Practice makes perfect

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

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

"We know," Clara said.

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

Clara and Charlie sighed simultaneously.  

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

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

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

Teaching is full of unexpected surprises

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

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

It was surreal. 

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

Being a teacher is full of surprises. 

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

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

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

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

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

A fitting end to a new beginning

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

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

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

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

He is also Clara's godfather.

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

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

He is also Charlie's godfather.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The very last bit of summer.

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

Maybe I'll even find a new golfing partner.

The ineffectiveness of signage

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

Signs only work on people who obey signs.

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

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

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

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

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

Human intervention was required.

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

But not always.

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

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

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

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

"No," the woman said, looking befuddled.

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

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

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

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

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

My list of writing projects currently includes:

  1. A novel under contract

  2. A nonfiction book under contract

  3. A middle grade novel under contract

  4. A piece for Parents magazine

  5. A piece for Seasons magazine

  6. A picture book

  7. A letter to my father

  8. A daily blog post

  9. A screenplay

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

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

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

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

"That's crazy," I said. 

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

"Me, too," said another.

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

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

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

There's nothing wrong with deadlines.

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

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

I've said it before:

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm expecting a lot of phone calls.

Thinking is a part of the writing process, damn it

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

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

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

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

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

"Yeah."

"And how did that go?" I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This makes me crazy.

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

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

Here is the real problem: 

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

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

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

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

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

See the insanity?

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

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

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

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

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

Reputation matters even more when the world is small.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boys in skirts

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

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

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

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

Then this happened. It's it fantastic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My reasons are many.

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

I could go on and on. 

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

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

Until now. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop complimenting students

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

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

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

Complimenting an item of clothing is the lowest form of compliment

Dumb school officials make dumb decision

I can't stand stupidity. This is stupidity.

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

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

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

So stupid. 

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

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

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

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

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

Stupid. 

Last Man Standing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shameful Betsy DeVos can't say what most human beings can say with ease

Here is the Secretary of Education for the United States of America, the caretaker of our public schools, the protector of our children's future, and also a person who has never taught in a school, never worked in a public school, and never sent her children to a public school, trying her hardest to avoid saying that children in her charter school program won't be discriminated based upon race or LGBTQ status.

It's remarkable. She is asked, rather simply, if discrimination will be forbidden in these schools based upon religion and LGBTQ status, and she refuses to say it.

It's shameful and disgusting. 

No one who works in education should have this much difficulty standing against the discrimination of children for any reason. No educator who I have ever known would struggle with this question like Betsy DeVos does. 

Then again, she is not an educator. She doesn't understand education. She knows nothing about the American public school student. She is literally the child of one billionaire and the wife of another. A wealthy, white woman who was sent to elite private schools for her entire life and never had to fear for her future. She has never known want or need or hunger.

And now she is the steward of our public schools. Teachers and children are depending upon her for their support, and she can't say, "No child will be discriminated against in these charter schools, for race, religion, LGBTQ status, or any other reason." 

I don't like teachers who act like jerks

Q. My third grade son recently came home in tears saying he didn’t want to go to school anymore because he was punished for talking during silent reading. The teacher kept him in from recess. I think this is horrible. It isn’t a teacher’s job to destroy a child’s love for school. Instead of constant punishment for every little infraction, what about using positive reinforcement?

I was asked by a friend to offer an answer to this question. I have a few thoughts:

1. A good teacher will acknowledge and honor the feelings of the parent in this case. As a parent myself, I would also be saddened and concerned if my child came home from school in tears declaring he didn't want to school anymore. This is not something that we should want for any child, and I would likely be just as upset as this parent.

2. We must also acknowledge that this was not the teacher's desired outcome. To think otherwise makes no sense. So yes, the parent is correct when she says that it isn't a teacher's job to destroy a child's love for school, but the teacher knows this already. It wasn't her intention. Assuming otherwise is an emotional response and not useful to solving this problem.

Stating the obvious is never a reasonable argument. 

We must also acknowledge that children say things during emotionally charged moments that they don't necessarily mean, and they often cry in response to varying levels of disappointment. This child's declaration that he doesn't want to return to school is a common refrain made by many kids over the course of their academic career. The child may believe this in the moment but will not feel this way in the long run. When a child says, "I hate you!" to a parent, we know that this is likely a statement made in anger with no real meaning. A similar dynamic may be playing out here.

I taught third grade for ten years. A third grader's statements are not exactly measured and considered.  

3. The parent is also correct that "constant punishment for every little infraction" is not appropriate. But I have no evidence of that here. She is pointing to a single infraction and a single punishment. So I'm hesitant to assume how often infractions are being punished in this classroom.

4. The parent is also correct that positive reinforcement is also effective, but she also is not clear about the amount of positive reinforcement being used in the classroom. Am I to think that this teacher uses no positive reinforcement (which is very unlikely)? Or is the parent proposing that in this particular instance, positive reinforcement would have been more effective than a punishment? 

I can't tell. 

5. Parents must also acknowledge that children are not reliable witnesses to the actions taking place in a classroom. They lack objectivity, perspective, and the background knowledge needed to accurate report events and glean nuance. I used to work with a kindergarten teacher who would tell parents, "I'll only believe half of what they tell me about you if you agree to only believe half of what they tell you about me." The statement is made with some jest, but there is truth in those words, too. 

This is why open channels of communication between parents and teachers are essential. 

6. I always think that a phone call to a teacher is always better than a letter to some arbitrary expert. If a parent wants to affect immediate change for their child, a conversation with the teacher is the best route to take.    

As for the response made by Stallings to this question (and my own advice), here is what I think:

Positive reinforcement is an excellent way of promoting positive behavior, but Stallings' description of positive reinforcement as "little trinkets, tchotchkes, gewgaws, kickshaws, and surees" is either a misunderstanding or a mischaracterization of the many ways that positive reinforcement can operate.

Positive reinforcement - absent any extrinsic, physical rewards - is extremely effective when the teacher-student relationship is strong. When my students know that I love them and want nothing but the best for them, a positive word of encouragement can mean the world to them. When students want to please or impress their teacher, positive reinforcements in the form of verbal recognition for a job well done are incredibly powerful at any age.

But we all know this. When your spouse tells an audience that she is proud of you, or your best friend says that he respects the hell out of you, or a colleague tells you that your support has changed her life, these words stay with us forever. Similarly, when I tell a student that I am proud of they way she persisted through a math problem or impressed with the way he compromised with a classmate, those positive words increase the likelihood that those behaviors will be repeated again. 

This is what effective positive reinforcement looks like, but it begins with the teacher-student relationship. If a teacher has not taken the time to forge a bond with the child, positive reinforcement is decidedly less effective. 

This is not to say that there is no role for consequences. I am considered the master of consequences in many teaching circles, often finding punishments that are specific, appropriate, and astonishing to students. Teachers come to me looking for consequence suggestions. Recently a student who did not complete her homework was required to write a list of 50 complimentary statements about her sister (who she claims to despise) in cursive. This consequence accomplished several goals:

  • It forced the student to spend time that should have been spent on homework.
  • It re-established equity between the student and her classmates, who had taken the time to complete their assignment. 
  • It gave the student the opportunity to practice her cursive writing and grammar.
  • It demanded a certain level of creativity.
  • It hurt. She hated writing the list, though when she was done at the end of the week, she laughed with her friends about the list.
  • Her parents approved of the consequence. They thought it was both amusing and appropriately time consuming.

For this particular student, writing about the intelligence and beauty of her sister in cursive was an excellent consequence. 

For another student, taking away a recess might be appropriate. While I use this particular consequence extremely rarely, it can be highly effective in changing the behavior of specific students. 

Regardless of my consequence choice, it is always attached to a conversation about the rationale behind my decision and strategies for avoiding the situation in the future.

This doesn't mean that a student won't cry when assigned a consequence. When my daughter received her first "ticket" from a teacher in kindergarten, she had tears in her eyes when she presented it to us. While the tears broke my heart, she also knew exactly what she did wrong and how to correct it next time. 

The teacher had done his job well. Sometimes kids cry. Sometimes adults cry. It's a simple fact of life. I hugged her, kissed her, and we moved on.

What I didn't like about Stalling's response was the first few sentences of his answer:

He was in tears for having to miss recess? Ah, sweet innocence of youth. Let’s hope he never gets a really tough consequence. Or a boss. Or a job.

I don’t see what the teacher did as either horrible or tear-inducing. My advice would be to have a conversation with your third-grader on the topic of “coping skills.” Because if being kept out of recess has destroyed his love for school, I shudder to think what’s in store when he gets to algebra.

While his advice is solid if grossly incomplete (talk to the child about coping skills), the cavalier attitude toward an emotionally charged situation between a parent and a child serves no purpose here and fails to acknowledge the reality of childhood:

To an eight year-old child, the loss of a recess might be a really tough consequence. It might be the toughest consequence that this child has ever received. While it might still be an appropriate consequence (I don' know enough about the child's history to determine this), we can't simply dismiss the child's feelings as silly or inconsequential. "I shudder to think what's in store when he gets to algebra" is a lousy thing to say to a parent who is worried about her child and a lousy thing to think about a child who has just experienced something frightening and unprecedented, albeit perhaps deserved.

As a student, being sent to the principal's office was not a big deal for me. There were times when I looked forward to the verbal exchange that I was going to have with my principal.

But I know I had classmates who viewed a trip to the principal's office as the worst thing that could possible happen to them, and this was a perfectly valid feeling given their history and disposition.   

Human beings react to the same circumstances in wildly different ways depending on their previous experiences and a variety of other factors. To think that an eight year-old should have a stiff upper lip when faced with a punishment lacks empathy and decency.

I would tell the parent who asked this question to speak to the teacher. I would advise that she approach the conversation as a partner in the education of her child with the assumption that the teacher wants nothing but the best for her son. In 99% of the cases this will be true.

A less combative approach is the best way to proceed and will likely produce the best result possible. 

School lunch shaming needs to stop. Simple solution: Adults need to stop acting despicable.

As a kid who received free breakfast and lunch for his entire childhood, I am keenly aware of the stigma, embarrassment, and shame associated with not having enough money to feed yourself.

As a child, teachers took the daily lunch count by asking us to raise our hand if we were:

Buying hot lunch
Buying cold lunch
Getting free hot lunch
Getting free cold lunch

Just writing those words brings me right back to the shame and embarrassment that every morning held for me.  

Later on, when I was homeless as an adult, I never looked into the possibility of soup kitchens or other programs to feed the homeless for the very same reasons:

I'd rather be hungry than humiliated.

I had thought that the system of requiring kids to raise their hands to indicate their economic status was a thing of the past. I assumed that it was a careless, thoughtless process that teachers and other school officials eventually recognized as wrongheaded and insensitive.    

Then I read about the food shaming that is currently going on in schools around the country.

From the New York Times:

"In Alabama, a child short on funds was stamped on the arm with “I Need Lunch Money.” In some schools, children are forced to clean cafeteria tables in front of their peers to pay the debt. Other schools require cafeteria workers to take a child’s hot food and throw it in the trash if he doesn’t have the money to pay for it."

In other towns, children were made to wear a wrist band or perform chores in exchange for a meal. Oftentimes an alternative meal is provided when a child is short on funds, signaling their family's financial difficulties to the rest of the student body.

It's disgusting. Worse, these policies are being enacted by adults who have been trusted to teach and protect children. How can any adult with even a shred of decency do this to kids?

I suspect that the reasons are many.

Stupidity
Expediency
Callousness
The desire for profits (school cafeterias are often separate businesses run inside the school)  

But I suspect the most common reason for this food shaming is an absence of empathy. A failure to understand the stigma and shame associated with being poor. A lack of contact with people in a different socioeconomic class. 

Recently, I was debating a point with my cohost on our podcast, Boy vs. Girl, when she argued that my experiences with poverty (the removal of all parental support at the age of 18, my struggles with poverty and hunger, and my eventual homelessness) were not normal.  

I pushed back - perhaps not hard enough - on this idea. While hunger, homelessness, and poverty may be unusual experiences for people in the socioeconomic circles that I now occupy, these conditions are unusual at all for people in a lower socioeconomic classes. Food insecurity, lapses in adequate housing, and even homelessness are not uncommon. When I was poor, I knew many people who spent months and even years couch surfing, squatting, living in cars, living in tents, and trapped in the eviction cycle.

I had family members who were homeless for a time.

I think it's easy to forget about these people when we don't see them everyday. It's easy to underestimate their numbers when they don't occupy our social circles. It's especially easy to forget about them when they try like hell to disguise their poverty in an effort to preserve their dignity, as so many do.

As I did. 

48 million Americans - including 13 million children - live in households that lack the means to get enough nutritious food on a regular basis. As a result, they struggle with hunger at some time during the year. 

These people exist. They exist in large numbers. 

It's hard enough to be poor. It's terrible to be hungry as a child. The last thing these kids need is their school highlighting their poverty with these despicable, stupid, insensitive acts of cruelty.  

Adults should know better. 

Earlier this month, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez signed the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights, which directs schools to work with parents to pay their debts or sign up for federal meal assistance and puts an end to practices meant to embarrass children.

I was happy to see a state taking action against these terrible practices, but I was also saddened to learn that action was required. 

Even if you've never experienced poverty, and even if you don't know someone who is impoverished personally, it doesn't make much effort or imagination to understand how traumatic food shaming can be for a child. 

So use some effort and imagination, damn it. Stop embarrassing yourself and humanity. Don't be a despicable, disgusting adult.  

How Can You Help Students Cope With Getting College Rejection Letters?

Slate asks: How can you help students cope with getting college rejection letters?

The answer to this one is fairly simple, I think:

  • Remind them of how many young people can't afford to attend a college of any kind. 
  • Show them the statistics on the enormous number of young people growing up in impoverished, crime-riddled neighborhoods, living in foster care, or sleeping on the streets. 
  • Introduce them to a high school graduate who can't attend college because he or she is caring for a for a sick, disabled, or dying parent.
  • Bring them to a military recruiter's office and introduce them to young men and women who are joining the military after high school in hopes of making college more affordable when their commitment to the armed forces is complete.  
  • Take them on a road trip through the inner city of Detroit or Baltimore or Chicago. Show them what it's like not to have any options.
  • Turn on the nightly news and show them what it's like to be living in Syria. 
  • Remind them of how lucky they are to have the opportunity to attend any college. Yes, perhaps it won't be at their first or second or even third choice of school, but they're going to college, damn it. They have opportunities that so many young people in the United States and around the world could only dream of having. It's time to find gratitude and appreciation for their position in life. It's time for a little perspective, damn it.   
  • Explain to them the meaning of the phrase "first world problem." 

I hated this question. You might have noticed.  

I actually liked the answer offered by Bruce Epstein, technologist and college counselor. He didn't sugar-coat a thing. His response may have been more reasonable and measured than my own. 

But as a person who didn't have the option to attend college after high school - who made it to college four years later after getting himself off the streets and only then by working more than 50 hours a week while attending college full time - I find the plight of the rejection letter a little pathetic. The cry of the privileged who fail to appreciate their good fortune.

There's nothing wrong with being disappointed by a rejection letter. Frustration, sadness, or even anger are all understandable.

But when your child reaches the point that he or she requires coping strategies, I think a healthy dose of perspective is in order. 

Or perhaps Bruce Epstein's advice, if you want something less caustic. 

Say no to "more details."

Parents and teachers often tell students to "add more details" when commenting on student writing. 

It's one of the least helpful things that you can say to a writer. 

Have you ever finished a novel or essay or memoir and wished that the author had included "more details?"

Teachers and parents say this to students because so many of them are not writers and do not seriously engage in the writing process. As a result, they simply don't know what to say in the same way I could say nothing to a apprentice carpenter or a beginning skier.

If you don't engage in the craft, you will have little to say about the craft. 

So rather than talking about craft, parents and teachers see quantity as quality. They believe - with all their heart - that an argument that be effectively made in 250 words is automatically made more effective if written with 500 or 1,000 words. 

It makes me insane.  

To this end, young writers should remember this:

Don't seek quantity. Seek quality. Rather than waxing on for paragraphs about a person or place, find the two or three words or phrases that capture the essence of the person or place, and leave it at that.

The best writers don't choose the most words. They choose the right words.  

Before you criticize the Superintendent for a snow day decision, consider this.

One of the most criticized decision that any Superintendent can make is the decision to declare a snow day or a delay in the school day due to inclement weather. 

I have made it a policy to never criticize a Superintendent - as both a parent and a teacher - for these decisions for a number of reasons:

  1. I believe that every Superintendent is making what he or she believes to be the right call when it comes to inclement weather. No Superintendent in the world wants a child harmed on the way to school. In other words, these difficult decisions are made with the best possible intentions, which is all we can ask of leaders when making decisions involving enormous uncertainty. Complaining about the decision after the fact serves absolutely no purpose. Your complaints will not cause a Superintendent to make a better decision next time. He or she  are already trying to make the best possible decision every time already.    
     
  2. This is a decision involving the weather. Any decision regarding the weather is an incredibly difficult one to make. It's impossible to predict. Thinking that a school official knows what the weather conditions will be with any degree of certainty when the meteorologists are often uncertain is absurd.  
     
  3. Just as important as the actual road conditions are the sidewalks. Many children walk to school. The roads might look pristine, but if the sidewalks around the schools have not been cleared, a delay may need to be called. Too often people decide if a Superintendent has made a good decision based upon their own limited set of information.
     
  4. Superintendents know that for many students, the breakfast and lunch they eat at school are the best and most complete meals of their day. This was the case for me as a child. A snow day often means that children will go hungry that day. This weighs heavily on a Superintendent's mind when making the decision. Even a two hour delay will wipe out breakfast at most schools. 
     
  5. Snow days and and delays throw families into chaos. Childcare must often be found at the last minute. When it can't be found, children far too young to be left home alone often are. Adults arrive at work late and risk losing their jobs if it happens too often. All of this also weighs heavily on the mind of a Superintendent.   

None of this is to imply that safety should be first and foremost in the mind of a Superintendent when making the decision, but he or she must also bring all of these factors to bear when making the call. It's a much more complex decision than I think most people realize. 

Here are two more factors that are so often forgotten:

  1. Parents and colleagues will complain that the roads were unsafe on a given day and that a delay or cancellation was in order, yet when I check at the end of the day, all children across the district have arrived to school safely. No accidents or injuries whatsoever. If every child in the district has arrived to school safely, the right call was apparently made, regardless of how slippery you thought the roads were earlier in the day. 
     
  2. Teachers should never complain about their drive to school during inclement weather. Snow days and delays are not meant for the safety of adults. My friends who work as lawyers, custodians, IT professionals. doctors, cashiers, and cooks do not get snow days. My buddy who works at ESPN goes to work regardless of the weather. My friend who works as an attorney in Hartford doesn't get the morning off if the roads are slippery. When I worked in banking and in restaurants, I went to work regardless of road conditions. Teachers are professionals and have no business complaining about their drive to work. Snow days are not meant for them.

 I recently wrote a piece about the snow days of my youth in my humor column in Seasons magazine. You can check it out here on page 49.

Got kids? Here's how to turn them into writers.

As a teacher and a writer, I often give parents advice on helping their children to become effective writers who (more importantly) love to write.

My advice is simple:

Be the best audience possible for your child’s work. If he or she wants to read something to you, drop everything. Allow the chicken to burn in the frying pan. Allow the phone to ring off the hook. Give your child your full and complete attention. When a child reads something that they have written to someone who they love and respect, it is the most important thing happening in the world at that moment. Treat is as such.  

Don’t look at the piece. Don’t even touch the piece. Any comment made about the piece should never be about handwriting, spelling, punctuation, and the like. By never seeing the actual text, you innate, insatiable parental need to comment on these things will be properly stifled. Your child does not want to hear about your thoughts on punctuation or the neatness of their printing. No writer does. Your child has given birth to something from the heart and mind. Treat it with reverence. Speak about how it makes you feel. Rave about the ideas and images. Talk about the word choices that you loved. Compliment the title. Ask for more. Forget the rest.

Remember: Rough drafts are supposed to be rough. Even final drafts are not meant to be perfect. That’s why editors exist. Go online and look at the rough drafts of EB White’s Charlotte’s Web. They’re almost illegible. Who cares? Writing is messy.  

Once your child has finished reading the piece, offer three positive statements about the writing. Compliments. Nothing more. Only after you have said three positive things may you offer a suggestion. Maintain this 3:1 compliment/criticism ratio always. Use the word “could” instead of “should” when commenting.

If your child asks how to spell a word, spell it. Sending a child to the dictionary to find the spelling of a word is an act of cruelty and a surefire way to make writing less fun. You probably so this because it was the way that your parents and teachers treated you, but it didn’t help you one bit. It only turned writing into a chore. If you were to ask a colleague how to spell a word, you wouldn’t expect to be sent to the dictionary. That would be rude, The same holds true for your child.

Also, the dictionary was not designed for this purpose. It’s an alphabetical list of definitions and other information about words, but is wasn’t meant for spelling. Just watch a first grader look for the word “phone” in the F section of the dictionary and you will quickly realize how inefficient and pointless this process is.

When it comes to writing, the most important job for parents and teachers is to ensure that kids learn to love to write. If a child enjoys putting words on a page, even if those words are poorly spelled, slightly illegible, and not entirely comprehensible, that’s okay. The skills and strategies for effective writing will come in time, though direct instruction, lots of practice, and a little osmosis. The challenge – the mountain to climb – is getting a child to love writing. Make that your primary objective. Make that your only objective. Do everything you can to ensure that your child loves the writing process. Once you and your child achieve that summit, the rest will fall into place.

I promise.

Except for the handwriting. Sometimes there’s nothing we can do about that. Just be grateful that we live in a world where most of the writing is done on a computer.