The Forever Teacher

A regulation MLB baseball sits on my desk in a plexiglass cube. It is accompanied by a ticket stub from the game of its provinence – May 12, 2001 Reds vs. Astros, Cinergy Field, Aisle 105, Row 10, Seat 2.

I wasn’t at the game. I didn’t catch the ball, nor was it tossed to me by one of the players during batting practice.

The best of us realize the value of connectedness beyond the days when these young people are in our charge.

The ball has a signature on it. I don’t know how many times I’ve looked at it – Scooter Gennett #11. The S in Scooter is fashioned to look like a lightning bolt. The rest of the text is in the cursive of a young hand.

Scooter was 11 at the time. He’s 25 now and playing pro ball for the Milwaukee Brewers. When he handed me the cube at the end of my first year of teaching, he was just finishing 8th grade. The ball means something to me because it meant something to him and he handed it to me, I’ve always believed, to fill the space between us when our year as teacher and student ended and he headed off to his last four years before being a professional baseball player.

This ball has made 5 moves across as many states, and it lives near the box of things I’ll grab on my way out of the house in the event of a fire.

Scooter, or Ryan as I insisted on calling him, gives me the tremendous gift of knowing where he is and what he’s up to by way of being in the public spotlight.

This past weekend, I got to share a couple of meals with former students while I was in Philadelphia for ISTE. A recent education grad, an employee of the city, another college grad on his way to a pottery studio to make his art, a film-turned-communication major, and a neurobiology major who might want to be an engineer or a dentist.

We sat at these meals and I shared as briefly as possible what I’ve been up to since we’d last met. Then, I got to find out who they’d become in these newest versions of themselves. They are beautiful. They are tremendous. They give me hope for the People we will become – together.

I don’t know what it was like to teach students with whom I couldn’t connect after they’d left my classroom. I find it difficult to imagine a world where I don’t get to see status updates of their growings and mistakes, their discoveries and setbacks. Simply saying goodbye at the end of 180 days is a foreign idea.

I’d be able to find Ryan, sorry – Scooter – with a google search no matter what. To be able to shoot out a message when I’m coming to town and be able to sit down and hear about their lives first-hand, though, that is an affordance of the modern world.

What’s more, it speaks to the communities I hope schools will be. More than once, I’ve said to parting students, “Let me know what you need, and I’ll do my best to help you out. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been.” I’ve meant it every time.

Perhaps that’s a part of the new contract that’s written between teachers and students rather than districts and unions. The best of us realize the value of connectedness beyond the days when these young people are in our charge.

That’s a world I want to live in, and it’s what I want to model. I want my students to know I’ll be here. I want them to see that as a way of caring for those around them.

Yes, to those who read these words and worry about boundaries, perhaps this approach invites difficult conversations about what I can’t do to help students. It’s true. When I think about those students I’ve lost or the world has lost after I’m no longer their teacher, though, I’d much rather have the difficult conversation than grieve a life that might have been.

Much is made of the importance of lifelong learners. This weekend, and this baseball sitting on my desk, make me wonder if we’re not missing a chance to think about lifelong teachers.

#WorthReading: What I saw in ‘The Bluest Eye’

I don’t take as much time as I’d like to read. When I do, it is helpful for me to know someone I know thinks the book I’m about to open was worth their time. This summer, I’ll be posting each Tuesday about a book I’ve read recently that is #WorthReading over your summer. 

I’m midway through my first reading of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. This revelation usually garners a response of “Really?” or “What?” or some derivation thereof. I’ll give you a moment to shame me for my cultural incompetence before moving on to one of the effects this book is having on me.

For anyone who’s read the book, you know there’s a scene where the character Pecola enters the house of a boy she meets for the first time on a playground. Morrison alerts her reader to the fact that whatever is about to happen in this scene will be unpleasant.

If you, like me, have never read Bluest Eye, I won’t go into detail about what happens. That’s not what prompts this writing. Instead, this post is inspired by what didn’t happen and what I was sure I was about to read.

