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.

If you want to have a say in education, become an educator

Attention politicians, policy wonks, educational advocates, professors of education, and anyone else who wants to have a say in education:

"Every human being who wants to have an opinion of American education ought to spend some time as a substitute teacher."

- Nicholson Baker, the author of Substitute, who served as a substitute teacher for a year in order to write his book and understand the challenges and rewards of teaching

Hidden gems on my daughter's bookshelf and in my teaching career

My daughter and I pulled this book off her shelf last night, written by a former student named Maddie and given to Clara when she was born seven years ago. It's been hiding in the back between other books. 

My wife taught Maddie as well. One of those rare students who was blessed with having both of us as teachers. 

I just adore Maddie's inscription to Clara, and she does as well.

It is quintessential Maddie. 

No one tells you when you become a teacher that former students will remain in your life long after the school year has ended, and they will continue to touch your heart in so many ways years later. It's not quite as valuable as medical insurance or a pension, but in terms of benefits, it's close.  

Just over the course of the past two weeks, I've been contacted by two former students.

One of these former students decided to look me up ("It's 3:30 in the morning right now, and I randomly googled you.") and discovered that since he left my classroom, I've published novels, written musicals, and launched a storytelling career.

Back when he was in my classroom, I was still a struggling writer without a credit to my name. He was surprised to see all that I had done since he had moved on. 

He is currently attending Albertus Magnus in New Haven, CT. He's studying business management and is playing on their basketball team. He's considering playing professional basketball in Europe in two years. His email was inspirational and sweet, and it made my day.

Last week the other former student - now a senior at Suffield Academy - visited my classroom to inform me that he has the lead in their school play and invited me to be in the audience on opening night. He performed in my annual Shakespearean production - King Lear that year - and credited that performance as the birth of his love for acting. 

Elysha and I will be in the audience in April when he takes the stage.

Incidentally, Maddie - the author of No Socks No! - attends Eastern Connecticut State University. She's a communications major with concentrations in advertising and public relations. She's also a double minor in history and digital and art design. 

No surprise. She was a remarkable student in elementary school, and she remains one today. 

She graduates in May. If you have any job offers, I'd be happy to pass them on to her.

31 lessons I teach my students that aren’t in the curriculum

Never, ever ask a woman if she is pregnant.

Old people look weird but have lots and lots of good stuff to say.

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“I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I won’t do that again,” is always the best first response to any trouble you may be in.

The people who make their dreams come true are the people who work the hardest. Talent means little.

Good listeners are the most beloved people on the planet.

Fight with your feet. If someone hits you, run. You never know what that person might have in his or her pocket.

Never, ever download a videogame on your mobile phone.

Most people settle for a career rather than chasing their passion and end up living lives of quiet desperation. Promise yourself that you won’t let this happen to you.

Remember that almost every disaster will be meaningless in a year. Maybe a week. 

The unexpected thank you note is the best kind of thank you note.

The weird ones are the interesting ones.

Befriend people who are smarter than you.

Make sure that your bathing suit is securely fastened to your body before jumping off a diving board.

You care about what you look like. No one else does. Truly. 

Wear deodorant everyday.

Always record video with your mobile phone in the horizontal position.

Never, ever tell a person who asks you how to spell a word to look it up in the dictionary. There is no stupider way to find the spelling of a word.

Never, ever allow a person to sit alone in the cafeteria at lunch.

Don’t be “too cool” to sing, dance, or participate in gym class.  

If you learn to speak extemporaneously to an audience, you will have a skill that almost every other person on the planet does not.

Shakespeare isn’t as hard as people want you to believe.  

If you want something, fight for it in writing.

Always help your family with dinner. Cook, set the table, or clean up afterwards. Work for your food. 

Winners arrive on time. Losers are always unexpectedly stuck in traffic.

Any chore that takes two minutes or less should be done immediately. Dishes in the sink should never be a thing.

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The single greatest thing you can do to guarantee your future success is to read a lot. Read more than everyone else.

Don’t ever expect life to be fair.

Complain less than the people around you. If possible, don’t complain at all.

Nothing good ever comes from watching reality television.

Drop mean friends instantly. There are too many people in this world to waste your time with a selfish jerk face.

Visit your former teachers often.

If the teacher tells you that your child is not gifted, it’s more likely that it’s the teacher who is not gifted.

The most common response to a piece I wrote last month entitled 12 Things Teachers Think But Can’t Always Say to Parents was a suggested addition to the list. It was phrased in many ways, oftentimes sarcastically, and it generally went something like this:

Your child is not as gifted as you think he or she is.

There was a reason I left this particular item off my list:

It’s stupid. It’s shortsighted and narrow minded. It’s unproductive. It’s adversarial. It’s not true.

This is not to say that I haven’t heard this sentiment expressed many times in my 17 years as a teacher. But whenever I hear a teacher express this idea, I push back immediately, and I push back hard, for three reasons.

1. Parents are supposed to think that their child is gifted.

It’s only natural for them to think more highly of their child than the rest of the world does. Their child is the most important thing in their life. They will invest more time, money, and energy into their child than anyone or anything before or after. It makes sense for them to believe that the person who they love the most in the world is gifted in some way.

And we all deserve to have someone in our lives who believes in us above all others. It should be our parents. They should be our champions. To think that parents should feel differently is short sighted and stupid.

2. Wouldn’t it be a better world if every teacher thought like parents and assumed that every student in their class was gifted in some way?

I’ve taught about 350 students in my 17 years as a teacher, and I have yet to meet a kid who I didn’t believe was gifted in one way or another.

In fact, some of my most accomplished students were the ones for whom learning came the hardest. Their gift was not intellect but effort -  a willingness to do whatever it took to succeed.

Give me a student gifted in effort over a student gifted in intellect any day. 

I assume that every one of my students is gifted, and this assumption has served me well. When a teacher sets remarkably high expectations and demands more from his students than ever before, students perform better. The research on this is irrefutable. 

Yet history is littered with presumptuous, ignorant,  and arrogant educators who assumed that their students wouldn’t amount to much and were later proven wrong.

Albert Einstein. Helen Keller. Robert Strenberg. Thomas Edison. Louis Pasteur. Enrico Caruso. Ludwig Beethoven. Leo Tolstoy. Louisa May Alcott.

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Many more. Too numerous to count. Myself included.  

Each of these men and women were told by teachers that they were hopeless, half-witted, and doomed to a lives of mediocrity.

It turns out that it was the teachers who were hopeless, half-witted, and mediocre.

As a teacher, why not err on the side of gifted? Why not assume the best? Expect the best. Demand the best. Give students the chance to shine by assuming that they can and will shine.   

3. Why promote an adversarial relationship with parents?

If a parent thinks that their child is gifted, and you – for whatever reason – disagree, why not find some middle ground?

Yes, it’s entirely possible that your child is gifted, and if he begins working to his fullest potential, we may start to see more evidence of that. Let’s find a way to make that happen.

There’s no reason to quash a parent’s hopes and dreams for their child. The teacher-parent relationship is one of the best tools available in my teaching arsenal. When it is strong and trusting, learning increases. Behavior improves. But that relationship only exists because I understand how parents feel about their children, and I embrace those feelings.  

Yes, your child is gifted. I’m not sure about the scope of that giftedness, but let’s get your child working as hard as possible and find out together.

That strikes me as a more productive and respectful position than the smarmy “You’re child isn’t as gifted as you think” response that so many teachers who responded to my initial piece seemed to default to.  

Every child in my classroom is someone else’s whole world. I try to remember this at all times. When I do, it’s never too hard to see every child in my classroom as gifted in some way.

Teachers of writing at any level: Read this immediately. Nothing is more important.

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Patrick Modiano, who had this to say about the writing process during his acceptance speech:

Writing is a strange and solitary activity. It is a little like driving a car at night, in winter, on ice, with zero visibility. You have no choice, you cannot go into reverse, you must keep going forward while telling yourself that all will be well when the road becomes more stable and the fog lifts.

Similarly, here are some other comments on the writing process from a variety of accomplished and respected authors:

Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.
~E. L. Doctorow

Start before you’re ready. ~Steven Pressfield

It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.
~ William Faulkner

There are hundreds more like this.

Why do I bring this up?

In hopes that all of the teachers who require students to complete graphic organizers or planning sheets or move little pencils across bulletin board displays of the writing process or force their students to work on one piece at a time or assign their students specific topics for their writing assignments will knock it off and learn to write themselves instead of subjecting their students to their bizarre, inaccurate, nonproductive, and likely damaging perceptions of the writing process.

This is not to say that organization and planning should never be used when writing. About half the writers of the world plan in some way. Mystery, historical fiction, and many nonfiction writers plan their stories with great detail before they begin writing, but not all, and even when they plan, this process is often as amorphous and convoluted as the writing process itself. Rarely does it fit into little boxes and pocket charts. 

If you are teaching writing but not writing yourself on a regular basis, you are probably – no, definitely – doing more harm than good. Your ignorance of the writing process – coupled with the way you teach it – is turning out ineffective, uninspired, under confident writers.

You have made the ability to write well and love writing a rare commodity. You have made people like me more singular and valuable than we should be.

The writing process is not some finely delineated series of steps. It is not a codified system of applying words to the page. It does not adhere to structure or schedule or graphic representation. It is none of these things.

If you teach writing to students of any age, my advice is simple:

Write.  

Write. Write. Write. Learn about the process that you are teaching instead of making bizarre and wildly inaccurate assumptions about it or replicating the terrible instruction that you received long ago that never actually turned you into someone who loves to write or you would already be writing and wouldn’t be forcing students to do such ridiculous things.

Just write.   

See how often you use a graphic organizer.

See how much you appreciate being assigned a specific topic.

See how productive you think it is moving a little paper pencil across a bulletin board from one facet of the writing process to another.

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See how much you value the notion of prewriting.

See how un-delineated things like writing and revising and editing are. See how amorphous and undefined the writing process is, and how stupid stupid stupid it is to force students to work on one of these parts of the writing process and not another.

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Please. Just write.

Either that or your choice is simple:

Stop teaching writing altogether. You’re doing more harm than good. Just let your students write, absent any instruction or interruption. Sit at the back of the classroom and read. Or eat a sandwich. Or take a nap.

Your students have a far greater chance of leaving your classroom loving to write than if you open your uninformed mouth and do all the ridiculous things that non-writers think belong in the instruction of writing.

12 Things Teachers Wish They Could Say to Parents

Parent-teacher conferences begin for me this week. I will sit down with parents and students and discuss academic progress, effort, behavior, and the students’ prospective futures in middle school and beyond.

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I like parent-teacher conferences. I have excellent relationships with the vast majority of my parents over the years, and in some ways, the parents of my former students once saved my career.

Nevertheless, if I could, this is what I wish I could say to parents during my upcoming parent-teacher conferences. While these 12 things pertain specifically to me, I strongly suspect that they will also pertain to most teachers as well.
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1. I love your child just a notch below my own children. Truly. And oddly, that love kicks in almost immediately, just like it did with my kids.

2. I will miss your child for the rest of my life. Even if your child was incredibly difficult and made my days long and exhausting at times.

3. My primary goal as a teacher is to make my students and the parents of my students happy with my performance. Students and parents are both my customers and my bosses (though I’d never let my students know this). If you are happy, then my administrators will also be satisfied with my job performance. If they are not, something is wrong with my administrators, and their opinions will matter very little to me.

4. You are so very wrong if you view our relationship as adversarial in any way.

5. When I ask you to call me by my first name, it’s because I want to have the kind of relationship with you that requires first names. There is no need for artificial barriers in our relationship. We are two adults who both love your child. Why would we not be on a first name basis?

6. Some of my closest friends (and the godparents of my children) are the parents of former students. These relationships developed because we treated each other as equal partners in their child’s education. If you and I are doing our jobs well, we should be friendly, if not actual friends, by the end of the school year.

7. There is nothing wrong with questioning my decision. I only ask that you don’t question my intent. Know that I am always trying to do my best on behalf of your child, and that despite my best intentions, mistakes will be made.

8. If I have done something that disappoints or upsets you, always come to me first. You can’t imagine how hurt I am when I hear about your feelings secondhand, either from an administrator or (even worse) through the parent, teacher, or student rumor mill.

9. The single greatest lesson that I have learned in my 16 years of teaching is the importance of follow through. Always do what you say you will do, and never make a threat or a promise that you cannot make happen. This is given me a hard earned reputation with students and has allowed me to be as successful as I have been. It’s a lesson I have brought into parenting, and it also serves me (an my children) well. It’s the one parenting piece of advice that I pass onto you. 

10. Please know that both legally and ethically, there are times when I want to say something or agree with you but cannot for a multitude of reasons, usually pertaining to the privacy of another student. It’s frustrating for me, and I’m sure it is for you, but it’s also my professional responsibility.

11. A lower-than-desired grade on a report card is only my honest assessment of your child’s performance and not an indictment of your parenting or your child’s potential. It’s probably just an indicator that there is room for improvement. 

12. I will wonder (and worry) about your child’s future for the rest of my life.

This guy is too damn young to be teaching.

A student from my very first class, way back in 1999, sent me this photo. It’s actually a screen grab from a video that they were watching.

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It’s me, of course. I was probably 29 or 30 at the time. My first and only thought was this:

How could anyone hire someone so young to teach children?

What the hell was my principal thinking?

An elementary school teacher’s recollections from the day of the Newtown tragedy

Yesterday was the two year anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. image

On that day back in 2012, I sat down and wrote something. Then I filed it away. I felt like today was the right day to finally post it. _________________________________

An email from the principal alerts us that there had been a shooting in a Connecticut elementary school. “There are fatalities.”

I push it aside. Even though I’m an elementary school teacher in Connecticut, I am also the teacher of a class of fifth grade students, and we are in the midst of a lesson about dividing fractions. My students, who have spent the last two weeks trying to find common denominators, have just realized how much easier dividing fractions is and are clamoring for more problems in order to demonstrate their mathematical prowess.

I oblige. I push my curiosity and concern and mounting fear to the side because these kids need to learn about division at this moment and not about the possibility of dead students or dead teachers in a school that probably looks a lot like their own.

A little while later my students head to music class. I stop in the teacher’s room for news. “A teacher is dead,” I am told. “Maybe a few students, too.” It’s so quiet in the room. I have never heard such quiet in the teacher’s room before.

I return to the classroom. I find more news on the Internet. Twelve are reportedly dead. A mix of teachers and students. Two possible gunmen.

My students return from music class. They have been practicing for a vocal performance this afternoon. The ribbon cutting ceremony for our rooftop solar panels is scheduled for later today. Board of Education members, officials from the energy commission, and other dignitaries will be in attendance. It’s a big deal for our school, and the kids are excited.

I am no longer excited about anything. I am carrying a 500 pound burden on my back. Every teacher in every school across America, but especially here in Connecticut, is now carrying the same burden. Somewhere down the road in a town not unlike our own, a school has become the site of one of the worst shootings in American history.

But I am a teacher, so I must protect my students today. I must not allow this tragedy to creep into their lives until they are safely home with their parents. We don our masks as we stand before our classes, reading books, positing equations, asking questions, and demanding excellence. We pretend that the world is normal and that we are unchanged.

We did the same on 9-11. As our country was being attacked, I stood before my third graders and recited the poetry of Robert Frost and discussed the nuances of bar graphs. I still don’t know how I did it.

My students leave for lunch. I return to the Internet. The death count is at 26 now. At least 18 are children. The exact size of my class. I walk by a friend and his class on the way to the office. He teaches kindergarten. The same age as the kids in the shooting. I imagine his entire class disappearing forever.

When we practice for possible emergency situations, students ask lots of “What if?” questions.

What if I’m in the bathroom when the bad thing happens?

What happens if a bad man comes to our classroom door?

What if the bad man breaks the window and gets into our classroom?

I always answer the same way. “I would never let anyone hurt you. I would do everything to keep you safe. I promise. I am the great and powerful Mr, Dicks. You know that.”

I say this with the all the conviction I can muster, and my students believe me, because I believe it myself. I would stand between them and anything if necessary. But today, I wonder if I could have kept that promise had I been in that school. I would have tried my best, but I work in an elementary school. I never expected something like this. I realize that no matter what I tried, I wouldn’t be able to stop a man in body armor with automatic weapons and hundreds of rounds.

Tears fill my eyes, but I wipe them away before they have time to take hold. One of my students is moving away, and today is her last day at our school. I focus my attention on her instead. I plan for her last half hour with us. I push my teacher puppet forward. Inside, I am trembling with fear. It is a combination of my own battles with post-traumatic stress disorder, the fear of my inadequacy as a protector of my students, and the sudden realization that my own children are also living in this changed world. Clara is three years old and Charlie is six months old. They will learn about today’s events in the same way that my current crop of students learned about 9-11.

For my children, today will be a history lesson. For my students, it is their life and their world.

Meanwhile, I am reading The Day the Babies Ran Away to my students. I smile and ask questions and show my students the pictures as a police car parks outside my classroom. A precaution, I assume.

None of my students notice.

We spend an hour in the auditorium celebrating the installation of solar panels on the rooftop of our school. Our band plays “You are My Sunshine.” Our choir sings a song from last night’s winter concert. We watch a video that shows how the energy from the sun is converted to electricity. Our school’s acting troupe performs a skit demonstrating the value of clean energy. Our town’s mayor addresses our student body. A Board of Education member and several other dignitaries follow with brief speeches of their own. My soon-to-be departing student is chosen to cut the ceremonial ribbon.

The children laugh. They sit on the edge of their seats. They beam with pride over their school’s energy initiative. As they celebrate, their teachers pretend to celebrate. We are the real acting troupe on this day. We can think about nothing but an entire kindergarten class wiped off this Earth by a crazy man with a gun. We correct behavior and praise attentiveness and applaud our students’ performances, but we cannot stop thinking about the decisions and sacrifices made by our fellow teachers in a town just down the road.

We return to our classroom. Some of my students are crying now because their friend is leaving them for the last time. I watch them cry tears that I have been holding back all day long. I cannot afford to shed even a single tear for my departing student because the floodgate holding back my tears is a precarious one.

The principal comes on the intercom to remind teachers to be vigilant during dismissal today. His words are intentionally vague and nondescript, meant only for the ears of adults, but my students are the elder statesmen of the school and immediately know that something is wrong. Someone points to the police car in front of the school and connects it to the principal’s message. Eyes turn from the intercom speaker to the police cruiser to me. The looks on their faces are that of concern and fear.

“Was there another shooting?” a student asks.

I can’t believe how quickly they have put it together. It takes everything I have to speak in a level voice. I tell the kids that something unfortunate has happened, but it has happened very far away and there is no danger. “When bad things happen, parents and teachers like to worry, so we’re just being extra careful today. But you have nothing to be afraid of and nothing to worry about. I promise you.”

The bell rings. Students leave. There are more tears for my departing student. Hugs. High fives. Assurances that calls and texts and emails are forthcoming. They are crying for the loss of their friend, and I want to cry to. I still cannot. The buses have yet to be called. I must continue to operate my teaching puppet for the sake of the students waiting for buses. I must look brave and calm and even happy for these children who are losing a friend and losing a little more of the innocence that their world once possessed.

In moments they will pass through the doors of my classroom and face the reality of what has happened in a school that looks so frightfully like their own. They will have to come to terms with the idea of twenty dead children in a school just like their own.

I don’t know how they will ever do it.

I have 15 jobs. So you probably require my services in one way or another.

As the New Year approaches and the endless possibilities of the coming year loom on the horizon, I always like to take a moment and reset my current occupational status, in the event that you or someone you know will require my services in 2015.

While occupations like teacher and writer seem like fairly obvious inclusions on the list, there are also several less obvious jobs on the list that may seem a little silly at first, but let me assure you that they are not.

Many people thought it was silly back in 1997 when my friend and I decided to become wedding DJs, even though we had no experience, equipment, or knowledge of the wedding industry whatsoever. We simply declared ourselves wedding DJs, bought a pile of equipment that we didn’t know how to use, and began the search for clients.

Nineteen years and more than 400 weddings later, we’re still in business.

The same could be said about my decision to become a minister in 2002. Or a life coach back in 2010. Or a professional best man in 2011. Or last year’s declaration that I was a public speaking coach. Or last week’s announcement that I am now a presentation consultant.

All of these positions have either become profitable ventures or at least received interest from potential clients.

The lesson: If you want to do something, just start doing it.  

So here is a list of my 14 current occupations and an explanation of my services. I hope I can be of service to you in 2015. 
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Teacher. Sorry. I’ve got a job teaching already, and I love it.

But in about four years, a partner and I plan on opening a one-room schoolhouse for students grades K-5, so if you’re looking for a school for your child at that time (or looking to donate money to build the school), contact me.

Writer: In addition to writing novels, I’ve also written a memoir, a book of essays, a rock opera, a tween musical, and a screenplay. I’m also the humor columnist for Seasons magazine.

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I’m always looking for additional writing gigs, in particular a regular opinion column and/or advice column, so if you have a writing job in need of a good writer, contact me.

Wedding DJ: My partner and I are entering our 19th year in the business. We’ve have entertained at more than 400 weddings in that time. We’ve cut back on our business in recent years, ceasing to advertise or even maintain a respectable website. Almost all of our business these days comes through client or venue referrals, as we prefer.

If you’re getting married and need a DJ, contact me. 

Storyteller and public speaker: I deliver keynote addresses, inspirational speeches, and talks on a variety of subjects including education, writing, storytelling, productivity, and more. I’m represented by Macmillan Speakers Bureau.

I’m also a professional storyteller who has performed at more than 60 storytelling events in the last three years and has hosted story slams for literary festivals, colleges, and more. I’m a 15-time Moth StorySLAM champion and GrandSLAM champions whose stories have appeared on The Moth Radio Hour and This American Life.

If you need someone to entertain, inspire, inform, or emcee, contact me.  

Founder and producer of Speak Up: My wife and I produce a storytelling show called Speak Up. We are based in Hartford at Real Art Ways with additional shows at venues throughout the region, including local schools and The Mount in Lenox, MA.

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If you have an audience that would be interested in storytelling, or you’re a storyteller looking to pitch a story for one of our shows, send an email to speakupstorytelling@gmail.com.

Minister: In the past ten years, I’ve married 13 couples and conducted baby naming ceremonies and baptisms. I’ll be marrying two more couples in 2015.

If you’re getting married and are in need of a minister, contact me. 

Life coach: In the past four years, I’ve worked with four different clients, assisting them in everything from goal setting to productivity to personal relationships to career development.

If you’re looking to make changes in your life and become a happier and more successful person, contact me.  

Tutor: I tutor students in grade K-12 on everything from general academics to college essay writing.

If you’re the parent of a student in need of academic support, either regularly or occasionally, contact me.

Storytelling and public speaking coach: For the past two years, I’ve been teaching storytelling workshops and coaching storytellers on an individual basis. People often take my workshops in hopes of performing in storytelling shows and competing in story slams, but they also take these workshops to improve job performance, enhance communication skills, and get their friends and family to finally listen to them.

My real mission is to eliminate the scourge of PowerPoint from this planet, one story at a time.

If you’d like to improve your storytelling, public speaking, and/or communication skills, send an email to speakupstorytelling@gmail.com and get on our mailing list. 

Writing camp coordinator and instructor: Last year my wife and I launched Writer’s Abroad, a four week long summer writing camp for students ages 11-16. We had an outstanding inaugural season and plan on an even better second year in 2015.

If you are the parent of a child ages 11-16 who loves to write and/or could benefit from four weeks of intensive writing instruction designed to improve skills and inspire writers, this camp may be for you. Contact me.

Presentation consultant: Since posting about this position a week ago, I have heard from two people who have expressed interest in hiring me for their fairly new companies at some point in the future. I may also have the opportunity to take on a partner in this business.

If you are a person who delivers content via meetings, presentations, workshops, etc. and would like to improve your communication skills, contact me.

Professional Best Man: Since posting about this position on this blog in 2011, four grooms and two reality television producers have inquired about hiring me for their weddings and television shows that are wedding related. Geographical constraints forced me to reject all their offers thus far. I am still awaiting my first gig.

Productivity consultant: Since posting about this position on this blog in 2013, I’ve had one inquiry about my services.

If you would like to become a more productive person in your personal or professional life and are willing to make changes in order to achieve this goal, contact me.

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Professional double date companion: Since posting about this position on this blog in 2011, I have had no inquiries. That does not mean the job is a failure. Just that it has yet to succeed.

If you’re dating someone for the first time or have been on several dates and need that important second or third opinion on the person in question, contact me.

Professional gravesite visitor: Since posting about this position on this blog in 2011, I have had no inquiries. That does not mean the job is a failure. Just that it has yet to succeed.

If you have a gravesite in Connecticut in need of visiting, contact me.

The tyranny of the syllabus

I know a handful of college professors personally. I know a handful more via Facebook and Twitter. I have known many, many more throughout the years. Right around this time of the year, the discussions about their fabled syllabi begin to appear, both in real life and on social media.

Their comments can usually be boiled down into the following statements:

  • I am working on my syllabus.
  • I feel angst about my syllabus.
  • The work that I’m doing on my syllabus is complex and time consuming.
  • I am proud of the work that I have done on my syllabus.

As a teacher, I find this never-ending conversation about syllabi both amusing and disturbing.

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Let’s start off with the dirty little secret of higher education:

Professors are not teachers. The great majority of them have almost no formal training and have never studied the art and science of teaching. They are experts in their specific fields of study, and if their students are lucky, they have received a modicum of training from the college or university where they teach (usually a week or two before the semester begins), but for the most part, they do not have any actual teaching certification, scholarship, or meaningful training.

This is not to say that their instruction is ineffective.

However, in many cases, it is highly ineffective. I have attended classes at six different institutions of higher learning, and I have met many professors who are experts in their field of study and utterly inept in the classroom.

Thankfully, I have also been taught by professors who are incredible teachers, too. For the most part, I suspect that these people possessed many of the innate qualities of an excellent teachers long before they entered the classroom. I also suspect that these professors have chosen to study the art and science of teaching with the same vigilance and rigor as they study in their field of expertise.

These people are teachers disguised as professors. They are highly effective, oftentimes inspiring, and sometimes life changing.

Unfortunately, they are too few in number.

Which bring me back to the syllabus:

The carefully designed plan for the entire semester. The source of both angst and pride of so many professors and students.

Also one of the most disastrous and ridiculous documents in the field of education.

The syllabus represents a professors plan for instruction for the course of approximately four months. It is disseminated to students at the beginning of the semester, and in most cases, it is adhered with rigor and fidelity. Due dates are predetermined and enforced. Readings are assigned and expected to be completed by the date indicated. Lectures and coursework is paced in accordance with the schedule set forth. Everything that students will be doing over the course of the semester is listed in clear, explicit language.

Ask a teacher to teach using a similar plan and he or she would laugh you right out of the classroom.

At its most fundamental level, teaching is a process that requires engaging instruction, ongoing assessment, constant differentiation, and relentless adjustment.

A syllabus is the antithesis of this. It represents uniformity. It dictates a predetermined pathway for instruction. It sets expectations that apply to all students, regardless of talent or ability. It predetermines precisely how long a group of learners will pursue a particular topic.

This is, of course, ludicrous. This is not teaching.

An example:    

My hope may be to finish reading Macbeth with my fifth grade students by September 28. That is my plan, and I have communicated it to them (though being fifth graders, I’m sure that most don’t remember this). But if my students don’t understand certain concepts in the play or are incredibly enthusiastic about the text or ask unexpected and surprising questions or despise Lady Macbeth with every fiber of their being, that September 28 deadline could easily drift forward or backward.

I will assess understanding and enthusiasm and adjust accordingly.

This is the essence of good teaching.

I will also adjust my instruction based upon my students’ individual needs. I will seek to understand those differing levels of ability and differentiate instruction based upon my students’ specific skill levels.

Nothing is static. There is no four month plan, because there can be no four month plan. I work with human beings. Not widgets. 

My plan is to study four Shakespearean plays before our winter break. That number may increase or decrease based upon any number of factors.

My students may be so thoroughly enthralled with tragedies that I decide to skip the comedies entirely. Or at least delay them until the spring. 

A graphic novel of Macbeth may be released that I decide to add to our study. Or a film. Or a play at a local theater. Or a student-created puppet show.

Any number of factors will alter content.

This is what teaching is all about. Engaging instruction and relentless adjustment.

But this is how many, and perhaps most, college classes are typically taught. The syllabus determines the what and when.

In a college classroom, assessment rarely drives instruction. The syllabus drives instruction. Assessment is used for determining grades. It does not determine which students require additional instruction. It does not signal to professors that their students require additional time or increased levels of challenge in order to achieve their greatest academic potential. 

“Greatest academic potential” is a state that all teachers seek for their students. But in order to achieve this state (or even strive towards it), a teacher must constantly monitor, assess, adjust, and differentiate.

I have almost never seen this process take place in a college classroom. 

Rarely is work at a college level differentiated. Despite obvious differences in the backgrounds and abilities of students, instruction is delivered to all students at the same time in the same way.

In college, differentiation is not done in the classroom. It is not handled through instruction. It is parceled out in 15-30 minute chunks known as office hours.

To an actual teacher, this is insanity.

I believe that it’s this relentless march though the syllabus that has led to the rise of online learning and MOOCs. Rather than acting as teachers, professors have presented themselves as content delivery systems. They set forth a plan and adhere to it, lecturing, assigning grades, and marching through their semester regardless of circumstance. 

You will read about Subject X before Monday. I will lecture about Subject X on Monday. We will engage in a class discussion. You will write a paper on Subject X, which is due the following Monday. I will assign you a numerical score based upon your adherence to a rubric that I have determined.

What about the student who struggled with the reading?

What about the student who was not challenged by the reading?

What about the class who does not find Subject X nearly as engrossing as you do?

What about the class that wants to spend another week discussing Subject X?

As a teacher and a former college student, I would like to see the college syllabus become more of an approximate plan for the semester, with fairly rigid timelines in place only in two week increments.

“Here is what we will be doing this week and next. It includes the readings and assignments. We’ll see how it goes. Then we’ll figure out the next two weeks. Because we are learners. Not robots.”

Teachers do not speak of their curriculum or lesson plans with nearly the same consternation or affection as a college professor does his or her syllabus because the teacher knows that curriculum and lesson plans are great until class begins. Then the real teaching starts.

As German general Helmuth Von Moltke said:

“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

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A majority of college professors do not subscribe to this belief. They encounter the enemy (their students) and march forward, regardless of obstacle or resistance. 

Follow the syllabus. Administer the tests. Finish the semester. Ignore the wounded who litter the battlefield.

This is not teaching. It’s content delivery.

It’s a damn shame.

Why does writing instruction so often suck?

Slate’s Matthew J.X. Malady offers any number of reasonable answers to this question, but I think the answer is far simpler:

Writing instruction at the elementary, middle, and high school levels is taught primarily by teachers who are not writers and do not engage in writing on a regular basis.

Most teachers are readers. We read for pleasure. We read novels, nonfiction, magazines, and endless amounts of text on the Internet. We are forced to read the material that we assign to our students in order to evaluate comprehension, lead discussions, and answer questions.

Most teachers are also mathematicians. We add, subtract, multiply, and divide on a daily basis. We work with fractions in the kitchen. We measure at the workbench. We solve the same problems that we ask our students to solve in order to teach, model, and diagnose errors.

Few teachers are writers.

A third grade teacher requires her class to write a fictional narrative that includes a magic key and a hole in a tree.

When was the last time that teacher sat down and wrote a fictional fictional narrative using a pre-assigned plot point?

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A middle school teacher assigns his students an argumentative essay on the death penalty. When was the last time that teacher wrote a five paragraph essay on a pre-assigned topic?

A high school teacher requires her students to write a 15 page paper on the differences between Julius Caesar and Macbeth in Shakespeare’s plays. When was the last time that teacher wrote a paper on a pre-assigned topic, using pre-assigned readings, with a strict page limit?

How often does any teacher write anything similar to what he or she assigns students? How often do teachers write for pleasure?

When I conduct workshops on the teaching of writing, the first thing I tell my workshop attendees is that listening to me talk about the teaching of writing is not the best way to become a better teacher of writing. I invite them to flee my workshop immediately. Run away! Find a writing class at a local college, a museum, or in their town’s adult education program. Enroll. Start writing. Start writing every day. Becoming a writer, and learning to become a better writer, is the best (and perhaps the only) way to become a better teacher of writing.

When I assign my students an essay, I also write the essay and share my work with them. When I assign my students a series of open-ended questions, I will always answer at least one of them. When I teach my students about poetry or playwriting or personal narrative, I write alongside them. I invite them to peek over my shoulder and watch what I am doing, like I do to them. I understand the struggles and frustrations of a writer. I understand what is important to a writer. I understand the challenges that an assignment presents. I quickly learn about where I need to focus and redirect my instruction.

The question I get most often from teachers in my workshops is about how to motivate the reluctant writer. It’s always been the most difficult question for me to answer, because I have no specific strategy to recommend. I have no intervention to deploy. No tricks of the trade.

My students are always motivated to write. I do not say this to boast, and I am not exaggerating. In my 16 years as a teacher, I can count the number of truly reluctant writers in my classroom on one hand.

My students want to write because they perceive me as a writer. They see me write every day. I share my work with them. I tell stories about my struggles and successes. Most importantly, I know what a writer needs to write. I know what a writer wants. I know what it takes to motivate yourself when all of the words on the page look like garbage and all you want to do is play a video game or eat a cookie or read something, anything, better than what you are writing.

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Instead of writing every day, teachers purchase books filled with prefabricated writing lessons and activities that no actual writer would ever even consider doing. They hang posters about some nonexistent, linear writing process on the wall. They attend workshops and expect that six hours spent in front of a successful teacher of writing will somehow fundamentally change their practice and improve their instruction. When I tell teachers that just 15 minutes a day, every day, is more than enough time to become a writer and begin to understand what their students truly need, they tell me that they don’t have the time.

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There are no easy answers. No simple solutions or quick fixes. Writing is complex and emotional. It’s a struggle and a joy. It’s hard. Incredibly hard. If you want to help your students become better writers, become a writer yourself. Not even a good writer. Just a writer.    

That’s it. Just start writing.

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Working hard for the money: 2014 update

A few years ago, I posted a list of all the jobs I have held in my life in chronological order. 

It was an interesting exercise that I highly recommend.

Things have changed since I first posted the list, so here is my updated list:

1. Farm laborer, Blackstone, MA: When I was 12-years old, I began working for Jesse Deacon, an aging farmer in need of some help. Every Saturday, I would spend 4-6 hours loading hay onto trailers, mucking stalls, repairing fence lines, and other typical farm chores. I earned $50 a day for the work and was happy to get it.

2. McDonald’s restaurants, Milford, Norwood, Brockton, Hanson, Bourne, MA: My illustrious and rather sordid career with McDonald’s began when I turned 16-years old. My friend, Danny Pollock, heard that the McDonald’s in Milford, MA was hiring, so even though Milford was more than 30 minutes from my hometown of Blackstone, Danny and I drove out there for interviews and were hired on the spot. We started out just above minimum wage, $4.65 per hour. Danny didn’t last long and eventually became a dishwasher across the street, but I stuck, eventually being promoted to manager when I was 17-years old. I can still remember sitting in history class with my professional development binder from McDonald’s, studying for my management exam when I was supposed to be reading about the Great Depression. I stayed with McDonald’s after graduation (college was not an option for me after high school), eventually moving to Norwood with my store manager and later to Brockton, Hanson (where I opened a new store), and Bourne, where I was eventually fired after being arrested for grand larceny.

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3. Cobra Marketing, Foxwood, MA: After being fired from McDonald’s, I was hired by Cobra Marketing, a company that marketed consumer products to employees at a variety of businesses throughout the state. I began as a salesman, dropping off samples to businesses early in the week and then returning for orders at the end of the week and earning my salary strictly through commission. I worked in the book division, which meant that the samples I was dropping off to businesses were all books. Eventually I was promoted and was placed in charge of a sales team.

4. Cobra Marketing, Washington, DC: Following my promotion, I was sent to Washington, DC for four months to establish a new office for the company. A team of eight people from Connecticut spent the summer of 1993 living in a two-bedroom apartment in College Park, Maryland. During this time we hired, trained, and put the systems in place that would allow the business to function on its own once we returned to Massachusetts. Having lost the coin toss for one of the two beds in the apartment, I spent the four months sleeping on an air mattress in a walk-in closet with a girl named Kim. It was during this time in Washington that I met Ted Kennedy, shook Cal Ripken’s hand, and was mugged at knife point.

5. South Shore Bank, Stoughton, MA: After returning to Massachusetts and resuming the sales routine, I decided to move on and was hired to work as a teller by South Shore Bank (later Bank of Boston), the same bank that would later testify against me during my grand larceny trial.

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6. McDonald’s, Brockton, MA: Needing to pay for my legal defense, I also went to work for a privately-owned McDonald’s restaurant in Brockton, across town from the company-owned store where I had worked years before. My girlfriend at the time was working in the company-owned store, as were the Jehovah Witnesses with whom I was living. I would work at the bank from 7 AM- 4 PM and would then manage the closing shift at McDonald’s, working from 5 PM until 1:00 AM. I did this for eighteen very long months until my trial concluded and I was found not guilty. It was while managing this restaurant that I was robbed at gunpoint.

7. Legal Copy Service, Hartford, CT: Having been found not guilty at my trial, I was free to leave the state, so I moved to Connecticut, chasing a girl and my best friend. I landed my first job at a legal copy service in downtown Hartford. Beginning as a machine operator but unable to stand the monotony of the work, I eventually managed the company’s delivery service until finally quitting after less than four months on the job.

8. The Bank of Hartford, West Hartford, CT: Needing to earn more money, I went back into banking, landing a job at the now defunct Bank of Hartford on Park Road in West Hartford. I was eventually promoted from teller to customer service representative but left after a year when I decided to go to college and was in need of a more flexible schedule.

9. McDonald’s, Hartford, CT: Negotiating a decent salary and a flexible schedule because of my experience and expertise, I went back to work for McDonald’s, this time managing a company owned store on Prospect Avenue in Hartford. I would work from 5 AM- 1PM on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, plus ten hours a day on Saturday and Sunday while going to school, first at Manchester Community College and later at Trinity College and St. Joseph's College.

10. Trinity College, Hartford, CT: While attending Trinity College, I was hired as a writing tutor in the school’s Writing Center. I would spend about three hours each evening teaching freshmen to write a clear and grammatically correct sentences and helping seniors to edit and revise their thesis papers. My name actually appears in the acknowledgements of several thesis papers in the Trinity College library.

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11. Jam Packed Dance Floor DJ’s: It was while I was attending Trinity and working for McDonald’s that Bengi and I went into the disc jockey business, entertaining at weddings throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts. We went from booking three weddings in 1997 to 41 weddings in 1998 and have been going strong ever since.

12. Kindergarten tutor, Wethersfield, CT: When I began student-teaching in the spring of 1999, I left McDonald’s for good in order to accommodate the full-day schedule that student-teaching demanded. To supplement the loss in salary, I began tutoring underprivileged kindergarten students for the town of Wethersfield for a period of about six months. The time that I spent with those kids convinced me that kindergarten was not for me.

13. Substitute teacher, New Britain, CT: Having completed my student teaching in early May, I went to work as a full-time substitute teacher in New Britain, the town in which I had done my student teaching. I worked nearly every day until late June, teaching everything from bi-lingual kindergarten to high school physical education.

14. Teacher: In the summer of 1999, I was hired to teach at my current school. I’ve been there ever since.

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15. Minister: After becoming ordained by the Universal Life Church, I began conducting wedding ceremonies and baby naming ceremonies as a minister.  Many of the wedding ceremonies (but not all) have been booked in conjunction with the DJ business, and I have since branched out into other areas of ministerial work as well.  One family actually refers to me as their "family minister". 

16.  In 2007, I sold my first book, Something Missing, to Doubleday Broadway and became a professional author. I had made a little money publishing pieces in newspapers, magazines and professional journals prior to the purchase of my novel, but it had never amounted to much. Since then I have also published Unexpectedly, Milo, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, and the upcoming The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs. Writing has become a full time career for me.

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17.  Life coach: After learning about the existence of life coaches from one of my wife's friends, I decided that I was eminently qualified for the job. I began my career as the pro-bono life coach for a colleague and friend but have since been hired by my first client. 

18. Spean Up: In 2013 my wife and I launched Speak Up, an organization dedicated to the art of storytelling. We produce shows in conjunction with Real Art Ways, teach workshops to people interested in improving their speaking and storytelling abilities, and have recently begun schedule shows at outside venues.

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19. Tutor: I have tutored off and on for several years but have recently been hired by clients on a more long-term, regular basis.

20. Professional speaker: As a storyteller, I am often paid to take the stage and perform. In addition, I am a member of the Macmillan Speaker’s Bureau and have begun to be hired to speak publicly on a number of topics, including education, motivation, and storytelling.

21. Columnist: In the spring of 2013, I was hired as the humor columnist for Seasons magazine.

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There was a time when my blogging brought in a little money each month when I was serving advertising, but nothing has panned out to the point of real profit.

I still have dreams of becoming a professional best man (I have been offered jobs four times but was forced to decline because of distance), a gravesite visitor and a professional double date companion (with my wife). I would also like to earn more money blogging and am currently working on making that happen.

But for now, I’m pretty happy as a writer, a teacher, a life coach, a DJ and an occasional minister.  

Had you asked the ten-year-old version of me what I wanted to be when I grow up, I would’ve said teacher and writer.  For a long time, I said that I wanted to “write for a living and teach for pleasure.”

I’m not there yet, but it’s not as far away as it used to be, either.

What were the three most important decisions of your life?

A recent Quora question asked, “What were the three most important decisions of your life?”

I’ve been debating this question for almost a month, and I have finally settled on three. While many decisions could have occupied these three spots, I decided to favor the toughest and most unlikely decisions of my life rather than the ones that were easy and obvious.

For example, deciding to marry Elysha is probably the most important decision of my life, but it was barely a decision. Who wouldn’t want to marry Elysha if given the chance? It was a no-brainer.

Instead, I found three extremely important decisions in my life that could have gone either way and changed the course of my life forever.

1. Maintaining my innocence when charged with grand larceny and embezzlement.

While being questioned about a crime that I did not commit, the police almost had me convinced to confess to the crime rather than risk a lengthy prison sentence. I spent a minute in a mop closet pondering that decision and ultimately decided to stick to the truth, but it was a close call. The police can apply a great deal of pressure in these moments, particularly when you are a 19 year-old kid without any parents, any money or an attorney.

The result was a brief period of homelessness, 18 months spent working 80 hours a week at two different jobs in order to pay a $25,000 attorney’s bill, a permanent case of post traumatic stress disorder as a result of an armed robbery, and a trial where I was found not guilty.

Had I confessed and accepted their plea deal, I could not have become a teacher. 

2. Choosing West Hartford Public Schools over Newington Public Schools.

In the summer of 1999, my hometown of Newington, CT had offered me a permanent position as third grade teacher in one of their elementary schools. I was asked for a day to consider their offer, but the wait time was merely perfunctory. I was taking the job.

During that 24 hour period, I received a call from a principal in West Hartford requesting an interview. Out of curiosity more than anything else, I agreed to speak to him that day. Three hours later, he had offered me a one year position covering a second grade teacher on maternity leave.

The permanent position in Newington would have been the wise and sensible choice. It was in my hometown and would provide me with long-term stability in a time when teaching jobs were hard to find. But I was impressed by the principal, his commitment to children, and his support for the arts. After much debate, I decided upon the one year position in West Hartford, and 16 years later, I am still teaching in the same school.

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That decision changed my life. I met my wife while teaching at that school school. I met five of my closest friends while teaching, including the principal, who has since retired but remains one of my closest friends today. I met my son’s and daughter’s god parents while teaching at that school. Many of my former students are my children’s favorite babysitters, and one of my first students is our primary babysitter and like a member of the family.

I was given the freedom to create a classroom environment that placed reading, writing, and theater at its core, and I have developed a teaching philosophy that has led to much success in my field. I was named Teacher of the Year in West Hartford and was a finalist for Connecticut Teacher of the Year.

I started playing golf, a game that I love beyond all others, thanks to the friends I met at that school, and ultimately wrote a book about it. 

The school’s community, teachers, students, and parents, have become a second family to me. When my job and my future were threatened several years ago, they rallied around me in ways I could have never expected.

3. Saying yes when my best friend asked me to start a wedding DJ company with him.

In 1997, I was attending Trinity College and Saint Joseph's University fulltime, working on degrees in both English and elementary education. I was also managing a McDonald’s restaurant fulltime and tutoring students part-time at the college’s writing center. I was writing for the college’s newspaper. I was the Treasurer of the Student Senate.

I was busier than I had ever been in my life.

Then Bengi called and asked if I wanted to be a wedding DJ, even though we had no experience or equipment or knowledge of the industry, and I said yes.

Seventeen years later, we remain in business. I have entertained at more than 400 weddings in that time. The DJ company has provided me with much needed income through the lean times of my life.

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I met one of my best friends while working as the DJ at his wedding, and that friendship has led to me becoming a Patriots season ticket holder. That same friend led me back into writing when I had given up hope on ever becoming a novelist and professional writer.

I would not have a writing career today had it not been for him. 

I unknowingly gained 17 years of public speaking experience, which allowed me to step into the world of storytelling and public speaking three years ago with unexpected ease and success. I won my first Moth StorySLAM in large part to the experience I gained as a DJ.

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I have since competed in 24 Moth StorySLAMs in New York and Boston and won 12 of them. I’ve told stories for Main Stage shows and GrandSLAM championships and many other storytelling organizations in New York, Boston and Hartford. I would not be the storyteller and speaker I am today had I not worked for almost two decades as a wedding DJ.

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Telling stories for The Moth led to the founding of Speak Up, the Hartford-based storytelling organization that my wife and I founded last year. In a little over a year, we have produced eight sell out shows, launched a series of storytelling workshops, and have now been approached by outside venues, asking us to take our show on the road.

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The DJ business also led to me becoming ordained as a minister. I have presided over almost 20 weddings, one baptism, and three baby naming ceremonies in that time.

I’d love to hear your three most important decisions if you’re willing to share. Post in the comment sections. Send me an email. Contact me through social media.

Best Teacher Appreciation Day gift ever

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, my students presented me with a  gift on Friday.

The first was a PowerPoint presentation that explained why I was an excellent teacher. It included many inside jokes, a song that the kids performed, a few veiled insults, and a couple of slides that meant a great deal to me, including this one:

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Damn those kids. Not only have they grasped my nonchalance about what we do in class everyday (and maybe even a bit of my self-doubt), but best of all, they used the correct form of your/you’re.

Twice.

Then they handed me a list of every student’s name. Alongside each name was one thing that they appreciated most about me. Some were sincere. Some were silly. A couple were cruel. All were perfect. 

Lastly, they handed me a gift bag containing a box of Pop Tarts (strawberry and frosted, of course) and a gift card to McDonald’s.

Apparently it only takes about 160 school days for a bunch of kids to understand you at your core. 

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Teaching is not quite a minimum wage job, despite what my students may think.

My students were reading an article about the proposed increase in the minimum wage in their Time for Kids magazine.

I was secretly listening to their conversation.

Student #1: “If they increase the minimum wage, at least Mr. Dicks will get a raise.”

Student #2: Mr. Dicks doesn’t make minimum wage.

Student #1: I thought teaching was a minimum wage job.

Student #2: I don’t think so. Maybe? I don’t know.

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A teacher’s memory of 9/11

The following is a piece I wrote on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks. 

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I was teaching my third graders when my classroom phone rang around 9:00.  It was my ex-wife, calling to tell me that a plane had hit the Word Trade Center. She said that it was likely a commuter plane, but if I had some free time, I might want to turn on the news.

“All the networks are covering the story,” she said.

It was 2001 and I did not own a cell phone. Though the Internet was up and running, it was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is today. My ex-wife knew that in those days, once a teacher entered a school, he or she was often encased in a protective bubble, unaware of outside events until the school day ended.  No televisions, no radios, no smart phones, and little time for phone calls.  The outside world did not exist while we were teaching. As a result, she would occasionally call me with breaking news, giving me a chance to step away at lunchtime to catch up on world events.

I hung up the phone and continued teaching, wondering how a pilot could accidentally fly into one of the largest buildings in the world.

“What an idiot,” I remembering whispering aloud as I returned to my lesson.

Ten minutes later she called back. “Another plane hit the second tower. It’s an attack.”

I hung up the phone and turned to my students, who were busy solving math problems. I had to smile and continue to teach them, knowing that something terrible was happening outside the walls of our school. As I spoke about subtraction with regrouping, I tried to imagine what was happening in New York City.

At 9:30 I dropped my students off for vocal music class, pulling their teacher aside and whispering, “Two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center. It’s a terrorist attack.”

I headed for the principal’s office to see if he even knew that the attacks were taking place. The small television had been moved onto his desk, and he and several others were watching the events unfold. We watched the towers burn together in near silence.

A couple minutes later news came that The Pentagon had been hit. There was discussion that this might be the tip of the iceberg, the first in a long series of terrorist attacks. There was speculation that there could be more planes, many more planes, flying to many more targets around the country.  We listened to new anchors report on the casualties and speculate on the numbers still awaiting to die in the towers.  

Someone in the office said, “We are at war.”

Just before 10:00, we watched the south tower fall. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I remember thinking that it looked as if the tower had been built of ash and bone. There were several people in the office at the time, and at least two uttered quiet screams as the tower collapsed.

A minute after it fell, I left to pick up my students. I remember walking to the basement stairs, feeling saddled with momentous and awful information that I could not share with my kids. Information that I did not want to share with them. 

I remember thinking that I would try to make this school day as normal and happy for them as possible, knowing that the world was changing before our eyes. I remember envying them, too, thinking about how fortunate they were to have one more day of peace and normalcy than the rest of us. I decided that I would build a protective cocoon around my kids that day, making sure that whatever we did was normal and fun and spirited and full of laughter. I wanted this last day for them to be the best it could possibly be.

Parents began picking up their children as news spread, but only a few left my class early. Most of us remained together, learning and laughing as buildings burned and people died. As their parents took them by the hand and led them out the classroom door, I felt sorry for them, knowing that they were returning to the real world where planes flew into buildings and mighty towers collapsed onto city streets.

I remember thinking that nothing would ever be the same for them. The safety and security that had infused my childhood would no longer exist for them. Their country had been attacked. Civilians had been killed and buildings had been knocked down by our enemies. Our borders would never feel quite as secure as they once had. I wondered if Americans felt the same following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In many ways, the world did not change as much as I had feared, at least for my students. America went to war, terrorists continued to threaten our safety, and civil liberties eroded under the threat of more attacks. It’s a very different world today, but my students remain as happy and as enthusiastic about the future as ever. The students who I teach today were born in 2001 and view 9/11 as a history lesson, something that happened before their time. While the ramifications of the attacks will continue to impact their lives for years to come, their childhood remains blissfully intact for the most part.

Like the kids who I was teaching on the morning of September 11, 2001, these children see the future as full of hope and promise.

I love them for it.