Learning to be Grateful

The idea of a Gratitude Journal is all the rage right now, but I think for that very reason, I have resisted doing one myself.  The fact that so many people want to do it, I didn’t want to do it just to be different.  But I’m coming around.  I NEED to come around.  I am learning that in order for me to not get undone by the uncertainty and ugliness many communities and classrooms are feeling in the wake of our recent election, I have to find and focus on the goodness right in front of me.

With the dissonance and unrest in so many communities post-election, because of the speed with which life passes, kids grow up, and circumstances change, the colorful experiences that make up the stories of our life can blend together and lose their luster or get overlooked.  Just like driving down a highway and the scenery whizzes by in a blur, unless I stop and look around I miss the detail of every blade of grass, tree, and rock that makes up that scenery.  Stopping to take notice of the little joys in life not only helps collect them for memory’s sake, but it forces me to really focus on what’s right in front of me and make sure to celebrate.  That’s how I can restore the hope that seems lost.

So here are three for today… a shower, a boyfriend, and a phone call.

I am grateful for a hot shower.

I was thinking about what to write today as I got in the shower and was immediately distracted by just how great the water felt.  I’m telling you, the full force and pleasant sting of the hot water stole my attention and I was happily lost in the moment.  It was so hot…the steam was suffocating.  Not in an uncomfortable panicky way, but more like lying in bed with the comforter pulled over my head, feeling and breathing in the warmth.  I stood lost in the moment so long I almost ran out of hot water.  Snapping back to reality, the soap, shampoo, and I raced to get me clean before the cold water unkindly butted in.  On this gray, chilly day, I am grateful for the blast of hot water in the shower.

I am grateful my daughter has a boyfriend.

…said no dad ever.  You wouldn’t think a dad of teenaged girls would ever say that and usually I’d agree.  But not this time.

I am grateful not because of the boyfriend part; I am grateful because my daughter told me about him.

Being a single dad, I never know if I am loving and supporting my girls enough for them to be skilled, to be confident in the use of those skills, and to feel loved and safe enough to come to me when they need help.  My youngest daughter is a kind, smart, beautiful, thoughtful, tenderhearted center of my world…and all I want is for her to be happy.  If this boy interests her, great!  But the best part is she trusts me enough to tell me.  There is plenty of time to plan the demise of the gangly hormonal heartbreaker who is smitten with my precious daughter, but for now I will be grateful for my daughter’s trust in telling me about him.  If there was ever an indication that I might be getting it right with my girls, this is it.

I am thankful for renewed connections.

Recently, without premonition or planning, my path crossed with an old high school classmate.  Over the years, the occasional Facebook comment or posting has helped maintain a thread of connection but I wouldn’t say it was all that strong.  Just like with most old high school friends, time has a way of blurring my recollection of what was individually special about each of them, leaving a mass of friends, one not seemingly more special than another.

But today, we magically picked up where we left off 30 years ago.  In the blink of an eye, we were suddenly transported to junior year, English class, and a 30 second moment in time that we both remembered vividly.  But more powerful than the memory itself was the emotion that we both felt again in the exact same way we did back then.  Just like a familiar smell or song can instantly resurrect memories long forgotten, the mentioning of our 30 second shared moment revived the exact same emotions from that time.  As we shared those stories, 30 years was instantly erased and we talked as if we were 17 years old again, side by side in World Lit class instead of being in our mid 40s, on the phone from two different countries. We spent an hour together replaying some great stories and sharing a few new ones.

And this is why I am so grateful…

My reconnection with an old friend clearly reminded me of what love really is.  Not husband-wife love, not parent-child love, not lustful love, not seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time love of nature love, but a simple love of another person.  An honest and deep human affection.  By taking the time to really “see” each other and share our stories, we showed that we still matter and our 30 years of living helped us appreciate the power of the genuine friendship that had sprouted back then and was just as real now.

When I got off the phone, I sat still for a few minutes, wrapped up in the feelings of that call much like I had been wrapped up in the sensation of the shower earlier.  A big purple comforter of reconnection and love.  Would never have predicted it, but boy am I thankful for it.


Today is a gray and cloudy day literally, but too many days lately have felt gray with uncertainty and concern.  As I have wondered how to counteract what feels scary and uncertain for my daughters, for my students, for my colleagues and community, when I ask how can I instigate something warmer and brighter and more loving than the acrid tenor that pervades wherever I go, I realized that I don’t need an event or a movement.  What I need to make a change is right in front of me…I just have to stop and take note of it.

I need to be grateful.  And I need to encourage others to be grateful.

Turning away from the gray of doubt and concern, turning to the goodness of a hot shower, a trusting daughter, a lifelong friendship, and countless other examples of goodness all around us is what makes for a much brighter, more loving kind of day.


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My Grief is Good

I woke up this morning with a heavy sense of grief.  With the election turning out as it did,  I expected disappointment or anger, but instead what I felt was grief.  It kind of surprised me, but as I rolled it around in my head, it hit me…I wasn’t grieving the loss of something tangible like a person or a job or an election.  I was grieving the loss of my ability to protect my daughters from uncertainty.

My daughters are my world.  I raise them, support them, push them, and eventually I have to let them try on their own – a tightrope balancing act of watching my girls be independent and think for themselves while I watch from a distance – Dad as safety net.  I know they need to fall, but I keep that landing from being too jarring.

