Talkin’ ‘Bout My Coalition

2013 NYC Marathon

When I was a kid, I would take my assignments to my mom before I turned them in to my teachers. Somewhere around middle school, my reaction to her feedback shifted. I would get angry at her, argue with her feedback, and end the exchange with something akin to “Fine. Whatever.”

Eventually, she shifted tactics. I would bring her an assignment, ask her to review it, and then she would ask a simple question. “Do you want me to read this as you mom who is proud of everything you do, or do you want me to read this as your mom whose job it is to challenge you and help you grow?” When she first started positing this question, my answer was as you might expect, “I want the mom who is proud of me.”

As I started to understand the choice, I started to shift my answer. After working through a particularly troubling assignment, I realized it was challenging mom whose eyes and mind I needed on my work. I needed someone to help me see in the tall grass.

These two versions of my mom and the spectrum that runs between them represent the people in my coalition. In working to improve learning systems, I gravitate toward people who are doing the same work and are passionate about moving toward goals in the same way.

When I get to make a move, these are the people who see themselves in that move and offer some version of a high five. “We did it,” they seem to say. Proud mom.

At the same time, I am pulled to people who look at those moves and say, “Why that way? How could you have done that better?” They see a move and instantly begin to think about how I or we or they can make the next move better. Challenging mom.

Then there are all the coalition members who care about issues parallel to the issues to which I am devoting myself. If I am thinking about the role of a system of education and schools in helping people, I realize the need for other coalition members who are thinking specifically about institutional poverty and racism, healthcare for all, and eliminating food deserts. I see the intersection of my work with theirs, and they see the intersection of their work with mine. Sometimes we work together. Sometimes we must negotiate priorities and the distribution of limited resources.

Finally, there are the members of the loyal opposition. Often committed to the same purposes and goals, these are the people who answer plans and actions with, “Really?” Their skepticism comes from a place of care. If there is a limited number of moves to solve the puzzle, these are the allies who ask, “Are you sure you want to do that?” each time we reach for a piece.

Somewhere in this milieu a coalition is formed by a mixture of proud and challenging moms, parallel advocates, and the loyal opposition.

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 Easiest Thing We Learn from the Classroom May Be the Thing We Teach Worst

This is funny on so many levels.

Whatever your training was or has been in a classroom space, that’s the easiest skill to transfer to other spaces. If we are doing it decently, our classrooms offer spaces for the free exchange of ideas. If we’re doing it a little better, those ideas are new to many of the people in the room. If we’re operating in the top percentiles, those ideas are being pushed, pulled, and resisted in ways that leave everyone thinking, feeling heard, and knowing they were cared for.

Executing that last one is difficult. What’s easy is the transference of whatever habits of conversation are the mode for a learning space into other spaces as well.

You’ve maybe in meetings with folks who answer every suggestion with why it won’t work, why you’re wrong, and why the whole effort is doomed from the start. Rome is burning, they’ll tell you. This is Rome, the’ll claim. While there’s surely a mode of conversation these people experienced within their homes that could align with what you’re experiencing, we’ve seen enough of the power of school to know that it is a path that could have shifted long before they became professional buzzkills.

Teaching in FL, this was one of the key components of setting the best expectations of what we would collectively establish as our classroom culture. We’d talk to each other in ways that recognized the human foibles of the other people and took the stance that all ideas were worth our examination. (When working with 8th graders, I may have phrased it differently, but that was the underlying concept.)

At SLA, it was built into two of the school’s three rules – respect others & respect that this is a place of learning. If those are the guidelines and you begin to build practices around it, buzz kills in training can start to explore social career paths. Over the years, many students walked through the door suspect of the kinds of things we were asking them to do at SLA. They were suspect of working with other students, and for many, it was the first time they were asked to interact in interdependent ways with people from backgrounds different from their own.

And that was the work. That’s what it means to focus on citizenship. We’re in an election year, so it bears repeating. The little things we do like helping students think about how they talk to and about one another and how they discuss new and different ideas matter in ways that can corrode or build up a community or a republic more deeply than an economic policy that runs afoul.

How we talk to one another, now, as adults, was the easiest thing of our classroom experiences to pull forward into adulthood, and it can be one of the most difficult things to change once we’re here.

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.

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.

Things I Know 352 of 365: I support the National Writing Project, and you should too

Every day, in every state, we make a difference in the lives of students of all ages — breaking new ground and preparing students for success in school, college, the workplace, and in life.

– National Writing Project

As I’ve written before, the national education budget was extremely shortsighted and ended direct federal funding for the National Writing Project and programs like it. This was despite the fact the NWP continually met or exceeded federal benchmarks for program success in improving writing and writing instruction in classrooms around the country.

Proving ever-nimble and adaptive, the NWP is not going gently into that good night. In fact, it has no plans of leaving. As of this Fall, the NWP has begun a capital campaign to shore up support for the NWP and its regional sites around the country.

Contributions to local sites will be used to help fund the sites while contributions to the NWP “will be used for areas of greatest need, infrastructure, research and cross-site programs, and new sites,” according to the NWP.

I made room in my budget to make a small donation a few moments ago. You should too.

Once grad school’s behind me and I’m back among the land of the employed I plan on contributing to the NWP the way some people contribute to their alma maters. That’s how much I believe in the work they do.

Please, do the same.

When completing my donation, I was given the choice of donating in honor of someone. I chose Dr. Justice, one of my mentor professors in undergrad. The effects of her tutelage on living and breathing the written word have had innumerable echoes in my life as a writer and teacher.

When you donate, I encourage you to think about the writer or writing teacher in your life who inspired your voice and donate in their honor or memory.

While I’m saddened that the NWP has been forced to dedicated resources to fundraising that could otherwise be turned to improving teaching and learning, I’m happy to know it is an organization of impassioned professionals dedicated to continuing their mission, no matter the obstacles.

Please, help.

Things I Know 348 of 365: There’s one list I won’t be unsubscribing from

I love to go running. It’s a way for me to stay centered, to lose the stress of the world around me, and to just be present. I recommend it to everyone, especially if you’re looking for a way to find peace and focus in your life.

– Leo Babauta, The Zen of Running, and 10 Ways to Make It Work for You,

I’ve been unsubscribing quite a bit this week. In an attempt to cut down on the overflow of e-mails finding their ways to my inbox, I’m unsubscribing. I’m removing the digital plaque.

One list that’s made the keeper list is my daily e-mail from the folks at Runner’s World Magazine.

Called the “Daily Kick in the Butt,” it brings an quotation about running to my inbox each day.

I don’t remember when I signed up for the service, but it feels like years ago.

Most days, lately, I haven’t been running. Being a student again has frazzled most hopes at a regular schedule, and I’ve failed to make it a priority.

Still, each morning, my Kick is one of the first things I read. It’s a reminder that I’m still a runner. It’s a nudge toward being a better one, and it reminds me other people are in the game with me.

This is someone’s job. I imagine it’s not their entire job, but each day, someone sends out an e-mail to thousands of people filled with words of inspiration to be just a little bit better. It’s not a conversation, a friendship, or counseling. It’s just taking a chance that what they do can make a difference in the decisions other people make.

Sounds familiar.

Things I Know 315 of 365: Spencer is one of us

When I say I want my students to be successful, I mean I want them to blow adequacy out of the water.

– Spencer Nissly

Last Spring, SLA had the pleasure of hosting a group of pre-service teachers from Millersville University of Pennsylvania. They were part of a larger contingent visiting Philly schools and classrooms.

In my room was Spencer Nissly who will be starting his student teaching next semester. I’m eager to read about his experiences on his blog and twitter feed. He’s going to be a fantastic teacher. I know this because he loves to learn and has as many questions as possible answers.

