The Small Victory of Graduation


Graduation ceremonies are a kind of optical illusion.  As you look at them, the image that forms is this mass of students all celebrating their academic accomplishments and their entry into some new unknown adventure.

But if you look closer that is not what is going on at all. Instead what looks like one mass celebration is, in reality, a collection of small individual victories. From the stands last weekend I saw families whose real victory was not getting through high school, but rather finally sending someone to college. Others that where the expectation was not merely college but top honors and top schools.

I know students in class, many of them spend years walking in and out of my library. I saw kids for whom graduation was a celebration of something else;

An escape route

An end to a ugly chapter

A victory in a war of attrition

An act of defiance

A chance to start over

A tribute to someone lost

The mourning of a loss.

As the kid’s file across the stage, each shaking the hands of administrators they hardly knew I saw another personal victory. Off the stage, in the aisles of kids moving from chair to line, KC was already bouncing and ready to go.

KC is a Special Education student, kind, funny and honest to a fault KC was going to walk (and bounce) to receive his Certificate of Achievement.  As proud, as any student there. He was high-fiving every hand he could reach and several he couldn’t.  The bounces were getting bigger and the high fives more vigorous.

Without a word and almost without notice the Superintendent stepped off the ceremonial line and slipped down the aisle. For the next 10 minutes or so he stood with KC, celebrating, conversing, and calming. By the time KC was walking across the stage the Sup was back in formation ready to shake his hand, one last time.

For me, all of education seemed to be caught in that small moment. A masterful educator quietly supporting an individual student while simultaneously getting the larger group to their collective goals, which have been cleverly disguised as a single common goal. The skills and subtle moves of the teacher may be moving to a less prominent place in the room, but that has only made their roll all the more powerful.

As is often the case for me, I am probably seeing more than was there. But I am content to believe in both what I saw and what I decided it represented if for no other reason than it made me feel good about the district my kids were apart of for 13 years.


the Art of Waiting 250 words

the-waiting-gameI started this a couple weeks ago.

But poetry, even bad poetry, is more difficult than counting out 250 words so there was some… waiting.

Teaching makes me think about waiting from the other side.  Not like Jonah sitting in the whale’s belly, or Buddha under a tree doing nothing.  Teaching makes me think of waiting as the purposeful time between actions.  More like the civil rights lunch counter sit-in,McCain-obit-3-master675




or standing stalwart in front of tanks at Tiananmen Square.Tianasquare

It is much harder to describe. But mastering waiting means using that time between actions to set the course for the next action.

I firmly believe that great educators are great waiters.

Never try to out wait teachers:

They are masters of the waiting arts;

  • Pregnant pauses
  • Averted glances
  • Awkward silences

Master teachers wield with patience and calm

Undeterred by defiant sweaty palm

Where mere mortals will push through or call a victim out

A teacher will hold and force the dormant thoughts to sprout.

Seconds tick by, each carefully;

  • Sweated
  • Stewed
  • And Stirred

While the educator calmly waits unperturbed and cool.

Time is never wasted, too precious is that in school.

They watch for fidgeting fingers or a curiously itching head,

Those brave enough to struggle, those that left the problem dead;

  • Ripe with contemplations
  • Seasoned with frustrations
  • Asked in expectations

The answers’ rightness or wrongness are nothing but a ruse

It’s the learning the teacher awaits and will not refuse.

Thinking Algebraically


I am always a bit awkward writing about math.  It is a field in which I have grown comfortable with my lack of understanding.

If I had put any effort into going to my high school math classes I would certainly be one of those people that now wants go back and yell at the teacher “Algebra has had no impact on my life!”  However, since I avoided those classes I don’t think the teacher would recognize me.

In our rage, we math haters might have missed the point.  Maybe it’s not that algebra had no impact on my life, maybe it’s that I have missed out on the impact algebra could have had on my life.

If I list all the things I didn’t learn that didn’t change my life, algebra doesn’t even make the top of the list alphabetically.

(Accounting, Acoustic guitar, and Alchemy take those honors.)

Now that I can look back from a safe distance, I have to concede that math is as much or more about developing complex problem solving skills as those lit. classes were, and I have plenty of need to solve complex problems.  (Lord of the Flies has had no impact on my life either.)

It is probably true that I was never going to be an astrophysicist.

But a better understanding of algebra might have gotten me to a faster understanding that two negatives, whether they are numbers, mindsets or attitudes never make a positive.

