A former student's advice on avoiding procrastination

A former student visited my class last month to offer advice to my fifth graders as they prepare to embark on their journey to middle school.

His advice was fascinating:

In order to avoid procrastination, fill your life with after-school activities. Do as much as possible. Sports, drama, student government... anything and everything. Pack your day with excitement and adventure.

In this way, he explained, your time to complete homework and study will be limited. You'll have very specific and defined times each day when you can get your work done, and as a result, you will be forced to do your homework and studying during those times.

My former student's message is this:

When we have large amounts of free time available to us, we procrastinate. If we eliminate or restrict the amount of free time we have each day, we'll have no choice but to use that free time wisely. 

Kind of brilliant. Right?

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Snow days: One thing I love. One thing I hate.

I'm an elementary school teacher, and today I am home because of snow. 

One thing I love about snow days and one thing I hate:

Many (and maybe most) teachers despise snow days, fully aware of the long, summer days that each snow day costs them. Many parents despise snow days for this same reason, and also because of the childcare headaches that a snow day creates.  

I understand all of this.

I, however, adore snow days. I love them so very much. This is because I think it is short-sighted, presumptuous, and foolish to assume that you will be alive in June to enjoy your long, summer day, so I believe in taking my days whenever I can get them.

I'm serious. And I'm a guy who has been brought back to life twice via CPR. I know what I'm taking about. I could be hit by a bus tomorrow. I'll take today and happily teach for one more day in June. 

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One thing I hate about snow days:

I despise any human being who criticizes a school district, superintendent, or school official for the decision to declare a snow day.

Yes, sometimes they get it wrong. They make an incorrect decision. They cancel school when it could've clearly been in session. But it's weather, damn it. I don't know if you've noticed, but it's highly unpredictable.

Even the meteorologists get a wrong sometimes. 

These armchair school administrators are truly the worst. Jackasses who love to make important decisions with no accountability and so often well after the storm is out to sea.   

School officials are simply trying to keep children safe. Children who walk to school and ride buses and stand on the corners of busy intersections, waiting for buses to arrive. 

Excuse them for mistakenly erring on the side of caution. Pardon them for worry about the lives of little kids. Forgive them if the storm didn't arrive early enough or unexpectedly weakened or shifted east and missed us entirely. 

As a parent, I choose caution over inconvenience every time. 

 

They couldn't play tic-tac-toe because of bandwidth.

Yes, this is absolutely the worst game of tic-tac-toe every played. The fact that this all happens in front of thousands of people is even more embarrassing. 

But it's also an outstanding demonstration on the nature of bandwidth. 

Every human being has a certain amount of bandwidth available to them at one time. Some people can simply process input in greater quantities than others. 

The amount of input that you process at any one time is the measure of your bandwidth. 

Bandwidth is also context dependent. When I started playing golf, for example, all of my bandwidth was used on striking the ball with the head of the club. It needed to be in order to make contact. As I became a more experienced (but still terrible) golfer, I was able to use less and less bandwidth to hit the ball and began to incorporate other elements of the game into my thinking. Grip. Posture. Wind. Elevation. Contours of the course. 

The more experience a person has with a task, the better the chance of processing more input. 

I see this in new teachers all the time. While they are focused on delivering their lesson, they often fail to notice student behaviors that are as clear as day to me (and will hopefully one day will be to them). Once they become more confident and proficient in delivering content to students, more of their bandwidth will be freed up for other processes. 

As a storyteller, I am often changing and manipulating aspects of my story onstage. I can punch up the humor in a story if an audience is responding well or circle back on a part of the story that seemed to require more attention. I oftentimes find new and better endings to stories while performing. A memory will suddenly occur to me. A new collection of sentences will enter my mind. A divergent path to the conclusion will reveal itself to me in the process of telling the story and I'll manage to execute some verbal gymnastics in order to get there.

Twice in my life Elysha has accused me of holding back a great ending to a story in order to surprise her onstage. But neither time was it true. I simply realized onstage that there was a better, smarter place to end.     

But for my storytelling students, I would never advise this course of action. I tell them to take the stage with a plan and stick to it. I have the benefit of greater bandwidth onstage.

  • I'm never nervous.
  • I've performed hundreds of times in front of audiences of all sizes and in theaters, bars, libraries, auditoriums, bookstores, churches, and synagogues of all sizes and types.  
  • I've crafted and told more than 120 stories in my seven year storytelling career. I have a familiarity and facility with stories that my students do not. 

I have a large amount of bandwidth available to me onstage. 

The two women in the video surely understand how to play tic-tac-toe better than they demonstrated that night. But their bandwidth was restricted by the other conditions of the game.

  • Shoot baskets in order to put down an X or an O.
  • Run.
  • Play on a board hundreds of times larger than your typical board. 
  • Perform in front of thousands of people. 

They were processing so much new information that a task as simple as tic-tac-toe became challenging for them.