But today, I realized I lost my ability to protect them from a fall.  They are scared, they are feeling vulnerable like never before…and it is too big for me to shield them.


As I drove into work, I reminisced about my time as a principal and how at times like this I had to assume the Dad role with my work family, too.  Whatever the tragic event, I had to reassure, listen, encourage, hug, and help us get on with things.  As a social organization, we had to be honest with the emotion in order to be healthy and effective.  Feel it, make sense of it, and move on together.  This morning, I felt that familiar urgency, that NEED of others that didn’t need me to fix it, but they needed kindness and understanding and the space to help heal each other.

I reflected on what I had said in times like this before, I thought about what I would have said if I was a principal now, and what I came up with sounded very similar to what I told my girls…


I’m so sorry.  This is scary.  Sad.  Hurtful.  Wrong.  But as I think about it, I’m not sure those are the right words.  They are close, but instead of feeling those emotions, I really think they are describing my reaction to not knowing, to fearing, this new future ahead of us.

My faith keeps me focused on being present in the moment.  If I focus on the past, I am riddled with regret over events I can’t do anything about.  It is wasted emotion and energy.  If I look the other way and focus too much on the future, my anxiety and fear get the best of me and I invest energy in something too far in the distance to impact.  Another waste of time.  This morning I woke up with my head and heart too far into the unknown…a tomorrow shaped by the last 15 months of hateful dehumanizing rhetoric and I felt scared.  Scared for me certainly, but so much more so for my girls.

And when I think about my schools and the kids and families of South Phoenix, many of whom live with poverty and the fear of their deportation or of someone they love, families who have been alienated because of their faith, kids shamed for their sexual orientation or their race, today, with the same hateful speech ringing in their ears, they, too, faced the uncertain future with a fear and a sense of security lost welling up inside.  Makes my heart hurt.

I, as a father – we, as educators – love those we care for.  And to see our precious ones reeling from the fear of the unknown waiting for us all, it has shaken us deeply.

But…it has also sparked something powerful in us.  Something good.

Just today, I witnessed:

  • A stranger on a city bus reassured a little black girl who told her mom she was afraid because our new president is a racist. The man didn’t know the girl, but he knew what she was feeling.
  • A teacher shared a blog post with her colleagues at a meeting about how to explain to kids the election of a man as president who exhibits such abhorrent traits and behaviors that if they did the same things would result in them getting suspended or arrested. The article not only let loose the tears of these adults’ frustration, but in that collective moment, that group of teachers put the math aside and bonded, their vulnerability wrapping them comfortingly like a blanket.  It also prompted them to share the post, along with another collective cry and bonding moment with their fearful and unsettled students.  Today those students learned math, but they also learned so much more.
  • A principal who agonized since 2AM over how she was going to help her kids and teachers heal told her emotional staff, “Today we must take care of each other like never before. If you go for coffee, get one for a friend.  If you see a colleague in the hall, don’t just smile, reach out and hug – feel that warmth.”

So as I drove home today I realized I was thankful for my “grief.”  It reminds me that all I can do is be a participant in the moment.  To be present.  And as I choose to make the most of the here and now, acts of compassion, kindness, learning, and healing will sprout up before us.

I can’t worry about what may come.  If I do, I will miss my chance to make a difference now.  Gay marriage and Roe v. Wade may soon be in jeopardy, but for now I need to “BE” with my daughters, celebrate the diversity they live with and cherish, and help them not lose sight of the good by pondering too much on what might be.

I need teachers to love and push their kids to be better readers and writers and speakers and thinkers.  Do that now and when the future arrives, these students will be better equipped to stand strong, speak clearly and with conviction sway the scene their way.

My grief is good.  It grounds me in the now so that I make the most of it.  Use it.  Build something strong with it.

Our kids need us to help them develop the resolve and the intellectual weaponry to fight.  Not to hurt as they have been hurt, but to make right what obviously is not.  So, be present.  Be positive.  Be amazing now so our kids will be amazing in their own way tomorrow.

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Kindness Made Me Cry

Kindness made me cry today.

Well that’s not really unusual for me.  I’m a bit of a softy that way, but today kindness snuck up on me.

I was watching Sunday Morning as I always do and part way through I realized I had tears on my cheeks.  They were halfway down my cheeks before I was even aware of them, and for some reason, I just left them there.

I blame the TV show – the stories I saw really struck a chord in me.  One was about a Starbucks barista who after one interaction with a deaf customer went home and spent three hours learning enough ASL to help him order his drink.  She wanted to give him the same ordering experience as everyone else.  Another story was about a musician who as he struggled with addiction found and married his soul mate, but as he put it, her presence and support was not just lifesaving, it was life starting.  Then there was the son who left New York City and moved back to his small Missouri hometown to care for his 92 year old dementia stricken mother, not because of some familial obligation, but because he wanted her to know, “I really like her.  And I am happy.”  Each story involved a gift – of effort, of presence, of love – and it made such a difference that as one recipient put it, life actually began after the kindness.  And as I witnessed these stories, even just watching through the TV, I got all choked up.

Lately, I have been wondering, How aware are we of kindness?  Just about every day the last couple months I have found myself telling a story of some random act of kindness that I witnessed, and I am equally as surprised as I am impressed by what I saw.  Why is that?

On a person level, I think we witness kindness all the time.  We greet friends and family with warm hugs hello.  We send thoughtful texts on important days and we offer rides or words of encouragement or a helping hand to those who need it.  Periodically, I can tell you first hand there’s nothing better on a special holiday than to have a friend throw out an invitation to join his family. “Come join us, we’d love to have you.”  So as not to miss out on the warmth of family, I get invited, temporarily made family, and one more plate is at the table and one more person feels the love.  A couple of my favorite Thanksgivings and Christmas Eves were spent with other people’s families.

But outside of friends and family, I am not sure how aware we are of the kindness all around us.  I am trying to be more mindful of it, but even with my effort, I am still in awe whenever I see it.  Every day I witness some of the smallest, most genuine acts of kindness from one stranger to another.  A door is held open.  Someone reaches high up on a shelf for another.  A compliment about a well behaved child makes a weary, stressed-out mom beam with pride.  It can be as small as unexpected praise from a colleague or a coffee bought for the car behind in the drive thru – just because.  Or, it could be as grand as pitching in after a big storm to shelter or clothe or clean or hug someone.  I’m telling you, as boisterous and huge as the storm is, an equally boisterous spirit of kindness is sparked in reaction.  I’ve seen it over and over, and yet, acts of kindness still sneak up on me.

I’m surprised partially because I used to see kindness exhibited by my students all the time.  The general public may think of teenagers as disconnected, egocentric, apathetic, or a variety of other pejoratives, but I know them to be some of the kindest, most altruistic of people.  School isn’t just for learning, it is about being kind.  In addition to learning standards, school is all about fundraisers and carwashes, cancer walks and shoe/toy/blanket/canned food drives to raise money or awareness or support.  As kids are developing their independence and sense of identity, they are also very attune to others, and when they see injustice they band together for the cause:  It’s getting rid of the R word, it’s speaking out against genocide, it’s celebrating the differences we have in those who are immigrants or disabled, or you name it.

Even on bad days, really bad days when a campus is upended by crisis or trauma, kids respond in remarkable ways.  One thing I learned over the years was that when a classmate or a colleague was taken from us by accident, illness or act of violence, always, thankfully always, on the heels of the tragedy was beautiful acts of kindness.  Grief and loss fueled creative compassion and suddenly there were vigils and prayer circles and those who were but strangers the day before had come together, connected by their purpose of bringing kindness to others.

Initially I was surprised by what kids came up with, but with time and unfortunately with tragedy after tragedy I came to be comforted by the fact that right around the crisis corner was going to be kindness.

And I guess that’s why my tears caught me by surprise today…I am used to kindness at home, I am used to kindness at school, but for some reason in the rest of life, it is still so unexpected.

Anyway, regardless of the reason why, I will keep looking for, and I am sure finding, random acts of kindness everywhere I go.  And until I solve this puzzle of unexpectedness, I’m committed to simply being thankful.  Because expected or not…Kindness is everywhere…and that is a very good thing!



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Don’t Miss Out on the Bus

We all have a relationship with space. Whether it’s simply walking through it as we stroll down the sidewalk or we are submersed in it at home going from room to room, much like fish in a bowl, we are immersed in space.  From the intimacy of personal space to the warmth of a larger circle of friends or the familiarity of a much broader social arena like a classroom, grocery store, or restaurant, the space that surrounds us and is our everyday reality.  It is what we experience and what helps us know the world.

I have been thinking a lot lately about my spaces, about where I go, who I come into contact with, and what I do – or don’t – notice along the way.  And in the process there has been an unveiling of hidden spaces that I haven’t noticed but were right there next to me all along.

Take work for example.  It is a meaningful and complex space, but one it seems I know very little about.  I made a list of the people with whom I work the most.  I see many of them every day, some I spend hours with, all I would consider friends, and yet what I know about them and their lives varies greatly.  For some I know their spouses, kids, pets, even how big the hibiscus on the patio gets in the summer.  For others, I couldn’t tell you much.  Why is that? It causes a little pang of inadequacy to flare up, even a little shame…but it doesn’t change that I don’t know much.

So why don’t I know more?

Some would say it’s because I’m a guy or it’s my arrogance – and though that might be the case somewhat, it isn’t a sufficient answer.  I think it has to do with intentionality.  If I really wanted to know, I would have intentionally invested in knowing the important parts of my colleagues’ worlds.  It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I don’t explore, and in not exploring I miss out on the color and texture of who they really are.  So as I started looking at my colleague’s lives,  I also started looking around and like a stage lit up by a spotlight, I saw hidden spaces everywhere that had previously been hidden – or at least not intentionally noticed.

So how intentional are we?

Every morning at 7:41AM, a city bus pulls up across from my office and I watch a squad of teenagers spill out and make their way across the busy street on their way to school.  At different points of my life I have been a bus rider, so my familiarity helps me see the bus experience as another space in which amazing things are hidden. Like jewels deep inside the earth, the bus holds fascinating characters, each with their own stories.  However, unless we intentionally carve out the time to explore, these are stories, and even more importantly, these are people, our neighbors and community members, that we will miss.  I’m not saying the key to happiness is riding the bus, but I can assure you our lives would be much brighter if we took the time to look around and explore unfamiliar spaces like the bus.

If you’ve never tried it, the bus is filled with interesting people.  Not interesting odd…but all walks of life type interesting.  The elderly woman all dressed up, coat pulled around her, protective of her stuff and herself.  The scraggly, mullet wearing man with dark shades four day old beard, baggy pants, dirty shoes who gets on and off with his bike.  There are the kids of varying colors, shapes and sizes, giggling and laughing as their earphones dangle alongside their piercings and backpacks.  Working professionals with papers and iPads, moms with strollers, and little girls with braids and pretty bows.  Loud talkers who know not a stranger and seem to enjoy colonizing/monopolizing the space make everyone a part of their own while those who just want to blend in concentrate on the phones holding their attention and everything else at bay.  They are a human kaleidoscope making their way every day to the bus stop to share a ride together.

On the bus, it doesn’t take long to pick up on the patterns.  First it’s who gets on and off where and eventually maybe what it is they do.  As the days toil on, tidbits of life are shared – idle chatter eventually giving rise to personal stories, while companionship can turn to a deepening friendship.  The commuter community has favorite drivers, saves seats for buddies, and warmly shares the morning or afternoon ride together.

Without a little effort, without intentionally getting to know these “strangers”, the ride could be a stretch of anonymity and quiet.  But with each conversation, or eavesdropped one nearby, these strangers become more familiar.  We see just how like each other we really are.  Life happens to us all, and as we share it with each other, for a few minutes a day, we see just how similar we really are.

So I wonder about the kids that get off the bus…who knows their stories?  When I think of those who share the bus with them…who knows theirs?  And then I am right back at work and the stories I have yet to learn.

Everywhere I look I see spaces to be explored.  The trick seems to be finding a way to open our eyes to seeing the opportunities that are right in front of us.  But as a little test, consider this…

Buses run like 18 hours a day on our busiest city streets.  They are some of the biggest vehicles on the road carrying one of the largest clientele, and yet for many, this is a world largely unexplored.  So, let me ask…

  • How many stops are in a mile?
  • Any idea how much it costs to ride?
  • Ever notice the people sitting at the bus stop? Are they there by choice or by force?

Now the answers to these specific questions aren’t important.  In fact, it is the lack of an answer that is important.  Because not knowing shows this may be a space that not enough is known about.  How many more spaces like this are out there?

Spaces to be explored are all around us, spaces to learn from and maybe even be a meaningful part of.  Just as I recognized how little I know about some of the people closest to me at work, I know I have to be missing out on other spaces as well.  If I don’t intentionally find and explore the spaces around me, I am bound to miss out on the knowledge, the warmth of new friends, and the richness of greater connections.



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Mindfully Finding the Good Things

Sometimes I miss working outside.

When I was in college, I had a great outside job working for a cable construction company.  If I wasn’t climbing telephone poles and snagging ping pong ball sized blackberries in the process, I was a ditch digger.  I was a 20 year old grunt hand digging around the copper water pipes servicing a home.

Everyday we’d show up to a new neighborhood, the remnants of yesterday’s concrete saw cutting the advanced warning we were coming.  We’d tear up the street, loud and messy, opening a trench uniform in width and depth exposing roots, rock and rubble, a snaking curbside incision.  At the end of the day we’d fill it back up with conduit and rock and I’d sweep it clean, always leaving it tidier than I found it.  It was hard work, like arm-numbing, barely-hold-my-coffee-in-the-morning type hard work.  And every day I went home knowing I had accomplished something.  Physically my body reassured me I had done work, but the work site preached it as well with its clean gutters and newly raked flowerbeds.  We took the time to marvel at our work each afternoon during Bill the backhoe driver’s final smoke break of the day.


When I think of schools, we don’t really have that same level of easily detectible clarity and precision when it comes to accomplishment.  We may get through one more day or one more lesson or unit, but it is hard to find that same kind of palpable progress that I found every day outside.  Kids busily rush about on campus cycling between specials or centers or classes and lunch, learning at different speeds, always coming back the next day for more.  Sure there is a break for Christmas or spring, but that is more an acknowledgement that we made it half way or more which is not the same thing as we made a difference.  There is a routine, a repetition that makes it feel like an endless stream carrying us through 180 days of instruction, on and on and on.

But it doesn’t have to feel that way.

Progress and accomplishment are everywhere, but it takes being mindful in searching for it in order to recognize it.  We don’t need more progress; we need more mindfulness to find it.  There’s always another day, another lesson, another obligation dragging our attention away from what is right before us, so unless we deliberately focus on looking for it, we are bound to keep missing it.  And we NEED to find it – because with accomplishment and progress comes pride, motivation, joy.  It builds us up and helps us persist when times get tough.  It is as good for kids as it is for teachers, which is why it is crucial that we make the time to find and rejoice in our successes.

So today teachers, make a point to celebrate your students.  At the risk of sounding like I’m advocating for one more thing on your already busy plate, I encourage you to turn your attention, your mindfulness to looking specifically for the good things in your classroom.

Find that kid who totally hit it out of the park this week, or maybe just for today, and let her know how her effort paid off. Find the boy who may not have crushed the assignment but who made meaningful progress, his effort getting him closer to the goal in some small way. Recognizing that effort will foster his growth mindset and push him to continue working hard.  And don’t forget about the precious quiet one about to slip through the crack.  Grab her hand, hold it gently and reassure her it isn’t going to happen. Help her believe that she’s not finished and that together you’ll cross that finish line.

Leaders should do the same thing.  Practice your mindfulness and find the good things on your campus.

When students are acting in ways that would awe the public because of their maturity or thoughtfulness or generosity or brains, stop and tell them they make you happy.  And proud.  And then tell them thank you.  Go find a teacher who is doing something novel or new, and take the time to honor that courage. Have a dialogue. Ask how it’s going, what positive impact is anticipated and how you can support it. Is there a hard working staff member that you too often walk by without taking 30 seconds to say hi and ask how are you? If so, give the gift of time to that someone and connect.  A drive-by high five works wonders.

We have to make time and carve out our opportunities to see and celebrate success.  We don’t have clean or newly landscaped curb lines to signal a job done well or to show the progress for our hard work.  Consequently, amidst the busy and the blur, we need to be more mindful about finding the good things and make the most of them.

I miss working outside like I did in college, but thanks to the magic I am getting better about  seeing every day in what I do, I hope to never miss out on noticing and sharing that with kids, my friends and my colleagues.

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Learning…And Liking Others Along the Way

I love the drive home after my daughter’s cheer practice.  It is very much a Forrest Gump, “You never know what you’re gonna get” moment.  Based on the volume, speed and animation of my daughter’s retelling, I can gauge just how good practice was.

If she is dark, sullen, quietly focused on her phone, I’m pretty sure tears and frustration are on their way.  Luckily, I usually get the other end of the spectrum – a supersonic blur of colorful gyrations and gestures.

Today’s machine gun flurry of details was all about the new coach.  “I really like the new coach.  She gives the best corrections.”

“Really?  How so?”

“We were doing our first formation and when I do my full down I always seem to fall.  So, I asked her to watch and tell us what we are doing wrong.”

And that’s when it hit me – given the right conditions, kids will expose what they don’t know or can’t do in hopes of getting better.  And they will like the teacher more who will partner with them to get better.  Once again my love of learning from my kids was reaffirmed.  Out of the mouths of babes…

As I have recently worked with teachers on practicing and reflecting on the application of the formative assessment process in the classroom, there have been countless conversations about the interrelatedness of clear learning targets, feedback that feeds forward, assessment, goal setting and how teachers can foster student ownership of learning.  The early stages of implementing these components can feel mechanical, cumbersome and overwhelming – each part focused on in isolation makes juggling all of the parts feel daunting and disconnected.  But when we see the glorious orchestration of it all – a formative flow where the pieces gel together into a powerful learning experience, the learner and the teacher clear on the target for the day, students assessing where they are in relation to the target and using the feedback from their teacher and peers to determine their next steps to move closer to the target, it is productive, self-directed, and powerful.

But the formative assessment process isn’t just for teachers…it is for coaches and athletes, chefs and sous chefs, managers and manages – wherever there is learning, the formative assessment process is present.  In the midst of my daughter’s exuberant description of practice I witnessed another benefit of the formative assessment process: as Ainslee’s knowledge/skill level deepens, so too does her relationship with her coach.

The formative assessment process creates learning and builds relationships, too.

The formative assessment process changes the power dynamic in a classroom, elevating the student to the role of partner in pursuit of learning.  The teacher is still in charge, but she and the students work together far more effectively.  Students leave their self-protective veneer at the door and opt for openness, sharing their needs and shortcomings, and like in the case of my daughter, they are willing to offer up subpar performances in pursuit of feedback and guidance and growth.

In a more traditional model of learning, the student is expected to show what she knows by submitting her best effort for the teacher to judge and offer points/grades.  Talk about a creativity killer.  There is no incentive to take educational risks, exercise creative thinking, or try something new – the risk of failure and the academic consequences are too great.  Learning becomes a lackluster uninspired exercise of regurgitation – go through the paces, produced exactly what is asked for, get judged by the all-knowing teacher and receive your points/grades/reward.  A true super/subordinate relationship.

Now, with the partnership fostered by the formative assessment process, a new relationship is created.  Judgment is still applied, but now it is by the learner, her peers, and the teacher.  The team works through the learning experience using it to generate feedback, not points.  A performance of any kind, even a “bad” one, is instructive, useful – not an academic death sentence.  As this cycle of Attempt-Feedback-Enhanced corrective action is repeatedly applied and as success is experienced, the partnership that created the better results is appreciated and trusted to a much greater degree.  A student’s learning needs are met, a teacher’s desire for learning is met, and the warmth of working together builds a stronger, more productive relationship.  Learning, and those with whom it happens, are valued more and more.

My daughter and her team were willing to open themselves up to feedback by performing as best they could, knowing it was “wrong” and almost guaranteed to be sloppy.  They were okay performing poorly in front of their coach because in this “fail” was the mutual desire to get better and the process and space to make it happen.  As success comes, so too does her affection and respect for her coach.  And Dad gets to hear about it all the way home.

We know the formative assessment process effectively elevates students from passive to active agents in the creation of their own learning.  But it is so fulfilling to witness first hand a change of heart in a classroom, to see high levels of learning for all students and to see them liking others more and more along the way.


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Standing in the Space Between

I love my morning drive.  The crisp air, seats warmed, and my sleepy-eyed daughter next to me as we witness another majestic sunrise.  In the span of a half an hour, the whole sky shifts from black to a light blue with a range of yellows, oranges, reds, and magentas in between.  The shift is almost undetectable moment to moment, but eventually an entirely new color palate is on display.  Something magical happened in the space between dark and light.

I’ve thought a lot lately about growth and change and learning.  Every motivational meme on Instagram or change expert in the blogosphere will tell you it isn’t where you start or stop that’s powerful – it’s the part in between.  It’s the journey, not the destination.  And if you’ve ever experienced a major life transition or witnessed someone overcome great odds, you know just how true this is.  In the classroom we talk about partnering with students to help them take the necessary and appropriate steps to fill the gap between what they know and what they need to know.   It’s not about getting great test scores to prove how smart they are, it’s about doing the right intellectual work to get where they want to go.

The more I think about this space between, the more I see interesting differences.  The transition that takes place in the space between can be as quick as lightning or as slow and silent as a snowfall.  I can go from agile to hobbling in an instant with a swiftly stubbed toe.  It takes longer to go from hungry to satisfied and it can take a lifetime to go from wanting to fulfilled.  Heck, in the case of the latter, one may never get there.  On a roller coaster, that space between is that floaty moment at the top of a rise when we are lifted out of our seats, defying gravity just before the car cascades down the other side.  The forces pushing us back into the seat give up grip allowing the other side a chance to take hold, and for a split second we FEEL that transitory space.  We float.  Our stomach flops, and we experience in an instant something visceral and indescribable.  You have to feel it to know it.

Everywhere I turn I seem to find another example of the space between two opposites and the powerful, transformative moment that exists.

One of the most serene places on the planet is the beach.  High tide and low tide provide very different views of the beach, but it is the time in between tides, the most turbulent, violent time of ebb and flow that connects with my core and brings me peace.  Seems crazy that the most unsettled time with the waves is what settles me the most.

Whenever I go to the beach, I can’t wait to catch a glimpse of the legendary Green Flash, that twinkling instant as the sun dips below the horizon.  The sun slowly sinks, sinks, sinks.  Disappears.  And as it disappears, there is a dramatic, elusive, brilliant green flash.

Though there is a legit scientific explanation for this phenomenon, that doesn’t take away from its allure.  On a deeper level, I think we are all looking for an emotional Green Flash.   Beyond observing something physical, we crave in our own way the rush and excitement of transitioning from one emotional state to the next.  We want to fall in love.

There is a primal urge in all of us to move from safe to vulnerable – unaware to interested – breathing to breathless.  I’m talking about that moment when our feelings for someone are sparked unexpectedly.   Without warning, the same telltale top of the roller coaster sensations are present:  butterflies, thoughts racing, heart pounding, tongues tied and cheeks flushed.  And regardless of how it happens, a chance introduction, a smile from across the room, or maybe a longtime friend suddenly seen in a new way, the romantic connection and deepening emotional interaction cause a swirl of adrenaline, desire, angst, and sparkle that carries us off, distracting us from eating, focusing, and really being able to do much of anything.  This is the emotional Green Flash that I truly think we desire.

As I’ve gotten older and been seasoned by the highs and lows of everyday life, as I’ve seen and felt and learned more about myself and others, I have settled into a sort of emotional sweet spot, turtling up in my protective shell safe from the barbs of the world.  When times are tough it is easy to retreat to the security of my shell and ride it out.  But this – this emotional  Green Flash turns that shell inside out and exposes our vulnerabilities, insecurities, my secret inner self to others.  Even scarier, it subjects all those to the unknown reaction and judgment of those I want to know better.  And we are okay with this risk because by taking the chance to share that which we most privately protect, we relinquish control and safety in pursuit of connection and companionship.

Somewhere between alone and  “love at first glance” – or more likely – “wow you really interest me”, there is a space between that  conjures up the fear of being hurt, the excitement of being loved and the intrigue of which one will win the day.   Makes losing my stomach on the roller coaster seem like childsplay!

So just as the Green Flash is the topic of legend even serves as the name of a SoCal brewery, this emotional Green Flash and the possibility in brings for love and companionship and security and passion is the thing of art and theater, of pageantry and ceremony, a basic human need and one of life’s greatest gifts.  It is this joy that we crave that brings with it a satisfaction made more vibrant by the risk of being hurt.

And so, with eyes open, chin high, and an empty dance card in hand, I stand in the space between to try and catch my Green Flash.  Happy to see it, hoping to feel it race through me like a bolt.

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Artifacts and Observations

The last semester has been quite the eye opener.  I have spent it talking with about a dozen different groups of professionals about their efforts implementing new academic standards and enhancing their instructional practices.  Half of these groups are classroom teachers implementing the changes and the other half are instructional leaders charged with leading and supporting the teachers in their efforts.  A passionate, dedicated, well-intentioned, and certainly opinionated group.

As we attempted to identify small wins, next steps for growth and strategies for fostering practice and reflection for the adult learners, over and over two items popped up that exposed a huge obstacle to our success: artifacts and observations. Understanding how and why these obstacles exist will be instructive to ameliorating their effects and preventing it in the future.

In my discussions with instructional leader groups about how they support the implementation efforts of their teachers, they immediately jumped to the use of observations and artifacts as the only way to monitor and ensure effective implementation.  In fact, so convinced are they at the effectiveness of these two strategies, any suggestion at other approaches is met with blank stares or looks of incredulity.  How else could anyone possibly know how it is going if they don’t see it with their own eyes?  Despite being gently, and sometimes not so gently, pushed to think beyond this, artifacts and observations were THE go to approaches.  Two thumbs up from this group.

The teachers, on the other hand, as they shared successes and struggles of their work, voiced a collective complaint about …artifacts and observations.  Teachers want the freedom to try out new strategies and approaches in their classroom and the time to discuss their efforts and results with colleagues.  However, they find themselves spending precious PLC time typing agendas and minutes to document what they were doing instead of having meaningful dialogue.  When they go back to their rooms, a parade of instructional “inspectors” pop in to see how it is going, compromising the courage and comfort required for the instructional risk taking that goes on.  Though they desperately want their admin and department chairs to see them teaching and be proud of their efforts, the judgment of evaluation and the pressure to create a product to please the important people quells any kind of motivation and actually makes implementation harder.  When it comes to artifacts and observations, two thumbs down here.

Two tools, two very different feelings associated with them.  For one group, artifacts and observations are the first tool to be employed.  For the other group, they are Public Enemy #1.

So…how did we get in this predicament?  I blame the culture of high stakes test based accountability under which our schools have operated for the last 15 years.


Thanks to the high stakes accountability culture within which our schools and school communities exist, when it comes to adult learning, just like we’ve seen with student learning, proof seems more important than progress, results trump risk taking and growth.

Now don’t get me wrong – I think we should definitely be accountable for results and high levels of learning.  But the high stakes accountability emphasis on gathering evidence and then shaming and punishing students/teachers/schools/systems in order to spur productivity is hurtful, demotivating, and counterproductive.  It also has created a silent change in behavior as principals and teachers spend so much time preparing for inspection and proving their effectiveness, they adopt those same inspection/proof oriented structures to govern the work they do.  If student learning can be “forced” by proof, then adult learning can be forced in the same way.  Practicing to get better has been traded out for just do it right.

Growth for any learner requires trying something new, getting feedback on how it went and then acting on that feedback.  It requires taking a risk (trying something new) and with every risk comes the chance of not actually hitting the mark.  This isn’t failure; it is one step closer to getting better.  We can only get more skilled, more proficient by not hitting the mark, learning from that, and trying again.  However, with its singular focus on absolute performance, the accountability culture expects perfection.  Performance and production is valued over progress.  And a lack of performance results in consequences.  Show me the scores – or else.  Don’t hit the mark and you are held back, kept from graduating, given a bad evaluation, saddled with a bad label for the school and/or district.  It is all about punishment as leverage to ensure production.  Rick Stiggins called it intimidation by assessment which seems pretty apropos.

So, just like teachers have been forced to “prove” their effectiveness via test scores, school instructional leaders have become conditioned to need to see proof of whatever is going on to “make sure” students and teachers are doing their part,.  It seems the best way, and at times the only conceivable way, to prove it is to see it firsthand…so structures are created to collect artifacts (lesson plans, agendas, meeting notes, pictures, attestations) or conduct observations.  It has taken on such prevalence and power that instead of teachers innovatively and critically questioning their professional practice, their only question tends to be, “what proof do you need from me?”  High stakes accountability has fractured leaders’ ability to envision how to foster growth without employing elements of proof and accountability.


My last semester has been literally feeling the palpable frustration resulting from the chasm between the teachers who are doing the hard work of changing and the accountability oriented actions of those charged with supporting and fostering that change.  There are good people in both camps – great people, actually – but the toxicity of the high stakes accountability culture in which we operate has blurred the vision of a more growth oriented path to success.

Now before I get pegged as a softy or an obstructer of change, I want to be clear…

  • Accountability isn’t bad – it is our moral obligation to foster learning at high levels for all students in our democratic society. We should expect and embrace having to account for our good work.
  • Artifacts and observations aren’t bad – gathering firsthand information about life in the classroom is a powerful necessity to ensure growth and success.

What is bad, wrong, counterproductive (or whatever pejorative adjective you want to use here) to learning is when artifacts and observations are consistently/exclusively used as the unquestioned Go To tool to “prove” what is going on.  The more often these tools are misused, the longer the desired change will actually take and the more damage that will be done to the morale, the motivation, and the effectiveness of our teaching corps.


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The Power of Impermanence

footprints in sand impermanence

Impermanence is something I never paid attention to or even contemplated prior to my introduction to Buddhism.  The closest I ever came to thinking of it was when the milk would sour in the fridge and I was shocked at how fast it changed from good to bad.

Everything in life is temporary.  Like the Greek philosopher Heraclitus claimed, “Cold things grow hot, the hot cools, the wet dries, the parched moistens.”  Everything is constantly shifting, changing, and becoming something other than what it was before.  I can’t step into a flowing river and feel the same water each time, nor can I witness the sun set in the very same way night to night.  Impermanence is when pain gives way to peace, night to day, and one season to the next to the next.  So because of this impermanence, our attention needs to be in the present – with no two moments alike, each one is a precious unique instant to be observed and enjoyed.

In some subconscious way I think we all know this already.  It’s why we so quickly pull out our phones to snap a picture of a sunset, a friendly gathering, a child’s smile.  Before the moment disappears we feel an urge to archive it for later.  It is our way of acknowledging and hanging on to a temporary moment.  As of today, I have 2163 photos on my phone.

Too often, because of worry and distracting thoughts about some past event or the fear of what is coming, vision gets clouded and the present gets missed.  I cannot tell you how many times I have listened to a song, enjoying its melody and bass and before I know it the song is over, having slipped by undetected because something crossed my mind or grabbed my attention and I missed the song entirely.

Though the ever shifting nature of impermanence can make life feel fleeting and shaky at times, it is a powerful force that brings comfort and clarity to strengthening connections every day.


Impermanence helps contain the dread or fear of the unknown which (thankfully) gives rise to the comforting eventuality of happiness.  Disappointment, anger, jealousy, or fear can hang heavy in our lives, but its temporary nature means that happiness is right around the corner.   Granted there’s also an impermanence to happiness, but in a sense the guarantee of the cycle back to happy is the comfort.  So an argument, a bad day, or a life bending crisis can be softened and more easily weathered knowing it is temporary.


Stepping back and acknowledging the impermanence of events instead of reacting to or getting tangled within them gives me a clearer perspective on the world.  It allows me to notice and revel in the beauty of what surrounds me.  When my daughter’s cheer team competes, instead of trying to capture the performance on my camera, concentrating on my screen and not her, in its place I am present with the routine and get swept away with emotion, immersed in music and movement and joy.  Instead of being lost in my thoughts on the drive to work, being present in the car allows me to enjoy the sunrise, the flow of the drive, and the changing colors on the trees.  Being present allows the richness of each experience to be front and center, keeping it from getting lost amidst a sea of distractions.

footprints in sand impermanenceConnection

Because something is impermanent, that does not mean we cannot be connected to it. In fact, impermanence fosters connection.  There was a time when it was so easy to get caught up in the business of being at home (dinner, homework, what I need to get done) and in the process ignore my 14-year-old daughter.  I am learning how being present with her and recognizing the impermanence of this special circumstance allows me to share in the greatness of her world. I get to hear her stories, sense her joy and see what is exciting through her eyes.  A Tuesday night homework session is not something to be missed; however, its normalcy may cause it to blend in as just another day.  As one day passes and another comes along I run the risk of missing that opportunity to be joyful together. So instead of flipping through Instagram or being engrossed in my texts while my daughter rambles on… my presence manifests in putting my phone down and connecting with my daughter, focusing intently on the lilt of her voice and the spark in her facial expressions as she dances and reenacts her day.


Thich Nhat Hanh describes impermanence as an instrument of liberation.  It allows us to see a welcomed end to suffering and the creative potential for something new.  The power of impermanence highlights the importance of the present moment, obliging us to see and connect with the ordinary beauty all around us.

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Doing What I Can From Where I Am

Who knew that being pushed outside of my comfort zone would be such a fulfilling experience?  Thanks to my recent love affair with yoga, this new athletic experience is really making a difference.  I guess I’d characterize myself as a traditionally aggressive athlete.  Not the run through the wall kind of meathead, but a focused competitor in pursuit of winning at team sports or tackling the challenge of endurance sports like triathlons or marathons.  Usually I am all about chasing some elusive goal, tirelessly negotiating grueling workouts, special diets, punishing courses, and lots of specialized equipment.  I may have been at the center of these challenges, but my focus was always on the horizon.

Yoga is completely different…but every bit as challenging.

Instead of an external gaze off into the distance, yoga focuses me internally, my body serving as both the target and the vehicle to achieve it.  My limbs are the weight, my mind the driver, my breath the focus.  I am finding this focus on myself enlightening and a bit disconcerting at the same time.

Today’s session, for example, was all about balance.  Good gravy it was awkward!   A seemingly simple task of standing on one leg, knee to the side (open knee pose) and my foot was screaming almost as much as my ankle was shaking.  Stability teetering, hips gyrating, focus scattered, I was hanging on for dear life trying to force myself into compliance.   And in perfect contrast to my violent ways, Adriene (the yogi) acknowledged with a soft, serene voice the natural tendency to shake and feel “off” and encouraged me to breathe, focus inside, and do what I could from where I was.  Do what I can from where I am.  Like a warm blanket on a cold night, a calm washed over me and I quit fighting a bit.  It wasn’t pretty, wouldn’t call it a success, but what I did do is allow myself to relax, settle in, and do what I could.  Once I softened the blunt force and replaced it with deep breath, I was actually much more successful.

Part of the reason I enjoy yoga is because of the interesting challenge it poses.  A few years ago, I went to a physical therapist who in response to my needs concocted a regimen of strange activities at which I failed miserably.  The PT watched and encouraged but didn’t participate.  It felt like it was me versus him and some “exercise” and I never felt successful.  Granted I made progress, but in doing so I felt defeated, often grumbling under my breath about the physical terrorist responsible for the creation of the failure activities.  Yoga, however, removes the culprit of confuddlement and replaces it with a collaborative spirit – as the yogi does her thing, I TRY to do it too.  I ruggedly and awkwardly attempt the seemingly simple elegant poses, but what saves me from what could be a huge knock to the ego is the serene inward focus on the breath and the allowance for me to do what I can from wherever I am.  The bar is where I can reach it, and with my internal gaze, I am the only one pursuing my bar.  I am first.  I am successful.  The awkward performance sucks, but the progress I make each time helps with that.  Because I am not out to master a distance or best a time or conquer a course, I focus instead on breathing and being better for myself.  I have a sense of peace and accomplishment that I rarely enjoyed in my other pursuits.

Yoga is exposing the beauty of the inner Me – part emotional, part physical – the Me who already contains the gifts and tools to better my strength and spiritual balance.   As time goes on, it will be my focus and the mindful use of my body and breath that will help me to improve.  The power and potential lies within me to do what I can from where I am for a better, more balanced me.

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