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Thursday, December 29, 2016

6.5 Hours

The boy and I at one of our favorite places, "The Joe" - Detroit, MI
My son has always been a road trip kinda kid and has been on the go since the day he was born. My wife and I made the decision to never not do something because taking him along might be a hassle. Well, except that brief period around age two that it was simply impossible to eat at a restaurant.

Now 18 and a college freshman, he's an experienced traveler, having visited over 30 US states and several countries. And even-though he makes an occasional 'rookie' mistake, like buying batteries  from a 'a guy' on the street, we're pretty comfortable knowing that he can handle himself in most situations that he would encounter while traveling.

The purpose of our most recent road trip to Detroit, a six and a half hour round-trip, was to attend our last home hockey game before the club moves into a new stadium next season and say "Farewell to the Joe" the home of Red Wings since 1979. He's good company.

We share some of the same tastes in music, and we had both packed headphones to privately listen to the differences between us. They never saw the light of day.

We spent the entire time talking. About everything. Sports, college, politics, religion, growing up and other topics of significance and casualness. Never forced or awkward, our back and forth words felt natural and flowed almost as fast as our cruising speed of 75 mph. As I was putting the car into our garage upon returning at 2am, I recognized once again, how precious time is. I thought how fortunate I was to be able to spend 6.5 distraction free hours with my child. It was nice that we were able to make the most of that driving time and that we chose to share and listen. I can always listen to Led Zeppelin and he can always listen to Frank Ocean, but we don't often have that kind of of quantity time together. I'm glad we took advantage of it. As a teacher I spent that kind of time with other people's kids everyday. A lot of parents don't get that luxury.

I was recently reminded of that fact by a reread of Will Gourley's post "Teach Like a Dad" that our role as a parents and jobs as teachers are closely related. That "We are blessed to spend more time with our students than their parents to in many cases." 

What do we do with that time?

Class-time is precious, but not sacrosanct. 

Early in my career, I believed that as a teacher 'you can't afford to waste a minute' of available instructional time. I bought into the narrative that every minute of every school day had to be focused on learning.

To an individual student or a classroom's culture, the time spent on maintaining trust and building relationships can be as valuable as practicing where to put the comma correctly. Spend some time asking good questions and listening to what your students have to say and are thinking.

It's their space and time, let your students have time to breathe and reflect. Those times can be powerful, special, and memorable.

Not unlike a road trip with a treasured partner.

Thanks for reading.

I'm on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Don't Ask Me for My Kids' Test Scores...

Don't ask me for my kids standardized test scores.

Because I don't know.

I don't care.

My kids are more than a test score. Yes, I use data from formative assessments and other data points that help me understand what I need to adjust for each kid, the best I can. But I don't really care about a test that treats every kid the same and expects them to master the same content at the same time and demonstrate it in the same way.

That has got to sound crazy to someone other than me.

Ask me for my kids' names.

Ask me who's a poet.

Ask me who's a writer.

Ask me who's a programmer. A mathematician. A musician. An artist.

Ask me how my kids are going to change the world.

Ask me who works well with others. Ask me who's scared to go home. Ask me who's hungry. Ask me who takes care of their siblings. Ask me who's dealing with things that a 12-yr-old shouldn't have to deal with.

Don't ask me for their test score. I don't know. I don't care.

I care about my kids. Not their numbers.

Thanks for reading

I'm on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Refrigerator Privileges and Twitter

It might be an overstatement to say that everything that has come my way professionally can be traced back to Twitter, but it's close. I like to joke that without this 140 character limit platform, I wouldn't have any friends or any original ideas. Of course this isn't entirely true, but my Twitter timeline is a place where I've been inspired countless times over the last several years.

I have come to trust Twitter's space and those that I've interacted with. I've said for as long as I can remember that I'm on Twitter for the relationships, not the numbers. On Twitter, I get to surround myself with friends.

The people that I follow, help me imagine, challenge my thinking, and reinforce my purpose. They are people who think big. Dreamers. They are people who think and act differently. Rebels and revolutionaries. The people who I follow are willing to share their successes and failures. People who make me a better educator.

I owe the same to people who have chosen to follow me.

My previous post talked about putting the power of Twitter in student's hands.  It's not just just the virtual interactions, 140 character can lead to real friendships. Twitter is the 'real' world and can lead to real friendships.

