The problem with Great Commencement Speeches


I am a huge fan of commencement speeches. I have a whole youtube file full of them, Steve Jobs, the Hamilton Musical guy, the Amazon founder, JK Rowlings I have watched them all.

As much as I enjoy these speeches, it doesn’t take too long to find the pattern. The one theme all those geniuses have built on; Follow your passion; do what you are passionate about., never give up on what you really care about.

It’s awesome to listen to George Lucas tell me that I should work hard, and develop grit and overcome whatever gets in my way. But…

As much as I enjoy that theme it seems to miss the mark for most of the grads I know. It’s not the courage to follow their passion that is missing it’s the passion itself.

Unlike all those cool genius types not all of us are born knowing what we how we want to save the world. And sadly having a huge variety of ways in which the world needs to be saved does not make that issue easier.

So, when Harvard calls me next year, to give the commencement address I will have a plan.


I will start with two helpful hints to finding a passion:

Your passion is NOT going to come to you through a screen. Go try stuff out.
Look for stuff you like even when you fail, then
I would end with “follow your passion” so I can be grouped with all those geniuses.

Engineering Solutions In Kids Books



I wonder all the time about where we learn our problem solving skills and therefore how we can teach them.

Because I believe that most learning is going on in parts of our brains we cannot or do not pay attention to.

To satisfy my curiosity I started looking for examples of engineered solutions that kids witness when they are not thinking about learning stuff, but that list quickly became overwhelming on a variety of levels, so I backed off and reduced my search perimeters by looking for kids’ books that take different approaches to problem solving.

I don’t know if doing book groups based on a matrix of solution attributes is reasonable, but I am pretty certain that having a list of books that all look at issue resolution as a process where a plan is created, steps are taken, results are evaluated, and modifications are made is a handy thing to have.

Design thinking, engineering skill, problem solving techniques are hot topics right now, both in the real world and in education, so worst case this list will make you sound well informed. Best case this list could be a launching pad for exploring how people solve problems (big and small, real and imagined) in practical ways without wands, alien intervention or author contrivances.

This is a list of books where the characters use specific plans to overcome huge obstacles.

Worth noting as well that all but one of these stories is based on working teams.

Classroom Gamification in a 250-word nutshell



Gamification is just adding the element of a game to something that was not designed to be fun.  Something like mowing the lawn or school.

  • Games are built on ridiculous rules and artificial boundaries that we accept as reasonable.

So if I imagine mowing the lawn as part of an epic battle against invading hordes, where control over the growth, spread, color, and uniformity of organisms over a 15,000 square foot plot of land is up for grabs every weekend, then that is gamification.

In the classroom, the same idea can be applied. We just need to imagine many of the rules and boundaries as ridiculous and then reframe them in an entertaining way.

I do struggle with the idea of play as a productive use of teaching time. That has to do with what they always told me play was. I was taught that play is a chance to do what I want. I equate play with freedom, an opportunity to shun the external rules and obligations of life. It turns out that is all wrong. Play is not the abandonment of restrictions. Every game, every toy, every instrument comes complete with limitations that define it. In fact, it is the restrictions that create the challenge and encourage the play.

It seems to me we all have all the elements and pieces in place to make learning a thing of play, an engagement of fun, a challenge designed to entertain and amuse.  We simply need to reframe our thinking.



Digital Storytelling the short form


Of all the ideas that have been rebranded and rebuilt to fit into the 21-century, I think my personal favorite is “digital storytelling.” First, because I always like storytelling, and second because in very real, usable ways the digital age has added to what we think of as literacy tools.

Websites like:

Storybird, gives students a chance to craft and share great fiction with professional illustrations.

StorylineOnline  Nothing is going to replace the literal metacognitive connection established when you read out loud to a kid, but this is a great source of wonderful actors reading awesome picture books aloud.

Vocaroo records your voice. So does SeeSaw, and Voice Recorder on Chrome.  There is real pedagogical power in a kid listening to themselves read.


If you’re more likely to work without a script, the digital world has options you may want to consider bending to your will.

5 Frame Stories are a nice way to explore the structure of a simple narrative.

50 word stories are a great short range target that opens a door to student led conversations about word choice and editing.

The web sometimes seems filled with programs that land somewhere between toy and tool. They are worth knowing about.

Adobe Spark is not designed for classroom use, but it is a great way to make quick, classy narrative videos free.

The Smithsonian has a new webpage for teachers full of great sources and resources just waiting for people to discover and make meaningful too.

Teacher Appreciation #5 250 words


The student was cute and smart when she came to the school in kindergarten, cuter and smarter when she left 6 years later.

Her family was strong and supportive, one teacher was not going to change the quality of her life.  No heroic necessary or needed. But connections where created, memories made, and time binds us blindly.

Awkward visits through the middle school years kept the connections and dialogue fresh. They honored the work that we had done even though it was never needed.

Winks and waves from a cheerleader through the crowded stands suggested we were remembered through the frenzied haze of high school, a graduation announcement told us our job was done.

Given our past, and the trajectory she had always had, it is somehow both surprising and understandable that the letter came a couple weeks ago.

“…As part of my senior thesis work at the University of Washington, I have been researching the effects of gratitude in early adolescents’.  I won’t bore you with the details unless you ask, but simply put, gratitude is important to both identify and express….”

“…I was lucky enough to have many wonderful teachers, but none made as indelible a mark on me as you three.  I have heard your voices and seen your smiles countless times as I interview kids around Seattle…”

“…You made a difference in my life, and I truly am grateful beyond words…. Thank you, for teaching me to think for myself as I listen carefully to others.”


Teacher Appreciation Story #4

Gold stars

At the time I was too busy being 13 to pay attention to the lessons that were being laid out before my seventh grade class, but in 1979 thirty of my classmates and I found ourselves learning enough about the social-emotional economic realities of the prepubescent classroom to write a doctoral thesis.   Of course, we didn’t really know what a thesis was let alone social-emotional economies.

What follows is not thesis, but it is a true story.

In 1979 Holy Redeemer Elementary school, in Portland Oregon got a male teacher.  Somehow, that press release didn’t make the 5 o’clock news but as a student that had never had a teacher that was neither a mother nor nun It was the biggest news of the year.

The school had found a man; we were so excited to not have a nun that he could have had two noses and we would not have noticed until Christmas. Mr. Antz was small, unassuming and serious about both his religion and learning but we liked him anyway.  He treated us with respect, like the adults we wanted to be.  Even his classroom was made us feel more mature than we were.

Like every classroom, the walls of Mr. Antz’s room had pictures and posters, but for the first time, there was no alphabet strip above the chalkboard.  There were none of those childish Frank Schaffer posters with round face cartoon kids explaining that a noun is a person place or thing. No, pictures of Jesus blessing a circle of multi-cultural children.

Mr. Antz had the traditional cross and a flag by the door, but the rest of the walls were covered with real art.  Copies of classical works ripped out of old calendars.  Posters of real musicians, living and dead that stood as a testament to a person’s ability to honestly enjoy more than one kind of music. I also remember quotes that we did not understand, some of them in Latin, just written in marker and taped to the wall.  I spent hours staring at those walls pretending to think.

The most interesting thing in his room was not his walls it was the calendar behind his desk. Because it was filled with gold stars.   Mr. Antz graded himself every day.  I had never heard of, or thought of such a thing.  A teacher that graded himself.

He was quiet about it. But it was never hidden.  As we packed up to leave at the end of the day he would look through his lesson plan from the music stand that held it, then pull the page of sticky gold stars from the paperclip on the back and filled in that days square. It was a 4 point scale.

I asked him about it once; He said, “I can only improve if I know how well I’m doing.”

For his students, gold stars were hard to find and had real value.  Even top star papers bleed the red ink of corrections and suggestions.  When he thought we could do more he told us so.  His rebukes stung because we wanted to earn his respect, it meant something and to have it was valuable. A four star paper was source of both strength and pride.

Mr. Antz was as tough on himself as he was on us, most months only found one or two 4 star days.  I questioned him after one such day because he had yelled at a couple us.    “Sometimes my job is to tighten things up, and sometimes it’s to let it ride.  I get that fourth one for knowing the difference.”

In the first weeks of November, there were rumors that Mr. Antz was gay.  By Christmas, he was gone.

In January 1980, Frank Schaffer was back on the walls explaining nouns, the gold star calendar was replaced a blank one from State Farm.  Mrs. Morley, a former nun and our new teacher was tried and convicted of replacing Mr. Antz, then sentenced to serve 6 months hard time with a group of angry preadolescence.

The fact that Mrs. Morley was as innocent of the crime as she was guilty, was lost on us.  We were angry 13 years olds functioning in an economy of emotion.  We had been wronged, and would force someone to pay the price.

Like every teacher Mrs. Morley quickly found value in a colored star economy, so immediately tried to buy her way to a lighter sentence. The girls got two gold stars for every paper turned in, the boys two silver.  We got another star for putting our name on our work.  Soon, a 5 star paper was common place.  Everything we did was “wonderful”.  She was flooding our emotional economy with fails praise.

Every third sentence Mrs. Morley spoke to us was tagged with a smiley face and the words “You’re such a sweet class.”

“You’re such a sweet class, lets do some long division.”

“You’re such a sweet class I don’t know why you keep forgetting your books”

“You’re such a sweet class now stop that stupid chatter and get to work.”

By February, gold and silver had no market value at all.

In March, all praise rang hallow, the word sweet left a sour taste in our mouths.  Our once strong emotional economy founded on effort and reward had gone bust. Flooded with over inflated praise.

We finished out June proud of fact that Mrs. Morley would not be coming back.  Somehow, that was a moral victory.  Seventh graders are not known as a forgiving demographic in terms of emotional economics. They are also not known for their foresight.  Giving up on learning because your teacher uses false praise is the special kind of stupid that is reserved for 13 years olds.


Eighth graders in September are not substantially different Seventh graders in June.  That was fine for our teacher, Sister Magdalene, she was old school, an old school Catholic nun, the only one in our school that still wore her black and white habit.

The walls of her room were sparse, a saint picture or two, a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence and a couple poems written out, in perfect penmanship, on poster size paper.

On the first day of school, in the first hour of class, Sister Magdalene clarified her stance on gold stars.

“Paper stars are for little children.  I teach young adults.”

Golden stickers are an easy to understand visual representation of feedback and encouragement, they are the Frank Schaffer posters of the reinforcement world. …Every classroom has a social economy, with or without shiny currency.

Sister Magdalene’s classroom social economy was as plain and clear as the walls for her room.  If you worked hard, you earned praise.  Generally in small personal tones.  Like a “Well Done,” “Smart Work”, or a “Nicely Explained” On the bottom of a paper.   She was not open and chatty like Mr. Antz, I don’t think anyone hung out in her room after school to visit.  But when you found yourself fortunate enough to earn a complement, either on paper or verbally it had real value.

Long before winter break every one of us knew the value of “well done”.  We knew that when sister Magdalene smiled with her teeth barely visible we had met her expectations, and when that same smile leaked into the corners of her eyes we had impressed her. That was better than money in the bank

By early spring, everyone in the class had established a source of social income.  Some got small smiles daily but never the high payout; others would drain their bank dry and then try to score big on a test. Most of us worked hard, failed some and succeeded some. Our economy was expanding.  A healthy credit with Sister Magdalene had high market value with other teachers.

We left school at the beginning of summer never to return as student.  The social economy of high school was completely different.  The cache of credits we earned at Holy Redeemer were nontransferable funds.  However, I know from personal experience that their value carried some of us through 4 years of a social economic recession.




Teacher Appreciation Story #3

The term “the art of teaching” has become popular lately. A tribute to the fact that we do more than break students into data points and apply remedies for the pieces we find missing.  The Craft of our profession sits in nice contrast to the science of pedagogy.  That ability to measure growth and learning which has become so overpowering lately.

The hidden irony is that we are praised for the art which is unclear to most.

People tell me all the time how much they appreciate what I do.   My dedication to the craft.

They point to all that I have given up to become more than just a practitioner so that my art would make a difference.

But no matter how many time I hear that, more often than not the praise rings a bit hollow.

I believe they mean what they say, but I don’t think they understand the art of what we do.

Art is always difficult to define, but teaching is an ugly art, complex and intangible, at the elementary level, it is full of snot, cafeteria food, zipping other people’s paints, frustration, tears, cheesy smiles, high-stakes testing and more artistic skill than normal people could reasonably imagine.

Most adults don’t ever see it. Most kids don’t know it’s happening.  So for me to hear,

“Wow you are so good at your job”

It has all the value of me praising the artistic level of didgeridoo solo.

I appreciate it, but I couldn’t tell you a good one from a bad one.

I may not be able to define the Artistic qualities of pedagogy, but I have seen it.

I know it’s awesome to watch in a painfully ugly way.

Last year I was working with a teacher to master and hone her craft, in the process I saw amazing examples of the art of teaching.

Jason was in the first grade last year.  Most mornings he came into class after the bell rang because the bus didn’t drop him off with enough time to eat breakfast before class started.  Unfortunately, Jason was not the kind of kid that could really afford to miss a free meal or any instructional time.  We made the decision to let him eat and be late to class. Because hungry and grumpy did not make Jason learn better.

  • That not art, that’s just common sense.

The phrase “clothes that fit” means something different in Jason’s head than it does in yours, there are 3 kids in his house and his mother works a minimum wage job so for Jas, fit means you can get it on and most the buttons work.

Jason head must also have a different understanding of “quiet as a mouse” too because late or not Jason is loud. So he doesn’t sneak into the working classroom unseen.  But the rule is that interrupting other people’s learning is not okay.  So teacher moves, and while giving the rest of the class instructions that most of them already know she silently greets Jason with a high five, give the boy a tissue for the snot dancing in and out of his left nostril and escorts him to his desk, and helps him write his words.  Seamless and smooth.

  • That’s nice work, but any veteran knows those tricks that’s not art.

Noticing the cloud hanging over Jason’s head is not art either.  Mostly that is a survival skill.

It’s forecasting a stormy day. Jason will explode soon. Like tracking a hurricane, the important part is not, knowing one is out there, it is knowing where and when it will hit.

Of course, Jason is not a hurricane; he is a six-year-old.  You could force his hand, push his buttons and he would explode when you’re ready, you call the office and he’s gone for the day.

That not going to happen here.  Her art is teaching, not getting rid of problem kids, and sadly, it’s also not to fix them.

So she helps him learn; breaking down sentences into chunks like rap that doesn’t rhyme.  Because Jason struggle with fluency, and often sentences make more sense when you break it into small pieces.

But on a trip to the bathroom, he erupts.  His zipper broke, and someone else told him so… Jason Comes storming into his classroom.

“I ain’t doing this sh**” and shoves the papers off his desk. Arms folded, angry tears clouding his eyes.

Every other eye in the room is shifting from Jason to Teacher, to Jason.

Teacher glances at the clock and a sigh says it all.  Another 10 minutes and we would have been at recess.  Still, within that sigh is a core of resolution.  She doesn’t miss a beat ‘Boys and girls as soon as you get these three problems done I will let you out for early recess.

No one is focused on Jason now, and three problems are all they had left anyway.

  • Masterful stroke, use the building pressure in the room to your advantage, and clear the room at the same time.

But Jason is still a tempest waiting to blow and has now thrown his chair to the side because no one pay attention to his paper tantrum.

I take the class to recess stopping by the office on the way.

Teacher starts the conversation, “Dude, you must be mad to talk like that in here.

“What you think!?”

“I think you should crumple up that paper and throw it as hard as you can at the word wall… tell me what word you hit and I will right in on the board.”

  • Master stroke #2

The history of the world has rarely seen a paper throw with such high levels of both anger and attempted accuracy.

Help is never too far away from Jason’s classroom, because as I said, he is neither quiet nor discreet.

The principal walked into the room.  “Hey Jas, what’s going on?”

“I ain’t going with you… back off.”   Jas and Mrs. Princ, have done this a couple times before, he knows the routine.

“Not an option sir, you know that.”

“You touch me and I will jack you up!”

Jason, darts to the right, but that door was blocked by the teacher.  So he moves to the left and grabs a fist full of scissors from their rack and threatens us with them.

When no one flinches, he throws a pair hard against the wall, but he was careful to aim away from both of Mrs. Princ and Teacher… He could have hit either one.

Mrs. Princ slowly step toward him looking for a way to not back Jason into a corner, but he dives under the desk and out the door.

Jason knows this routine a little too well…we follow quickly, just a couple steps behind.

Jason runs into Mrs. Princ’s office and waits, still unleashed and storming.

Sometimes, masterstrokes only happen with routines and trust.

Mrs. Princ follows him into her room, closing the door and opening the blind, because she need privacy and she needs witnesses.  She was content to let him stand there; all the time thinking “breathe Jason, breathe.”

But as she walked toward her desk Jason ran at her. Slamming his head into her stomach and almost wrapping his arms around her in a bear hug.

Then there was that odd teacher moment when she realized 4 or 5 things at once but and only respond to one:

Her shirt now had snot all over it.

That was a whole lot of force from a 3 foot 50 lbs body.

Jas’s Zipper is broken?

That squeeze lefts an awful lot like a hugging.

She did not solve Jason’s problems, but we did fix the zipper.


Teacher Appreciation Story #2


Why a teacher works:

I was at a party for a neighbor, not a friend in sight.

On the deck we were talking politics, but not looking for a fight.

My companion was an army man, had served for twenty something years.

Our minds made up, our manners light, we were filling time and sipping beers.

We laughed and shook our heads, sharing both distrust and frustration,

30 min must have past, we wandered and enjoying the conversation.

A comfortable lag began to stretch…” so what do you do, he asked, as he took another sip.

I’m a teacher, I said, in elementary school.  I saw surprise in his eye, a question on his lip.

Then I have to ask, he said straight faced, Why do you teach?  He looked at me… and waited.

A “what teacher make” Moment? I wondered as I mounted my defenses, but then… I hesitated.

Because I paused, he went on, “You could do more, you’re clear headed and well spoken.

You make half what you’re worth.  Why struggle in a system that seems pretty broken.

The job is tough, rewards are few. Your pay is clearly lacking,

Why train for years, work that hard, when demands keep stacking.

You make a difference, I get that, but you’re regarded with only platitudes.

The little kids? he ranted on, All those whiney pansy little attitudes.

He took a breath, and then a pull and waited for my edification.

Why do I teach…? What could I say, the solider deserved explanation.

So, I took a breath, and then a pull, and responded slow and clear.

You’re a military man? I ask, Yes sir, he replied, curious what he would hear.

Like you I said, It’s honor that drives me into my fight.

To do it for any other reason would simply not be right.

I teach because it’s who I am.  It’s more than what I do.

It’s not the pay or false regard. No one knows that more than you.

Our nation is indomitable because of you.  You keep us safe, make us thrive.

Our nation is ingenious because of me.       I keep us moving, make us strive.

The moment lingered heavy while he considered my reflection.

Hoorah was all he said with a tilt in my direction.

Teacher Appreciation Story #1

Gift cards, coffee cups, and cookies wrapped in tin


I have been given all of those over and over again.

Thank you cards, handmade art, and placards for the wall


as an appreciated teacher, I have received them all.

But standing in line at the football game I hear my name called out


I searched the crowd looking for the face that owned that shout.

A student from the past, must be 20 something now


he was older and taller but I knew the smile somehow.

He stood awkward for a moment or two. “That was a tough year,” he said in greeting.

“It was, I smiled back, “but you stood tall, and grew without retreating.”

“Yeah” he said with a nod, then he shook my hand.


“Good to see you Mr. C, Thanks” then he turned and

Hustled off not another word was spoken.


No hallmark card or coffee cup was offered as a token.

It was 30 seconds long and 10 years later, that return on my investment.


But like in the classroom where we met, success is an individual assessment

This job is measured in forms most do not understand, our importance understated


Scores and grades and curriculum are what we do but not what is appreciated.

What you teach is important. But it’s you that creates the impact


We help kids struggle, persevere, and survive with their pride intact.

A nod is no small thing.  The embodiment of growth and reflection


The nod is teacher appreciation.