Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Progress sells, apparently

I'm parked on the couch, kidding myself that I'm multitasking with work and the Winter Olympics. And a plant-based milk commercial with this tagline just pilfered my attention: "Progress is perfection."

Is it? the teacher in me wonders. (If so, how much? Does any progress qualify?)

Or what if 'perfection' actually proves problematic and, once we attach that label to an endeavor, it sets us up for misguided competitions -- us to each other, our work to everyone else's, all aspiring to a punishingly elusive ideal? Even standards-based or mastery learning, while celebrating progress, don't hold it up as the ultimate goal.

Besides plying me to try non-dairy milks as part of my dietary routine, does the tagline's context matter? What if "progress is perfection" only when the alternative is for Ray, the every-man swimmer featured in the spot, to compare his recreational pool splits to elite Olympian Michael Phelps? When all the players are amateurs, does progress still qualify as perfection?

Even if it doesn't, perhaps it can be a panacea for how we've traditionally prioritized grades in education. As the car commercial that flashed onscreen before I pressed publish touted: "Progress is performance when it counts."

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

10 drops of #CCIRA18 conference knowledge

I brought myself to the Annual Conference hosted by CCIRA last week. Here are a few quotable glimpses of what I took away:

1. “Bring your new self to your thinking as you read farther.” --Maggie B. Roberts

Why this matters: The best reading experiences aren't static. They change us and how we see what we're reading.

2. “Listen for ideas that are buildable and build them up.” --Jeff Zwiers

Why this matters: Unlock power of communicating collaboratively with each other, rather than popcorning disconnected ideas past each other.

3. “If we’re the only teacher for our students, then we’re not doing it right... We don’t have to be limited by our own knowledge and expertise to support what students are interested in.” --Meenoo Rami

Why this matters: Connecting -- virtually or actually -- is more powerful than it is risky.

4. “When you tell your child, you can’t read [Insert Title they're rereading incessantly] for the [umpteenth] time, you’re saying they can’t spend time with a best friend. When you say, don’t read [Insert Title to which you object for any number of reasons], you’re kind of saying I don’t want you to be a reader.” --John Schumacher

Why this matters: Good intentions can be unintentionally stifling. Remember to exert influence with care and two-way conversations.

5. “Blog to the job you want, not the job you have.” --George Couros

Why this matters: Looking forward unleashes untapped power, in blogging and elsewhere.

6. “As long as you write better than your students, you’ll have it made [in a writing conference].” --Aimee Buckner

Why this matters: Teachers are learners, too, and learners can be teachers.

7. “If it’s important to you, you’ll find a way; if not, you’ll make an excuse.” --Eric Sheninger

Why this matters: Identifying (and prioritizing) what matters is essential, even as we understand this target can move. Reflect regularly on current direction; adjust course when needed.

8. “What you think you’re doing changes how you interact with children and how you interact with children changes everything.” --Peter Johnston

Why this matters: Perception can be tremendously influential. When in doubt, fake it [optimism, purposefulness] until we can reliably make it!

9. What we write should contain “our emotional truth...Turn yourself inside out in your work to inject your deepest feelings.” --Ruta Septetys

Why this matters: When we don't care about what we're writing (or making or doing), nobody else will. Fortunately, the converse is usually true.

10. A writer's notebook can't be "too precious." --Linda Urban

Why this matters: Beware of taking our work too seriously, protecting it too much. If it's messy or ragged from being over-handled, that probably means we're getting the most use and benefit from it.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Crisis of Conscience, low-stakes edition

I like to believe I define my identity through what I say and do. At best, this is partly true since, in moments both big and small, forces I neither understand nor control exert their influences on me. Exhibit A: the trivial matter that confronted me around dawn Monday.

As happens some workday mornings, I had to run to catch a bus. I made it, and the bus turned out to be late. That gave me a few minutes to grimace to myself about Murphy's Law. It also meant while pacing around the bus stop, which abuts a gas station. I started noticing trash on the ground: an empty bottle of Powerade, an open milk pint, empty wrappers from Hostess products.

Enter: my conscience. See, I've trained it this school year to prompt me to pick up and throw away trash, especially on the walk into school from the closest stop where I exit the bus. How did I train it? Through repetition, stooping to pick up detritus rather than passing it by has apparently created a persistent habit.