Bandwidth must be considered by teachers at all times. It's why students might be able to complete all the required operations of a long division problem (division, multiplication, and  subtraction) and might even be able to explain the process of ling division to you, but when it comes time to actually complete a problem, they fall apart. 

It's bandwidth. Independently, these operations are not taxing on the student's mind, but put them all together in a complex system and simple errors quickly emerge.

This is why we must practice. We practice so that our minds can gain facility with a process such that bandwidth is no longer an issue. For some students blessed with greater bandwidth, this might mean far fewer practice problems. For students with reduced bandwidth, it might mean many more. 

I love this and hate this.

It's rare that a document can bring joy to my heart and enrage me all at the same time. 

King Jordan, the student who wrote this journal response, clearly has strong and justifiable feelings about Columbus Day and the reality of the explorer's accomplishments. While his journal response might not be the most measured and thoughtful reflection of his learning that day, he is being both honest and passionate. A teacher should be thrilled with a journal response like this.  

I would be. I loved this journal response. I admired it. 

King is also a kid. While he was admittedly not as respectful in his response as I might like, he should be afforded some latitude when it comes to expressing his feelings in writing. He was angry. He felt powerless. And he's a kid, damn it. Give him a break. He's writing. Finding his voice. Experimenting with the craft. Help him write a more respectful and perhaps effective response, but celebrate this attempt. Cheer him on. Encourage this level of passion and honesty always.    

Instead, the teacher makes a bunch of terrible choices. Rather than being open to criticism and the possibility of divergent thinking, he reacts emotionally and defensively. He takes his student's criticism personally.

Instead of offering the constructive criticism that this student deserves, he responds in a single sentence, and his feedback is both irrelevant and thin-skinned. He also puts this meaningless and atrocious feedback in writing, thus making it both public and permanent. He doesn't encourage further conversation or reflection. He simply tells his student that he doesn't like what he wrote and that it makes him sad.

He also randomly and incorrectly capitalizes the J in journal in his response, which annoys me to no end. 

It's a selfish, stupid response that does a disservice to the teaching profession and a greater disservice to a student who is passionate about his education. 

King's response to his teacher's feedback is brilliant: 

"OK." A single word that offers nothing by way of emotion or agreement.

It's all a response like this deserves. 

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This punishment may have gone too far.

I am not opposed to the unorthodox, clever, or even severe consequence when one of my students (or one of my children) misbehaves. As much positive feedback as I offer my students and kids on a daily basis, there are moments when a consequence is needed and warranted. 

But when it comes to punishments, I don't believe in acting cruel or unnecessarily harsh (though some of my former students may disagree).

So I'm not exactly sure how to feel about this father, who rightfully punished his daughter by taking away her phone (and thus eliminating her ability to send and receive text messages) but hours later slipped this sheet of paper under her bedroom door. 

Unorthodox? Yes.
Clever? Absolutely.
But cruel? Maybe. 

I don't know the relationship this father has with his daughter, so perhaps this is part of a running gag, or maybe his daughter was primed for a joke like this. Maybe he was trying to make her laugh.  

But judging this on face value alone? I'm not sure. 

It's funny and unforgettable and imaginative, but I'm not sure that I could do it, simply because it strikes me as too mean.  

Coming from me, that's really saying something.  

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HBO had some interesting offerings on Christmas Eve

As I started to wrap gifts on Christmas Eve, I switched on HBO, thinking, "Maybe I'll watch that Elf movie for the first time. Or A Christmas Story. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Love Actually. Hey. Maybe Die Hard will be on."

You know. One of those classic Christmas staples. 

HBO had apparently failed to notice that it was Christmas Eve. When I flipped through the HBO channels, the offerings included: 

The Terminator: A seemingly indestructible humanoid cyborg is sent from 2029 to 1984 to assassinate a waitress, whose unborn son will lead humanity in a war against the machines, while a soldier from that war is sent to protect her at all costs.

Fifty Shades Darker: Erotic romantic sequel to Fifty Shades of Gray. While Christian wrestles with his inner demons, Anastasia must confront the anger and envy of the women who came before her.

A United Kingdom: The story of King Seretse Khama of Botswana and how his loving but controversial marriage to a British white woman, Ruth Williams, put his kingdom into political and diplomatic turmoil.

Assassins Creed: Callum Lynch explores the memories of his ancestor Aguilar de Nerha and gains the skills of a Master Assassin, before taking on the secret Templar society.

Rock Dog: When a radio falls from the sky into the hands of a wide-eyed Tibetan Mastiff, he leaves home to fulfill his dream of becoming a musician, setting into motion a series of completely unexpected events. 

Going in Style: Desperate to pay the bills and come through for their loved ones, three lifelong pals risk it all by embarking on a daring bid to knock off the very bank that absconded with their money.

What the hell was HBO thinking? Not one Christmas movie on Christmas Eve? If I was fringe lunatic Republican, I might accuse HBO of engaging in a war on Christmas. 

No bother. I had plenty of movies recorded on my DVR and on demand programming

I watched The Bourne Ultimatum instead. 

