I’ve Been My Own Identify Thief (1/365)

blurred image of a figure in outlineI’ve been thinking about the things I tell people about myself. I tell them I’m an educator, I tell them I’m a writer, I tell them I’m a vegetarian. I’m imagining, you do something similar. There are labels you carry with you and offer up to new people when you meet them. They might also be labels you count on as the fascia that binds you to your network of friends and colleagues. I wonder, though, if your labels are anything like mine.

When I say I’m an educator, I hope no one notices it’s been a while since I’ve had to write up unit plans, counsel a student through a tough decision, or any of the day-to-day I remember so well. And, it if’s down to memory, that’s telling.

When I tell them I’m a writer, I hope they don’t notice my contributions have largely been twitter-related in the past few months (and many of them retweets) and that this is the first post up on the blog in nearly half a year.

When I identify as a vegetarian, I hope no one’s around who saw the last time I ordered a tuna salad sandwich for lunch.

Those are the big labels. To open up the smaller assumed characteristics and claimed habits would be a longer conversation than I’ve time for.

In short, I’ve stolen my own identity from a past version of me who got much more use out of it and who might have been a more authentic version of me. It reminds me of when I would call my students “writers” or “readers”. The difference is, they would then read and write.

While this isn’t really a resolution, I recognize and am taking advantage of the spirit of new beginnings that springs forth from this side of New Year’s Eves. I’ll be writing here daily. Hold me to that. I’ll be working on reclaiming some of the other pieces of who I’ve been telling myself and others I am for longer than I can remember.

What about you? Who might you reclaim from the labels you’ve been using, but not necessarily living?

When there’s nothing left to say, start doing

Hands Shaping Clay

Today, I’m spending the day with educators in Cedar Rapids, IA – as you do. The morning will be dedicated to facilitating a workshop for superintendents from around the region. During the intro call with the folks who asked me to come out, I got a list of others who have come out in the months before me to offer and plan a similar workshop. Some of the names I knew, some I’m eager to read about. All of them made me wonder what I have to offer this room after the collective wisdom they’ve garnered from previous speakers.

I hammered away for a while before I realized all I need is a question.

What are you going to do now?

Think back to the keynotes and workshops you’ve been a part of – from the front or the back. Chances are they focused on vomiting new ideas, fancy new toys – the shiny, the new. It’s all well and good because these kinds of things are generally one-off experiences. The good folks of Cedar Rapids have contracted me to work with them for a day, not a year.

So, I’m going light on the new and the shiny. Instead, I’m asking a few simple questions:

  1. What have others said before me that stuck with you?
  2. What would it look like if you took the best pieces of each of those messages, envisioned them working together in your district, and worked to engineer a cultural shift in learning and teaching?
  3. What questions does this bring up for you?
  4. What are you going to do about it?

Throughout, I’ve thrown in several pieces of “Might it look like this…What about this?” to stoke the fires of their thinking and their curiosity.

In the end, though, once they’ve got a good vision, I’ll be asking them to build something. It might be a presentation for their teachers. It could be a workshop similar to ours. It could be a yearlong project to re-define learning in their schools.

Either way, I’m building our time together around the idea we’ve got all the information we need. Now, we must take the space and time to do something with it.

Stop Scaring Teachers with Students’ Inconceivable Futures


It’s back-to-school season, so there’s a strong chance you’re reading or writing posts from people getting you jazzed about the work ahead in the 2016-17 school year. Maybe you’re attending a back-to-school kickoff or orientation or induction or whatever fills out your buzzword bingo card. If you’re doing any of the above, someone is likely to remind you of the impossible task before today’s educators – Preparing students for jobs that don’t even exist yet.

Well, that’s terrifying. It’s terrifying for students, and it’s terrifying for teachers.

“What do you want to be when you grow up, Zac? You know what, don’t even answer, because that job will be done by a robot and whatever job you will be able to get is beyond comprehension.” Maybe that’s a stretch, but you get my point.

Instead, I’ve got two points to fight the IMPOSSIBLE FUTURE blues:

  1. This isn’t our first rodeo. Before the Industrial Revolution, we couldn’t quite conceive of the jobs for which we were preparing students. Before the computer revolution, who knew we’d need to figure out GUI programming? Before globalization and the Space Race and the Internet and so many other societal seismic shifts, those in teaching roles could not fully conceptualize the jobs for which they were preparing students. And while that system had many inefficiencies for preparing the students in our care, it always will. The future moves fast, and it’s a big world. All we can do is our best and keep learning. So, when you hear someone say our job is to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet, think to yourself, “It always has been.”
  2. The present is full of plenty of jobs that need doing. While I’m not necessarily talking about honest-to-goodness W-9 requiring and W-2 generating jobs, I am talking about the jobs any news program will remind you need attending to. Rather than throwing the dart of preparation at the invisible dartboard of future employment, let’s aim our schools and classrooms at the targets we have in front of us. Climate change is a thing we’re 99.5% is a real thing. What if we turned our science curriculums toward saving the glaciers, the coast lines, and the polar bears? Ask students who haven’t yet learned not to come up with creative solutions to turn their beautiful imaginations toward poverty, systemic racism, strengthening the republic, sustainable energy, and interconnected economic systems. And, then give them the resources, lessons, and teaching they need to start figuring things out rather than telling them, “The adults have this.” Because, we don’t.

While we may not have the codex on the jobs employers will be hiring for as our students leave our care, we have a pretty good line on the problems educated, informed, collaborative, thoughtful citizens will need to solve. And that’s what we’re working to create, right?

A History of a Thing I Lost

Light Reading

Are there books you can read more than once? I’m talking outside of the fervor with which you approached Harold and the Purple Crayon or Dr. Seuss as a child. Are there books that keep bringing you back to their pages for more?

For me, the list is incredibly few. At its top sits The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. I won’t pretend that an 18th Century book by Samuel Johnson first published in serial form fits my go-to profile for favorite books. This one, though, is an example of the right book at the right time.

Rasselas and I first became acquainted during Fall semester of freshman year in college. The prof who taught my required Foundations of Inquiry course was also an 18th Century Brit Lit scholar, and he used a quotation from Rasselas at the top of his syllabus.

Our discussion of that quotation on the first day of class influenced a line of thinking for me that was something like, “College. Okay, yeah. I see how I could like it here.” And, I did.

I found Rasselas on the shelves of the local used book store and devoured it over winter break (a tradition I kept for many years after). The book became my gift of choice when friends faced major life choices and changes. I have no knowledge of whether or not any of them read the book, but handing it to them was an act of saying, “This was a flashlight when I needed it. I hope it can be the same for you.”

While I compulsively searched every used bookstore I encountered for more copies to add to my stock, one version, a small, light green edition stayed on my shelves with my notes in the margins. While not the, this was my first edition. We’d been on the journey together. We’d conversed about the importance of making your choice and being content.

Then, I gave it away. At a moment of realizing someone else needed it more than I did, I handed that edition off, hoping the combination of Johnson’s words and my margin notes might offer more than a clean copy could.

I miss that book. Since handing it over, I’ve not found another edition of Rasselas. We haven’t spent this much time apart since we met in college. Until we meet again, I’m trying my best to remember the lessons we learned together.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.



It’s citizenship. No qualifier. Citizenship in the singular.

It’s not that we’ve gotten to a place where the phrase “digital citizenship” has gotten overused and we need to find some sort of new buzzword to help folks think they’re talking about something new.

On the contrary. It’s that the actual practices and spaces have collapsed on themselves and it’s time to help people realize they are talking about something very old. de Tocqueville old.

It’s not that removing the digital simplifies citizenship, it’s that it re-complicates it. It highlights the appropriate piece of the term and allows us to have a conversation about whom we want to be in our communities.

In the beginning, “digital citizenship” was a useful term. It helped us to conceptualize the ways we should and should not act in digital spaces. They were new rules for new spaces. We no more knew the ways we were supposed to act and keep ourselves in check in online spaces than we knew how long these spaces would exist – I’m looking at you Prodigy chat rooms.

Now, though, in many of the same ways 13 colonies showed, “Nope we’re sticking around for the long haul and we’d like to codify our existence,” the digital is proving just as much a destination as any physical space.

So, citizenship – period, hard stop.

In the same conversations where we talk about what it means to interact with people in places like parks, museums, libraries, and corner stores; it’s time we start to talk about how we behave in comment sections, chat conversations, blogs (the mico and the old school), and whatever is on the horizon.

Because, somewhere along the way, we started having more conversations about digital citizenship than citizenship and that’s surely a count against us.

It’s not that separating the digital from the physical in the citizenship conversation makes them seem like they’re driven by separate sets of rules. It’s that it implies they are the only spaces separated by different roles.

I act differently on the improv stage than I do in my office. My citizenship or community participation are similar and different in these spaces. My citizenship in this blog and my citizenship on Facebook are different. I decide the tone, how much I share, whom I hang around with, what I look like; and I decide it all in different ways. I do it all the same way I ask, “Is it okay for me to wear pajama pants to walk my dog?” and know it’s not okay to wear those pajama pants to the office.

It’s not that removing the digital simplifies citizenship, it’s that it re-complicates it. It highlights the appropriate piece of the term and allows us to have a conversation about whom we want to be in our communities.

At its very best, it asks who we want to be and throws away ridiculous consumerist terminology like “personal branding,” “identity management,” and the like.

One last thing. Citizenship is more difficult work than digital citizenship, requiring we move beyond locking down privacy, avoiding sharing, and absolute control and editing of what we put into the world.

Citizenship asks us to think about the fact that we are present in communities, whether we like it or not, and calls on us to be the types of citizens we’d like to see living next door.

Strength through Tragedy is a Lousy Way to Find Strength

I got picked on more than a little bit growing up. For all sorts of reasons, this kid who didn’t look quite right, had no idea how to play any sport on the P.E. docket, loved singing in the madrigal choir, and had a penchant for turtleneck shirt + cardigan combos throughout middle school was often a blaring, easy target for those who fit a more standard mold.

While there were classes that offered refuge, there were also spots within school where it was open season, even with a teacher nearby. Other kids would slip, fling, and hurl insults within earshot of teachers they knew wouldn’t speak up or offer consequences for what they’d heard.

I’ve thought about those moments quite a bit as an adult. They don’t haunt me, exactly, but they’re always there in cedar chest of my memories, preserved and ready to be pulled out should I ever need to admire where I’ve been.

As an adult, I’ve come to the conclusion that those teachers who let these moments play out weren’t callous and uncaring, as I thought they were at the time. Instead, I think it’s something worse. I think they thought I was learning a lesson. Character was under construction, and they didn’t need to step in.


As much as I love the person I’ve become and the life I’ve been able to explore so far, I wonder what it would have been like to go through school with adults who decided life was going to find legitimate ways to help me grow stronger through difficulty. Perhaps the character lessons in those classes and hallways cafeterias could have been directed at helping those who were insulting understand that the world didn’t need more jerks. Maybe the lesson could have been the value of being kind within a society.

Writing in Sunday’s Washington Post, Virgie Townsend expounds on this idea in ways more thoughtful than I can touch. Discussing scars of abuse I would have found much more devastating than the bullying I endured, Townsend writes:

By perpetuating the belief that pain is edifying, we place the onus on survivors to heal themselves — and we deemphasize the value of prevention and support services. Suffering is not what fortifies the soul or clears our vision. What makes people stronger is working with others to overcome trauma. Giving and receiving help gives suffering meaning, not the suffering alone.

Some educators I’ve met build classrooms or even schools around the exact opposite ideas Townsend writes against. When I see these in action, when I find myself in conversation with those who argue in favor practices, the reasoning always goes something along the lines of, “Well, I’m getting them ready for the real world.”

It seems to me that this approach only works to perpetuate that big, cruel world – not protect against it.

Capturing (Balancing and Being Present for) 2015

Glenn Robbins tagged me in his tweet of this thoughtful post on reflection and his goals for 2015. It concludes with a short set of words toward which Glenn has taken aim for the year ahead. He shares the tweet below from Jon Gordan regarding resolutions and gearing up for the new year.