And that habit was now speaking up. "You can't leave that garbage there," it nagged.

"Why not?" I imagined my ego protesting. "I'm not responsible for every piece of trash I meet."

"Why shouldn't you be?" parried my conscience.

"Not my appointed rounds," I said. "I don't usually use this stop. Besides there's no trash can. What do you expect me to do -- put that crap in my bag to carry until I reach the bin at school?"

And then I saw, through the darkness, across the street on the corner, a large trash-bin shadow, recognizable as a newly installed unit with spaces for recycling, compost, and landfill rubbish.

"The bus is coming any moment," I offered lamely. But it wasn't.

My last rationalizations drifted away with the sigh I expelled. I scooped up the wrappers, the plastic bottle, and the carton (pouring out some liquid and pointlessly rattling a frozen milk chunk that refused to shake out) and scampered across the street -- a good Samaritan jay-walker -- to deposit each item in its respective receptacle. Compulsion may never have felt so good.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Annals of Commuting (I can't believe it's not a run-on sentence #4)

Remember that time you were testing the range of your electric bicycle, newly purchased during what may or may not have been a mid-life crisis, and you pedaled 13 miles to work no problem and made it another six miles to reach an afternoon meeting at another district school the next town over and then you had to make it home 15 more miles in the fast-falling dark, cheering the unseasonably warm temperatures while cursing the gusty headwinds that sapped your battery's strength, and you reached the city limits, less than two miles from your final destination, when the dashboard notified you the motor would be taking the rest of the evening off (note to self: range is about 33 miles), kindly leaving head- and tail-lights shining thanks to a few drips of auxiliary juice and cruelly leaving you feeling all 50 sluggish pounds of the bicycle's weight as you slowly cranked the pedals towards home -- you know, that time earlier tonight when you realized you now had something you could write a slice about?

Monday, January 22, 2018

Mentionables: An Allegory, Maybe

I estimate I've been doing laundry for about a quarter century. The last decade of that stretch has involved a stacked Kenmore washer-dryer wedged into a closet. It's a fairly rote operation with minimal variation. At least, it had been until Monday night when I noticed something new:
There, in the top left, a clothes-hanger icon below a triangular plastic nose, the nose practically begging to be pulled on, so I did. And voila:
An unexpectedly sturdy metal arm now protruded at my disposal. I paused to muse, "Might my mundane chore hang [pun probably intended] on the verge of some quantum leap?" I glanced from dryer unit to laundry basket and back again. My eyes took in the limited room for folding and stacking clean clothes -- few of which actually required any hangers. Clearly, the fine engineers at Kenmore had aimed too low in labeling their space-saving innovation.

"Eureka!" I should've shouted for what was it really but a strategic sock sorting rod.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018


I was thinking about W.S. Merwin's poem "For the Anniversary of my Death" this holiday weekend when I returned to the spot where almost exactly two years ago I broke my knee.

"ACL Hill," my skiing partners called it, or "the scene of the crime." It lies below this ridge in a lovely valley near Aspen:

In this case, while I know acutely the significance of the date (January 17), any particular impact blurs under layers of happier memories. I remain thankful for so much -- most recently happy times with friends, enjoying together natural beauty and relative good health.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Talk's not cheap

In our first day back from winter break, students and I dusted off our discussion skills. We created a grab bag (or Frisbee, technically) filled with paper slips on which we'd written "specific topics that people talk about at this time of year." We reviewed different ways to participate in a conversation, which I'd introduced in December -- inspired by Melissa Perlman and A.J. Juliani's discussion game. A random generator picked six students to form a spontaneous discussion group charged with talking for five minutes about one topic they picked while peers observed and later offered fishbowl feedback. Among subjects explored: football, New Year's resolutions, vacation destinations, holiday foods, climate change. Through this process, our awareness sharpened. We started to identify sweet spots where discussions stayed on topic enough while still exploring intriguing tangents, where participants permitted sufficient silence for unexpected ideas to sprout without tumbling irretrievably into dead air, where emerging mindfulness began to outstrip self-consciousness.