Any gift that includes murder, blood, and betrayal is perfect in my book

I never expect a holiday gift from my students, and when asked what I want, my reply is always the same:

"Word hard. Be kind. That would be more than enough for me."

Despite these protestations, I often receive gifts. 

This year the class was kind enough to give me my very first pair of footie pajamas (New England Patriots themed) and the opportunity to take my kids to dinner and a movie over vacation. It was a thoughtful and generous gesture. 

I also received gifts from individual students, including notes and cards with words that I will save forever. It's the words that students write to me that mean the most.   

But this year also included one of those unforgettable gifts, created by a boy named Henry. Built from his own imagination, Henry recreated a moment from Macbeth, a play that we studied earlier this year, in Legos, with eerie precision.

He didn't purchase a kit. He didn't download directions. He made this with the Legos that he already owned. He demonstrated knowledge and understanding of the play and his own incredible creativity.  

Honestly, just the idea alone is genius. 

It will sit in a place of prominence in my classroom for years to come.

My students are threatening the sanctity of our future

I was sitting in the waiting room of the doctor's office yesterday, reading, when the gentleman beside me began watching something on YouTube without headphones. 

I assumed that it was a mistake. His browser has opened accidentally. He would quickly close the app and maybe even apologize. But no, he just thought it perfectly fine that he fill this communal space with the sound of his own personal programming. 

I was weighing the pros and cons of the polite request versus the direct assault on his character when a nurse called my name and the point became moot. I walked away, leaving the sound of the man's phone in my wake. 

This was bad. The fact that these human beings exist is frightening. Even now, I regret the time wasted debating the proper course of action. I should have just leapt into action rather than dithering in my seat like an indecisive Hamlet. I should've launched my missiles. Commenced an all-out assault. Combined public shame with personal outrage to end this behavior forever. 

I suspect that I hesitated because I am a teacher who was on his lunch break from work, so part of me felt like I was still operating in teacher-mode. Anything and everything I did was through the lens of an educator. I was mistakenly calculating and overly concerned with the feelings of another. 

The responsibilities of my position caused me to falter in a time of need, and for that, I am sorry. 

But here is the truly horrific part of this story:

I returned to school and told my fifth graders about this man and his offensive behavior. Of the 21 fifth graders in the room, 17 of them thought the man's decision to listen to his video in a communal space without headphones was perfectly fine. 

They thought I was overreacting. They thought I had no right to be offended. They saw nothing wrong with this morally reprehensible behavior.

Please tell me that this faulty logic and failed set of ethics are the result of their blinding, unavoidable youth and not a shifting set of norms that will result in a world polluted by the sound of individuals' content choices. 

I shudder to think of what the future will be like if this generation of children become adults who think it's perfectly right and just to listen to audio content in a public space without headphones. 

I may never leave the house again. 

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Practice makes perfect

While Elysha and I were at the Patriots game on Sunday, our children spent the day with friends. Part of that day was also spent at a classmate's birthday party. 

As we drove the kids over to our friends' home, I said, "Clara. Charlie. Make sure you say please and thank you today. And when you get to that birthday party, be sure to thank them for having you."

"We know," Clara said.

"Okay," I said. "But let's practice what that will sound like. Tell me exactly what you'll say.""

Clara and Charlie sighed simultaneously.  

"I already had them practice at the house," Elysha said. 

"Oh. Alright then," I said. "Never mind."

 It must be hard at times to have parents who are also teachers. 

Teaching is full of unexpected surprises

One billion years ago, I taught a third grader named Kaity to multiply. 

Last night, as Elysha and I were leaving for a Moth StorySLAM in Somerville, I asked Kaity, now an adult and frequent babysitter to our children, to help my third grade daughter with her multiplication homework. 

It was surreal. 

No one ever told me that so many of my former students would remain in my life as they have, and I could never predicted that when I was teaching Kaity to multiply all those years ago, I was also investing in my daughter's future.

Being a teacher is full of surprises. 

When we arrived at The Moth a couple hours later, we discovered that four of my former storytelling students were at the show, their names already in the bag, hoping to tell their stories. For all but one, it was their first time at The Moth.

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I wasn't called to the stage last night, but three of my four students were called. They all performed brilliantly, and one of them, Tom Ouimet, won the slam!   

It was quite a night for a storytelling teacher, listening to stories that I had helped to develop, told on stage so well by storytellers who I've spent lots of time with honing their craft.

As a teacher, you can never know where the lessons you teach might take root and grow. And it's impossible to predict where the fruits of that labor will flourish. 

It would've been nice to take the stage and perform last night, but as a teacher, I found a far greater reward than the applause of a audience and the opportunity to come out on top.

A fitting end to a new beginning

My summer vacation has come to an end. Today I return to the school that has been my home for the last 19 years.

These last few days of summer have been excellent, and they have served as a reminder about how important my school is to me.

How important the people who I met inside those brick walls have become to me. 

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A couple days ago we visited Old Sturbridge Village with a former colleague and his family.