For the past couple of Februarys I've made my way to Centennial CO to attend 5-Sigma Educon held at the remarkable Anastasis Academy. The first year I was the recipient of their 'noob' effort in which Kelly and Michelle crowdfunded my registration and flight costs. I'm still terribly grateful. They're good people. The second year of 5-Sigma, I convinced my district to send me as part of my TOY PD. Both years I stayed at Chez Baldwin, Michelle and her husband Jon's home.

I had 'talked' to Michelle for years on Twitter before our first face-to-face interaction at ISTE in Atlanta, but when we first met it was like reuniting with a long time friend.

When Michelle picked me up at the Denver airport, yeah she's nice, we spent the trip just talking about cats, kids, and my amazing ability to hold an open cup of coffee without spilling a drop. When we arrived I met Paco and Diego (their Chihuahuas) and was made to feel instantly at home. When I made it to my room, Michelle had laid out an internet access and password password card, water, and the candy that my late Mom always gave me at Christmas. Something a friend would do. Not a 'virtual' or 'Twitter' friend, a friend.

The next few days were filled with learning and great conversations. (If you haven't ever been able to attend a 5-Sigma Educon, I highly recommend checking into it.) On the third morning I woke up a little early and made my way downstairs to the kitchen and made myself some coffee, toasted a bagel, and opened the refrigerator to try and find some creme cheese.

It didn't occur to me until after I was eating my smeared bagel that I realized that a relationship that started with 140 characters had resulted in 'fridge privileges'.

Twitter is not about the numbers, not about the followers or who's following you. It's about the relationships, the inspiration those relationships can provide, and the comfort level you'll have in trying to find the knife drawer.

Thanks for reading.

I'm on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Give Your Kids the Bird

photo: Sarah Hickle
It was an honor to be invited to deliver one of the Ignite talks at the recent Indiana Connected Educators (ICE) Conference in Noblesville, Indiana. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to come up with a topic that showed how my 6th grade class used a familiar platform in innovative ways.

We certainly weren't the first classroom to use Twitter, but I think our use magnified student's voices and helped provide them some memorable experiences.

The following is the text of my talk and some of the images I used. The ignite format used at ICE was a traditional 20 slide, 15 second automatically advanced slides for a 5 minute total time.

This was the script, I just couldn't remember everything when I delivered it. :)

October 14th, 2016

"This is not a talk about Twitter. I'm not going to use my time to extol the virtues of the most powerful professional development tool in my teacher quiver.

I'm not going to spend my 5 minutes trying to convince you that this micro-blogging site with the funny sounding verb for broadcasting your message, a tweet, will shrink your world, widen your world prism, and expand your possibilities.

Twitter isn't about the numbers. It's about the relationships. I don't care how many followers you have or what your Klout score might be. I follow you because you make me think. I'm on Twitter, because I want to make you think.

I put Twitter in my kids' hands because our classroom isn't preparing them for the real world. It is real world. It's their world. Let's stop pretending that we have to prepare our students for the next level. Let's meet them at the level they're at and respect it.

You see, we've told kids they should fly, shoot for the moon. But Christian Long reminds us that we've forgot to show them how to land. We've got to do better than that. We can do better than that? Right?

We dictate social media in terms of don't. The opposite of do. The opposite of my purpose as a teacher. I don't want to tell a kid they can't do something. I want to show them how to do something. how to thrive.

Put the power of Twitter in their hands. Take the teachable moments and teach. Don't forbid. Don't preach. Show 'em another way. Give them the tools and skills to make connections and share their world.

The world as they see it. See the day through their perspective is priceless. Let them find and share their voice with the world. Help them to realize they matter. My kids are amazing and I think the world should know it.

Have some fun. Put the lens of freedom in the hands of your kids and empower them. You might be surprised what you find out.

Like they want to chat about Great Lakes fish with a world class aquarium. FISH! Or learn writing tips and advice from their favorite Sci-fi author. In England! or Gather information to support their position on which sled dog team will win the Iditarod! We live in Indiana!

Have fun sharing. Sometimes at your expense. School is supposed to be fun. It's about relationships. It's all about relationships.

Empower you students to create connections that aren't part of any state standards, but skills that are standard in our everyday lives. These things matter too.
Trust your students to create unique and powerful moments that will stay with them long after they leave your classroom. Help create experiences that the four wall of your classroom cannot provide. Let 'em connect. Let 'em share. They shouldn't have to ask permission to tweet anymore than they need permission to sharpen their pencil or got to the bathroom for cryin' out loud.

I don't know of any other platform that breaks down the walls of access more than Twitter. Can you imagine being the student whose favorite author just told them that the film they made that recreated a scene from that authors book was amazing?!

Imagine. Just imagine taking a shout-out tweet and getting a response from the guy who was in the inspirational documentary your class just watched? The next thing you know you're naively offering to pay gas and tolls to take him up on his offer to come and spend a day with your kids.

Then you're selling donuts and candy bars, negotiating contracts to create a day of writing workshops with the guy who started the largest youth poetry festival in the world.

What would you do to have the opportunity to have one of your 12 year-old students hear they're a good writer from one of the world's best break-beat poets?

It can start with a tweet.
This wasn't a talk about Twitter. It was a talk about kids. It was a talk about relationships and empowerment. Let 'em tweet, let 'em share, but don't expect to get your phone back.

But, make sure you give your kids the bird.

Thank you"

and thanks for reading.
Follow me on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher

All accompanying slides available on Slide Share.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Grabbing their hearts

I'm a proponent of big changes. We need to challenge practices and processes that exist just to exist.  I think we need a revolution of sorts in how we're educating our kids. We need to recognize that what we're doing in so many classrooms isn't right for kids and quickly casting these things aside for something better. 

"We've always done it that way" is the scariest phrase in education.

Trying to change archaic practices slowly won't work.  Gradual gives entrenched practices a chance to stay in place. These practices have deep roots and are often in place to make the adults in a school comfortable. School shouldn't be about the adults.

Practices like elementary homework, morning 'work', and spelling tests don't help kids learn. These things exist because they're there. They've always been there. We continue to let these things exist in our classrooms because 'we've always done it that way", not because they enhance learning.

Like the way we've done back to school. Spending the first days of school driving compliance instead of community. Establishing a hierarchy in place of partnerships. Spending the first days going through the rules, not harnessing the undeniable energy that are kids are bringing into our classes after summer break. We've only got our kids for ten months. Why would you wait until Christmas to smile? 

Grab their hearts.

We humans are not very good at noticing change as it happens. (see climate change) Things just seem to pop up and we go, "oh hey, that's new." Slow change is almost imperceptible. "When did you get so tall" has probably come out of your mouth. Despite my preference, incremental change can be good and you can argue that that pace is how most change happens. Slowly. steadily.

As we approached back to school this year, I noticed a big change. Subtle, but undeniable.

Filling my timeline were efforts to make sure our students knew they are important. That we love them. That they matter. 

And El Cajon's magnificent video. What an innovator David Mishayaro is for his kids and educators! No rhythm :) but a great leader. Everyone who is involved in the education of El Cajon's kids are involved in this effort. Splendid.

Or this amazing video that challenges us to look at how we interact with our kids. Every interaction matters. You never know.

There was a moment at some point during the lead up to the first days, when the collective impact of all these positive messages when I noticed the change. Gone were the posts on establishing rules and solidifying procedures. Fewer posts on classroom management and more on creating culture. I couldn't find a post on how the teacher should establish themselves as the center of learning. I didn't see a single picture of a classroom setup with rows.

It was fantastic. There is always a great energy as schools approaches, but I think we've figured out that we have to capture the energy and use it to build long term positive relationships. Relationships are everything.

We've changed to align with that simple fact.

Thanks for reading.
I'm on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher

Saturday, June 4, 2016

An Open Letter to My 6th Graders

Dear LaSalle's 6th Graders,
I'm writing this to you now, because I couldn’t get the words out quite right at the 6th Grade Graduation ceremony. This year has been a challenging year for me. I don’t think I adjusted to this class as well as I could have. I never quite felt like I was the teacher I wanted to be for you. A year full of ups and downs, but a memorable year for sure. I hope you’ll remember it fondly.
I’m sending this letter much later than I normally do. One reason is because we’ve been so busy the last couple of months. The other, I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye. It’s the first weekend of “vacation” and sitting here alone in Room 216 trying to figure out what to do with myself today, so I figured I should get started.
There's a scene in a  movie that was made way before you were born (1989), 'When Harry Met Sally", when the wife of one of the main characters (Harry played by Billy Crystal) drops him off  and before she's even out of sight he says to her "I miss you already, I miss you already.” I know how Harry felt. 
I was fortunate enough to talk one on one with John Maxwell once after his speech in which he said, "People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care." You should know by now that I do.
You have amazed me. You inspire me. I want to thank you for helping me become a better teacher. I still need to learn a great deal, but I, like you, am trying to get better. You have taught me a great deal. Thank you.
It is tough being twelve-ish isn't it? 
Some things to consider as you move on:
  • Live your life with some regret. That's probably exactly opposite of what you will hear rich people or celebrities will tell you, but don't be afraid to look backwards and realize that you could have done some things better. Mistakes and the learning they provide you, make you who you are, but don't be so selfish or keep your world prism so small that you plow through life without realizing you're capable of more than you can possibly know.
  • Be humble. Barry Sanders never spiked the ball (Google him). "If and when you get into the end zone, act like you have been there a thousand times before" - The Tragically Hip. My only sports analogy and lyric quotation in this post are here to try and say that you should always be proud of what you accomplish, but realize that there will always be someone better, faster, prettier, stronger, or smarter than you. Be happy and proud of what you accomplish. Don't compare yourself to others. Be the best at what and who you are. Life is not about being better than someone else, it’s about being the best you can be.
  • Take risks. Not the kinds of risks that diminish your spirit, your sense of self or physically hurt you or others, but risks that help you grow and prosper. "Ships are safe in the harbor, but that's not what ships are built for." - Grace Murray Hopper
  • There is tremendous pain in the world, but also tremendous good.  It is easy to see the pain in the world and think that we cannot attain more, but we are all capable of great compassion and love. There are plenty of examples of hope and kindness, you just might have to look harder and remember longer. If you figure out a way to remember the compliments more than criticism, give me a call someday and tell me the secret.
  • Your friends today don't have to last you a lifetime. We all change and everyone has a different path we have to follow. Follow yours. Realize that the people in your life today don't have a ticket to ride along forever. Value and appreciate your time that you have together, but when you have reached the natural end of the friendship. Move along with grace.
  • Figure out who you are before you attach your identity to someone else. 
  • Choose your words carefully, but make them Louder Than A Bomb. Don’t hold back.
  • Be kind, not mean. The boy or girl you're mad at because they’re holding someone else's hand or you heard that they may have said something bad about you, won't even remember your name in three years. They will however, remember the mean things that come from you if you take that path. Erase Meanness and replace it with kindness.
  • Find your genius. Try to figure out what gets you excited and go after it with all that you have.
You have greatness inside you, find a way to bring it out.
  • Practice my "Grandma Rule" PLEASE! If you wouldn't say it, show it, or write it to Grandma, don't type it, text it, post it, or take a photo of it. Don’t be a coward and hide behind anonymity or fake profiles. Be aware that YOU control your digital footprint and that it is forever. Make it a positive one. Stand for something good.
  • Read a relevant book every six months. Not one assigned by a teacher, you'll get enough of those anyway. Read a book that interests you. A book that has made a difference in the world or tells you about someone who has lived an interesting life. I stole this advice from the head of the National Science Foundation who advised it at my college graduation and I have tried to heed it every year since. While I'm at it, write! Blog, journal, keep a notebook of your thoughts, whatever. Writing forces you to reflect.Writing can unlock life. Choose great words. Get better at writing by doing. Reading good writers makes you a better writer. Read. Write.
  • Wear funny hats. Run like a kindergartner, for no reason at all. Laugh. Travel. Explore. Move out of your current zip code someday. Draw with chalk on the sidewalk. Work in a place that lets you bring a nerf gun and a razor scooter to work. Do some of the things that the old people you know did, but don't want you to know about. Be careful. Be good to one another.
What most of you didn’t know, was that you will be my last class for a while. I’m taking on a new role for our district in about a month as its Director of Technology. I hope that I can help transform our schools over the next few years by putting many of the things we came to take for granted in Room 216 into classrooms throughout our rising District. Wish me your best, I’ll need your support.
I hope that you realize the best that fortune can bring. I hope that I get a glimpse of what you will become someday. Thank you for spending the last ten months with me. I have learned more from you than you have from me. I miss you already. 
All my best,
Mr. Johnson

Room 216 2015-2016 (6th Grade)

Saturday, May 28, 2016

My TEDxYouth@BHS talk

Photo by Mia Celik (Flickr)
I was honored to be invited, by the terrific Jenn Scheffer, to the TEDxYouth@BHS event in Burlington, Massachusetts on April 30th. The weekend was an amazing experience and I finally got to meet some of my virtual influencers face to face. Kerry Gallagher, Patrick Larkin, Marialice Curran and Starr Sackstein are just as amazing in person as they are online. It was great to share the stage with them. 