While I’ll be offering any help and encouragement I can as Spencer gets his teaching legs under him, I want to do what I can to make sure he’s surrounded by a larger network of support as well. I asked him today if he’d mind answering a few questions as a way of introducing him to, well, anyone who might read this.

If teaching is to improve as a practice and a community, then we must support and foster one another’s growth – especially that of our newest teachers. Spencer and I are not likely to ever work with one another in the same school or district, but I education will be better because he is a teacher.

Q. Who are you?
A. On the surface my life is pretty much that of a normal 21 year old male. I love movies, music and sports. I like finding cool pubs that I can talk with my friends over a beer. On a deeper level I love literature and writing. For me this is where I can express myself and connect with other people. Reading is the way I make sense of life; it shows me that I’m not alone, that my feelings are apart of being human. At my core I am my relationships. The relationships I have with my friends, family, role models, God and even myself, exemplify the values most fundamental to who I am, and who I want to be. Those values being faith, trust, community, communication and compassion. It is through my relationships that I am reminded time and time again of these values and present a platform for personal reflection.

Q. Why Teaching?
A. Education is the most important thing for any person. It provides the means for social mobility, self-realization and personal growth. Essentially, education sets people on the path for them to pursue their passions. I am passionate about English, and education allows me to translate the passion in a way that others could appreciate it. On a deeper level though, teaching gives me the opportunity to model my own core values to kids. By doing this I can help them grow by recognizing what values they hold most important to their own identity. To translate their own passions into goals and help them achieve their goals. It took me awhile to find myself; to find my passions and live up to my potential. For me teaching is a way to fulfill my passion, and help others find theirs.

Q. Where do you do your learning?

A. I try to look for opportunities to learn all around me. Primarily I learn from reading; I am constantly reading all kinds of books. But I also find that I learn most from the interactions and relationships that I have. Through talking with people I trust and sharing personal experiences, I find that I am able to process learning on a meaningful level. Also by listening to their ideas and stories I am able to gain a deeper understanding that sometimes challenges my original beliefs. In engaging in this sort of exchange I’m often able to get past my ignorance and see things in a new way.

Q. What are your Goals for your Students?
A. My main goal for my students is success. Not success by achieving “adequacy” on some state standardized test. For me being “adequate,” is nothing I want for my students. When I say I want my students to be successful, I mean I want them to blow adequacy out of the water. I think this success will come in different ways for different students. For some kids that might be thinking outside the box and being creative. For other kids it might be participating in class, or just keeping their head up. I think success is something that needs to be pursued daily. Kids need to have personal goals and be constantly pursuing them, never being satisfied with where they are at. Another goal I have is to establish a legitimate classroom community. I believe this is paramount for learning to happen. My students need to feel safe and valued in my classroom. There needs to be a place for everyone’s ideas, stories, questions,passions and identities. Within this community there needs to be ample time for discussion and communication, as there is for personal reflection. I want this community to value the individual as much as the group. I think its my job to facilitate that community by providing an environment that makes it possible.

Q. What support do you need?
A. I think I would benefit most from a mentor. Someone who is willing to listen and give advice on a consistent basis. Who can relate to things I’m going through and help me find solutions to problems. Someone I can bounce ideas off of and complain to and will encourage me. I have a lot of meaningful relationships in my life and they are huge for me, but I don’t have someone who can fulfill that capacity. I have professor that I meet with but they feel like professional relationships not like a friendship.

Q. What are you reading?
A. Currently I am reading Sutree by Cormac McCarthy and The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer. I am also going through two textbooks that I have used in the past but feel like I just scratched the surface in. One is called Bridging English  and is all about strategies for teaching all aspects of English. The second is a textbook with basic ed theory: Dewey, Adler, Freire etc.  – stuff that I was definitely not ready for as a sophomore. I also asked for a ton of books for Christmas so I definitely have my work cut out for me.

Q. What was the last thing you learned?
A. I was just reading in my Parker Palmer book before doing this survey about the paradoxes that are necessary in teaching. Such as how we need to value silence and speech. Meaning we need to encourage kids to share and make them feel comfortable sharing, but we also need to value silence in the classroom. We need to resist the urge to break the silence when we ask a question and no one speaks. Palmer further explains these paradoxes by showing how an analysis of your own personal teaching will show that your best and worst moments teaching can be attributed to the same personal qualities. The book is really good and it has me constantly examining myself and my goals and talking to my peers about their goals.

Q. When is the last time you changed your mind?
A. I changed my mind earlier today about a professor. He’s sort of a cocky guy and not very patient and all semester he’s just been making me feel like he doesn’t have time for us. So I’ve joined my classmates in complaining about him the entire semester. But the entire time, I knew there was more to him. He has a legitimate passion and ability to convey that passion to others. So I stayed after for a little today and talked to him abut some stuff going on in my field placement, and, again, I felt like he cut me off and rushed me. But when I got past that and listened, I realized he gave me some good advice. So I changed my mind about him and what I can learn from him if I just look past some of his downfalls and focus on his strengths. Which is something I hope people do for me and something I hope to do for each student I come in contact with.

Things I Know 304 of 365: It’s important to trust the rope

‘Tis not enough to help the feeble up, but to support them after.

– William Shakespeare

When my friend Adam and I climb together, Adam comments on how fast I climb, and I comment on how contemplative his climbing appears from my stance belaying him on the ground.

Thursday, Adam and I went climbing with our friend Julie.

It was the first time I’d had anything to compare to Adam’s style of climbing.

Julie has been taking dance classes for the last 27 years. She climb’s with the grace and elegance of a dancer. As odd as it may sound, she knows her feet better than any other climber I’ve seen – knows what they can do and climbs with an understanding of how they work in relation to the rest of her body.

With a strong upper body, Adam’s climbing starts in his torso and arms. He grips and hangs and waits as he  contemplates his next move.

Watching either of them approach a climb helps me better understand how I will attempt the same route.

It helps me better understand, but it doesn’t show me the way I will climb. I do not have Adam’s upper-body strength or Julie’s surefootedness. From marathon training, my feet know the repetition of moving forward and my legs know the enduring power necessary to support the effort. While I adopt pieces of what Adam and Julie bring to the wall, my skills and strengths are not theirs.

But that is the physical.

Thursday, Julie fell – several times – over and over.

Like me, she prefers to move quickly up the wall. Her approach, though, is a model of the ideal of the design process, fail often and as quickly as possible. It was amazing to see.

After I lowered her to the ground after she successfully completed the first route, I commented on the fact that she would jump for holds more often than Adam or I. Her falling wasn’t a result of weaknesses, it was a result of the passion with which she approached the climb.

“There’s a rope,” Julie answered, “I figured I might as well use it.”

Not often do I get to recognize the moment I’m changing my mind and understanding of something.

I didn’t trust the rope. My climbs to that point had included a visualization of the rope as something that was there for safety. If something went wrong on my climb, the rope was there.

Julie thought of the rope as one of the tools there to help her on her climb.

With each jump, she was acknowledging she might not make it, but trusting that the rope would hold her in place to pick up from where she’d left off.

I’d never done that. The rope was there to ensure I’d be fine if I lost my grip, but I’d never considered it as something that allowed me to take greater chances.

My last climb of the night Thursday was a route I have immense respect for and had very little business attempting with tired arms and legs.

A third of the way up, my body was telling me it might be time to tell Adam I was ready for him to let me down. I was tired, and the likelihood of making it to the top was wee.

I paused for a second, my hands wrapped around a grip and one foot supporting me.

I decided to trust the rope.

If I was coming down, it would be because I fell, not because I decided I couldn’t make it.

I pushed against a hold with my right arm and pulled myself up with my left as I’d seen Adam do on his ascent. At the same time, I brought my foot up to a toe hold at about thigh level. It was a move I’d seen Julie execute several times that night, but hadn’t considered before.

And I climbed the wall – all 60′.

I was exhausted. My forearms were numb, I was sweating, and I’d learned to trust the rope.