He is also Clara's godfather.

Two nights ago we went out to dinner and a movie, leaving our children in the care of a former student. In between dinner and the movie, we popped into a Barnes & Noble, where I bought gifts for a two colleagues who I am proud to call my friends.  

Yesterday morning, I played golf with my former principal and the father of former students.

He is also Charlie's godfather.

Actually, my former principal is also the father of a former student.   

All of these people are dear friends. My closest friends. Some of the best friends I have ever had. 

And then of course there is Elysha, my wife, best friend, and love of my life, who I fell in love with while teaching one door down from her classroom. 

When asked if I am excited about returning to work after a summer off, I often say, "I love my job beyond measure. But honestly, I love vacation a little more."

It's true. If given the choice, I would take another week (or month) off to spend time with my family and friends. Write. Read. Golf. Play superheroes with my kids.

But if I must work, I can't imagine a better place.

Last night, Elysha and I learned that one of our former students is serving in the Navy. She's stationed in Norfolk, VA. A young lady who didn't have the easiest path in life is now serving our country with distinction. 

Summer vacation is now over, and a part of me longs for a few more days. This morning, before our school district's convocation, I'll play nine holes of sunrise golf. It's become a tradition. My attempt to suck the last bit of marrow from the summer.

After convocation, I'll walk to the edge of the high school parking lot and hop over a small, white fence onto the local public golf course where I play all summer. There's a par-3 adjacent to the parking lot. I'll take two or three clubs over and play that hole a few times.

The very last bit of summer.

Then I'm off to prepare for my incoming students. Say hello to colleagues who I haven't seen in two months. Meet new faces. Some may become close friends. Trusted confidants. Best friends, perhaps.  

Maybe I'll even find a new golfing partner.

The ineffectiveness of signage

A rule of signage that people don't seem to understand:

Signs only work on people who obey signs.

I worked with teachers this summer who wanted to hang signs on campus to enforce rules that they already had the power to enforce. Parents who were visiting the school weren't adhering to the limitations outlined during orientation, so the teachers wanted signs so they could point to something in the event they were required to act as an authority figure. 

As if a sign would abdicate them of any responsibility and therefore eliminate any potential confrontation. 

"Sorry, sir. You can't be in this building. It's not me. It's the sign."

"Apologies, ma'am. But did you see the sign? It says you can't be here."

I tried to explain that parents already understood the rules and were purposely violating them. The signs weren't telling these parents anything they didn't already know. Therefore, additional signage would not change behavior. 

Human intervention was required.

I know this because I am not a rule follower. If I see a rule as arbitrary or ridiculous or unfair, I often disobey the rule. I plow through signs quite often. For people like me, a sign is irrelevant if we do not agree to the rule stipulated on the sign. A sign is merely a suggestion about how the world should operate, but if that vision of the world strikes me as unnecessary, inefficient, arbitrary, or a hindrance to the way I think the world should operate, a sign is not going to stop me. 

The authority behind the sign may alter my behavior. The parking ticket or the air marshal or the social pressure applied by friends or colleagues may convince me to adhere to the rules, but a sign?

No.

When people are knowingly disobeying the rules, signs will rarely stop them, and they do not afford an ounce of backup or support to the person required to enforce them.

As a person who has accepted the responsibility of your position, you must enforce the rules. You must confront people like me and explain the expectation is and the potential consequences of failing to meet these expectations. I know that for some of these teachers, that would be hard. An annoyed, angry, or entitled parent is not pleasant. Confrontations aren't always fun. 

But when you accept the job, you accept the responsibility that comes with it. 

Signs won't do your job for you. Nor will they offer any support when you're dealing with someone like me. Decent people who are also rule breakers will often abdicate in the face of authority. If pressed on the issue, we will usually alter our behavior.  

But not always.

I was photographing the menu outside the cafeteria at Kripalu, hoping to send it to Elysha so she could tell me what to try (since I recognized nothing on the menu). As I was snapping my photo, a woman approached.

"I'm sorry," she said. "But this is a cellphone free floor."

I considered debating her on the subject. "Listen, if I had a camera in my hand right now, you'd have no complaint. So can we just pretend that this is just a camera for a moment? I'd like to take a photograph of your menu and send it to my wife so she can tell me what I might want to try, since I don't know recognize anything on your menu. I'm a heathen. A man child. Uncouth."

Instead, I asked, "Are you going to take my phone away if I keep using it?"

"No," the woman said, looking befuddled.

I smiled. "Then I'm going to keep using it for a minute or two."

Never tell a rule breaker that there is no consequence to breaking a rule.  

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Teachers: Writers never write one thing at a time. Stop ruining children.

When asked how to combat writer's block, my answer is always the same:

If you have writer's block, you don't have enough writing projects. 

My list of writing projects currently includes:

  1. A novel under contract
  2. A nonfiction book under contract
  3. A middle grade novel under contract
  4. A piece for Parents magazine
  5. A piece for Seasons magazine
  6. A picture book
  7. A letter to my father
  8. A daily blog post
  9. A screenplay

How could I possibly suffer from writer's block with this many projects underway. Stuck on one? Move to another.

