Music I’m Supposed to be Ashamed Of

Cassette Tape

I understand that the question is about cassettes. Where that specific medium is concerned, I didn’t wear any out other than in recording and re-recording improvised “radio shows” I’d make as a kid. Instead, listed below are those albums I listened to more than I should have, but just as much as I needed.

I was never good at understanding what was cool. Some of that probably stems from growing up in a family ripe with musicians of all ilks. Add to that experiences like my grandmother never telling 10-year-old me that my peers likely weren’t singing along with Neil Diamond cassettes in their family cars, and you’ve got a perfect storm of eclectic, peer-chided musical tastes. Enter, Matchbox Twenty’s Mad Season. Released in 2000 when I was “going through some things,” Mad Season was both the album I needed and the album I deserved. Each song could be counted on to hit some emotional cord my mid-adolescent self needed to experience through music. I listened to “Bed of Lies” as though it might have led to full-time employment. The whole album was my jam. This is why, after a year, I needed to buy another copy of the CD. As it turns out, you can listen to a CD too much. Mine was scratched and tired. Still, I’ll hit up Mad Season every once in a while to remember who I was and what I was feeling at the turn of the century.

I’ve never really known what I should and shouldn’t like. When it came to hanging out at my grandparents, I was always keen to flip through their record collection. It was where I learned about Mel Tormé, brass bands, and Peter and the Commissar. If you’ve heard, “Hello, Muddah”, then you know the wordplay joy of this album capturing a live performance of Allan Sherman, Arthur Fiedler, and the Boston Pops Orchestra. I’m sure I didn’t get the political overtones of Sherman’s text, but the music and intelligence of the words shown through to my little-kid self. Anyone interested in understanding my sense of humor should probably listen to this album (both sides) to get a handle on what you’re in for.

I’ve owned two copies of Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell CD. The first was never opened or listened to. While not triggering Tipper Gore’s parental advisory standards, this album was reported to my mother by work colleagues as containing swearing. She decided it hadn’t been the appropriate inclusion in my Easter basket. A similar decision would be reached the next year for Green Day’s Dookie. As a result, she asked for it back. I obliged. As soon as I was old enough to drive to the mall and had the money, I bought Meatloaf’s second opus. To this day, I love every song on that album. If you need me to, I will come and sing them to you.

Last week was a big week for my childhood. Netflix began streaming all 99 Animaniacs episodes. For almost the entirety of the show’s run on afternoon TV, my friend Travis and would call each other and conduct a telephone version of what today would likely be an award-winning post mortem podcast. When the first and second cassettes of Animaniacs songs hit shelves, I was there. I was there and I was singing along. To this day, my aunt and uncle remember (differently) my insistence on listening to one of the tapes when I went to visit them in Nashville.

In few places in my life am I cliché. In one recording, I fully embrace that cliché, Barbra Streisand’s The Broadway Album. It was my mom’s vinyl copy that I first “borrowed” into my record collection when I was 7. With the door to my bedroom closed, I would pump up the volume on my suitcase record player and belt out these Broadway classics without any sense of irony. When I bought the album on CD (around the same time I was making up for the Meatloaf mishap) I still had no appreciation for the irony. It wasn’t until college when I downloaded the digital version of the album that I recognized the stereotype I was furthering. At that point, it didn’t matter. The record had been in my life more than 11 years, and all I knew was that listening to it allowed me to tap in to something I hadn’t had words for the first time I heard it.

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.

In Defense(ish) of Lectures

Lecture Hall

If I’d been smart, I would have started an archive when I started prepping to be a teacher. It would document each of the teaching practices to come en vogue during my career and the approximate date when each became the villain in the stories we tell young teachers about learning and teaching.

The tool/practice with the most checkered past is the lecture.

Everything in my undergraduate preparation was a warning (direct or tacit) against the lecture. Workshops were the state of the art. Like the NCAA organizing a bracketed tournament, we were to match students with each other, have them pass their work around and then comment, defense, revise, edit, repeat. But, no lectures. The students wouldn’t learn from whatever ramblings we threw at their ears we were told.

The cognitive dissonance came as I considered the lectures I enjoyed in other courses I was taking. Pre-eminent scholars in their fields who knew how to craft stories of Hemingway, the history of the English language, remedial chemistry were regularly holding my rapt attention, while I was being told not only were they doing it wrong, but that I wasn’t likely learning form them.

It hurt my brain.

Things only got worse as I entered the classroom and the Internet made it possible to spread, embed, and mobilize lectures. Kahn, TED, and classroom flippers were putting bows on exactly the tools I was told and had come to believe were antithetical to learning. Teachers were spending time recording their lectures and telling students they were worth taking time at home to watch. Universities were making lectures freely available for anyone outside their admissions shield to learn from top professors. And big thinkers were taking to standing on a big red dot to inspire through nothing more than lecture.

Meanwhile, I was refining what it meant to operationalize a constructivist, constructionist pedagogy in an English classroom. I’d started identifying myself as a teacher whose pedagogy was inquiry-driven and project-based. This all stood opposed to the lecuturephilia I was hearing and reading about.

Except it didn’t. Because, even inside my classroom where students were asking questions that drove there creation of myriad projects, I was still lecturing from time to time. When I wanted to introduce the ideas of literary theory and literary analysis to a class of juniors, it was through a lecture that I modeled a close feminist reading of Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance“.

I did it, and I didn’t feel badly about it because it was the right tool for the moment. And, it only lasted a moment. I lectured through a narrative that helped to construct a framework of understanding of literary analysis and then told a story that exemplified putting that framework to use. After that and some discussion, I put the work in the students’ hands. I never again lectured on the topic. Instead, I gave mini practice sessions, prodded students to ask each other (and the internet) for help, and then asked them to do something similar to what I had done with my model text. (They may even have workshopped.)

This is the place of the lecture. With a few exceptions, it’s the place of most every practice, theory, and tool that’ve made their way into popular edu-parlance. As trope-ish as it may be, each of these pieces is a tool in a toolbox of teaching. The key will always be determining when telling a story is the most appropriate tool or letting students write their own stories of experience.

From Theory to Practice:

  • Keep a running list of the tools in your own teacher toolbox along with your own current thinking on the affordances and limitations of each tool.
  • Seek feedback from peers and students on your plans for teaching with a given tool before you put it into practice. Many times students are the best voices to tell you when an exemplifying lecture might be more helpful than throwing them into the deep end and asking them to swim.
  • Watch masters. No matter how good I ever felt about a well-deployed lecture, I could always learn something by walking next door or across the hall to watch a colleague. Oftentimes, my learning was best when watching teachers of another subject area where my expertise was limited.

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.

I Don’t Want to Sound Nerdy, but Do You Want to Hear About My Leaf Collection?

Leaf Collection

Moving around the country has seriously put a cramp in my tree identification game. I don’t mean to brag, but when I was in high school, I was able to name at least 40 coniferous and deciduous trees native to Illinois. If you wanted proof, I had a binder full of their leaves along with identifying tags explaining their scientific names and other pertinent information.

I didn’t take the binder to college with me, but I might have been known to point to a tree as friends and I walked across the quad and say, “Do you know what kind of oak that is?”

They never did – fools – and, self-satisfied with the setup, I’d let out a soft chuckle and lay some knowledge down. Making friends was difficult.

The binder and leaf collection were part of a project assigned in my biology class. Our assignment was to find and correctly identify at least 40 trees native to Illinois. I can’t say we loved it. I also can’t claim we saw the value in it. Even more grumbling was done when we learned the Japanese maple we’d found wasn’t native.

For years after that project I did, in fact, point to and name trees aloud. When I moved to Florida, I considered buying the southeastern complement to my Audubon Society guide to the trees of the northern US. It turned out I’d started to identify as someone who knew trees, and I liked what it meant about how I thought about my surroundings.

On its face, this story seems to go against my belief that learning and education are at their best when driven by the curiosity of the learner. I wasn’t inherently curious about trees. I’d picked up the basics when I was in elementary school, was grateful for syrup, and had had my fill.

It took a teacher creating an experience in which I needed to ask questions for my curiosity to re-emerge. This belief in the creation of targeted experiences to draw out curiosity that are aligned aligned with the goals for learning is a key aspect of what draws a line between how I thinking about learning and teaching and those who champion unschooling or open schooling.

I should also point out I would not design the experience in the same way. I would present the subject of study to my students and then drafted questions for exploration with them. We would have co-created our plan for finding the answers we wanted. I would have attempted to activate their curiosity at the outset rather than counting on the project to lead to them being slightly weird adults who can’t stop asking, “What kind of tree are you?”

From Theory to Practice:

  • Begin a lesson or unit of study by asking students what questions they have about the topic. This may take some time at the outset and some creative thinking for content that might not appear inherently interesting to kids on its face.
  • Once you’ve got your questions, follow up with, “And how will we know when you’ve learned this?” While this may sometimes mean completely co-designing performance tasks with your students, it needn’t always. Sometimes, you may come to the table with a basic outline to prime the pump and invite them to help you fill in the holes.
  • Don’t think you’re done when you’re done. It’s tempting to move on to the next project when you wrap one up. Skipping reflection means leaving a lot of information on the table. Take students back to the beginning of the process, have them consider what they did, made and learned. Then, ask them what you or they could have done differently to improve the learning.

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.

The Extrovert Paradox


For a long time after I first took the Myers-Briggs personality test , I was amazingly stressed by the pressure it put on me. No one in the high school class where we took the test had explained it too my classmates and I beyond the simple results we received.

So, I wore my E not as a descriptor of how I tended to interact with the world, but more as a commandment as to how I was to present myself to the world. I was an extrovert, so I needed to be outgoing, hang around with people, and be energized by them all the time.

While that was often true, it wasn’t always true. Sometimes, I wanted to be by myself, and that made me feel guilty. Typing this now, I realize why I identified so closely with the Divergent series.

It wasn’t until my mom made a comment one night after I said I was going to my room that I started thinking differently about what that E might mean. “Yeah,” she said, “you’ve been with people pretty much non-stop. I can tell you need some time alone to recharge.”

I quickly corrected, “No, I’m an extrovert. That’s not how I recharge.”

Luckily, my mom had worked in human resources for decades. “You know that’s not what that means, right? Extroverts need time by themselves, too. And, it’s not a fixed label so much a descriptions of your proclivity on a scale.”

I’d like to say I stayed and had a deep conversation with her about what this news meant to my sense of self and how I’d been burdened by the designation. I was 17, though, so I said something like, “Oh,” and headed to my room. Still, my world was rocked, and it has shaped how I see my free time since then. My initial understanding of my free time as an extrovert designee was that un-programmed time was to be spent fulfilling my duties as an E and surrounding myself and interacting with other people.

Now, though, my free time is the time when take stock of what I’m feeling and decide if being with other people or being alone will help me to feel more energized and take on whatever responsibility or task is on the horizon. This has also helped me to understand the unfree time. The time that’s spoken for by a responsibility to others includes tasks that either require me to find energy in my interactions with others or that I find what I need in solitude to complete a given task. The choices I make that lead to me taking on these responsibilities reflect my tendency to live as and E, and my free time ensures I have the space to let my introverted freak flag fly when I need to.

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.

No, You’re On Grade Level!


Are you doing particle physics at grade level? How about your saxophone playing? Is it on par with your age group? Your ballet? Chemistry? Calculus?

My best guess is your answer to most, if not all, of these question was somewhere between “huh?” and “nope.” That’s to be expected.

Let me take one from my own learning – particle physics. First, look at your thumbnail. Turn it so you’re looking along its ridge. If all of space is what is known about particle physics, then one percent of the width of your thumbnail represents what I know about the subject.

That isn’t to say I know nothing about particle physics. I have certain facts and concepts catalogued in my brain and connected to the rest of the knowledge and experiences I’ve got up there. A secret? I’ve never taken a class on particle physics. Heck, I’ve never even taken a class on physics.

Yet, there’s the knowledge – one thumbnail deep. I learned it because I was curious. Something I’d run up against in the world inspired a question, and I was motivated to learn.

Given all of this, would you say my knowledge of particle physics is on grade level?

My answer would be yes. My ability to speak to the topic is aligned with any intrinsic needs I have to understand it better to accomplish any external goals I might feel. It has nothing to do with my age or how many years I have or have not been in school.

Somehow, though, we let the phrase “on grade level” determine not only the value we place on a child’s learning in a given subject, but the approach we take to helping that child advance his learning in that subject.

Reading is the most frustrating example in this conversation (with math not lagging too far behind). When a measure of a student’s ability to read is not commensurate with his “born on date” (to borrow from Sir Ken), we react as though all brains develop at exactly the same speed and that reading is intrinsically-driven by a person’s genetics. I say this as an English teacher and one who decided to spend four years of college reading and talking about it, there is nothing about reading that is biologically inherent to the human experience.

I learned to read because I was curious, and thank goodness I did. It meant I was dubbed on-level from the beginning and thus allowed free choice in the books I selected inside and outside of school. I knew how to read, and according to my teachers, this meant I was allowed to read.

My classmates who weren’t grade-level curious or weren’t interested in reading early enough were not so lucky. Because they were destined to wonder too late, they were also destined to be forced into (s)lower reading groups. We all knew it. Whether coded by bird species or color, my classmates and I knew that some of us were welcome to pick up whatever book we wanted and others were relegated to only specific shelves.

Walk into most reading classes today and things have gone further south. Students can tell you their reading level by reciting a number to you attached to nothing other than their knowledge that the bigger the number, the more worth they have as a reader. Reading capitalism.

I’ve taught these students when they’ve arrived at middle and high school. “I don’t read,” the tell me early in the school year. When I ask why, they tell me they aren’t good at it. That makes me sad. Delving more deeply into their histories of being schooled into reading, they explain they never liked the books their teachers made them read in earlier grades. Many of them simply didn’t read and figured out how to passably appear as though they had.

This realization is what convinced me of the need to open my classroom to student choice. I didn’t care what students were reading so long as they always were and could show consistent growth in their ability to talk and write about it. Sure, we read some shared texts so I could understand students’ progress at grasping key concepts of the discipline. When it came to grade-level reading, though, all I was working toward was disabusing my students of the idea that reading was something people did so they could reach a certain level for a certain grade.

What I’d like to see, and what holding tightly to the idea of “on grade level” prevents, is not students who see their worth as readers, scientists, mathematicians, or musicians, but who see worth in those activities and are members of communities that foster their curiosity to know and do more.

I Am Sam

I know a whole bunch of stuff, until I don’t. As the title of this space implies, I love learning as much about as many subjects as possible. Smart is good. And still, I find myself in rooms and conversations where I am outpaced by those who showed up to the party long before I did and are much better versed in the ideas and thinking around a certain subject. While I still unintentionally find myself faking a fund of knowledge I’m totally lacking, I’ve gotten better over the years at remaining quiet, reading the room, and asking good questions.

I try to see the whole board. For many reasons – some intentional and some out of my control – I’ve been able to work for people who are not only amazingly good at the work they do, but willing to take the time to help me understand how to see what we are building together in a larger context. From building schools, to serving an entire district, to writing policy for a nation, I’ve had the chance to work with leaders who pause to ask if we are seeing the whole board and have taken the time to help me see it when I’ve needed help focusing.

I sign my name. More importantly, I work as hard as I can to make sure my name is attached to messages taking up for those who don’t have the same privilege I experience on a daily basis and working to make sure that privilege isn’t unique to people who look or grew up like me.

I have unexpected friends. While I interact regularly with a fair number of people with whom I see eye to eye, my days are just as likely to be populated by conversations with people I think are wholly wrong and whom I call friends. While I’m sure I’d be happy if they one day conceded that our conversations had changed their mind on a topic of contention, I also value the argument. Connecting and conversing with people with whom I disagree helps me to remember why I might have started holding a belief in the first place while gaining an understanding of why other people might think or believe differently.

I made a promise to a widow. I’ve never loved a job as much as I loved teaching. Each year brought a new group of individuals into my care, and each day brought a new set of unexpected experiences. I was entrusted with the sustaining the greatest of public goods. I had the good fortune to teach with and at some of the best teachers and schools, respectively. And my informal education on educating was at least as important and informative as my formal one. Then, after agreeing with so many of my colleagues for so long about frustrations with the absence of teacher voice in so many decisions directly impacting our classrooms and students, I left to join that other fray. While I love what I’ve gotten to do since leaving the classroom and the experiences it has afforded me, nothing has been or will ever be as amazing as what I got to do in the classroom.

What Wakes Me Up

A friend at the day gig questioned aloud what good the work we do has in the world. In the face of the extreme tragedies and chaos occurring daily, there are few occupations and roles I could imagine feeling as though they had maximum impact on the world or individuals. Luckily, as I’ve said before, I’ve got faith that we’re all working on all the stuff that needs attention all the time.

Still, I replied to my friend with the thing that keeps me showing up at the office every day. While I’ll never know all the good we do in the world, I’ve got to believe things are a little better at the end of the day than if we’d done nothing.

Thus, waking up, getting out of bed, and facing each day.

There are forces of ignorance at work in the world, and they are much more pernicious than evil.

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.

Building the Perfect Blendship

My first master’s degree took a year to complete. It was a whirlwind of activity that rarely gave me the space to pause and connect with folks on more than an academic and discursive level. And as much as I love a good classroom discussion, I can’t say the experience left me with more than a handful of people whom I call friends.

Though we were in different programs, Paul and I found ourselves in many of the same classes across both of our semesters. I liked how his brain worked. I loved how he listened, paused, and deployed questions that had just enough of his own ideas lining them while still pulling out more of the thinking of the other person.

While I don’t have it in writing anywhere, I’ve got a hunch Paul felt the same way about me.

This mutual admiration made it sting quite a little bit when, facing the end of our year, Paul and I had the conversation. While he was glad we’d become friends, Paul explained, he wasn’t the kind of guy who really talked to people on the phone or kept in contact with people who weren’t immediately present. He was breaking up with me. I told him I understood, and in fact, I operated much the same way.

I’d been worried for a few weeks that Paul would take it as a lack of care when our daily communications abruptly ceased or went down to a trickle when we weren’t living in the same city. Worse, I was concerned he, like most people, would take this infrequent communication as an indication I no longer cared for him or wasn’t interested in what might be going on in his life.

In truth, I have a difficult time remembering time. If you and I are friends and we go years between visits, I will conceptualize us as having only parted ways moments ago when we next meet. Maybe it’s extreme object permanence, but for relationships?

Either way, Paul and I agreed to a conscious unfriendliness. In the unlikely event he and I would see each other again in person, we both agreed not to take it personally that the other hadn’t reached out more to check in.

In the four years since Paul and I said goodbye, we have seen each other in various locations across the country. When each of us was considering moving to a new job or had a major life event take place, we reached out to one another for counsel. We’ve kept checking in.

I’ve tried to figure out the why of our friendship’s sticking power. I cannot understand why Paul and I have kept in contact while I struggle to be a better friend to people I’ve known much longer and even lived with. I was part of the same group of friends all four years of college. We were inseparable. Now, I know what they are doing because of social media and from infrequent updates from the few with whom I still keep close contact.

As for the why of it, here’s what I’ve got. New friends are difficult. They come with interoperability standards that live deeper in the programming that makes you you than the surface features of family, hobbies, and the like. What’s more, we’ve all got old friends. They’re folks with whom we’ve already formed connections. We’ve written the patches necessary to meet those interoperability requirements. New friends mean a willingness to go through and debug your programming with a whole new person. Much of the time, it’s difficult to imagine making that commitment.

Then again, maybe it’s chance.

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.

Ten Truly Rare Things

Rare Prime Rib Baked Potato Diner Nicky's Steakhouse Estes Park Colorado Chinese Daughters reunion

Ten Things That are Truly Rare:

10. An Adam Sandler film I fee compelled to watch.

9. My reaching the upper limits of the much-touted 8-10 hours of sleep per night.

8. Meeting someone with whom I could imagine spending the rest of my life.

7. Going for a run and not seeing the world as anything but better at the end.

6. My picturing the right person on the first mention when someone says, “Have you ever heard of/met so-and-so?”

5. A Neil Diamond/Johnny Cash/Elvis/Frank Sinatra/Matchbox Twenty song playing and me not singing along.

4. Feeling as though I’m living up to being the son and grandson I think my parents and grandparents deserve.

3. Laughter not making me feel better.

2. Letting myself own and feel sadness not making me wiser and more whole.

1. People flossing as often as dentists would recommend.

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.