These Words Make Me Think Less of You (8/365)

Our kids.
These kids.
Our population.
The kind of kids we work with.
These kinds of kids.
Kids like ours.

Any of the above preceded by:

What you have to realize/think about/understand about…
Especially when you consider…
The thing about…
Taking into account the kinds of homes ______ come from…
Given what _____ go through…

Such talk robs our students of their personhood, their individuality, and their right to the best learning experiences we know how to create. These words are often followed by rationalized arguments for keep the top-shelf teaching for the other kids, the ones we refer to by name.

Check out this hella wicked awesome jawn, y’all


In first grade, my mom and I moved to Kentucky. While only for a year, my grandparents’ worst fear was realized. I came back with a tiny drawl, an ability to pronounce Louisville like a local, and a proclivity for “y’all”. In adulthood, I’ve lived in some linguistically diverse places. As a result, I’m somewhere between a colloquial mutt and a carpetbagger of words.

From my northern California connection, you’re likely to hear “hella“. It only took a year in Boston for me to see the beautiful malleability of “wicked” (see also “wicked awesome”). Four years in Florida brought “y’all” back into my life. Nowhere and no word has proven so utilitarian as Philadelphia’s “jawn” (see also “jawnski”).

These words act as aural tattoos of where I’ve been and are constant reminders of what it meant to be in and of a place. This is to speak nothing of the international words I’ve collected. “Jambo,” “ubuntu,” and “inshallah” from Kenya, South Africa, and Pakistan respectively are only a few of the terms I encountered amongst other people and recognized the value of beyond what America could provide.

More than usefulness, these words are also markers of how I define citizenship in ways that are perhaps different than my parents who have not traveled out of the country or my grandparents who have lived in relatively similar locations throughout their lives. If language is culture, my travels have made me a part of a culture different and connected to the one from which I come.

This is where tools like urbandictionary and Language Log are the most helpful. All that’s necessary is an Internet connection and we can sort through the cultures and micro-cultures of those whom we may never meet. Even if we are not participating, we can have a window into how words and their meanings shape the actions and beliefs of others. These tools represent a museum of the now, sharing the nouns, verbs, and clauses that separate and connect us.

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.

Careful Where You Aim Your Mouth

022/365 Don't be swearing now!

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not great at cursing. I’m probably better at it now than I was a few years ago. Maybe it means I’m smarter. No matter my prowess, I don’t enjoy swearing. I don’t want to either.

Maybe it’s because of how the words taste in my mouth that my opinion shifts when I meet people who enjoy that taste. This is similar to the involuntary opinions that form when I find out someone has a firearms collection. Sure, they could be keeping them around as a reminder of days gone by, and that doesn’t stop me from readying myself for when they decide to take aim at me.

All that said, I don’t know that there’s a word, phrase, or name I could never tolerate on its own. I’ve seen and performed enough comedy to know how a demeaning, demoralizing vulgarity in one person’s mouth can be a humanizing signal that we’re all in this together when expertly deployed.

Considering whether this is true, I’ve spent the last 15 minutes alone in my home reciting all of the worst words I can imagine. While many of them felt foreign as I said them, not one felt intolerable. Then, my dog jumped onto the couch beside me, and I started speaking profanities at her. I had to stop.

Words become weapons when directed at someone else rather than spoken into the ether. In my case, this applies to dogs as well. That’s where my tolerance ends. Yell the C-word straight toward the sky on the National Mall and I’ll walk on by. Turn a poisonous, “Stupid” at your 7 year old in a grocery store, and I’ll probably enter your conversation.

Words, like bullets, are all potential on their own. Load them and aim them at the defenseless, though, and you’ve made it my problem.

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.

Maybe Don’t be so Ableist in the Classroom?

When I was a classroom teacher, I had many problems. I was aware of some of them, I was unaware of many. One of those many about which I feel the worst as I reflect on it was the use of ableist language when talking to students. Moreover, I wish I’d brought it up the same way I brought up issues of racism, homophobia, and the other -isms or -phobias that are much more prevalent when it comes to contemporary progressive education.

I would use terms like crazyinsane, or lame with no thought to what such language might mean to a student who had or was close to a person with a disability.

As I hope the title on this post suggests, I’m not writing to demand an immediate cease and desist of ableist language. Not using such words because you don’t want to be yelled at for using them is different than reconsidering your speaking habits because you want to connect to those with whom you’re speaking rather than alienate them. That’s what shifted is shifting my language. Here’s how I put it when I join a new team and we are doing our, “Things you should know about me,” bit during introductions:

You should know that it stings me when I hear people use words like crazy or lame. It takes me into my head because I can’t help being sensitive to how we talk about visible and invisible disabilities. I’m not telling you how you need to talk, but I want you to know that I hear that language in a way that makes me uncomfortable and that I think it’s indicative of a larger lack of conversation around how we talk and think about mental health and physical disabilities.

I don’t say whether or not I have a disability, because it really shouldn’t matter. If someone asks, I’ll tell them I try to be an ally (imperfectly). Each time I’ve had the chance to bring this up with people, at least for the moment of the conversation, it has been well received. Some folks pull me aside and admit to using ableist language. Some have asked if I’d point it out to them when it happens so they can shift their practice. I try to help, and ask that they do the same.

That’s the thing. While my awareness, intent, and reflections have shifted, sometimes I don’t think before I speak the way I want to and I’ll use a word I’ve tried to eliminate from my vocabulary. In those moments, I’ll look around, waiting for someone to react in the same way I’d expect them to react to language and thinking that have rightfully become taboo and indicative of ignorant thinking. They don’t.

That’s the thing, they haven’t said anything, but I can never know if someone living with mental illness has just heard me off-handedly say crazy and processed it to mean there’s a part of their life they can’t share because I’m uncaring.

I get this wrong. A lot. There are those who have been thinking about ableism longer and more deeply than I have, but it’s one of the quietest conversations in education and in our society at large. Some places, it’s altogether silent. So, what do you say?

136/365 It’s Gamified Learning (and I think I like it)

It’s entirely possible that I’m learning Spanish.

A week or two ago, I was listening to the Good Life Project podcast and the episode focused on the idea of expertise. If you’ve read any book with the word “expertise” in it in the last few years, you have the now-common knowledge of being able to become an expert at anything with 10,000 hours of practice (or so the research has been portrayed.

The episode’s focus wasn’t on how you can rack up the 10,000 hours, but how you can get really good at something in 20 hours. You can listen for the details.

For me, the experience played out like this:

Brain: Hey, Zac, didn’t we want to learn another language?


Me: We sure did, Brain.


Brain: Maybe we should commit to 20 hours of learning another language and see how things go.


Me: That’s a good idea, Brain.

My formal training in ASOL (anything as a second language) consists of Spanish for two years in high school and three semester of Latin in college. Neither really stuck.

I started looking at Rosetta Stone because it’s omnipresent in any conversation I’ve heard around learning a new language without actually interacting with another human. I asked some friends, and they agreed it was worth a shot (though expensive). The price tag hadn’t escaped my gaze.

Abby also suggested I try out Duolingo. I told her I had, but was looking for something a little more robust. Then, that night, I returned to Duolingo. Before I was going to put a few hundred dollars in Rosetta, I wanted to make sure I’d covered my bases.

I’d interacted with Duolingo while they were in beta, and I liked the environment. I was also a grad student at the time, and taking on a self-directed, beta, online language program didn’t seem like the best of ideas.

Now, though, the site has gotten its act together. I’ve been logging in for almost a week now and my Spanish knowledge is re-awakening and strengthening. Plus, I’m having fun.

I’m not sure if, from a second language acquisition standpoint, I’m developing along what might be a traditional academic path, but that’s not really my interest.

I didn’t know Spanish and now I know a little more. Tomorrow, I’ll know a little more. It won’t be the complete cultural immersion I’ll likely head to eventually, but it’s a great primer so far that’s helping me navigate grammar, vocabulary and syntax.