Things I Know 201 of 365: When times are tough, service matters the most

Quality in a service or product is not what you put into it. It is what the client or customer gets out of it.

-Peter Drucker

Generally speaking, I’m not one for confrontation. Diplomacy is my goto route. If there’s an agreeable way to get what I want and what is fair and just, that’s the way I’ll take. Sometimes, this means taking more time to go through the process than I initially bargain for.
Sometimes, it’s not the advisable route.
Friday, I was scheduled to fly out of LAX to Denver for a three day visit with friends before heading home to Illinois.
I’ve been on the road for over a month, so I was ready to start the trek home.
I entered the sliding glass doors and attempted to pull my mobile ticket up on my phone.
No luck.
An error, my phone told me.
Best to go check in at the counter.
I wound my way to a self-check-in counter, entered my confirmation number and was alerted to the fact my flight had been canceled.
Talk to a person, the screen told me.
I wasn’t sure whom the screen meant, so I asked someone with a name tag.
“You want to be in Line 6,” person with name badge told me.
I looked at Line 6, AKA the Line that Time Forgot.
In my 45 minutes waiting I learned Line 6 was home to those displaced by the cancelation of my flight as well as passengers kicked off another of the airline’s flights.
This was on top of those passengers who needed to redeem paper tickets. Line 6 was their line first. We were just scavengers.
By the time I got up to the counter, I’d done my homework. With the help of friends, I knew every other flight to Denver leaving Friday night on every other airline.
“I’d like to be re-booked on Flight X,” I told the ticketer behind the counter.
Flight full.
We did this same dance four more times before he told me the only other flight available had one seat available in first class, and that was over $1,000.
I took my hotel voucher and headed to the airport hotel.
I was angry in that moment.
It was an anger made more intense when I called the airline’s customer assistance line.
My 3-day trip was cut to two, I told the agent on the line, and I would like to be compensated for the inconvenience.
I would have to send an e-mail to Customer Relations, the agent told me.
Would she just transfer me, I asked.
The agent told me she couldn’t. I needed to e-mail Customer Relations and they would e-mail me back.
I asked for the number of the Customer Relations department.
There isn’t one, said the agent, would I like for her to provide me with the e-mail address?
No, thank you, I can find my way around the Internet.
Here’s what gets me about the hole process. It’s what got me about the process when I got to the airport at 4 the next morning to sit stand-by for a flight I wouldn’t get on.
This is an industry with every incentive to get customer service right.
For almost 10 years, now, the airline industry has been melting away, attempting to claw its way back to soluble ground.
If anyone should want to serve me and every other customer well, it’s the good folks at the airlines.
They had every possible piece of contact information for me a person could have.
My mother doesn’t have so many ways to get ahold of me.
Still, it wasn’t until after the hour+ drive to LAX that I learned my flight had been canceled.
Bad form.
Make it company policy to contact a customer the moment a flight is canceled. I don’t need minute-by-minute play-by-play each time a flight falls behind or jumps ahead of schedule. I’m fine with needing to sign up for those services.
Realizing that I’ve purchased a ticket to get somewhere because I genuinely want to get there and that I would appreciate a heads up if that plan falls through seems the decent thing to do.
While we’re re-writing lines of code in the mainframe of airline thinking, when a flight is canceled, if no other flight to that destination is heading out under the same airline, let me know my options on the other airlines. Perhaps, even be so bold as to make it easy for me to select one of those flights or book a later flight on my original airline.
Yes, it might mean I end up flying on another carrier, and you risk losing me as a customer.
Might I suggest, though, that the current system seems to be set up to try to lose me as a customer the moment anything goes wrong.
Watch Miracle on 34th Street. Macy’s sending customers to Gimble’s. Gimble’s sending customers to Macy’s.
Customers are looking for service.
And, if the service is superior, I’m willing to overlook the problems I understand arise when operating a international transportation company.
If I am treated like a human being, I’ll be more likely to remember my humanity when things go wrong.