I had a chance to talk about my personal story a bit and how I've spent the last four years trying to make our kid's world a little kinder. 

In the closing third of my talk, I try to forward the idea that we can make ourselves happier by being kinder to others; that we can't just be satisfied with tolerance, but must strive for empathy and inclusion. The script of the talk is below.

Every child deserves a life free of meanness, but man, Billy was as mean as snot. 

Bille was my wife’s tormentor. Little boys don’t always know how to express their feelings of affection to little girls and sometimes it comes in the form of a dirt-clod thrown in the general direction of that girl. The second grade interaction has stuck around. We now remember it with a smile, she remembers it for the meanness.

One of my tormentors, a boy named Yale terrorized my walks home from Maple Grove Elementary for months. He was a tall, skinny kid with white blond hair who was apparently really, really fast, because he always was one step ahead of me. And despite my cunning 3rd grade wits that formulated intricate and varied routes home, this kid always seemed to find me to beat the crap out of me.

It’s hard to think of a world free of meanness when Kurt, an overly large neighborhood boy, would never let you play outside in peace. He would, literally, and not to use the most over-used word in the english language right now, but would literally kick dirt in your face. Or steal all your marbles, or rip off the head of your GI Joe action figure,  the one with the Kung-Fu grip, rendering your Joe still able to hold onto things, but  just not able to see anything to pick them up. 

I tell you these things, because I remember.

In my hometown of Lansing, Michigan the largest sporting goods store in the area, Vandevorts,  would hold a “blem sale”. The merchandise at this sale was blemished, or blem, merchandise with small stains, tears, and such. Returns, second run, and ugly stuff. The imperfect for the perfect.

Held once a year, the “blem sale”, would give the poor kids a chance to look like the cool kids. As least as long as you didn’t look too close.

After dropping my dad off for his General Motors job, where he worked for 46 years, my mom and I would head to the front doors of the massive warehouse to be among the first in line get the best shot at the “best” stuff. Skipping school as I stood in line, we knew that we were risking life and limb at the front of the stampede, but were were after good blem!

The dream this particular year was a silky golden Adidas warmup jacket and a pair of white leather Adidas Pro-model tennis shoes. The kicks that were introduced the year in which I was born, were still popular and THE shoe to have in 1981. And I wasn’t the only one who wanted to sport these classic kicks.

The doors opened at 7am and we frantically looked for the objects of my 11 year-old desire. 

Unfortunately, reality was a bit different. Missing out on the golden jacket and leather shoes, my mom and I still managed to grab some apparel with a logo on it. 

Sure, the shoes were canvas and the jacket was nylon, but they had the swoosh. Some cool stuff for the uncool.

I proudly suited up with my new shoes and coat the very next day at school. I tried  to gain the adoration of my friends with my new status symbols, but my canvas shoes didn’t garner the respect I was seeking. The jacket wasn’t gold, but a robin egg blue, but had a cool little kangaroo-type pocket in the front where you could hide things from the teacher. So while my friends didn’t appreciate it, I loved that jacket and how it made me feel. I had never had something thing like that before. I felt cool, like the other kids. I didn’t feel like an outsider anymore. I couldn’t have a lot, but I now had something.

Older than me, Tracy, ruled our neighborhood. A muscly, knife toting, 7th grade smoker who also rode my school bus. He was just flat out mean. 

Everyday I would just try and make it to my stop, get off and make the cut through yard behind our house, down the steep hill to our family’s rented duplex before I became a spot on Tracy’s radar. 

One day I didn’t make it.

The bus was hot and the nylon pullover jacket made it unbearable, so for probably for the first time I had taken off my new robin egg-blue status symbol.

When we were approaching my stop, I went to gather up my stuff, but couldn’t find my jacket. I knew that I put it underneath my backpack, but it wasn’t there. I was in a panic. I looked in my backpack, I looked under the pack. Nothing. 

It was when I began looking under my bus seat that I heard Tracy’s twisted laugh and the laughter of those around him who were in on his brand of evil that day.

When I popped my head up from my search and turned around, my jacket met my face. It had been launched at me, given back in a forceful way. Well, I was just glad to be holding it again. 


Then time stood still. 

My eyes pulled back and refocused on the coat in my hands. Much like the long pull away shots in the movies where a solitary figure stands motionless as the reality of the situation is revealed to them. My internal cinematographer pulled back to reveal the shreds of fabric that used to resemble my prized jacket.