Pecola is not raped in this scene.

I’m struggling with the fact I was mentally prepared for that to be the outcome. As Morrison described the boy with whom Pecola is interacting and their brief conversations, I was sure she was giving me the literary equivalent of a trigger warning.

What transpires between the two is nowhere near kindness. The events elicited deep sadness.

Having some time to digest it, though, the thing that hurts my heart the most is my ready assumption that I should be steeling myself against sexual violence. I have turned this thought over since the reading, trying to understand why I assumed that the bad thing that was about to happen to this character would be the worst thing I could imagine.

It’s likely the intersection of several factors.

The last book I finished was Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. If you’ve seen or read any Flynn, you know she writes for the jugular. Any character, sympathetic or not, is going to be put through hell. It’s possible that Dark Places primed my brain for this “kill and torture your darlings” philosophy as the default for whatever Morrison or any other fiction writer had in store.

This is possible, and I worry that Flynn doesn’t actually bear the weight of my expectations.

I worry that it’s a million threads weaving together that led me to expect that this young, female, African American, impoverished character who is described as “ugly” several times leading up to the exchange will be raped.

And I worry I thought this as I yelled at her to “Turn around!” when she and this boy started talking in the book. And I worry that I thought this when he closed the door as they entered his house and my eyes started to well with tears.

Mostly, though, I worry what it implies that the actual events that transpired in this scene still led me to think, “I’m so glad he did not rape her.”

Do you get this? Because it’s been heavy on me since the reading.

The absence of rape with the presence of other embarrassments I wouldn’t wish on any other person was a relief.

Race, class, gender, power, prescribed concepts of beauty – this is how some part of my brain has come to expect them to intersect when presented as Morrison presents them here.

I cannot explain how deeply it hurts to realize this is what I was assuming would happen.
It is the same feeling I have when I assume a queer character in a mainstream fiction will either be coming out or be emotionally and/or physically abused for being different.

It’s also where I find hope in the world outside literature. In the same way I know the LGBTQ experience is fuller, richer than the coming out process or the events of Boys Don’t Cry, I know that all of the cultural identifiers Pecola carries with her do not mean the hurt and torment visited upon her are certain in the real world as they are each time someone discovers The Bluest Eye.

Perhaps thats why I turn to literature. In it I can see what is possible if I work to make the world a more perfect reflection of what I hope to be possible and a portent of things I must work against in case our demons overpower the angels of our better natures.

Asking Who I Want to Be


A few weeks ago. An email from a friend, “I just took this job, and I got an offer for this other job. What should I do?”

My response, “Who do you want to be in this situation?”

End of conversation.

That was the guidance necessary, not an answer, but a question to which I did not know the answer.

This is often the case.

At SLA, Chris will often say his hopes for the students are that they will leave the school thoughtful, wise, passionate, and kind.

I want those things too, but it’s not my answer. My answer with anyone is that I hope I can in some way help them on their way to being the better version of themselves.

It’s my answer for myself too.

Today, in a conversation at work, I found myself faced with a colleague whose approach was to point out the problems we were facing and then stare at me. The eyes I saw across the table said, “Problems everywhere. Probably more problems on the horizon. Might as well pack it in.”

If you’ve spent any time with me, it’s clear I’m not keen on dwelling for long on the difficulties problems present. Sitting across the table, I could feel the little stress ball starting somewhere between my stomach and my chest.

In that moment, I asked myself, “Who do I want to be right now?” The act of asking moved me from loudly inquiring, “How did you let these problems happen in the first place?” and moved me to, “What are do you suggest we do next?”

To be sure, I was still frustrated. I still am. The difference was asking who I wanted to be when I found myself sitting in frustration. In the second it took me to think of my answer, I was able to change tack. As I’m recounting this story here, I realize I’m closer to proud of that version of me than I would have been if I’d let loose what I was feeling in the moment.

It’s a question I’ve had to ask myself quite a bit in the last week as I’ve watched the aftermath of Charleston, people’s response to today’s health insurance decision, and either way the gavel falls on marriage equity in the next few days.

“Who am I?” is important.

“Who do I want to be?” is equally so.

Words of Hope from the Past

The probability that we may fall in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just; it shall not deter me. If ever I feel the soul within me elevate and expand to those dimensions not wholly unworthy of its almighty Architect, it is when I contemplate the cause of my country deserted by all the world beside, and I standing up boldly and alone, and hurling defiance at her victorious oppressors. Here, without contemplating consequences, before high heaven and in the face of the world, I swear eternal fidelity to the just cause, as I deem it, of the land of my life, my liberty, and my love, And who that thinks with me will not fearlessly adopt the oath that I take? Let none falter who thinks he is right, and we may succeed. But if, after all, we shall fail, bit it so. We still shall have the proud consolation of saying to our consciences, and to the departed share of our country’s freedom, that the cause approved of our judgement, and adored of our hearts, in disaster, in chains, in torture, in death, we never faltered in defending.

– Abraham Lincoln, December, 1839

I’ve been reading Vol. 1 of The Works of Abraham Lincoln (1903) and happened upon the above passage from a speech Lincoln delivered on the floor of the Illinois Legislature long before the events that defined his memory had begun. As the pool of political contenders deepens, I can’t help but try to imagine these words (or at least this sentiment) coming from their mouths.

#WorthReading: Claudia Rankine’s _Citizen_

I don’t take as much time as I’d like to read. When I do, it is helpful for me to know someone I know thinks the book I’m about to open was worth their time. This summer, I’ll be posting each Tuesday about a book I’ve read recently that is #WorthReading over your summer.

Cover of Claudia Rankine's

I do not remember where I first read about Claudia Rankine’s prose/poetry, National Book Award finalist Citizen. What I remember is that the online article said, “Read this book now. That is all you need to know. It is worth your reading. I don’t need to tell you about the book because it is that good.”

Dutifully, I ordered my copy and dropped it on the pile of to-read books. In January, as I was on my way out the door for the train ride to Philly for EduCon, I picked up the book, figuring, “It’s not that big. Perfect for a train.”

I was wrong in two ways.

1. Rankine’s book is big. The blend of poetry and prose packs more subtext about racial identity, race, perspective and resilience in the face of the marginalization of institutional racism. I read as I always do, with a pen in my hand. By the end of the train ride, I’d made only two marks in the margins. There was too much I wanted to capture. Rankine, in the stories she tells, has done the underlining for her reader by deciding those stories were worth including in the book.

2. It is perfect/imperfect for a train. Riding alone, I was constantly looking up, toward strangers and evaluating whether I could break the divide between us with, “I need you to read this because it is my responsibility now to pass it on.”

And that’s a large piece of why Citizen is #WorthReading. It is an American Lyric as advertised, and it is a lyric worth repeating, worth spreading, worth returning to as a reminder of stories too often muted and voices too often left out.

How Can We Help Right Now?

You may remember November and December. The year doesn’t matter, because the story is the same, no matter the year. Giving.

The winter holiday season rolls around and we start to remember “’tis better to give than to receive.” And, that is good.

Perhaps, though, we could think about giving right now?

Below are three possibilities for charitable giving that insure as direct a line to those in need as I can fathom other than walking around your neighborhood handing out donations.

A $25 donation for any of these orgs can make an amazing difference locally or around the world.

Kiva – Founded 10 years ago, this micro-lending organization allows contributors to search and select which efforts around the world they would like to fund. Over the life of your loans, you receive updates on the status of the projects you’ve funded. When the money is returned, you can withdraw it from Kiva or do what I do and put it back to work on another worthy project.

DonorsChoose – Oprah and Stephen Colbert love this educational granting site. You can search for teacher’s grant proposals by location, grade level, discipline and a number of other factors. While I wish this org didn’t need to exist, I can speak from personal experience that it can make a direct impact on classroom supplies.

HandUp – Somewhere between Kiva and DonorsChoose, HandUp helps connect donors with those in need to fund needed purchases. Funds are distributed to HandUp’s partner organizations. Those partners then help connect the applicants to their funds. While only serving the SF Bay area, Oregon, and Detroit, it turned out I don’t care where people are, so long as they are being helped.

#CharlestonShooting: Maybe it’s Time for You to Stop Talking

The victims

The nine people fatally shot at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church:

Clementa Pinckney, 41, the primary pastor who also served as a state senator.

Cynthia Hurd, 54, St. Andrews regional branch manager for the Charleston County Public Library system.

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, a church pastor, speech therapist and coach of the girls’ track and field team at Goose Creek High School.

Tywanza Sanders, 26, who had a degree in business administration from Allen University, where Pinckney also attended.

Ethel Lance, 70, a retired Gailliard Center employee who has worked recently as a church janitor.

Susie Jackson, 87, Lance’s cousin who was a longtime church member.

DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, a retired director of the local Community Development Block Grant Program who joined the church in March as a pastor.

Myra Thompson, 59, a pastor at the church.

Daniel Simmons Sr., 74, a pastor, who died in a hospital operating room.

Remember when those who symbolically shut down the Internet when they threatened to filter what we could pirate online did nothing when someone else threatened who could feel safe in a church?
That was today.
Today I saw a social media feed that included my friends, former students, and colleagues of color posting under #CharlestonShooting about institutional racism. They were using social media to elevate and amplify attention to the problem. They were filling virtual spaces with physical anger, outrage, pain, and need for justice at what had happened in the real world.
By and large, my white friends and colleagues were not.
They were tweeting about pro-tips. They were posting about #ISTE15. They were writing about #edtech. They were enjoying the unbearable being of whiteness.
I was too to some extent. As much as a empathize with my black and brown friends in these too-frequent moments of horror, I cannot sympathize.
I am statistically safer when a police car passes me as I walk in my neighborhood at night. My educational attainment was all but locked up when I was born. And now, I will enter churches with less fear.
These things hurt my heart. I thought the terrorism was why I was feeling angry as the unaware posts scrolled by today. It’s part of it, but it isn’t all of it.
I am angry because I have heard, read, and seen many of these people talk about how #edtech, #connectivity, #techquity can do things like “level the playing field” in education. This is one of those opportunities they’re talking about, and they aren’t doing a damned thing in these public spaces that have afforded them some levels of success, power, or prestige.
Chris, who wrote here, theorized that the people I’m feeling disappointed in don’t know how to speak about these events in public.
This makes sense. Rarely will I engage in arguments and disagreements on social spaces. Public spaces don’t feel like spaces where I am safe to be vulnerable about issues that matter deeply to me personally. Those are conversations I need to have 1:1 with as many words or characters as it takes.
When it comes to truths, though, when it is about institutionalized racism, privilege, power, and class; those are statements of fact which I have no difficulty sharing.
And that’s what I’d like to see happening with my white friends who have been silent today because they are not in a place where putting their name to these truths feels safe. I’d like to see them finding the words of those who don’t have access to the same networks of friends and followers. Then, I’d like to see them sharing, liking, retweeting, reposting, re-whatevering those voices that are easily and dangerously unheard.
I’d like to see them decide to use the #edtech hashtag tomorrow for posting messages of actual equality and justice made possible by the same devices and connectivity they have touted as game changers and field levelers in keynotes and workshops.
They can start by looking at this twitter list of people of color in edtech compiled by Rafranz Davis and this list of my fellow members of educolor from Christina Torres and then follow all of them without reservation to bring some sense of equity to their rolls.
And in the long term, when they talk about technology and equity, they can ask educators to make their first posts about something of substance toward justice like the Voting Rights Act or how nine people were murdered as they sat in a place of peace and prayed.
Technology can be a game changer. It can level playing fields. It will not do it left to its own devices, and it will almost certainly contribute to shoring up online divides that mimic those of the physical world and allow for hate to hide.
If you are talking about #techquity and not willing to do anything for true #equity, there’s very little you have to say I care to hear.

Passing the test of knowing how to talk to kids

Marcie Hull said something toward the beginning of our friendship that told me we would get along well.

When pointing to a couple at a restaurant during one of our first meals together, Marcie said, “He knows how to talk to kids.”

The he of the mixed-sex pair, was presumably the father of the 6 or 7 year old girl sitting between them.

I paused for a moment to eavesdrop on the conversation going on at the other table before asking Marcie what she meant.

I heard the man talking to the child in a voice that was warm, engaged, and likely very similar to the same voice he would use with the woman sitting with him or to a server that happened by.

I asked Marcie if what I was inferring had captured her meaning, and she said it had.

Since that conversation, this has become one of the litmus tests I use the first time I meet adults who work with children. Right or wrong, it is my brain deciphering how much those adults believe children are capable of.

The tone we reserve for babies and pets does not urge children to respond with aspiration.

It is a tone not of equals, but of esteem. Often, adults to who use this tone or register with children are also willing to have conversations with children to help them work through whatever they may misunderstand or question about a situation.

In his book How Children Learn, John Holt brings up this point again and again when describing encounters with children intent upon learning something. A child proffers a question and Holt proffers an answer in a tone he might also offer a colleague of similar age and experience.

His words (and the words I’ve seen Marcie use time and again when helping children work through difficult problems) are perhaps more intricate. They contain fewer assumptions of the shared language of mastery that can build up over time.

This is the tone we should use with our students, those who show up to learn alongside us each day.

They are, as Dewey implied, more immature in their learning, but not in their curiosity about the world.

The tone we reserve for babies and pets does not urge children to respond with aspiration.

I should make the distinction here between tone and content.

There are some who agree with what I’ve written so far with whom I deeply disagree. These are the people who talk to kids in the tone I’m describing, but bring that tone to bear encumbered by the expectations of adulthood. These adults forget the tempest of emotions they likely experienced during their youth and the vulnerability that comes with learning something new or complex like engineering or fitting in to new social situations. They forget they are the adults in the conversation and that the children with whom they are speaking are in their care.

These adults confusing speaking as an adult with speaking to an adult.

That’s unfair.

Working with a new class of ninth graders, Marcie speaks to them with a tone of esteem and respect, but her words also denote an underlying listening that is taking place between each thing she says. She is probing to find out how she can most effectively leverage her own experiences as a technologist, an artist, or a person against the learning taking place without becoming overwhelming.

Holt understood this too. He wrote about answering a child’s questions and accepting when the child wandered off, ready to mess about with something else. He wasn’t angered. He didn’t try to fill the space between them with more and more content as the figurative passing bell chimed. Not only was the tone he used respectful of the people he was interacting with, but he was respectful when they signaled they’d received the answers they needed. I think of this as the same way you or I would accept the signals from adult colleague when they noted they were ready to move on.

I know there are many ways to talk about this, from discussions of register to developmental tones. For me, what helps me keep my thinking centered, is Marcie’s plainly laid out knowing how to talk to kids.


Friday marked the end of Teacher Appreciation Week 2015. While my current gig allows me to interact with teachers on a regular basis, I can’t kid myself into thinking it’s the same embedded connection I had when working daily in schools and districts.

Instead, I took to twitter and took advantage of the ability to thank the teachers in my life beyond any geographic bounds. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, I started the day by listing and cuing up messages of thanks for teachers whom I admire, and who have shaped the person, educator, and learner I’ve become and am becoming. Monday, my thanks were focused on those who served formally as teachers in my years as a student. From my mom to past professors, I contemplated and shared my gratitude for the time they have taken to help me learn.

Tuesday was a day of thanks for those educators I’ve gotten to work alongside throughout my career. Across three states and more than a decade, I got to give a shout out to the people who’ve helped shape my practice as a professional.

Wednesday, I turned my attention to thanking those teachers I met virtually through their blogging or tweeting before I got the chance to learn from them in person. I’ve still yet to be in the same room as some of them, like Stephanie Sandifer.

I realize it seems as though I’m being self-congratulatory here, writing about how great I am for using 140 characters to thank those who’ve left immeasurable impact on my life. That’s not the intent.

I bring it up because of the joy it brought me each morning to pause and think about those educators who have and continue to help me see the joy in learning. This was a collateral benefit, and I found myself looking forward to reminding myself of the list of people I value and appreciate. I was reminded of the community of which I find myself a part.

I also bring it up because it struck me in the first few ours of these tweets how they were adding to the paper cuts on the skin of the negative narrative that feels as though its suffocating teaching. Each was a quick shout of, “Here’s why we matter and how the good we do echoes through the years.” 

Each retweet or reply from a connection on twitter amplified that feeling. I relished each favorite or retweet from a friend on twitter whom I knew for sure had no connection to the teacher I was thanking. Each was a sort of nod of thanks to the public good that teacher had put forth.

I’ll be continuing to use #ThankATeacher throughout the year. There’s a psychic good in each tweet, and I’m happy to make whatever paper cuts I can to remind folks of how much education works.

Running through February’s Frost – 200 miles down

Snow? Check. Sleet? Check. One hell of a run? Check. #potd

February ended with 100.354 miles in the books. In keeping with my New Year’s goal of 100 miles/month, I embraced the chilly cold of D.C. as it wrestled its way out of winter’s clutches. I can say there was some serious bundling going on – one run featured two pairs of gloves, so that’s a thing.

Also in keeping with my goal, I ran using the Charity Miles app benefiting the Alzheimers Association. While January’s miles were in recognition of what running can do and the work of Back on My Feet, February was about running to stave off a disease that terrifies me.

I’m not sure if it’s because words and ideas mean so much to me, or if it’s the thought of having to watch as a loved one loses the pieces of the world they’d never had to think about holding tightly to at all. Either way, the 100 miles meant I was able to run $25 in donations to support the work of the Alzheimers Association, and I’m happy to do it.

I’m posting my mile log from the month below, including a new column of notes. While I read about a decade ago about the benefits of keeping a running journal, it’s not until this year of running that I’m feeling compelled to document not just the miles, but the basic thoughts around runs.


An Accounting of February’s Miles

2/1/2015 8.02 Alzheimer’s Association Washington, D.C.
2/3/2015 REST Book Reading
2/4/2015 10.066 Alzheimer’s Association Washington, D.C.
2/5/2015 REST Improv Rehearsal
2/6/2015 REST
2/7/2015 10.049 Alzheimer’s Association Washington, D.C.
2/9/2015 10.018 Alzheimer’s Association Washington, D.C.
2/14/2015 10.139 Alzheimer’s Association Washington, D.C. This new distance means not only going farther, but going new places as well. Today was the first venture from my apartment through part of Rock Creek Park. Not for long, just a couple of miles, but for a bit, I was in nature.
2/15/2015 0.387 Alzheimer’s Association Washington, D.C. It wasn’t the cold, but the wind that stopped me.
2/16/2015 10 Alzheimer’s Association Washington, D.C. A route including Rock Creek again that included a blend of trails and paved. The semi-frozen creek, the other runners huffing along. It was a good run. It was also a learning experience. Today and Saturday, as I started on the trail hills, they weren’t the frustrations I had expected. They were tough, and the steeper inclines included some walking, but they were not impossible. They didn’t keep me back or break me. More seemed possible.
2/17/2015 10.4 Alzheimer’s Association Washington, D.C. Ran the Mall loop at sunset. It was cold, not windy, completely beautiful.
2/21/2015 10.611 Alzheimer’s Association Washington, D.C. Snowing at the start, sleeting by the finish. Hard won run.
2/27/2015 10.142 Alzheimer’s Association Portland, OR Ran 4 miles of this with Scott Nine after an engaging, insightful iPDX15.
2/28/2015 10.522 Alzheimer’s Association Portland, OR Fewer than 24 hours between runs is not advised. Ran to the Portland Waterfront, and along the river. Beautiful start to the morning. Tired legs, and delicious run.
February Total: 100.354