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