The laughter reemerged and as I isolated the source, Tracy had a bead on me. I had made his radar screen.

He was holding up his butterfly knife and was pointing it at me and with words that I can still hear today said, “You’re next” 

He had taken his knife and shredded my coat. With a few flicks of his wrist and slashes through the fabric, he had taken away the item I wished to define me. 

I managed to escape the bus and run home unscathed. I told my parents that I had lost my coat or something. I made up some story to keep the truth from them. I never told them the truth of what had happened.

I remember.

This was not trauma on the battlefield. It’s not the kind of trauma that Jean-Paul Mari talks about in his 2015 TEDxCannes talk where he talks about the the ‘void of death’. An image forged in your brain from seeing something you are not supposed to see or experience and the importance of talking about that experience.

There wasn’t a type of PTSD associated with these minor childhood events. People have had much more dramatic events occur in their lives, but these are events I remember. Do you remember your Tracy?

Nonetheless, they were a loss. For me, a significant loss. A loss of innocence, a piece of my childhood cut away.

We’d probably qualify Yale, Kurt, and Tracy’s behavior today as ‘bullying”. An imbalance of power, consistent aggressive action to control or harm others, whether socially, physically, or emotionally. Back then, the conventional wisdom was that it was part of growing up. What did you do to make him mad? Everyone goes through it. It’ll build character, they’d say. 

I tell you this story, because I remember. I remember those boys and their meanness. I tell you this story because in my 6th grade classroom thirty years later, these feelings were familiar and I wasn’t going to let meanness become a memory for my students.

As a teacher for Room 216, we spend a lot of time establishing and building a community. I know that in order to learn we have to feel safe, so we don’t learn a whole lot of the stuff you’re supposed to learn in school the first couple of weeks. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are not our primary focus. Instead, we learn about each other.

It was an amazing school year, a memorable bunch for sure. But when we returned from Spring break that year, I noticed a change. There were more tears, more arguments, more frustration. I couldn't put a finger on it, but there was something occurring. Maybe it was the fact that in their 12 yr-old minds they were already on to the next step in their lives, our middle school. Maybe it was the fact that they had been looking at the same set of faces for almost seven years and they were just getting tired of each other. 

Whatever the source, there was an erosion of community. An undeniable appearance of meanness. 

And I panicked. I didn’t want to remember this group this way.

I knew the signals that the calendar and warming weather were sending, but we still had two months together. We still had to learn and grow. Together.

So I went for a bike ride. A good friend of mine likes to joke that I think that any problem can be solved by a bike ride. He’s not too far off with that characterization. 

I think if we could just get Captain Hook and his nemesis out for a ride someday, there wouldn’t be hostilities on in Neverland.

I set out to think about how I could support my class. A way I could help teach them that the choices they make today, will impact how they will be remembered. When I got home I had a plan. I jotted down the ideas that had spun around my head in unison with my pedals over the three hour ride and I impatiently waited until Monday morning.

When the kids were in the middle of their morning routine I started clearing our largest whiteboard. I took down all the learning reference posters, magnets, writing, everything. This was strange to my kids, because they had never seen me clean anything in front of them like this. Learning time is too precious and I’ve always done tasks like this when they weren’t there. Today was different however and we were still going to learn, just in a way that Room216 wasn’t accustomed to. 

I deflected questions as to what I was doing and the board remained clear. Until the next morning, when meanness made an appearance. 

We talked a couple of times that Tuesday about what meanness meant to them. How it made them feel. Why we were familiar with it and where it might come from.

On Wednesday morning they were surrounded with meanness. I spent most of my morning writing every mean word that I could think of on the previously cleared space. I wrote  words of every length and level of vitriol I could think of. Well almost every word I could think of. 

Symbolic by happenstance, since they were the most common colors of dry-erase markers in the tray, the colors supplied by my school’s supply room, the words were written in black and blue. Through our discussion that day, those black and blue words came to represent the physical pain that meanness can lead to. We felt their presence throughout the day. We talked. We listened.

Thursday morning, I asked the question I would ask countless times over the next four years, “How Do You Want to Be Remembered?” 

We talked about how it seems easier to to remember the bad things in our life and harder for the joy to shine through. I talked about what I remember about being twelve. I didn’t want to hit them over the head or pound a message home, I wanted my kids to make a connection that would stay with them. 

Brain research tells us that we remember things better if we attach an emotion to something, so 
on Friday, for the first time ever, with anyone, I shared my stories of the Yales, and Kurts and Tracys in my life.

