally, but those posts won’t be in my reader waiting for me when I log in. Instead, I want to spend more of my screen time reflecting and commenting on those subscribed blogs and to those individuals with whom I have connected. My goal isn’t to become a snob, but more to make a deeper connection with a few. If someone reaches out, I’ll still reach back in the hope of making a meaningful friendship.

I plan to take a similar approach to Twitter. If you know me, you know I believe in growing my digital PLN. I follow lots of educators and a smattering of people in other professional fields that interest me. I also like to connect online with members of my local community. I’ve met some incredible, fellow Memphians just by following them on Twitter. Having said that, my Twitter feed has become quite noisy with all the folks following me and my willingness to follow people back. (I don’t follow everyone back, but if I believe you might add value to my learning or I can add value to yours–you’re in. If you’re selling something, you’re ignored. Spammers always get blocked.) My new approach will be to establish a micro-PLN feed through a Twitter list or a Tweetdeck group. I plan to work hard to get to know those I include on a deeper level. My goal isn’t to be exclusive (I’m sure I’ll continuously add and subtract from the list) but to focus my energy on building real friendships where I can. I want to chat, call, and Skype with these folks, make plans to meet at conferences, and get to know them beyond their online personas.

I want to do more writing, so I am setting a short-term goal of averaging two posts a week from now until the end of the year – 12 posts, starting with this one. I’ll still do the occasional In Retro Cite from Diigo, but those don’t count toward this goal. I’ll also continue to share things on my Posterous, but I’m not counting those either.

As for my face-to-face learning network, I’m going to be intentional in those relationships as well. I want to spend more meaningful time with my wife and kids and more focused time with my friends. I’m going to try to silence the smartphone and be fully present in those moments. I also plan to write some personal notes to my co-workers, make a few phone calls, and line up to some gatherings with local friends. Who knows? Maybe we will even have a holiday party this year.

In conversing with Hadley after her post, we talked about the idea of a PLN road trip, and I invited her to Memphis to spend some time and see where I live. I’d really love something like that to happen. I’d love to introduce her to my family, to show off my school, and to tour her around town. I’d  love to deepen that connection and others, as well. (Let me know if you’re interested in a trip to visit and see Graceland, Stax, or the Civil Rights Museum.)

In my former life as a youth minister, I learned that quality relationships only happen through quantity time. I guess it’s time I prioritized mine.

Any thoughts? Do you long for deeper connections? How are you solidifying your face-to-face and online relationships? What are you doing to grow closer to other members of your network? What do you think of my plans? Feedback is always appreciated.

More Than Just Learning, It’s Friendship

(Photo credit: Stuart Seeger via Flickr under Creative Commons license)

By now you might be aware of the nightmare my family is going through as we try to get our refrigerator repaired. It’s a long story, one that is written and ready to post once I receive permission from my bride to release the hounds on Sears and Samsung. Yes, we are still without a working refrigerator, but I digress. The bright spot in this whole ordeal occurred a few days ago when a valuable member of my Personal Learning Network (PLN) offered to have my family over for a home-cooked meal.

Rabbi Akevy Greenblatt is the lower school principal at Margolin Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox Jewish school here in Memphis. It’s a school and community about which I knew very little. Over the past few months, Akevy and I had connected several times via Twitter. I subscribed to his blog and even commented on a few of his posts, but the two of us had never had the opportunity to meet in person.

After my last post asking for feedback on whether or not I should go public about our refrigerator woes, Rabbi Greenblatt left the following comment:

I’m always interested in meeting members of my PLN, so I responded to him on Twitter that getting to meet him would be fantastic and he then invited our whole clan to his home during the celebration of Sukkot. After a few more exchanges to provide me with resources to teach my kids and sort out the details, we finally had the opportunity to meet last night over a fabulous meal. It was wonderful to meet the Rabbi’s wife and daughters and to know that I’m not the only father/educator who gets grief from his family over his obsession with Twitter. I enjoyed the conversation and the stories of the Greenblatt’s  journey that brought them to Memphis. I also appreciated their sharing a little of their religious traditions with us. My oldest son was fascinated with the Rabbi’s library of religious writings. It was a fantastic evening full of great conversation, new learning, and delicious food, and I am so grateful for the hospitality of my new friends.

After returning home, I quickly sent a post to say thank you to the Rabbi for his generosity and received a message from him just as I hit send. It appears we had similar thoughts  at the same time. Funny how that happens.

As I was reflecting last night on our visit, I realized how much the Rabbi and I have in common. Sure, we come from different religions, cultures, and regions, but we are also both fathers, educators, and men of faith who are passionate about our families, our students and their learning. It was good to share a meal together. I hope it happens again soon.

Just today, Jason Bedell wrote a post about the benefits of TweetUps and meeting members of his PLN. Mark Schaefer also posted last night a story that has led him to want to get to know his online connections better. He even offered to arrange some Skype sessions. I totally agree that the face to face meetings and video calls are an important part of our professional learning and networking. While I enjoy getting to know people through what they write, it’s even better to get to shake a hand, look a person in the eye, or simply hear the sound of their voice. Such interactions, however, require time and purposeful planning. I’m grateful Akevy was so hospitable and intentional in making our meeting happen (and Mark’s already put a Skype session on my calendar).

Having said all of that, I’d like to invite you to our next Mid-south EduTweetUp this coming Friday night, October 1. You can see all the details here. If you are in the area, I really hope you’ll come. I’d love to see you and shake your hand.

So what about you? What has been your experience with meeting in person the folks you know online? What are you doing to solidify those connections? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories.