Next week is Teacher Appreciation Week.
Wondering what to do to express your appreciation for your child's teacher?
I suggest the best gift imaginable in this piece for Slate:
Next week is Teacher Appreciation Week.
Wondering what to do to express your appreciation for your child's teacher?
I suggest the best gift imaginable in this piece for Slate:
When I was growing up, teachers would take attendance by calling your name.
Students would either raise their hand when their name was called or audibly respond to indicate that they had arrived safely.
When responding audibly, the vast majority of us would use the word “Here!”
On rare occasions, you’d might find yourself in a classroom with a student who instead responded with the word, “Present!”
I always thought the kids who responded with the word “Present!” had something wrong with them,
I still do.
A 2017 study found that working near people who are good at their job makes you more effective at yours.
Sitting within 25 feet of a high performer at work improved a given worker’s performance by 15 percent, while sitting within 25 feet of a low performer hurt their performance by 30 percent.
Role models, it would appear, are very important.
But what does this mean for me?
I’m a man who spends his workday within 25 feet of two dozen fifth graders at almost all times.
Two dozen 10 year-old children who can sometimes perform at a high level but can also spend enormous amounts of time staring out windows, watching pencils roll down their desks, and doodling the image of a pig’s head hundreds of times on dozens of post-it notes.
These are kids who jam important papers into the far reaches of their desk never to be seen again, somehow lose library books on the 50 foot walk from library to classroom, and can struggle getting water from the drinking fountain to their mouth without somehow making a puddle on the floor.
Even when they’re performing at their highest level, it’s not like our optimal levels are commensurate in any way.
I’m worried. I think my students are bringing me down. Hurting my chances at future success. Decreasing my productivity.
And this has been going on for two decades…
I deserve hazard pay.
Just imagine what I could’ve been if not burdened by hundreds of inefficient, disorganized, distraction monsters over the years.
Occasionally I will meet an adult who has somehow been convinced that America’s “common core” curriculum is rubbish. They look at the way that their child is solving a math problem, fail to comprehend the method or rationale that their child is using, and therefore assume it’s stupid.
It’s more than likely that the adult in question is stupid. At least in that particular moment.
In defense of the common core, I always say the following:
First, the curriculum that you were taught was different than your parents’ curriculum, too. And your parent’s curriculum was different than their parents’ curriculum. Curriculum is constantly evolving. Always changing. The previous generations of Americans were simply smart enough to avoid politicizing something that is better left to the experts.
They didn’t allow idiot pundits to change their mind about something they know almost nothing about.
So shut up about the way you were taught to do things. Your parents probably thought the same thing about the work you were doing in school. It didn’t make sense to them, either. They simply weren’t arrogant jackasses about it.
Then I write a problem like this down and ask the person to solve it.
I have yet to meet a person who does not regroup (or borrow) in order to solve this problem.
Teachers don’t like to use the word “borrow” in math these days because borrowing implies an eventual return of the borrowed item, which never happens in problems like these. When you “borrow” a number to subtract, it never goes back to its original place. It can therefore be confusing to some kids given the definition of “borrow,” but I have met adults who are angry over this simple, logical shift in terminology.
I just assume that these folks have far deeper issues related to self-worth.
Once the person is done solving the problem, I ask why they regrouped.
Answers vary, but it essentially comes down to one of two things:
I was taught that way, or you have to regroup (or borrow) to solve the problem.
Then I show them how to solve without regrouping. I explain that if you understand negative numbers, this problem becomes rather simple. No pencil and paper required. Instead of regrouping (or borrowing), simply think of the problem as
Or 200 - 20 - 5 = 175
I might have also solved the problem using rounding to change the problem to 562 - 400 + 13.
Thanks to my understanding of what lies behind the simple algorithms, I can solve problems like these almost instantly in my head. So can many of my students.
But when these same students go home and try to explain these concepts to close-minded parents who are either upset that they don’t understand the math or have been convinced by a politician that this new common core is bad, things don’t go well.
They become angry.
They can’t understand why their child isn’t just borrowing from the hundreds and the tens. They blame the curriculum when the real problem is that they can accurately solve a math problem but don’t understand why their solution works.
It’s understanding the why that leads to a career in the STEM fields.
It’s the why that turns children into future scientists, engineers, astronauts, programmers, biotech researchers, financial analysts, actuaries, and more.
Before you become upset that your child’s curriculum makes no sense to you, try to remember that this is nothing new. You’re not special. Curriculum has been evolving for as long as education was formalized in a school setting, and it will continue to evolve.
Americans of the past simply trusted the experts, avoided leaping to conclusions, asked good questions, and didn’t allow politicians and pundits to dictate their opinions.
Dane Best, age 9, ended the ban on snowball fights in his hometown of Severance, Colorado last week. After discovering the 100 year old law during a field trip to town hall, the young activist went to work, lobbying successfully to have a law banning snow balls repealed.
Best told the town board that if he was victorious, his first act would be to lob a snowball at his four year-old brother.
I like this kid.
I also like it when the world gets slightly more dangerous for children.
When I was a kid, we routinely threw snowballs at each other at recess. We brought sleds and saucers to school and raced down hills at dangerous speeds. We played street hockey with wooden sticks and hardened pucks. Played dodgeball against a brick wall with a racquetball. Leapt off enormous snowbanks into piles of snow.
It was wonderful way to grow up.
Not all that long ago, my students and I would carve out chutes in the snowbanks at my school to increase their speed as I flung them down the backside of those hills towards the forest. Grabbing them by the hands, I would catapult them with all my might down those chutes as they screamed in delight.
It was such fun. Joyous, even. Kids slid and tumbled and giggled. Cheeks turned red. Pants got soaked. Snow ended up stuffed in their socks and ears.
Eventually the snowbanks were deemed too dangerous to climb, even though I cannot recall a single serious injury occurring while playing on these snowbanks.
The possibility of injury was more than enough to end the fun.
A few weeks ago, my own children asked me if they could play outside. “Yes!” I shouted. “Go find some trouble!”
The kids ran outside, completely and gloriously unsupervised. A few minutes later, my neighbor knocked on my door. He wanted me to know that he was doing some yard work and would keep an eye on my kids.
“No!” I said. “Don’t watch them. I want them to find some trouble. I want a hungry bear to wander into the yard or truck filled with dangerous chemicals to overturn beside them. I want them to face something hard and scary and fun.”
Thank goodness for kids like Dane Best, who are fighting for the right to be pummeled by snowballs on a crisp, winter day.
One of the great benefits of teaching is the conversations that you have with children.
A child at recess today showed me her “secret hideout” for drawing pictures.
“Only villains have secret hideouts,” I said. “You must be a villain.”
“What about Batman?” the girl countered. “He has a hideout.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But isn’t he a little bit bad, too? Almost a villain?”
A girl who had been listening to this exchange jumped in. “No,” she said. “Batman’s just depressed, which makes sense. He watched his parents die, his only friend is an old British man, and the bad guys are always trying to kill his girlfriend. Also he dressed like a bat, but that might be because he’s depressed.”
Pretty astute, I thought.
A little while later I saw one of my students trying to sneak up behind me, probably with the intent to startle me.
I’m exceptionally easily to startle thanks to decades of PTSD, and some of my students have figured it out.
“Are you being bad?” I asked.
“I’m not bad,” he said, looking a little startled himself. “I eat my sandwich first, and then I eat my dessert.”
He was serious, too. The definition of goodness. Sandwich first. Dessert second.
That, my friends, is the wisdom of youth.
It’s also a very low bar for good vs. evil. A frighteningly low bar.
It's been a strange and busy weekend for me.
On Friday night, my wife Elysha and I produced an unforgettable Speak Up storytelling event at Infinity Hall in Hartford. Our near-sellout audience enjoyed what might have been our best show ever, headlined by United States Senator Chris Murphy who told a fantastic story about an embarrassing moment he experienced while serving as an intern for Senator Chris Dodd.
In addition to producing the show, I told a brand new story about one of my most embarrassing and shameful parenting moments ever.
On Saturday my DJ partner, Bengi, and I worked our last wedding of 2018 at the Webb Barn in Wethersfield. I coordinated their ceremony and reception, served as emcee for much of the evening, and played music for a bunch of happy and excited guests.
On Sunday I traveled to Groton, MA to serve as minister at the First Parish Church of Groton while their full time minister was on vacation. In addition to delivering a sermon on faith, I also delivered a children's sermon, read poems and prayers (one that I wrote myself) from the pulpit, led the congregation in song, and even pulled the enormous cord that rang the church's famed Paul Revere bell, calling all to the service.
I did everything a minister would do with a little help from the worship coordinator and musical director.
After lunch with the parishioners, I taught a storytelling workshop to interested members and some folks from the community before heading home and discovering that the DVR failed to record the Patriots game.
Quite the weekend.
It seems like an bizarre combination of roles to jam into a three day period - storyteller, producer, wedding DJ, minister, teacher - but in truth, all of these roles rely on the ability to communicate effectively to a large group of people. The jobs may have been different, but in each case, the skill set required was essentially the same.
Speak. Connect. Engage. Entertain.
I say in the last chapter of my book, Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life Through the Power of Storytelling, that storytelling is a super power, and I wasn't kidding. Being able to tell a good story and engage an audience can open up all kinds of doors for you.
It can be the difference between being heard and remaining silent.
This weekend it meant sharing a stage with a US Senator, dancing the night away with a couple on their wedding day, and climbing the pulpit to tell a story and deliver a message on the age old struggle for faith.
I was also able to help six other storytellers tell their best stories on their biggest stage of their lives and teach a group of folks in a church basement how to begin their own journey into storytelling.
Learn to tell great stories. It truly is a super power. You never know what doors it may open for you.
One of my favorite thing about kids - mine as well as other people’s children - is how often I see the world in a new way through their innocent, creative, untainted eyes.
Like this. Who know raspberries could be so versatile? So decorative?
I’ve always thought of raspberries as a nonsense fruit. They last about 19 minutes before going squishy and gross. They have a ridiculous P in the spelling of their name. And they are the only fruit that must sit atop a diaper in their plastic container.
Following my children’s lead, I placed raspberries on my fingers (slightly harder given the size of my fingers) and never enjoyed eating raspberries so much.
Find a kid. See the world differently. Embrace it. Indulge.
Elysha is looking for a teaching job for the first time in 9 years. Now that the kids are off to school and settled into their routines, it's time for her to return to the classroom.
Recently, she was looking at a school district that expects classroom instruction to be "rigorous, relevant, and respectful."
Excellent standards for instruction, but one problem:
I don't trust alliteration when it comes to policy. I will never understand the need for schools, teachers, principals, and other educational leaders to constantly use alliteration when setting forth standards. I don't understand how alliteration makes a set of standards, expectations, goals, or the like any better or more memorable. I can't understand know how or why a stylistic literary device, most often used in poetry and verse, has somehow crept into into policy and procedural standards.
I have attended meetings where valuable time has been spent trying to wedge a set of standards into a list of words that all begin with the same letter. Conversations that go something like this:
Educator A: "So we all agree. The content of this unit should be timely, topical, and culturally diverse."
Educator B: "Sure, but can we find a way of saying that diversity part with the letter T? Maybe... treats everyone equally? Or tolerant? How about timely, topical, and tolerant. Or tolerance centered? Tolerance focused? Tolerating tolerance? Yeah, that's two T words! Timely, topical, and tolerating tolerance!"
I'm not kidding. I've watched this insanity in action. Many times.
I'm not saying that "rigorous, relevant, and respectful" are not excellent standards for instruction. I just can't help but wonder what standard might have been left off the list because it didn't begin with the letter R.
Or which of these R words were added simply because when someone was brainstorming a set of standards, the unconscious desire for alliteration took hold.
Or if one of these standards isn't needed or isn't nearly as important, but the desire for alliteration altered the policy of an entire school district and the means by which thousands of children will be instructed.
Never trust alliteration. It's a signal of vocabulary manipulation that is never required and often less clear and less precise than the original, less alliterative list.
I was student-teaching when the Columbine massacre occurred in April of 1999. I remember sitting with fourth graders on the morning after the shooting, listening to them talk about everything they had seen on television.
It was unimaginable.
Then, seemingly overnight, it became all too imaginable as school shootings, especially those involving mass casualties, became all too common in this country, and educators were forced to grapple with the notion that someday, we might be forced to make life-and-death decisions to protect our students.
I saw this photograph on the internet yesterday and wondered how many future educators are deciding on other professions because posters like this are now necessary in elementary school classrooms.
I wondered how safe our children really feel when they are forced to sing-song the steps to a lockdown drill.
I wondered when lawmakers will finally place the safety of students ahead of politics, elections, and campaign donations.
I wondered if there will ever be a day when a poster like this is no longer necessary in an American classroom.
I really hope so.
First words from my daughter today:
"Daddy, I noticed the word repair on a bottle next to your bed. Did you know that the r is an r- control syllable exception because the r is supposed to say 'er,' but in this case, it sounds like 'air.' Neat. Huh?"
I'm not sure which is more disconcerting:
That these are the kinds of things that Clara says to me every morning, or that I'm an elementary school teacher and have no idea what the hell she is talking about.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My kind of kid. I wish she were in my class.