The thing that’s funny to me is the worry about whether or not teachers would approve of what I’m doing. At the end of each level or set on Duolingo, it asks if I’d like to share my achievement on social networks. Thus far, I’ve declined. The thing is, it’s not because I don’t feel as though I’m learning in the course. Moreover, I worry that what I’m doing will appear as thought I’m doing the kiddy version of learning. To be sure, Duolingo is gamified, and I have to admit kind of liking it. A little green cartoon owl weeps when I have to begin a level again.

Because of my own skepticism of the gamification of learning, though, I’m assuming who sees on twitter or facebook that I’ve just earned a new level on Duolingo will also view my learning with skepticism. This worry exists side-by-side with my knowledge that I am actually learning, and the tension is alarming.

Perhaps the middle ground and safe space for me is the fact that I’ve chosen this game. I’m seeking out this learning and this platform. I’m here because I want to learn Spanish, not because I want to play the game, and it just happens to be trying to teach me Spanish.

This leaves open and complex for me the question of what happens in kids’ minds when we show them the game first and hope the learning will sneak in after.

109/365 The Most Thoughtful Unsubscribe Request I’ve ever Submitted

A few minutes ago, I received an email from Credo, a progressive organization that I’ve paid attention to a few times as they called me to action on some item or another that I felt passionate about. The email has moved me to unsubscribe from future alerts. In heralding Rep. Michele Bachmann’s announcement that she will not seek another term, the organization referred to Rep. Bachmann as “The Tea Party’s queen of Crazy.”

That’s enough to lose me as an ally. I don’t imagine there’s much, if any, common ground between Rep. Bachmann and myself. Over the last few years, she’s said many things and taken many actions that I have found disturbing and repugnant. And, while the folks at Credo and I are in agreement about most things, we don’t see common ground on the importance of elevating the rhetoric of disagreement.

Given recent episodes within the past year during which those people who desperately needed mental health treatment made horrifying decisions resulting in the loss of innocent life, I can’t stand behind such a public and thoughtless use of crazy, especially when there are so many other arguments of merit to be made.

We do a horrible job of providing mental healthcare in America. Bandying  terms like crazy about as dismissive does little to recognize mental illnesses as real and true, and in this case, implies an element of choice.

We can use better words.

My unsubscribe explanation:

I’m no fan of Michele Bachmann, and I’m happy she’s not running for re-election. I also understand the general feeling of triumph voiced by Credo’s most recent email in my inbox.

However, I’m unsubscribing because of a use of language that runs contrary to the objectives and values that are espoused by the company and which led me to sign up in the first place. By referring to Rep. Bachmann as the “queen of crazy,” Credo is doing no favors to attempts to better understand the importance of language choice and services around mental health in this country. It’s also working against any argument for a higher level of discourse in politics.

There are better ways to celebrate. There are better ways to comment on the ideas of a rival. In some small part, I hope my unsubscription will be take as a call to be more thoughtful in the way we discuss people and ideas.

– Zac

83/365 Success Must be Defined by All

The setting is a familiar one. A teacher sits across the table from an administrator. Both have note taking devices in front of them. The teacher – a spiral notebook and a pen he found on the floor after his last class. The administrator – an iPad with stylus.

They begin their debrief of the lesson the administrator has just observed. She pulls up the lesson plan the teacher submitted the day before using the district-approved template.

“I noticed the learning objective wasn’t on the board,” the administrator begins after some small talk.

And we’re off to the races.

While several pieces of the above scenario are glaringly unsettling, the piece to be focused on is not even mentioned.

In the schools we need, the adults must be working from a common and co-created definition of success.

When our teacher and administrator and their real-life counterparts at schools across the country sit down to de-brief, they are not likely to have a conversation about what a successful lesson looks like in the eyes of each other.

As such, any debrief conversation is likely to sound much like each person talking about an element they saw as successful (or not) and the other responding by attempting to fit that element into their own definition or argue against its importance.

A favorite question to ask school and district leaders at the top of any school year is, “What are three things you would like to achieve in order to count your school or district as successful this year?”

For most, such a frank and open question is met with a long non-answer that ends with, “all children being successful.” If we’re really lucky, they’ll also throw in “lifelong learners.”

Learning spaces that engage in conversations about their definitions of success are doing more than setting goals, they are setting culture as well. As Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Richard Elmore says, “Language is culture.”

By defining success together, administrators and teachers sidestep a language imbalance where discussions of teaching and learning are loaded with the language of administrators and result in teachers attempting to translate what they do into that language. Such unequal conversations are classroom-level instances of educational colonialism where the teachers are the colonized.

Instead, imagine a meeting at the close of a school year where all of the adults in the school sit together and are asked to write their responses to two questions:

  • Were we successful this year?
  • What makes you say that?

Two simple questions with the ability to uncover great swaths of unspoken cultural beliefs within the organization.

Move forward to the re-convening of the school the next Fall. Rather than standing in front of those assembled and speaking to them as though the year ahead and the people it will include are wholly separate from the previous school year, the principal returns to the questions with which the school concluded that last year.

“Here is how we defined success last year,” she says and distributes a listing of people’s anonymous responses grouped by similarities. “The question we must decide moving forward is, “How will we, as a learning organization, decide to define success this year?”

From there, the hard work begins of moving from a group of adults tacitly assuming they’re working toward the same measures of success to explicitly stating the standard toward which they will be working that year. Uncovering assumptions is a difficult and sometimes painful task. It may result in some teachers realizing their visions of success do not align with the goals of the school and thereby asking them if they are willing to re-align their definitions or asking if it is time for them to find another community better-synced with their beliefs.

The difference here is the co-creation of success and the ownership of all adults of the definition.

Returning to our teacher and administrator de-brief, imagine the conversation they are able to have and the language they will share as a result of their shared definition of success. Imagine the democracy of such a school.

What I Read: ‘You Are What You Speak’ by Robert Lane Greene


One of the reviews of this book faults Greene for writing about linguistics without being a linguist. I don’t find the same fault in the pages here. Certainly, this has the density one would expect from an Economist writer, but don’t let that fool you.
As an English major and English teacher who has been thinking about these things for some time, the initial introduction to prescriptivism and descriptivism did much to act as a refresher for the topics and lay the foundation of the different global perspectives of the book.
From a historical understanding of the resurrection of Hebrew to the formation of modern Turkish (an subsequent distance from pre-1930 Turkish texts), I’m walking away from this book with much richer and deeper understanding of language and it’s formation around the world.
Perhaps most helpful for me was Greene’s clear love of language. If there were any impediment created by his lack of training as a linguist, his love of language makes up for it handily.
Reading about language from the perspective of one who is so clearly curious and in love with language shapes the book as a tool for infectious love of language.
If you’re curious about language, read this. If you’re passionate about language, read this. If you are hungry for a appropriately-dense text acting as a primer to understanding linguistics, read this. It’s not a book for everyone, but it’s definitely a book for those who love and are fascinated by language.

cross-posted at

Things I Know 199 of 365: I won’t be mourning cursive’s passing

It was in second grade that Mrs. Kelly attempted to teach me to write in cursive. By some strange fluke, I was the only left-handed student in the class. I remember sitting at the back of the classroom filling in math worksheets while she led the rest of the class through complex curlicues and how to connect the capital H to the lower-case E.

Later, when Mrs. Kelly had finished the lesson for the others and they were diligently working, she would spend a couple minutes with me.

She made certain I had the basics, but I wouldn’t exactly call it differentiated instruction.

As a result, my handwriting has always endeavored to be, but never quite reached the status of, penmanship.

So, when I read this piece on Indiana’s decision to halt the mandated teaching of cursive in Hoosier schools and this impassioned piece from Vancouver mourning it’s death, I sat open-gobbed for a few moments.

I wasn’t alone.

A little bit of digging showed slews of comments wherever the story turned up. People are feeling some kind of way about Indiana’s decision.

I’d write, “Indiana’s decision to kill cursive,” by my handwriting took care of that long ago.

Because of that, I don’t write in cursive. When I take notes, it’s printed and shorthand and all over the page. It’s nothing that could be contained by the tri-lined paper of elementary school. When I return to it, though, to remind myself what I learned or heard, I know what I meant. If I need to share it, I type it. And, never, do I sit at the keyboard thinking how much better it would be if I were writing a cursive version of anything.

Doug Kennedy, quoted by Cincinnati’s WKRC 12, said. “When you’re born, someone signs your birth certificate. When you’re married, you have to sign your marriage license. When you die, someone’s going to sign your death certificate. All these things are important aspects of your life.”


I’m with Kennedy. Those signatures happen.

But they didn’t always.

Did we think they would?

Without cursive, people won’t stop being born, getting married or dying. We’ll just signify it some other way.

Most commonly, those opposed to the optionalization (with no more cursive, it’s a world gone mad and anyone can make up words) question how these poor children will sign their names to documents as they grow older.

I don’t have any other answer to that question than, we’ll figure something out.

And that’ll be fine.

Language is an arbitrary, symbolic devise that moves to fit the needs and tools of the times and cultures in which it is being used.

I love calligraphy. It is an art I have all the more appreciation for because I do not practice it. When communicating, I want my medium to make my message as accessible as possible. Indiana has taken a step toward that objective.

Writing for The Vancouver Sun with a full-throated defense of cursive, Naomi Lakritz had this to say:

There’s one more crucial reason kids need to know how to write longhand.

As any teacher will attest, writing things down helps children remember. Typing at a keyboard does not. There is something about the act of writing that makes information stick.

Sure. It’s true.

We know having kids learn by teaching and doing are even better conduits to building the synaptic relays of memory, so maybe we can cut the lectures requiring them to take the notes Lakritz worries about and have them learn by doing – maybe in an art class.

I’m not worried children won’t be able to read cursive. I’m worried they won’t know how to read.

The two are related, but not interdependent.

Things I Know 184 of 365: I’ve got too many friends and not enough words

Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!

– Eliza Doolittle

I might be in a little over my head.

I just woke up my phone to check the time.

Twenty-one people are waiting for my next move on Words with Friends.

Every time I get the chance, I chip away at my waiting games. On a good run, I can knock out five turns before the rest of life jumps in. But they keep. Coming. Back.

They keep challenging me.

I’m not even sure how it got this bad. I remember sharing my user name with maybe three people, never 21.

I’m not even very good. Of the 21 games queued up, I’m losing around 80% of them. Still, I play.

Then there are the invites at the end of the game. Just as my phone alerts me to my defeat and I click “re-match,” that same friend begins yet another game with me. In the face of such double booking, a rational person would resign from one game and keep the other game in play.

That’s just what they want you to do. Admit defeat before every playing a move? No, sir, thank you very much. If I’m to lose, it will be a beautiful and bloody battle.

Then there are the cheaters.

You know who you are…cough…Robbie…cough. Cheaters I’ve perhaps taught for two years in a row and with whose vocabularies I am well familiar. “Shoon?” Really?

Again, the rational person would resign the game knowing their vocabulary was reduced to a switchblade in the face of the nuclear armament of online Words with Friends cheating sites.

Not I.

For losses to a cheater are the sweetest losses of all. If I lose to a cheater, I can tell myself that I would otherwise have won, which, ipso facto, makes me the winner…who lost.

I’m not losing these games because I’m stupid. I’ve got words in my head. I’ve been gearing up for all 21 of these battles since I was in middle school and thought accusing friends of having “minuscule vernaculars” was the best blend of adolescent humor and linguistic insult one was likely to find.

At issue is my lack of strategy. I’m smart, but don’t play smartly. I like the words too much to toss them around like taudry tiles which have no more use to me than to help me score. Oh, I’ll score, but when I do, it will be because I’ve shaped and sculpted my letters into a Monet of syllables. Grown men will weep and children will feel a deep and abiding sense of hope.

And then, I will lose.