I still remembered.

I grabbed an eraser and a colored marker, erased one of the words of meanness and replaced it with the word love. I asked my kids for help and then handed the marker to one of them. 
Over the next fifteen minutes or so, one by one, then again, we literally erased meanness and replaced it with kindness.

I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of my kids. So respectful, so powerful. They were amazing. 

Noticed by a student, we didn’t get rid of the meanness that surrounded us, but we made a difference.

I shared the experience on my blog. Teachers from all over the world told me how they loved the little series of lessons and how they adapted it to their classrooms. Touching stuff! I was glad that so many people found value in the lesson. I was happy over the next couple of years to simply land the message with the next few classes of my sixth graders.

Then, in the summer 2014, I unexpectedly found that I had some time on my hands.
I went out for a bike ride and didn't come back intact. Man and machine, I weigh 200 pounds and I was broken by the impatience of a 4000 pound vehicle that invaded my 44cm wide space. And left on the side of the road. 

Apparently a bike ride isn’t the answer to all of our problems.

The ambulance, the cops, the CAT-scans and X-rays, getting stitched up or the following four hours.

I don’t remember.

So with most of a summer left after that early July day, I figured it was time to maybe broaden my message. 

And even though I couldn’t easily raise my left arm for a while, or remember where I put the dish towel despite the fact that I was holding it in my hand, and I never found one of my watches, I started a non-profit. 

I bought a domain, created a website. I shot artsy photos of pencils on the floor of my dining room. It was risk to be sure. I didn’t know what I what doing, but I had a chance to make the world just little kinder, so I jumped off a cliff. 

I wanted our efforts to be for something. For kindness, for empathy,… for love.

I love any organization or effort that is trying to make the world better for our kids. For you. I didn’t want to be an an anti-organization. There’s too many people out here telling us what they’re against. 

These kinds efforts are well intentioned , but what does it say to Tracy or Yale?

In the documentary REJECT, we learn that social rejection almost always leads to shame and rage” We can’t isolate the bully. Their meanness comes from somewhere, from someone. The bully needs our support too. We can’t just reject them, cast them aside. They need to be shown another way. Kindness, empathy.

I wanted Erase Meanness to be an eraser of meanness. A promoter of kindness. An organization of kindness curators and creators of kindness.

I believe that everyone is capable of kindness and the choices we make on a daily basis make a difference.

Meanness is universal, but so is love and kindness. Like that Friday after we stood back and looked at our whiteboard and we realized we couldn’t possibly erase all of the meanness in our lives, but we can make it better. Little by little.

We know this intuitively, research has found that we are happier when we do or give for others. 

When we’re nice to others, we feel happier.

Researchers at Harvard and University of British Columbia found evidence for increased personal happiness by making others happy, creating a positive feedback loop between kindness and happiness. The happier we are the more likely we are to be kind.

What a great place to get stuck, right?

It’s not about combating meanness. The way to make us happier is by being kind to one another. 

We have to erase meanness by pledging to take action. Make a commitment to be kind in some way. Our choice has to be personal. Purposeful.

Random acts of kindness are great, but we can’t depend on random. Kindness has to be intentional. Choose kindness. Be remembered for your kindness.

We cannot be worried about statistics or the perception of reported bullying incidents in our schools, we must be worried about our kids.

We can’t isolate the bully or address mean behavior be filling out a form or checking a box. 

We must not wait for the toxic words of rejection and meanness to be digested and then treat the symptoms of their poisoning. Communities of kindness are formed by communities of parents, teachers, administrators, and community leaders that work to extend hands of inclusion, instead of pointing fingers. 

We have to move beyond tolerance and towards acceptance. We have to strive for empathy. We need to start with kindness, always kindness.

For that is how you will be remembered.

Every child deserves a life free of meanness. Billy was as mean as snot, but he didn’t have to be. 

Thank you

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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Not Teacher of the Year, Teacher for the year

Photo: SCM
The text of my speech given at School City of Mishawaka's Annual Teacher of the Year recognition banquet, May 4th, 2016 (I was the District's Teacher of the Year for 2015)

It’s been an honor to represent all of the great teachers in our district and those that are here with us tonight. It has been a remarkable experience to be the temporary placeholder for our collective excellence and to the efforts we put forth every day for our students. 

The title has been used in introductions at various conferences and virtual events over the last year and has given me a chance to share all that our students are achieving, and  a chance to share what my fellow teachers are accomplishing in our classrooms. I’m thankful of that opportunity.