While teaching a group of about 30 middle and high school students this summer, one of the students asked if it would be okay if she started something new.

"Of course," I said. "But why are you asking me for permission?"

The young lady explained that her teachers insist that she and her classmates finish one writing project before moving onto the next. 

"That's crazy," I said. 

"My teacher does the same thing," another student said.

"Me, too," said another.

My head hit the desk. More than three-quarters of the students reported suffering from similar restrictions, which is, of course, stupid.

I know many writers, but I have yet to meet a single one who is only working on one project. While my list of projects is admittedly longer than most, every writer has at least one project on the side, oftentimes in another genre. 

I can't imagine telling a writer who is suddenly excited about a new idea to finish their current project before trying something new. That is truly one of the stupidest teaching decisions I can imagine. 

There's nothing wrong with deadlines.

"I need that essay done by the end of the month."
"You must hand in three poems by Wednesday."
"Your research paper is due at the end of March."

But to expect that students will work on that one project until the due date is an outstanding way to kill any love that students will develop for writing. It places classroom management ahead of creativity, choice, executive functioning, and an authentic writing process.

I've said it before:

Not enough teachers write. Teachers require students to write persuasive essays, even though most teachers haven't written a persuasive essay in a decade or more. Teachers require students to write fiction, even though most teachers haven't written fiction since they were children. Teachers expect students to write research papers, when those teachers last wrote their own research paper in college.

When it comes to writing, we have an army of educators who are teaching something they never do. Even worse, in many cases, it's something they don't like to do. 

If you never do it in real life, can you expect to teach it to novices?

If teachers were writing, they would understand the need to have multiple projects in a writer's life. They would understand the insatiable excitement of a new idea. The need to turn away from a project when enthusiasm wanes. The ability for writers to manage more than one writing project at a time.  

I felt so much sympathy for the two dozen or so students who said that they would returning to classrooms in the fall where they could only write one thing at a time. I told them to rise up. Declare their writing independence. Insist that their needs be met. Demand to be treated like writers. 

I also gave them my phone number. "If your rebellion fails, tell your teacher to call me. I'll see what I can do." 

I'm expecting a lot of phone calls.

Thinking is a part of the writing process, damn it

I was teaching storytelling last week at Miss Porter's School.

I sent the girls off for an hour to write and craft their stories, and when they returned, I asked them how they did. 

"Not good at all," one of the girls said. 

When I asked why, she explained that she spent the first 30 minutes just sitting there, trying to find the best way to start the story. 

"Did you finally figure it out?" I asked.

"Yeah."

"And how did that go?" I asked.

"Great," she replied. "The second half hour was great. I think I've got a good first draft. I kind of like it a lot."

"So then why did you say your hour didn't go well?" I asked.

"Well," she said. "I wasted that first 30 minutes."

"No, you didn't," I said. "Writers think. Storytellers think. Thinkers think. It's part of the process. It sounds to me like you did fantastic. You used that hour perfectly. Why would you think otherwise?"

The girl and her fellow classmates explained that just sitting and thinking without any doing is not tolerated by most of their teachers back home.

"You can't ever just sit and do nothing," one girl said.

Another told me that she is expected to "Think at the end of her pen," which apparently means that you must be writing even when all you'd like to do is take some time and organize your thoughts. Or brainstorm. Or just let your mind wanter a bit. It's an insane insistence that words be applied to a page at all times, absent of any mental preparation or inspiration. 

"What idiot told you that thinking isn't a part of the writing process?" I demanded, instantly hoping she wouldn't say, "My mother."

She didn't. Instead, she said, "A lot of teachers." 

This makes me crazy.

Please note: none of these students were actual Miss Porter's students. They were potentially future Miss Porter's students, but all had yet to enroll. They came from all over the country and the world, so this is not the unfortunate philosophy of any one school. Girls from Africa and Europe were nodding in agreement at the notion that "just thinking" is not allowed.

Can you imagine: Thinking is not allowed. Thinking is not a part of the writing process. Thinking is a waste of time.

Here is the real problem: 

Not enough teachers write. Teachers require students to write persuasive essays, even though most teachers haven't written a persuasive essay in a decade or more. Teachers require students to write fiction, even though most teachers haven't written fiction since they were children. Teachers expect students to write research papers, when those teachers last wrote their own research paper in college.

When it comes to writing, we have an army of educators who are teaching something they never do. Even worse, in many cases, it's something they don't like to do. This would be akin to me trying to teach someone to play croquet or cook jambalaya or practice discretion.

If I never do it in real life, how am I expected to teach it to novices?

Sure, I could read a book about these topics, but would that really qualify me to teach any of those things?

Even worse, teachers learn how to teach writing from people who don't actually write, and if their instructors do  write, they often only write books on how to teach writing.

See the insanity?

When I am asked by teachers, parents, and administrators how to improve their writing instruction, my answer is always simple, obvious, and annoying:

Write.
When you assign a writing assignment to your students, write it yourself as well.
Let your students see you writing.
Share your writing with your students.
Become the writer you expect your students to be.

When teachers (and parents) actively engage in the writing process, they begin to understand the writing process. They better predict where and when writers will stumble. They more accurately distinguish between effective and ineffective lessons and assignments. They understand the importance of choice and audience to a writer. 

They know that thinking is a critical process of the writing process. They understand that sitting in front of the blank page, staring for long periods of time, is something that writers do.    

Only a person who doesn't write would think that thinking is not a part of the writing process.
Only a teacher who doesn't write would make a student believe that thinking is a waste of time. 

Reputation matters even more when the world is small.

Filed under "It's a small world" comes these two gems:

Back in March of 1999, my partner, Bengi, and I worked as DJ's at our second wedding ever. While reminiscing about that first year of our DJ career recently, we wondered how life turned out for those first few clients. 

It turns out that it's pretty easy to find a woman on Facebook when you know her maiden and married names, so with no effort at all, I located the bride at that second-ever wedding. I was happy to see that she is still married to the groom, and that today she is a mother.

I also noticed that we have a Facebook friend in common. 

Five years ago, I met a woman named Jeni while speaking at the school where she teaches. She learned about Speak Up and decided to tell a story for us. She has gone on to tell many stories for Speak Up on some of our biggest stages, and she now competes in Moth StorySLAMs.

She was the victim of one of my greatest acts of storytelling cruelty.

Jeni is a brilliant storyteller. I continue to visit her school every year to talk about my books and storytelling, and I'm thrilled to call her my friend. 

Jeni is also the cousin of that bride. She attended my second wedding ever. Though we have been friends for just a few short years, our paths first crossed almost 20 years ago.

Last week I spoke at a symposium on Cross Cultural Awareness at the Connecticut Convention Center. During lunch, I sat down at a table to eat a cookie. Someone was at the podium, speaking, so I couldn't introduce myself to my table mates. As I ate a cookie, I overheard one woman whisper to another, "I'll just need to somehow get in touch with Rich at Camp Jewell."

I took out my phone, opened my contact list, and then slid the phone over to her.

"Hi," I said, pointing at my phone. "I have Rich's email and cell number. Would you like to send him a text?"

I met Rich several years ago while bringing my students to Camp Jewell on overnight trips. He is the director of school programs. Over the years, Rich and I have gotten to know each other well. A couple years ago, Rich took the stage at Speak Up to tell a story. He's since returned and told many other hilarious stories. 

I told a friend about these two recent coincidences, and she argued that they happen more often to me than most because I know a lot of people.

"You've been a teacher and a DJ for 20 years, and you write and speak and perform onstage, and now you have Speak Up. Of course a lost of people know you."

She argued that these intersections of friends and acquaintances are more frequent for someone like me than most.

I disagree. I think that the world really is smaller than we sometimes think, and that it wouldn't take long for everyone to find similar intersections with friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and even strangers.

I don't think you need to be Kevin Bacon to find six degrees of separation between people. In fact, I think that six is a lot. Probably too many. The world is much smaller than we realize. People are connected more closely than we realize. I'm constantly telling my students this in an effort to make them understand the importance and value of reputation. How hard it is earned and how easily it is destroyed. 

You never know when you might find yourself dancing at a wedding or eating a cookie in a conference room, unexpectedly connected to the people around you in unexpected ways.  

Boys in skirts

It's been done before under similar circumstances, but every time it happens, I feel great joy and hope for the world. 

A short-sighted, authoritarian school regime arbitrarily decrees that shorts are not permitted in accordance with the school's purposeless dress code. At the same time, the school maintains that skirts, which are essentially shorts without legs, are perfectly acceptable.

In response, boys arrive to school the next day donning skirts of their own to highlight the stupidity of gender-based dress codes.

In this case, it was the boys of Isca Academy in Exeter, where temperatures reached record highs. The boys had asked their teachers if they could swap their long trousers for shorts and were told no – shorts weren’t permitted under the school’s uniform policy. 

Then this happened. It's it fantastic?

As is often the case, the school officials reacted slowly, clumsily, and stupidly to the situation, saying that they were prepared to think again in the long term.

Shouldn't they always be thinking in the long term?

The headteacher, Aimee Mitchell, said: “We recognize that the last few days have been exceptionally hot and we are doing our utmost to enable both students and staff to remain as comfortable as possible."

No you're not, Aimee. "Doing your utmost" would have meant saying yes when the boys asked to wear shorts because boys wearing shorts is no big deal. 

Mitchell added, “Shorts are not currently part of our uniform for boys, and I would not want to make any changes without consulting both students and their families. However, with hotter weather becoming more normal, I would be happy to consider a change for the future.”

You want to consult the students, Aimee? Do you really think there is a significant numbers of boys who oppose the relaxing of the dress code? 

And since these boys came to school in skirts, can't we rightfully assume that their parents were aware of their protest and supported it as well?

How about just doing what is right and just? Eliminate your gender-based dress code and allow boys to expose their legs in the same way that girls can. When it's a matter of common sense and justice, leaders take immediate action. 

What I'll never understand is how shorts have become second class citizens in so many parts of society, despite the fact that they are nearly identical to skirts. It makes absolutely no sense. 

Imagine a school in 2017 where girls were only permitted to wear skirts, regardless of temperature or personal preference? What might the reaction to that kind of gender-based dress code be?

Is it any different than a school (or anyplace) where boys are only permitted wear pants? 

A summer camp has adopted my restriction on commenting on physical appearance, and I'm thrilled.

For more than a decade, I've been refraining from commenting on student's physical appearance, both negatively or positively. It's a policy I explain to parents and students at the beginning of the year, and it's one that my students have always appreciated.

My reasons are many.

  • There are far more important qualities in a child worth commenting on than the way a student looks. 
  • Children often have little control over their appearance. Choice of clothing and hairstyle is often dictated by parental preference and the family's income level and hardly represents any true fashion sense. 
  • Comments on physical appearance - even when positive - create a culture where physical appearance matters.
  • Comments on physical appearance are often skewed by culture, age, sex, and personal history.  
  • When you compliment on a little boy's suit or a little girl's dress, you risk unintentionally and unknowingly insulting the little boy or girl whose family can't afford a suit or dress. 

I could go on and on. 

Beginning this year, I've extended my policy to include all people save my wife, children, and mother-in-law. Except for these four people, I refrain from commenting on the physical appearance - positively or negatively - because I want to live in a world where physical appearance is less important than a person's actions, words, and deeds. 

Not everyone thinks these policies are brilliant. Quite a few find them unrealistic and fruitless. A few have pushed back hard on my position. To my knowledge, no one has adopted my policy for themselves.

Until now. 

My friend, Kathy, recently sent me information from Eden Village Camp where one of her cousin's sons is working as a Counselor in Training this summer. The camp has a policy called BodyTalk which states that campers are not permitted to comment on anyone's appearance whether positive, negative or neutral.  

They explain their rationale in great detail on their website, but one section that I liked a lot was this:

If you tell me “You have great hair,” for a minute it might feel nice and I might feel a certain kinship with you and obviously it’s not the end of the world. But physical compliments are still judgments on our appearance. This time the verdict was positive; next time it might not be. The scrutiny adds pressure on me to provide an encore, to spend time grooming my hair tomorrow too, so as to continue receiving approval. I might privately hate my hair and wonder whether you actually really like my hair or just want to bring attention to it, or if I’ve received many such compliments I might be concluding that my hair is important to making me valuable. I might wonder why you never compliment my clothing. If others witnessed the compliment, those people might be thinking “I wish my hair looked like that! Maybe I should get it chemically treated,” etc. In short, it’s a whole lot of mental noise. And that’s just for a compliment!

Bonding via appreciations is great – we encourage more meaningful ones, like specific ways in which someone inspires you or a time you noticed someone doing something kind.

I encourage you to check out their webpage that explains the policy in full. It's a reasonable, rationale, and respectful way of running a summer camp, and frankly, it's the way every school in America should be run as well.

Teachers may not be able to control the comments that students make about each other, but they can certainly control what they say to children themselves. There is absolutely, positively no reason for a teacher to make a comment on a student's physical appearance ever. It's purposeless, potentially harmful, and completely non-productive.  

If you'd like to read more about my thoughts on the subject, here are some previous pieces stretching back almost a decade:

Stop complimenting students

Don't compliment students. One kid's compliment is another kid's insult. Restaurant staffers also take note.

My brand new, completely unrealistic, possibly supercilious goal that you should try, too.

Teachers: Stop commenting, positively or negatively, on your student’s physical appearance. It’s only hurting them.

Complimenting an item of clothing is the lowest form of compliment

Dumb school officials make dumb decision

I can't stand stupidity. This is stupidity.

The senior class President in Exeter, PA is delivering a speech at commencement. He decides to go off-script and criticize the school for the limited role that the student council makes in decision making. 

He does not swear. He does not insult anyone specifically. He doesn't even raise his voice. He simply expresses the hope that future senior class Presidents will have greater opportunities than he had.

The school's response? They cut off his microphone mid-speech and removed him from the podium.

So stupid. 

Perhaps the kid should've stuck to the pre-approved speech. Maybe this wasn't the time or place to express the desire for structural changes in his school's decision-making processes. Even I might've been angry at the kid for clearly circumventing the system for vetting speeches prior to commencement.

But when you cut off someone's microphone and publicly limit their ability to express a reasonable, rationale, and respectful opinion, particularly as senior class President, you only confer greater power upon the speaker and his words. The optics of this moment are atrocious. School officials portray themselves as authoritarian goons, and the kid achieves cult figure status.

In this case, his newly minted cult figure status attracted the attention of late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, who brought the kid onto his show to finish his speech. Kimmel criticized school officials as well. 

Silencing dissent is never a good idea, particularly when the dissent is being expressed respectfully. Had the school district allowed the kid to finish his criticism of the role of the student council, his words would've been completely forgotten about nine minutes after he concluded his speech.

Instead, it became a national story. The video went viral. The kid got to finish his speech to millions of Jimmy Kimmel viewers. The moment will live on forever. 

Stupid. 

Last Man Standing

I've been teaching in the same elementary school since 1999. This year I said goodbye to my 18th class of students. 

Spending almost two decades in the same workplace has become an anomaly in America. Americans work in an average of 12 jobs over the course of their lifetime, and changing jobs every five years is not unusual. My school has been no exception. I've watched teachers come and go over the course of the last two decades, and as a result, I feel like I've been competing in an enormous game of Last Man Standing, and I'm losing badly.

In 2006 - just a decade ago - Elysha and I were married. At the time, we taught in classrooms less than 20 feet apart from each other. We saw each other throughout the day. Sat together in meetings. Brought children on field trips side by side. 

Two years later, she would leave on maternity leave, and though she would return for a brief, part-time stint at our school, those glorious days of working alongside the woman I love were over.

The man who officiated our marriage ceremony - my former principal, Plato - retired four years ago. Though he remains one of my closest friends today, gone were the days when we saw each other daily, and oftentimes hourly. I performed in his musicals. Spent weeks every fall at camp with him and our students. Tackled problems and celebrated students together.   

I had seven groomsmen in my wedding. At the time, two of them - Jeff and Tom - worked at my school. Both are now gone. One has left teaching entirely to take over his father's business, and the other moved onto another school district. They both remain close friends, but gone are the days when we would see each other daily.

A third groomsman, Charles, was married to my friend and colleague, Justine, who was a bridesmaid in Elysha's bridal party. Justine and Charles moved to Arizona several years ago. 

Our school's instrumental music teacher, Andy, with whom I have written a rock opera and three musicals and who played music at our wedding, left to become the department supervisor. Gone are the days when I would see him playing his chapman stick and writing songs. 

Donna, a teacher and my mentor, who was my closest friend and confidant for the first 17 years of my teaching career. She became the star of Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, a real life person cast within my work of fiction. Donna retired last year. I still walk into her old classroom from time to time to talk to her, only to realize that she is gone when I see the new occupant of her classroom standing where she did for so many years.   

Amy, a fellow teacher who many referred to as my work wife, and a person who might have understood me better than any colleague ever save Elysha, left two years ago for another school district after marrying a man who lived in Massachusetts.

There were many other. Jess, my friend in the adjoining classroom, and Kelly, my friend across the hall whose wedding I DJ'd, left for other districts. Office staff Deanie and Jo-Ann - people who brightened my day everyday - retired. John passed away. Dana left her desk to become a teacher. Lee became a librarian. Katie went off to middle school. Laura and Diane and Ellen and Jo retired. So many more. So many faces that I no longer see.   

And now Rob, our vocal music teacher, has retired after 39 years in the classroom. Rob was one of the first people who I met back in 1999. He and I share so many stories together. I performed in musicals that he wrote. He also played music in our wedding ceremony. 

This doesn't even count the multitude of parents who became my friends while their children passed through my school. And while some remain some of my closest friends today, others have moved on, migrating to other parts of the country as their children got older or simply drifting away to the realms of middle school and high school with their kids.

It's an awful game of Last Man Standing, and I'm losing badly. Most of my closest friends are now gone. With the exception of a small handful of teachers, I have been teaching at our school longer than anyone.

There was a time - a period of four or five years - when almost everyone mentioned above was teaching alongside me. Those were glorious days. Perfect days when the people who I loved most worked under the same roof as me, doing the same work, and loving every minute of it,

Those classrooms are now filled with new teachers. Some of them are my friends. A few are near and dear to my heart.

But there was a time when the people who I love most in life worked alongside me. Spent their days with me. Shared the job of teaching side by side. 

When Rob announced his retirement in the spring, he told me that I was now the bearer of our stories. The link to the past. The historian of our school.

My response was immediate: I don't want to be the bearer of our stories. I don't want to carry he burden of the past.

I recently referred to Rob as the bedrock of our school, but in many ways, he was part of my bedrock as well. They all were. And as each person says goodbye to the school I love, I feel that bedrock under my feet crumbling. 

I want the past returned to me. A time when I could pop into Elysha's class at any moment. When I could listen to Rob and Andy make music together. Days when Plato and Tom and Jeff and I could leave work at the end of the day and squeeze in nine holes of golf.  

Today I walk by classrooms and see ghosts of former teachers. People who touched the lives of children and touched my heart and mind. I love my job, and I adore my colleagues. But there was a time when I worked with the people who I love most.

I miss those days. Last Man Standing is a lousy game to win, and I fear that I may be champion before long.