Math might even have cosmic


Vocabulary in 250 word:

Wordle-vocabulary-1p1s4xh Although neither of my parents ever got close to college vocabulary and debate, were huge in our house throughout my childhood. We knew Roberts rules of order by heart. I could present a three-point argument at age 8. My brother put the butt in rebuttal. We debated vociferously and vehemently.
My parents would not let us play sports because they thought competition was bad, but, we were scored on the strength of our arguments and extra points were given for vocabulary.
As a kid words had important value in our family, they had muscle and sway.
The more word you know the smarter people think you are. I was a horrific reader but no one noticed until late because I was well spoken.
Vocabulary has torque:
“By age three, it is believed that children growing up in poor neighborhoods or from lower-income families may hear up to 30 million fewer words than their more privileged counterparts.”
A run of the numbers:
• The Typical high school grad knows between 40 and 50 thousand words and uses around 5,000.
• The typical college grad knows about 75,000 thousand words and uses around 10,000
And one more just for the old white middle-class rapper inside me.
Jay-Z uses about 4500 different words in his raps, which is dangerously close to the total number of words used by high schooler…and his lines rhyme!49pf3Ip
Vocabulary is all about exposure. Hearing, using and reading words.
I have a list of books with great Vocabulary on the website.

The Foundation of a Great Edifice

You can’t get there from here:

Golden gate Bridge wallpaper

No one looks at the vast edifice crossing San Francisco Bay and says ….”OMG can you imagine how complex the work of building those foundation blocks in the water must have been.”

What catches your eye as you look at the Golden Gate Bridge is not the foundational pieces that actually make the whole thing possible. It’s the structure built on top of the foundation that everyone pays attention to.

The Golden Gate Bridge was not a sudden epiphany.  People had been talking about a bridge from Oakland to San Francisco for 40 years before the Golden Gate project.  The issue was no one could figure out how to start. The land on both sides was unforgiving and the water between was deep, treacherous and deadly. The current was so strong ships could not anchor long enough to drill into the bedrock on the bay floor. download

Once that foundational infrastructure was established, any bridge was possible.  Without it, nothing was going to work. Until then, people would slowly ferry back and forth unable to make the meaningful progress everyone wanted and needed.

Elementary school is the infrastructure of the 21st century, we may not be noticed, but all the impressive things seen in the people around you would not be possible without us doing what seems impossible


The solution to the bridge problem came from the Navy.  They sent subs down to drop torpedoes into the bedrock to start the casting holes.


The Status Quo of Outliers


It turns out, that there have been a ton of studies that explain simply truths in complicated scientific terms basic ideas that we all seem to have missed because of their sheer simplicity.  For example, a recent study of high performing students (top 10% of an academic class) are very likely to perform well within prescribed structures but are not likely to do well “outside the box”.  A follow-up pointed out that outliers are most likely to be the ones thinking outside the box.

That seems like something we should not need research to figure out. But apparently, we do because research out of Stanford shows that we are seven times more likely to ask members of the status quo to try and think outside the box than we are to bring those outliers in.  In short, we are more likely to stick with status quo in our efforts to break out of the… status quo.

In a personalized classroom, we have a chance skew to that data just a little. There will always be students on the far side of normal, kids that drive us nuts and a more personalized approach will not make weird less weird. Nor will it change the shape of our cultural bell curve, but it can allow us to see the value of weird. It could be as simple as asking a student to find a way to demonstrate what they have learned.  The criteria doesn’t change, just how they chose to get there.


My Insights on feedback

Lessons I have learned about feedback:


  • What is not constructive is destructive: Feedback is a helpful insight to moving forward, not a list of missteps in paths behind us.
  • It’s for reflection not direction: Good feedback makes the learner think through a better answer it does not point to the answer.
  • The law of diminishing returns always applies: The impact of the feedback diminishes with time away from the learning.
  • Honest feedback means you care: Indifference is a silent speech that echoes in our ears.
  • The most meaningful things teachers do is craft responses to student learning: It’s not the lessons or the data, or the grade, a machine could generate those things.

Feedback is where the connection between learners, the empathy of struggle, and the encouragement of a taskmaster, all find a voice.

BG feedback

Well built feedback comes from the piles of data that we gather:  It is then enriched and fortified by a teachers experience and understanding of their students. Finally, in the hands of an expert, feedback pushes, pulls, annoys and encourages until a goal is within sight, then fades so the learning is owned by the learner.

ELA Busking 250 words

I had the incredible opportunity last week of spending several days ied07a98aee96a1386f9514a5add51938n New Orleans with my son.  As huge music buffs, we spent most of our time on Royal Street, just listening to the buskers in The French Quarter.

Busking is an incredibly brave act.  Standing up in public and presenting your skills for the evaluation of anyone that walks by.  The same rules apply to the artist with their work hanging for all to analyze and offer a formative assessment of each piece. Art is a public thing made to share, judged and personalized with every iteration. To play music or paint is to be open to critical evaluation.

Then we ran across busking wordsmiths, people who sit with funky old portable typewriters on funkier older TV trays waiting to write whatever you want written. Give them a topic and a format and then pay them what you think it’s worth.


I was struck by the courage of these ELA aficionados as I proctored the SBAC this week. Despite what the name of the test suggests, we don’t really think of ELA as a performance task, but more of a business skill and a communication skill. What strikes me most is the contrast in evaluation. Most of the assessments we make in life are still shots of moving targets, reflections of one moment of time, somehow, that seems easier to remember when the performance is music that drifts down the street than when it’s written in either tests or poems.



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.