Sharing “the good” is something I think we should do more of. Let’s discard the anachronistic viewpoint that sharing our student’s terrific work is somehow boastful or self-serving. Our student’s work and innovations, your tremendous work, and classroom innovations deserve an audience greater than the four walls of our classrooms and buildings. As Kevin Honeycutt says, "we’re not secret agents", our work doesn't require keeping things close to the vest.

Teacher of the year has a singularity that I’ve never been completely comfortable with. The title, although appropriate for the purpose of recognizing an individual’s commitment to their students and their contribution’s to an organization, is moniker that elevates the recipient into a solitary position without proper acknowledgment of the whole.

The recognition has always reminded me that I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. We’re never really alone. 

Sure, teaching can sometimes involve feelings of loneliness or isolation, but we are never alone in our endeavor to educate our children. The plaque that now hangs on my wall, for me, is a visual reminder for all of the unseen efforts that only get recognized by the students we serve.

From the administration staff and leadership teams who support instruction and help make things function as smoothly as possible. 

To the district and building maintenance and custodial staffs who ensure a safe and clean environment for our kids, 

To the miracle worker “lunch ladies” who manage to feed the hundreds of kids in from their kitchens with an efficiency that still amazes me. Ensuring that our kids get at least one good meal a day.

We each benefit from the teachers in the preceding grades and the investments that countless educators have made in our students as they progressed through their academic career. When they first arrive at our classroom doors, our role, although temporary, is vital to that child’s development.  Teacher of the Year could easily mean Teacher for the Year to any one of our district's students. Certainly, there are times when we are all THE teacher a child needs at a particular part of their lives. We may never know when or how we made a difference, but our students know, and on their behalf, thank you. 

And so during this teacher appreciation week, I’d like to place myself in the student’s role and thank you from their perspective:

  • To my kindergarten teacher, the cat herder, who somehow guided 22 different levels of experience and support, to all go in the same direction and who taught me that letters had sounds and helped me write my first sentence. You were remarkable.
  • Thank you to my first grade teacher who sat by my side as I read my first book, and thanks for providing the spark of reading that followed me for the rest of my life.
  • To my 2nd grade teacher who made me feel like a big kid when we tackled our math assignments and helped me to realize I could do this thing called school.
  • Thanks to my third grade teacher who helped me navigate the shift from “learning to read” into “reading to learn” Your empathy and instincts intervened and helped me become safe again when you realized something wasn’t quite right.
  • My fourth grade teacher, who I’ll never forget, because nobody ever forgets their fourth grade teacher. The one that recognized I needed a little more support and made sure I got it.
  • Thank you to my 5th grade teacher who allowed me the freedom to choose how I could demonstrate what I learned and trusted me to do my best. The balance between freedom and obligation is something I never forgot.
  • To my 6th grade teacher who made me stand up and perform my poetry in front of my grade liberated my timidity. Also taught me to be kind, always kind, for that’s how I will be remembered. 
  • It was my middle school teachers who understood that my development includes that selfish little stage and that even though I wasn’t the first or the only one to be going through these things in life, you always made me feel special.
  • My freshman teacher recognized the terror in my eyes and helped me organize my work and schedule so that I didn’t fall through the cracks of my massive new world. Patience defined.
  • To my 10th grade lit teacher who introduced me to the text that would make me realize that I could become much more to the world than what I had been giving. I wasn’t striving to become what I could be. And even though I’m sorry that I can’t remember your name, I’ll never forget how you inspired me.
  • The art and music teachers who, while I couldn’t draw or play very well, made me appreciate those that can.
  • My Junior year geometry teacher who pulled this “math’d out” math student along a seemingly meaningless topic and provided relevance and purpose to understanding this ancient content.
  • Thank you to any teacher that taught this senior who was chasing grade points and class rank, but knew when my college application and FAFSA were due and adjusted the course load accordingly. Through AP exams and an acute bout of ‘senioritis” you exhibited patience that I hadn’t yet fully developed, but aspire to.

The job we do is difficult, but nothing is more important than our kids. Thank you for inspiring our kids and for the tireless work you do for their benefit. They remember you. Your work has a permanence and impact that cannot be measured.

As we get ready to recognize tonight’s recipients, please hold them up and be inspired by their excellence. Let them know they are not alone. Always appreciated, by those that hold them up.

Thanks for reading.

Follow me on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher