Sunday, December 16, 2018

Finding Your Seat

Both of Our Boys made a Mini-Metro basketball team this year, our oldest made the 5/6 A Team, our youngest made the 5/6 B Team. We spend a good part of our Sundays in gymnasiums in and around Chittenden County. We are proud to sit in the bleachers and cheer for Our Boys and their teammates.

The coaches for both teams ask that their players arrive at least a half hour before the game starts. Once we enter the gym, whether home or away, the first thing that we do is scan the crowd to find a familiar face. Usually we are not the first family to get there, one of Our Boys will find a teammate, and we all climb into the bleachers to sit next to our friends. My Wife was reflecting on this at a recent game and mused out loud, "This is just like high school. Whenever you walked in to the gym for a game, you always looked up into the crowd to find your friends."

I think about the number of times the students in our schools walk into rooms on a daily basis, seeking out a familiar face. Perhaps it's a classroom, the cafeteria, or even the gymnasium. When they walk into a room, they too are seeking a friend. Students and adults alike seek out spaces next to people they know.

We do this because our lives are about relationships, it is how we interact in the world. It doesn't matter how old we are, when we walk into a room, we look for those we know. We find the people in our lives who have connected with us, who have given our lives meaning, who we have walked with us on our journey. We look for those who add to and enrich our lives, whose very presence enhances our own experience, and with whom we grow as people in the world.

Too often in schools, I think we focus on the distinctions between adults and students. Certainly there is a power dynamic that naturally exists, given that we have spent more time on the planet than our younger counterparts. And we also need to acknowledge that often, we have much more in common with our students when it comes to relationships. I'm not suggesting in any way that we are equals. I am suggesting that at times, the basic needs of adults and students are quite similar.

Especially when walking into a room.

Photo Courtesy of Etsy

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Taking the Test

On Monday, November 26, I sat down in Classroom 102 at Champlain Valley Union High School. I chose a seat at the front of the room, and took a moment to review my notes. For the first time in many, many years, I was taking a test.

Since I was in high school, I've loved officiating. I made the junior varsity baseball team as a sophomore but in the winter of the following year, tore all the ligaments in my ankle. I was at a track meet and when walking back to our hotel, I turned to talk to a friend. When I did that, I also accidentally stepped in a hole. My baseball playing career was over and I had only played basketball through my freshman year.

But I loved both sports and wasn't ready to walk away from them completely. I started umpiring minor league and little league baseball games, and refereed some basketball games as well. When we moved to Vermont, I investigated my options for basketball officiating and found the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials (IAABO) Chapter 105. I had done some officiating several years ago when Our Boys were much younger, and now felt like a good time in our family life to get back into it.

Dan Shepardson, a member of the IAABO Executive Committee, a long time basketball official, and the athletic director at CVU taught the class, with another veteran official Alejandra Barrenechea. I put in the study time, did the practice exams, and reviewed the material as we went through it. And yet I was still nervous, remembering all the times I had sat in classrooms feeling like this through my educational career.

At the beginning of the last class, Shep began prepping us for the exam. When he started to go through the details, I'll be honest, I started to tune out. But something he said got my attention. He offered to read the exam to anyone who needed it. This was a class that included some high school students, some college students, and several adults. All of us were there by choice, but we all had different needs. As I listened to Shep offer to meet the needs of anyone who had trouble reading, I started to relax. The kindness and humanity that Shep was offering made my nervousness begin to dissipate.

In a room of diverse learners, it was made clear that everyone was welcome. Whether or not we took advantage of it, Shep's offer demonstrated a commitment to every single person in that classroom. The reality is that Shep wanted every single one of us to pass the exam but almost more importantly,  to be sure that what we gave for answers represented our knowledge of basketball officiating.

I thought about all the students that felt like me when they first walked into a classroom the day of an exam, nervous about putting what they know on paper. As educators, we need to ensure that what we get from our students on assessments is everything that they know. We have to commit to each and every learner that we will go to great lengths to be positive what they put on paper captures all their knowledge.

Even if it means reading to them.

Photo courtesy of Rivermont Collegiate



Sunday, November 25, 2018

A Culture of Learning

Whenever I am in the car, I like to listen to podcasts. One of my favorites is Invisibilia, from National Public Radio. From their website: "unseeable forces control human behavior and shape our ideas, beliefs, and assumptions." I recently re-listened to an episode from June of 2016, called "The New Norm." It was a fascinating look at the social norms that shape our behavior, but what was most compelling, was the story of how men working on an oil rig, in the middle of the ocean, learned to cry with each other. 

Their story got my attention because at the very least, it demonstrated the capacity of adults to be open to growth. Being open to growth is not something that is typically associated with adulthood. Research tells us that infancy, childhood, and adolescence are the times in our lives when the brain is most transformed. Yet, this podcast shared the stories of men, who in one of the most macho environments, chose to be more emotionally available to each other and in the process, increased not only their own self-awareness but the production capacity of the oil rig they worked on. (Click here for the Invisibilia podcast website)

That episode made me reflect on the culture of learning in education, and what social norms are present in such a culture. I came up with three hallmarks of what I consider to be a vibrant culture of learning: 

1. A culture of learning is learner centered. This means that the focus is on the learner and I have to credit George Couros (@gcouros) for helping me shift my own vocabulary from student to learner. If we are a just student centered culture of learning, then we are ignoring the fact that adults are learners too. A culture of learning is focused on those who are open to growth, no matter what their chronological age. Some of my proudest memories as an educator are when I have learned from my students

2. A culture of learning welcomes mistakes. Mistakes are a necessary, healthy part of the learning process. If I make no mistakes in my daily morning routine with my own children getting them out the door on time for the bus, I feel like I genuinely have accomplished something. If I cannot promise my own children our morning will be mistake-free, how can I possibly make the same promise to someone else's children? The hope is that we don't repeat the same mistakes that we make - but there will always be missteps when we take risks in the learning process. 

3. A culture of learning prioritizes relationships. There are real people, adults and children, in our school district. People who laugh and smile when they're happy, cry real tears when they're sad and upset, and who bleed when their skin is cut. We must promise each other, and our children, that we put people ahead of behaviors, committing to empathy and compassion. Ensuring that people feel heard, even in times of disagreement, is a basic template for  relationships and a promise that we must make to each other. 

Within a culture of learning, anything is possible. This time between Thanksgiving and the Winter Holiday break is one of the most challenging for educators and students alike. Within a culture of learning, we recognize this and pledge to each other to work smarter, not harder on behalf of all learners, accepting mistakes, and putting the people (adults and children) first. In this way, we model the culture of learning for our school district, and the larger community. 


Photo courtesy of TeachThought





Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Value of Traditions

On Saturday November 10, forty-four people began arriving at our home around 4:00. For the sixth year in a row, My Wife and I have hosted a Friendsgiving Celebration. The idea is, that we all go our separate ways to our own families on the actual Thanksgiving and we don't take the time to celebrate with the people that we see almost everyday.

There were two turkeys, one twenty-eight pounds, the other sixteen. Both were brined the night before and stuffed the day of. The first was cooked in our oven, the second one was cooked at a friend's house. We made stuffing and provided rolls, and made sure there was enough room in the kitchen for everyone to bring a side dish.

Prior to the arrival, we set up our home to make sure there were enough seats for all the children and all the adults. We eat in two shifts: the children eat first, then disappear to the basement to watch the Home Alone series of movies. Then the adults eat, in relative peace and quiet.

This is, without question, one of my favorite nights of our year. While it is a tremendous amount of work, I am humbled by the friendships that are celebrated that night. The friends that feel like family, the children that have gone to school together, the miles of carpooling we've shared as we've attended practices and athletic events.

On one of those miles that I was driving in late October, I was chatting with the boys in the car. We were talking about the changing leaves and the beautiful fall colors we are fortunate to see in Vermont. I was wistful about the days shortening and the end of the warm summer months. This young man, looking out our car window said, "I really don't mind it. November has my favorite holiday." "Oh, do you like Thanksgiving," I asked. He said, "No, Friendsgiving is by far, my favorite holiday, at your house."

I literally was stunned. While I had heard that sentiment from some of our own friends, I had no idea how much it mean to the children who come - some of whom were very little when they began coming to our house. To this young man, the notion that you could have a Thanksgiving dinner with all your friends and then go and watch a movie with all those same friends, was what made it his favorite holiday.

Never underestimate the value of the traditions in our worlds, our schools, our classrooms. Never underestimate the impact we have on the lives of the children we see everyday. Never underestimate how much what we do matters to them.


Sunday, November 11, 2018

Showing Up

Two weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a teacher in the St. Johnsbury School. In twenty-two years in education, I have never received an e-mail like this.

It read: "I have a seventh grade student who has prepared all the work for Student Led Conferences but does not have a parent able to attend. We are trying to find adults to sit down with all of our students who do not have parents available for conferences, and this student seems to have really taken to you. I think this student would love to share the work with you if you are available sometime in the next couple of weeks. This would only take about 20 minutes, and we can be flexible with times. Is this something you would be interested in being a part of?"

I couldn't type my affirmative response quickly enough. I was honored to be thought of by this student and the teacher as someone who would be a part of something so personal as student led conferences. It was a proud moment for me as an educator in St. Johnsbury.

We coordinated a date and time, I arrived in the classroom, sat down and this student and I started our conversation. I tried to be supportive, but also challenging; compassionate, but also thorough; accepting, but also nudging for more growth. The conversation was marked by laughter, silence, awkward pauses, as well as times when we both tried to speak. It was a conversation that was exactly what you would expect if you sat down with any seventh grade student to discuss his or her experiences in school.

What was remarkable to me was the vulnerability that this young person chose to share with me, someone they have seen and chatted with only a handful of times this year. This young person spoke to me about their family, the challenges they face on a regular basis, and what is going well for them in school. They also spoke of deeply personal things that don't belong in this blog post, the content that is meaningful to them in classes, and how well the teachers build relationships.

I sometimes worry about the broad strokes we sometimes hear when it comes to "this generational of kids." The ones who are digital natives, who have grown up in an age where screens and social media are ever present. The ones who text, instead of call, who Snapchat, instead of talk in person, who often have their faces staring at devices.

This week, I connected purposefully with a seventh grade student at the St. Johnsbury School. A student that before September 10, 2018, I didn't even know existed. A student who has high-fived me a handful of times. A student who has seen me in the halls, and prior to this past week, has not said more than ten words to me in a single interaction. This student had really "taken to me" in those brief interactions.

Yes, these kids are into their digital devices - but as adults, we are too. Yes, these kids are using them more and more as ways to communicate with their peers - but as adults we are too. Yes, these kids are posting more and more on social media - but as adults we are too.

These kids are also looking to us for direction, as all kids do. They're looking to us to model what it means to live meaningfully in a world where there are so many claims to what is true and good. They're looking to connect with us.

We need to show up, everyday, for these kids.

Photo courtesy of Pintrest





Sunday, November 4, 2018

More Interdependence

One of the sports I participated in when I was in high school was track. I ran all three seasons, Cross Country, Indoor and Outdoor. While I didn't run competitively after high school, I was always able to pick up and run a 5K whenever I felt like I needed to get back in shape, eat a little healthier and lose a few pounds. 

Recently, I've found that I can't just pick up and run a 5K anymore. Because I have not been consistently running, I've had to make adjustments. I've downloaded an app called Couch to 5K and am working my way back up toward running the distance I'm used to. I need to rely on something other than myself to get where I want to be. 

Reflecting on this humbling reality, I thought about my early career as a teacher. During my first two years, I was a volunteer teacher on the Near West Side of Chicago. Typically, I was one of the first teachers there, unlocking and opening the building. And not surprisingly, I was one of the last to leave, often locking and closing our school. 

I really didn't think anything of it. I was able to make that commitment because there were no other demands on my time. I was young, right out of college, and my family in Chicago was the eleven other volunteer teachers I was living with. The fact was, we were all making that kind of commitment of time to our schools. We all were volunteer teachers, throwing our whole selves into the children and families we were serving. 

Twenty two years later, I am not the first in and I am not the last out. My commitment to my professional responsibilities has not wavered and I am relying on other people for the duties of opening up and closing the school building. In truth, other people in Chicago were relying on me during my early career as well. We were relying on each other, even if we didn't know it. 

I think there is something to be learned from this. One of the ways I believe that we are failing each other is that we are not relying enough on each other. We are emphasizing independence too often, rather than interdependence. While interdependence takes vulnerability and humility, and runs the risk of being let down by others, independence does not seem to be working well for us. It seems to me that we are too independent, and don't ask or expect very much of each other at all. 

I needed an app to get back to running a distance that I used to be able to run without thinking twice. We teach it to our students: asking for help is not a sign of weakness it is a sign of strength. It is something that we expect of them. 

No one rises to low expectations. 


Sunday, October 28, 2018

On Racism and Equity

Two weeks ago, I was privileged to participate in the Rowland Foundation Conference, "Beyond Buzzwords: How Do We Transform Equity Ideas Into Effective Action." The keynote speaker for the second year in a row was Dr. Ruha Benjamin (@ruha9).  One of her slides resonated with me that day and has stuck with me since:

Racism is a form of theft

Dr. Benjamin went on to explain that it is obviously a form of theft for those who are impacted by racism, namely those who suffer from the systemic inequity that is baked into our culture, the structural codes that prevent us from living in equal relationship with those who are different than we are. But she was also clear that it is a form of theft for those of us in positions of power, as we are robbed from living in equal relationship with those who are different than us. In essence, racism robs us of each other. 

And there are other forms of systemic inequity that pervade our schools. The screenshot below was an excerpt from the reading given to us during the conference. 


How do we marginalize, you may ask? 
  • We keep them in from recess, when they don't complete their homework. 
  • We limit participation to hand raising only. 
  • We force them to look the teacher in the eye. 
(Thank you to Katy Farber (@Non_Toxic_Kids) for this list, shared via Twitter at the conference)

There are other ways as well...
  • We make curricular choices that are representative of the majority, but not all. 
  • We have systems in place that make presumptions about home and family, again, not reflective of all. 
  • We have expectations that come from our own experience of schooling and education, not the experience and education of our families and current students. 
Our focus this year in the St. Johnsbury School is Teaching and Learning for All Students. Not just the ones that complete their homework. Not just the ones who see themselves in the curriculum we offer. Not just the ones who look us in the eyes. All students. 

The only way that we will be able to bend the curve on these systematically challenging issues is to do it together, in the service of our students and their families.

Photo courtesy of www.equitytool.org


Sunday, October 21, 2018

Walking In Their Shoes

When My Wife was pregnant with our oldest son, we were living in Chicago. From time to time, I would hear on the news or read in the paper stories of people who had shaken their infants to death. And I would judge them. How could you do that to a defenseless child? That is something that I would never do...

Our oldest son Patrick turned out to be a very colicky baby - and while never quite fit the medical definition of colic, he was incredibly close. One afternoon while he was still an infant, I was unable to get him to stop crying and it went on for what seemed like hours. As my frustration grew, his crying seemed to grow worse. I was holding him close to my body, trying desperately to get him to stop crying and at one point, I held him away from me at arms length. And in that moment I knew...

I put him down in his crib and walked away. In that moment, I knew how it could happen to anyone. I knew how anyone could shake an infant baby in frustration, in anger, in the desire to have the baby stop crying. I knew how anyone could do it because I was moments from doing it myself.

As I was preparing to become teacher, I promised myself that I was going to be the kind of teacher that loved his students and would not make them cry. I'd seen and heard of teachers that were too hard on their students and in some cases, brought them to tears. And I judged those teachers. Not me, I told myself. That won't be me.

In my second year teaching on the Near Westside of Chicago, I had a student who we'll call Chris. He consistently failed to complete his homework - consistently. My patience was wearing thin when on this particular day, I chose to ask him in front of the class, where his homework was. Predictably he did not have it.

In that moment, I launched into a long, public explanation of how important homework was, how he was not doing his best, and how effort mattered in my classroom. Finally at the end, I asked him why he didn't have his homework and in a timid voice he told me, "My brother ran away from home last night and we were out looking for him." And then, as if that wasn't enough, the tears began to silently run down his face. I made him cry...

It is very easy to sit in judgement of others, especially if we have not been there yet ourselves. The real challenge is in trying to better understand the actions of others. The real challenge is to find a way to connect with someone, to empathize with their situation, to show compassion. The real challenge is to see the humanity in each and every person, including ourselves.

Photo courtesy of Medium.com




Sunday, October 14, 2018

Finding Hope

One of my all-time favorite movies is Love Actually, a 2003 movie about where love is in the lives of eight loosely connected people. I love the opening scene and the narration that goes along with it:

Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the Arrivals Gate at Heathrow airport. General opinion's staring makes out that we live in a world of hatred and greed but I don't see that. Seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it's not particularly dignified, or newsworthy - but it's always there - fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. Before the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate and revenge - they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I've got a sneaking suspicion you'll find that love actually is all around. 

It seems to me that we are currently living in one of the most troubling times in recent history. For me, this is the most polarized that I've felt in my forty-four years on this planet. There is no middle ground, there is very little room for compromise, for empathy, for compassion. Those three things are the life blood for relationships. We are either for something or against it. We either believe in what is happening or we are entirely opposed to it. 

When I was first considering the superintendency eight years ago, one of my greatest fears was that I would be disconnected from children. Children are the reason that I went into education and until I became a superintendent, I was able to always continue teaching, even if it was just one class. What I was delighted to discover as superintendent is that I'm able to be around children, often more than I ever anticipated. 

And children bring something to me consistently - and they have ever since I was a baby teacher in Chicago in 1996 - they bring hope. They deliver hope in their innocence, their willingness to forgive easily, and to forget. They deliver hope in how they choose to see the good in others, how they so often can find compromise, and how they choose to help. They deliver hope in their passion for whatever they're doing, their bright eyes and smiles, and their honesty. It is a gift to be surrounded by children while serving the St. Johnsbury School District.

Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the St. Johnsbury School. General opinion's starting makes out that we live in a world of hatred and greed but I don't see that. Seems to me that hope is everywhere. Often it's not particularly dignified, or newsworthy - but it's always there - teachers and students, paraprofessionals and school staff, School Board and district employees. If you look for it, I've got a sneaking suspicion you'll find that hope is actually all around. 

Don't just take my word for it. Listen to what we are hearing from the St. Johnsbury staff as we begin this new school year: 
  • Decisions are made always keeping in mind what is best for kids. 
  • Everyone in the building is smiling and greeting one another. 
  • Solutions are being found to support students and teachers. 
  • My voice matters to my principal when I needed it most. 
  • Our classes are more set up to help kids be able to learn. 

Where do you turn for hope? I find it in the children and the adults of St. Johnsbury School.  

Picture Courtesy of Chris Sneddon on Flickr




Sunday, October 7, 2018

On the Real World

In a recent discussion with a friend, we were talking about the dynamic realm of education, and how much it has changed since we were students. One of things I am most proud of as a professional educator in the state of Vermont are the statutes around proficiency and personalized learning for all students. This is a dramatic shift in how we consider, prepare for, instruct, and assess our students.

One key component to proficiency based learning is the feedback given to students about their work. The feedback needs to be specific, much more than just a grade, in order to be effective. In addition to feedback, there need to be opportunities for additional practice so that students can demonstrate their response to our feedback, with the goal being mastery.

Change typically is not easy, and in presentations about proficiency based learning, I was frequently challenged that this is going to make education "soft" and we won't be able to prepare our children for the "real world." That is a perfectly reasonable response, given that until now we have accepted that promotion should be given essentially for seat time. That is, if you have gone to school for the required number of days and have earned anything but an "F," you are promoted to the next grade. While that is painting with a very broad brush, it is not too far from the truth.

During those presentations, I also offered the following real world examples. How many of you reading this blog failed your driver's test the first time that you took it? Well, if you failed it the first time, clearly you are unable to drive now, right? Of course not! If you failed the first time, your instructor (hopefully) let you know the areas you needed to practice more. To earn your license, you practiced those areas more, and when you felt you were ready, went back to take your test again.

The other example I would often point to is taxes. If you fail to pay your taxes by April 15 each year, does the federal government give you a zero and wipe away what you owe? No. You are given a six month extension and you also have to pay a fine, in addition to your original taxes.

Our children deserve an education in which they are judged by more than just seat time and showing up. Our children deserve an education in which they receive specific feedback, in order to get better at what we are expecting them to do. Our children deserve an education in which there are few, if any, one-time high stakes assessments, that have a negative impact on their future.

As adults, we know it doesn't get more real than driving and paying your taxes. Our children should know that too.

Image courtesy of Pintrest

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Teaching and Learning for All Students

The Administrative Team of St. Johnsbury Schools established this as the focus for the 2018-2019 school year:

Teaching and Learning for All Students

It is powerful in its simplicity - in a world where there are so many mandates, unfunded initiatives, and demands on educational employees - this one sentence speaks volumes to the commitment that the faculty, staff, administration, and board are making to the students of this school district.

The key words for me in this sentence are "all students." Each and every student that arrives at St. Johnsbury School receives a focus on teaching and learning. Not test scores and attendance. Not homework completion and eye contact. Not behavior charts and grades. Teaching and learning. Teaching and learning for all students. Every single one.

This focus on all students reminded me of something beautiful I read in a book by Marian Wright Edelman, Guide My Feet. The following is adapted from Ina J. Hughes:

We embrace the children who sneak popsicles before supper, who erase holes in math worksheets, who can never find their shoes.

And we embrace those who can't bound down the street in a new pair of sneakers, who never "counted potatoes," who were born in places we wouldn't be caught dead, who never go to the circus.

We embrace the children who bring us stick kisses and fistfuls of dandelions, who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money.

And we embrace those who never get dessert, who have no safe blankets to drag behind them, who can't find any bread to steal, who don't have any rooms to clean up, who's pictures aren't on anybody's dresser, and whose monsters are real.

We embrace the children who spend all their allowance before Tuesday, who throw tantrums at the grocery store, who like ghost stories, who get visits from the tooth fairy, who don't like to be kissed in front of anyone, whose tears we sometimes laugh at and whose smiles can make us cry.

And we embrace those whose nightmares come in the daytime, who will eat anything, who have never seen a dentist, who aren't spoiled by anybody, who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep, who live and move, but have no being.

We embrace the children who want to be carried and those who must, those we never give up on and those who don't get a second chance, those we smother and those who will grab at the hand of anyone kind enough to offer it.

These are all the children of St. Johnsbury School District, where we are focused on teaching and learning for all students. Each of them. Every. Single. One.

Teaching and Learning for All Students

Drawn by Francoise & Odrielle, Burlington High School students


Sunday, September 23, 2018

Sharing Your Story

This past week, I was having lunch in the St. Johnsbury School. It was in between lunch periods and I was trying to figure out where to sit when the next groups of student arrived. While looking around the cafeteria, a table with one adult and four students waved me over. I accepted their invitation and joined them while they ate.

We exchanged names, and the conversation quickly moved as I asked them what's great about the St. Johnsbury School. It was a lively exchange and I was happy to meet and get to know more students. As the students got up to go to their next class, the adult leaned in to me and told me how meaningful last week's blog post was.

I thanked this adult and paused as the conversation went on. As it turns out, this individual lost a child in the middle of the night, and the medical thinking was that it was a febrile seizure - the same kind of seizure that our son Patrick had. With tears, this adult put a hand on my shoulder and told me that we saved my son's life that day by our quick action.

I was awed, humbled, and overwhelmed by what I had just been told. I have never had another person spontaneously share with me such tragic news, and clearly someone whom I had only recently met and been introduced to.

All I had done was share my own story but in doing so, I gave this individual permission to do the same. In doing so, I built a bridge to someone I had never met before last week. In doing so, there now exists a relationship where there once was none.

Who are you? Share your story.



Sunday, September 16, 2018

On First Responders

This past week was the seventeenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on our country. Having grown up just north of New York City in Mt. Vernon, NY, this was a particularly difficult day for me. The Twin Towers were a part of the landscape of my life in lower Manhattan. When I took the subway downtown, they always oriented me once I came up above ground. 

Despite living there for my first eighteen years, I personally knew no one who lost their life that day. My grandmother had an appointment in New York City that day and my parents were bringing her there when the awful events began. We were unable to connect until much later that morning but fortunately, my dad was able to turn around and get off the island of Manhattan before it was completely shut down. 

I've often thought about all the first responders who descended upon the World Trade Center that day, without regard for themselves, but who were only interested in saving someone else's life. And as I think more and more about them, I remember a day that has the distinction of being the scariest one in my life.  

It was a warm, muggy afternoon in the summer and our oldest son Patrick was running a fever. As we got to the latter part of the day, Patrick was acting a little more lethargic and slower than usual. My Wife and I didn’t think much of it as we were also feeling that the heat was impacting us as well. 

However, as the day went on, we became more and more worried about Patrick. He was having trouble verbally answering our questions and at one point, his eyes glazed over. My Wife called 911 and I just remember holding him, begging him to answer even the simplest of questions. 

Within minutes, members of the Williston Fire Department were in our house. They were asking questions about Patrick’s day and when we told them he was running a fever, all the first responders visibly relaxed. We were told he was probably having a febrile seizure and while it was serious, it ruled out other much more serious possibilities. While I was still petrified, seeing them relax after hearing he had a fever throughout the day, allowed me to relax a little as well. 

Fortunately, Patrick only had that one febrile seizure, an indication that they would not repeat again during his life. After a few days, we went to visit the Fire Department to thank them for their prompt response. While meeting with the folks who came to our house, one of them mentioned humbly, we were “just doing our job.”  That has stuck with me, “Just doing your job,” made a substantial difference in my family’s life. 

We owe a debt of gratitude for all the people who run into danger for the sake of others. It is a level of selflessness that rises above political party, race, creed, sexual orientation, or gender identity. It is something that reminds us of our humanity, that when something truly terrible has happened, none of those things matter. 

Thank you. 


Sunday, June 17, 2018

Some Final Thoughts

This past Friday we celebrated the graduation of the Montpelier High School Class of 2018. I offered them three "bite-sized" pieces of advice in their final hour as students.

1. Go for it.

2. Listen.

3. Be kind

Go For It
In the mid 1908's, I was a very young little league umpire, excited to umpire my first every playoff game, but dulled by the lack of action at third base. A line drive woke me from my boredom as it flew past me. Without knowing if it was fair or foul, I guessed fair. With no subsequent arguments, I considered it a good call. After the game, the home plate umpire complimented me on my call. Hoping for a quick end to the conversation, I said thank you. He followed up with, "You missed it, right? You were asleep at third base?" Yes... But I went for it and still umpire today.

Listen
In 2018, this is quickly becoming a lost art. We talk past each other on social media. We snark at one another on the internet. We do not see the impact of our words when we communicate via technology.

On February 1, 2018 we became the first high school in the United States to raise a Black Lives Matter flag, something that I was, and continue to be, humbled to have been a part of. When the Racial Justice Alliance approached me about this idea last spring, I was not thrilled about the idea. We had several thoughtful face-to-face conversations between this first meeting and when the flag was actually flown on our campus. As part of our continued commitment to further discussing implicit biases and white privilege in our community after the flag was raised, the RJA spoke at a Rotary meeting. When leaving that meeting Joelyn Mensah pulled me aside.
"Can I ask you a question," she said.
"Of course," I replied.
"What made you change your mind about the flag?" she asked.
"You did," I said.
"What do you mean?" Joelyn said to me.
"I mean you changed my mind. I was not convinced in the beginning. I had concerns. But you sincerely changed my mind, one conversation at a time."

As an adult, there is nothing more powerful than learning from your students. What a privilege it has been to be a part of Joelyn Mensah's MPS education.

Be Kind
Simple in concept - but terribly difficult in 2018. Consider this: a high school baseball game video went viral this week. A high school baseball game in Minnesota. In a beautiful moment that has been viewed by people around the world, we saw that childhood friendships trump celebrating a trip to the state championship. In this video we see an at bat in which the batter takes a called third strike, followed by a celebration on the field by the winning team. Instead of celebrating with his teammates, the pitcher runs in to the home plate area, brushes aside his own catcher coming toward him, and immediately hugs the batter that just struck out to end the game. The pitcher Ty Koehn and the batter Jack Kocon were on the same little league team and have been friends since they were 13, according to Minnesota Public Radio.

This is one of the most polarizing times in our history, as far as I can remember. The political climate both nationally and locally is one where we respond first, sometimes even with violence, and ask questions later. We are in the midst of a tumultuous, ever-changing world, facing many, many challenges. All the more reason I feel compelled to encourage us to be kind.

Go for it. Listen. Be kind.

In my humble opinion, good advice for graduates of 2018. Good advice for the faculty and staff in their lives. Good advice for human beings.






Sunday, June 10, 2018

My First Cavity

I'm going to preface this by saying, that it took me a long time to get my first cavity. Longer than most people I know...

I got my first cavity when I was in my mid twenties - I'm not exactly sure how old I was and so I can only guess based on the people around me at the time. I started dating My Wife in October of 2000, so it's been at least eighteen years ago.

I was living in Chicago, going to a dentist that I had not known for a long time. It was a routine six month check up and she paused while scraping one corner of one of my teeth. I had no idea anything was amiss until the end of the appointment when she said, "You'll need to come back to get that filled." When I looked as perplexed as I felt, the dentist said, "The cavity... you'll need to come back to get that filled."

I made the appointment and headed back to my apartment, where my then-girlfriend (now wife) greeted me and asked how it went. I dejectedly admitted that I had my first cavity.

At first, she tried to tell me it was no big deal. "Everyone gets them," she told me, "and it's no big deal to have it filled." It was a big deal to me and fortunately for me, after a few minutes and no change in the expression on my face, she saw that and understood. "But it is a big deal to you..."

How often as adults do we just expect our students to "get over something"? It's nearing the end of the period, we need to move on, it's time for lunch, we need to pack up, the art teacher is waiting... The reasons are perfectly valid and still our students just don't get it.

"This is really simple," I remember saying to one of my first classes ever in Chicago. I went through the entire explanation and looked out at the room to see blank stares and listened to crickets... It was really simple - to me. 

In these last days of the school year, there will be many, many emotions, ranging from excitement and anticipation to fear and anxiety. Allow our students to feel them all and be present to them and to each other. Even if those emotions and feelings are not ours, honor them the way we would want our own emotions and feelings to be honored.


Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Kindness of Strangers

I was driving on State Street in Montpelier, stopping dutifully at the stoplights, stop signs, and cautiously proceeding through crosswalks. I turned onto Main Street and headed toward City Hall. At the firehouse crosswalk, I slowed down as I approached the crosswalk. There was a woman crossing the street, who waved me through the crosswalk. While continuing to drive on Main Street, I looked in the rear view mirror and saw blue flashing lights. I put on my right blinker and pulled over to the right thinking the police car would pass me on the left. Instead, the cruiser pulled in behind me and stopped.

I had a pit in my stomach - I had no idea what I did wrong and I cannot remember the last time I was pulled over when driving.

I produced my license, registration, and insurance paperwork after the officer approached my car. "I saw that you had an interaction with that woman in the crosswalk but you failed to yield to a pedestrian," he told me. I nodded slowly, unsure of what I should have done differently.

After a few moments, I saw the officer climb out of his car again. When he returned to my vehicle, he handed me all my documentation. "I'm going to save you four points on your license and $220..." (I think - I'm sure of the points) Quickly and sincerely I responded, "Thank you Officer." He went on to explain further, "We had an accident earlier this month and we are really trying to be sure that pedestrians are given the right of way."

He returned to his car, turned off his blue lights and drove away. I don't know why I only got a warning. To this day, I'm still not sure. When I returned to my office, I looked up how many points you're allowed on your license in Vermont (10), and sat back in my chair and reflected on this entire interaction.

I was the beneficiary of the kindness of a stranger. One in a position of power, one who had no reason to not give me a ticket, with the accompanying fine and points. I don't even know the Officer's name, nor his badge number. I just know that he had power he could have exerted over me in that situation and he chose not to. Just because we can do something, does not always mean that we should do it.

Pay kindness forward this week - our world could certainly use it.




Monday, May 28, 2018

We Must Have the Hard Conversations

As a part of my classroom visits this week, I walked into a high school English classroom. I had not yet visited this teacher, and was interested to see what was happening in her course.

I left humbled and inspired and determined to return to the next class meeting. Why? This class was discussing the "n" word, through the lens of To Kill a Mockingbird.

On Thursday, February 1, 2018, we became the first high school in the United States (that we know of) to fly a Black Lives Matter flag on campus. It was a day full of emotion. The weeks leading up to this event and after it were littered with hate and vitriol, both for our students and for the Leadership Team.  Yet overwhelmingly, the messages we got were ones of love and admiration.

A substantial part of the work done at the high school around this momentous occasion, was the commitment to carry the labor of equity and justice forward. We promised that this would not be a one-off, a single moment in time. We know that events, no matter how substantive and unique, are just that: events.

The real work happens when no one is looking. The real work happens in conversations. The real work happens in relationships. The real work is in being uncomfortable. The real work means being open to being wrong. The real work is in the humility that we do not have all the answers.

I saw the real work this week. I saw students and teacher grappling with hard truths, with harsh words, with the reality of fractured race relations in our world. I listened to human beings genuinely struggle with how to respond to the "n" word in literature, whether or not it should be replaced with "slave," and the implications of both replacing it and leaving it in.

I felt it. I felt the discomfort of our shameful history. I felt the pit in my stomach. I felt the guilt of my white skin.

But I was buoyed by the hope that filled me as I left the classroom both days. There is hope every time we have the courage to address this. There is hope every time one speaks up about injustice. There is hope with every hard conversation we initiate and participate in.

We must have the hard conversations.

If we don't... Who will?


Sunday, May 20, 2018

We Just Know...

While listening to a podcast this week, I heard a story about Bill Bradley. Bradley is the former New Jersey senator (1979 - 1997), who earned a Gold Medal in 1964, and prior to that was a professional basketball player. As the story is told by John McPhee in a New Yorker article, later turned into a book, Bradley was practicing shooting on a basket at a prep school. While doing so, he announced that the basket was an inch and a half lower than the regulation 10 feet. Bradley was off by three-eighths of an inch...

Just by taking some practice shots, Bill Bradley knew there was something off about that basket. He did not need to get a ladder and a tape measure. And while his assessment was not 100% accurate (although pretty darn close), nonetheless he was correct: something was not right with that basket.

Because of how deeply personal almost every element of teaching and education is, we depend on our knowledge of our students and their families in order to be even remotely successful. We can have all the content knowledge available to us (and to our students these days through the power of the internet) but if we cannot make connections to their lives, to what they're going through, to who they are, we simply will not be successful.

And as a result of these relationships, we know our students and what makes them tick. We understand them and instinctively know when something is not right. Perhaps it's a failure to make eye contact, not the typical upbeat response to the first verbal interaction, or simply a gut feeling that something is not right.

In that moment, we do not need a coordinated service plan, we do not need an assessment from a mental health practitioner, nor a note from a doctor. In that moment we just know...

And it is what we do next that matters.






Sunday, May 13, 2018

Two Powerful Words

I'm sorry.

Two powerful words.

Two incredibly powerful words.

This week the phone rang in our home. It was our landline. Yes we still have a landline.

My Wife answered the phone and stepped out of the room. I heard none of the conversation. When she came back into the room, she was beaming. "I just got an unsolicited apology."

We had been dealing with a situation with some friends - from our perspective it was a misunderstanding from an e-mail we had received. Our instinct was to respond to it right away and instead, we let it sit for a couple of days. We were still not sure about how best to respond when the phone rang that night.  As it turned out, it was best that we had not responded.

It took a great deal of humility and integrity to call and say those words. No "but" accompanied the apology. An unsolicited apology heals.

I'm absolutely inspired by this and hoping to share at least one unsolicited apology this week with someone who deserves it.

Who in your life needs an unsolicited apology?

It's always about #relationships.


Sunday, May 6, 2018

This is What We Were Trained to Do

One of the things I am passionate about besides education is aviation. I remember taking my first flight when I was four or five years old, and at that time, you were able to visit the cockpit in flight. I was hooked! For awhile, I thought about being a pilot but when I realized the schedule was incredibly demanding and required days away from family, I knew it would not be for me. I even have several hours of practice on a single-engine aircraft, with some of those hours coming at the Burlington International Airport. 

I still follow aviation closely. Recently a Southwest flight needed to make an emergency landing after an engine failure damaged the fuselage of the plane. Tragically, one person lost their life during this accident. What I was struck by was how calm the pilot (Tammie Jo Shults) and co-pilot (Darren Ellisor) were during the entire event. Listen to their communication with the air traffic controllers who helped to guide the plane down safely to the Philadelphia International Airport. 

It made me think of an even more heroic event in recent aviation history, dubbed "The Miracle on the Hudson," that was even made into major motion picture Sully. In this instance, a bird strike caused both engines to fail shortly after take off. Listening to the communication between now famous Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and air traffic control, again I am awed by the incredibly calm and professional nature of the interaction, despite the even higher demands of the pilot. 

Both pilots when interviewed following the events stated: This is what we were trained to do. Having only minimal training as a pilot (with a professional on my right), I cannot even comprehend how they all were able to do what they did - and communicate as if everything that was happening was perfectly routine. I've listened to plenty of communication between air traffic controllers and pilots and those two examples above relatively normal, except for the dire circumstances that both flights were facing. 

I have often wondered why the professional nature of educations is overlooked from time to time. Is it because nearly everyone has gone to school for portions of their life? I don't think so - that logic fails when you consider that we all go to the doctor and to the dentist, and we don't presume that we can perform those skills. Is it because we are working with children? Again, I don't think so as their are plenty of specialized fields that deal with children that don't have their profession questioned.

Day after day, professional educators and leaders work to engage an increasingly diverse student body, provide them with a full range of access to materials as a part of that engagement, and design ways to assess their learning. More often than not, this happens routinely and does not receive substantial consideration. From time to time though, we do have our own moments of scrutiny and attention.

Education is what we were trained to do. 99 times out of 100 we do it well. For the times we don't, please know we are harder on ourselves than anyone else. I am in no way comparing what we do in the classrooms, to landing a crippled airplane. That said, I would not want to be in the cockpit of an airplane experiencing an emergency any more than Tammie Jo Shults would want to be in a classroom of twenty-four first graders.

This is what we were trained to do.



Sunday, April 8, 2018

Say What You Need to Say

After sharing the news that the Board and I have decided it is in the best interest of the new school district to have new leadership, I have been flooded with kind words from people, both in person and via technology. I have been incredibly touched by the things that people have said to me in the past week, things I have had absolutely no idea about until now. It has been both humbling and incredibly gratifying at the same time.

A couple of weeks ago, a former colleague of mine passed away. I was able to go to his wake and found myself interacting with a number of former colleagues and former students. There I found myself saying things I had never said to people before, colleagues and students, even as I was working and interacting with them on a daily basis.

Perhaps it is human nature that transitions bring out a sense of reflection in all of us. In the interactions I've had with people in Montpelier Public Schools since the joint announcement from the Board and me, I'm sure I've said things to people in gratitude for their years of service and commitment to students and their families. Maybe it's just natural to wait to say things that we're thinking about. 

Mitch Albom, noted author (Tuesdays with Morrie), journalist, and philanthropist is quoted as saying, "Nothing haunts us like the things we don't say." Might I suggest that we think about that this week and find someone in our life, professionally or personally, that we have something to say to. Perhaps it's a student, a colleague, a spouse or a friend. Whomever it is, I am sure what you have to say will be meaningful to them. And I suspect it will be a special moment for you as well.

Education is a human endeavor. That's why we choose to make the time for our relationships.


Sunday, April 1, 2018

Is It Really About Time?

I was in between dropping one of my children at school and having to return for an Open House for the other one. There was a small window of time and I was hoping to get a cup of coffee. Using the Starbucks app, I ordered my drink ahead of time and it was waiting for me when I arrived. I added cream and splenda and I was off.

It wasn't until I got back in my car that I realized I had not interacted with a single human being while I did that. From ordering the drink on my phone, to showing up to Starbucks, to getting my drink off the counter (confirming my name), to adding cream, to adding splenda, and back to my car. Not one word was spoken to anyone. Not. One. Word.

And there are times and places that works. I'm writing this blog post alone, focused, and without interruption. I often do my best writing alone, with quiet piano music playing. I like the George Winston station on Pandora to keep me company while I do my work.

So why did I choose to order that way? I wasn't entirely sure. Was it really about time? I did have a few more minutes when I got back to the school, I arrived a few minutes early. I could have stood in line (it was relatively short) and spoken to a human being when I ordered.

Was it the novelty of ordering using my phone and the Starbucks app? Maybe - I don't often drink Starbucks as I prefer Green Mountain Coffee. Honestly, it's pretty cool to tap your phone a few times and have a drink appear when you walk into a store...

I know I'm guilty of being too "into" my phone and my technology from time to time. I've caught myself not knowing what to do when I'm standing a line and don't have my phone with me. Those are not my proudest moments!

Technology has brought us many advances and certainly has opened up a world of possibilities in education that were not available even a few short years ago. But the critical nature of education comes in the relationships we build, nurture, and maintain. It's the only way that we can move our students and each other forward.

And more than anything else, relationships take time. It really is about time.


Sunday, March 25, 2018

Even The Adults Sometimes Get It Wrong

I was at our elementary school a couple of weeks ago, and a student approached me.

"Dr. Ricca," he said, pulling on my pants. "Can I ask you a question?

"Of course," I responded.

"Are we going to have Community Connections today?"

You see, the day before was Wednesday, March 7. Since the previous Saturday, I had been getting weather updates from the meteorologists at the Burlington International Airport, twice a day. The updates were warning of a major Nor'easter heading our way. The timing predicted was not even remotely close to ideal, with the latest update on Tuesday night indicating a really challenging dismissal, starting with snowfall in the early afternoon.

Therefore, when the snow started to fall at 10:00 A.M. on Wednesday, March 7, three hours earlier than predicted, I immediately cancelled all after school activities, sporting events, and the Board meetings. I know an early notification for parents is incredibly helpful, as I recognize that a lack of scheduled child care is a major inconvenience for folks that depend on that.

I leaned down to my Little Friend, looked him right in the eye and said, "Wow, that was a bad decision that I made yesterday, wasn't it?"

He looked me right back in the eye and said brightly, "Yeah it sure was! I love going to Community Connections!"

When I was growing up, I had this sense that adults always had the answers, because in a sense, that's how it was presented to me. Teachers were the keepers of the content and if there wasn't a family friend or an acquaintance that was interested in something that I was passionate about, and if it wasn't in the World Book Encyclopedias in my parents' living room, I was out of luck.

These days, teachers are no longer the keepers of the content and we are working on more than just identifying when the War of 1812 took place. We emphasize transferrable skills, formative evaluations, and the importance of relationships. A huge part of being in a relationship is being able to admit when you're wrong.

Don't worry, I get a chance to do that plenty - as a Husband, as a Daddy, and as a Superintendent. I hope you do too.