I’ve been sitting on the post for a bit as I thought about what my word or words would be. A few days in, and I think I’ve noticed a trend. This year has all the makings of being about capturing for me. From logging miles to snapping photos, from blogging daily to recording stray conversations, I’m hoping this year ends well-documented.

My time in D.C. has a clock on it, and from the moment I got the offer to come out here, I have held it in my head that I need to savor the experiences, the connections, and the learning. Hopefully, capturing as much of it as possible will allow me the kind of mementos my grandparents evoke when I visit and hear about their slides from Europe or the photo albums my grandmother has curated over the decades.

As I write this, two other words seem key to the ballyhoo of capturing and documenting the year I find myself in – balance and presence. I don’t want to be so set on capturing memories that I forget to live them, to be present. As I document and curate that documentation, I want also to live in what I’m documenting. I want to balance the capture of memory with presence in what will be remembered.

Thinking about this, I turned to Daniel Kahneman’s TED Talk (embedded below) on “anticipated memory.” I’d seen it a bit ago, and it was a good time to turn back to it. This led me down the Google rabbit hole to the video below with Jason Silva’s take on Kahneman’s ideas.

“We all become architects of our mental narratives,” Silva says. I like that. As I think about my life as trying to be an architect of the future I’d like to see, I’m also architect of the past I will recount.

Documenting it here and in other spaces allows me to “italicize the memory” as Silva says. In the end, it’s no different than my grandparents’ slides and albums. I know they were present, and I know they worked to find balance. I also know from the stories my father and uncles tell when my grandparents have left the room that the memories being relayed and italicized aren’t the whole story.

History never has been. I suppose this year, I’m committing to capturing the story knowing full well some parts will be left out.


What are you teaching the next Darren Wilson?

It was on the third page of the front section of the Sunday paper today. If Michael Brown’s parents hadn’t been in D.C. over the weekend, I wonder how much deeper an update on the events in Ferguson would have sunk into the news cycle.

This aligns with my concerns about what I imagine to be happening in classrooms around the country. In the first weeks of school, teacher friends around the country shifted their lessons to include some investigation and conversation around the shooting of unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO.

I can’t blame the newspapers for their reduced coverage. Until something happens worthy of an update, there is no new news.

In our classrooms, though, yesterday’s story must inform today’s lesson plans so that we can help to prevent tomorrow’s Michael Brown and Darren Wilson.

When tragedy strikes, we seek counselors, we make safe spaces for conversation, we hold vigils, we let out a collective, “This happened again” and utter the statement as either a shocked question or a saddened, unsurprised declaration.

Saturday will mark 8 weeks since Michael Brown was shot. Whatever units or lesson plans teachers developed so that they were “doing something” in response to the death of yet another child of color have likely run their course.

They were not enough.

Saturday will mark 8 weeks since Michael Brown was shot. Whatever units or lesson plans teachers developed so that they were “doing something” in response to the death of yet another child of color have likely run their course.

They were not enough.

However meaningful the classroom conversations, however poignant the reflective essays, however moving the student-produced PSAs and podcasts – they were not enough.

Because there will be another Michael Brown, another Eric Garner, another Kimani Gray, and another, and another, and another.

In the small town high school I attended, any conversation about race had to do with the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and possibly the March on Washington.

I should say any formal academic conversation about race included those topics. The informal conversations were fraught with the ugly contents of unexamined privilege, the exocticizing of the other, and the cultural appropriation of music relatable on an emotional level yet far removed where content was concerned.

My guess would be that Darren Wilson grew up in a similar system.

Cultural sensitivity trainings and body cams will make the difference they can make for the police officers attending them and wearing them, but that difference is nothing compared to the potential power of on-going mindfulness and conversations about race, class and privilege in our schools, classrooms, and hallways.

As much as we should worry about the next Michael Brown sitting in our algebra classes, we must worry about the next Darren Wilson being there as well.

We should feel guilt and shame that we were too weighed down by our own insecurities around these topics, that we dismissed them as too difficult or thorny to broach with students.

Perhaps we let ourselves off the hook by arguing students are discussing these topics at home with their families. That is laughable, dangerous, and irresponsible. And, were it even true, it would be no excuse to avoid adding a layer of complexity to helping our students inquire into the role they want to play in this country’s on-going identity crisis around race.

A lesson or a unit will not change the conversation. Hoping your colleagues in history and English classes are reading books with people of color as main characters will not change the conversation. Engaging in the conversation, again and again, will help to change the conversation.

The next Michael Brown and Darren Wilson are already sitting in our classrooms. What are we doing to make sure their story ends differently?


The following are a sampling of resources for teaching about the events in Ferguson and race in your classrooms. If you have other helpful materials, please add them to the comments:

What you believe – do (through choice, delightfulness, and email signatures)

A dry erase board sits atop a cabinet in our office. I reads, “This office believes in: choices, delightfulness, and email signatures.”

It’s been up there since I and two other team members started in the office and we sat down for a few days as a whole team to discuss what and whom we wanted to be as a group.

It’s in my poor chicken scratch penmanship, but this board has had a beautiful effect on my thinking as I’ve been moving through the district and doing the work from day to day.

When you know the ideals about which you care, you tend to orient your actions toward those ideals.

Why these three?


We don’t know the best way to do anything. We know several good ways to do most everything. More importantly, as guests in schools and classrooms around the district, we have only snapshots of the day-to-day, moment-to-moment work being done by the adults and children we serve.

So, we provide choices based on what we see and what we want to do and then present them to people with the offer of conversation to help them curate their choices toward desired ends.

Some might think of choice and imagine a tabla rasa of options, which allow teachers any myriad courses of action without consideration of official district goals and efforts.

It’s not that broad. Instead, we look at what is to be done, what we say we want to do, and the data we gather through conversations and visits. From there, we design choices that align with existing efforts while pushing thinking forward and opening up possibilities of what can be created and produced as artifacts of learning and teaching.

The choices we work to provide live in the realm of the district’s established identity. When we started building the Professional Learning Modules for our Learning Technology Plan, we made certain that each module clearly connected with RtI Tier I Interventions as well as the Colorado Teaching and Learning Cycle. With the implementation of a new state teacher evaluation system, we added language to explain how completion of modules would help teachers improve their proficiency regarding Colorado Teacher Quality Standards.

Choice with a mission.


You could just as easily call this the Mary Poppins Principle. Whatever else we do, our team asks teachers to learn new things. For many teachers, this can feel like a daunting task when taken as anotehr component of the demands on their time.

Delightfulness, and a mind toward including it in all we do means finding the spoonful of sugar and trying our hardest to make the job as close to a game as possible.

This is all based on the presupposition that people enter into education because somewhere in the acts of learning and teaching they found joy. We believe that joy should live on well past their initial entrance.

If ever you were to come to our office for a meeting, you’d find baskets of LEGOs on the conference table, multiple dry erase surfaces (boards and tables) for doodling on, light sabres, and the odd viewing of a funny youtube video. We want to experience delightfulness so we can remember why it is important to provide it to those we serve.

Email signatures?

We serve. It might look like troubleshooting. It might look like lesson planning. It might look like coaching. It might look like eternal meetings. When you get right down to it, we serve the adults and children in our care.

When people email us, then, from any of the dozens of schools in our district, it is difficult to serve effectively when we are without the most basic context of who sent the email and from where.

An email signature with a teacher’s site, subject, grade level, and any other information can help us to understand a bit about whom of the thousands of teachers we’re working with.

It’s become boilerplate language in classes and presentations. For me, it often sounds like this:

I want to help you however I can and as best as I can. So, we’re going to take 3 minutes now to open our email and make sure you are telling a clearer story of who you are when you send an email. After I leave, your job is to make sure three other people who aren’t in this room right now have email signatures.

It’s a slow battle, but it’s worth fighting. I can’t help thinking it’s also made a difference when those teachers have sent emails to people in other offices in the district. Now, perhaps they have clearer pictures of whom they’re serving.

They are three simple things. They could easily have been any three other things. Somehow though, knowing we are about choice, delightfulness, and email signatures gives the office a sense of commonality and helps me to ask if what I’m doing aligns with what we have espoused as our beliefs.