Star Wars, The Cool Kids, & Ridicule

I’m a huge Star Wars nerd, and I’m proud of that. I think I was in 2nd grade when A New Hope was released, and it absolutely captivated me. I have so much nostalgia for those movies, and I don’t care if other people think I’m weird for liking them so much. Yes, I have an R2-D2 USB charger in my car, and I nearly lost my mind the other day when my Waze navigation app asked if I would like to have C3PO’s voice deliver my driving instruction. Umm… YES!

Of course I have friends who don’t “get” my love of all things Star Wars. Most of them chuckle at my excitement… some of them politely rib me about it… some come right out and say, “I don’t understand how you can get so into these sci fi/fantasy movies.”

And that’s okay. I’m almost 47 years old, and I’m at that wonderful place in my life where I don’t always care so much about what other people think of me. It’s taken a long time to get to that place, even though I still struggle in some areas.

I started thinking this morning about how people sometimes make fun of others simply for the things they LIKE… or are really passionate about. A friend and I were chatting yesterday about how mainstream Comic Con has become. Conventions like that used to be fodder for a lot of jokes. People dressing up like the characters in comics, science fiction, or fantasy? What nerds, right? Now we know that cosplaying is an art form, and I’m increasingly in awe of the incredible attention to detail in so many of those costumes!

A couple weeks ago, a “news” channel, which shall remain unnamed (and not linked, because I don’t think they deserve more attention or traffic to their website), spent time making fun of people who like Star Wars. One of the commentators went on and on about how ridiculous these people are, and that she is too cool and “attractive” (yes, she actually used that term) to be into Star Wars. She presented herself as one of the Cool Kids, and liking something she thinks is stupid is unthinkable.

So, ridicule is important enough to air these days? (Again, I consider the source, but still…)

As always, my teacher hat pops on, and I think about the students in my classroom, in our school… and kids all around us. What does it say to THEM when they hear someone ridicule another person or group of people simply for what they LIKE?

When I was a shy, little girl, I was VERY aware of what the people around me thought. In 5th grade, I was really excited to wear my brand new Peanuts socks to school. Every character was on those socks, and I thought they were really cute. I wore a dress that day, and proudly pulled up those socks to my knees, so that you couldn’t miss seeing Charlie Brown and company.

When I got to school, some of my friends looked at my socks and then walked away. Later, I overheard them whispering to each other, “Can you believe she likes Peanuts?” “That’s so stupid.” “I hate Charlie Brown and Snoopy.”


CC licensed photo by Matt Grimm

I was crushed. I kept trying to hide my legs under the table so no one would see them. I thought about taking them off and putting them in my backpack, but I lived in Omaha, Nebraska… and it was a chilly day. I excused myself to the restroom and tried turning them inside out, but you could still see exactly what they were. I stayed in the restroom and cried for a while, because I didn’t know what to do.

[Photo Credit: by Matt Grimm]

That was one example… but I know most of us have have multiple examples of situations like that. As I got older, I started hiding the things I REALLY liked from my friends. I was a closet nerd. Most of the kids in my class loved Star Wars, so I didn’t have to hide that. Luckily, it was cool to like Star Wars in the late 70s and early 80s. But my tastes in music, certain books, TV shows, toys I played with… much of that was hidden from the kids at school. I stopped sharing the things I was really passionate about and pretended to like the things that the other kids liked. Sad, but pretty typical, right?

When I became a music teacher, I often invited the kids to bring in music they wanted to share with their class. I didn’t realize that asking 7-12 grade kids to do this could open up a lot of pain for some kids. As they brought in their cassette tapes and CDs, I asked them to play a song for the class and then explain what they liked about the music, lyrics, etc. We had to go beyond just saying, “It’s cool,” to discussing the music a little more deeply. I asked the rest of the class to also ask questions or provide comments about the music…  Which instruments do you hear?What do you hear in the bass line? How does any of this make the song unique? etc.

A lot of the kids brought in heavy metal (to this day, I think I know all the lyrics to “Enter Sandman by heart.), rap, and a lot of country. Often, I would hear comments about how stupid someone was for liking a particular song… and that took me right back to the days of being ridiculed for liking something that others did not. I couldn’t let it go.

I asked the kids, “Do we all have to like the same things? Is one type of music better or cooler than another type? Or is it just different?” We started discussions that, at first, weren’t very productive. But as we started to analyze the music more deeply, the kids started to notice some common elements, patterns, and other factors that helped them move forward in their thinking. I kept reminding them how boring it would be if we all liked exactly the same things. Some of the kids started listening to music they would never have dreamed they’d like. For those kids whose tastes were completely different than their peers, I started to see some relief, and eventually, more confidence about those tastes.

Inevitably, the kids started asking me about my tastes in music… and other things as well. I shared the things I liked. When they laughed at some of the songs, movies, TV shows, and books I brought up, I stopped and just looked at them. And waited. And waited… until one of the students stood up for me. That was HUGE! By modeling for them that it was okay to like different things, and that it was actually cool to be an outlier with your tastes, some of them were able to step up and advocate for me, and eventually their peers. When kids begin to act as leaders in your school and start to show acceptance of diverse tastes, the rest of the kids take notice.

Fast-forward to the present in my teaching with 5, 6, and 7 year olds, I’m seeing the same things. They all tend to want conformity, and they’re sometimes afraid to share the things they really love that are different. We spend a LOT of time really working out those issues and sharing that we SHOULD all like different things. We are better together, because we have diverse tastes.

Now… back to the recent Star Wars ridicule. Or whatever it is that someone is really passionate about. If you’re an educator (or parent, or someone who has influence with children), how are you modeling acceptance? How are you showing children that we should celebrate our differences? That it’s okay to like something that isn’t mainstream or popular?

It’s difficult enough for kids, especially when peer pressure is so great an influence in their lives… if the adults are acting like Regina George from Mean Girls and dictating our tastes and opinions, how are the kids supposed to deal with that on their level?

One of the parents from my school told me earlier this year that she could hear “my voice” in her son’s conversations at home. At first, I was flattered… and then I started thinking even more about how great my influence is on these children… and what a heavy responsibility that is. If I were to make fun of a movie I didn’t like, for example, what would that do to a child in my class who liked that movie? What impression does that leave with that child?

I can’t just leave that in the classroom. I see it among the adults in my network, on Facebook (which is its own evil monster sometimes), and in conversations with acquaintances. Yes, snark is often funny, but I wonder how we could learn to appreciate our different tastes more… or maybe just let it go. If you don’t “get” why everyone is losing their minds over Star Wars right now (or whatever the new thing will be after the Star Wars mania dies down), that’s okay. Maybe just keep that to yourself. We won’t tell the other Cool Kids.

You don’t make your flame any greater by extinguishing that of another.

Trust, Compassion, and Love

Think about this:

Why do we cheer on Katniss Everdeen and company in the Hunger Games? Katniss sees a wrong and wants to fix it. The authority (the Capitol) abuses its power. When a person in one of the districts breaks the rules or speaks out against the Capitol, they’re physically and publicly punished. Katniss doesn’t trust the Capitol, and she leads a revolution… and we cheer.

When our STUDENTS communicate to us something they see as a wrong, do we applaud them for speaking up? Or do we try to shut them down and force compliance? When they break our rules, do we sit down and talk with them? Or do we punish? How often is that punishment public and/or physical?


What if…

  • we showed kids that we trust them?
  • we stopped requiring absolute compliance with no questioning? (because we wouldn’t want that requested of us, right?)
  • we looked at their acts of defiance as courage to stand up and advocate for themselves?
  • we taught them how to respect others by showing them respect first?
  • we looked at “discipline problem children” as who they really are? Human beings who need our care, trust, compassion, love… and no labels. They are children. Period.


I’ve been thinking a lot about the video* I watched where a young girl was thrown around her classroom while still in her chair… because she didn’t put her phone away. People commented that it wouldn’t have happened if she would have just done what she was told. Comply with my rules, or we will physically cause you harm? In my eyes, the ONLY justification in putting hands on a child is if he (or she) is endangering himself or others… and then only to restrain.

Reading more about her story is heartbreaking. What if an adult in that school had taken the time to simply stop and TALK with her? I’m betting we wouldn’t have seen a video of her being thrown around the room.

It’s extremely obvious that we do not trust kids… and that the depth of our fear OF those children (yes, children) goes so far that we allow them to be hurt by us. We allow them to be treated as LESS than. Less than human. And when you account for the suspension/expulsion rates broken down by race, you see an even more sinister story. We don’t trust kids, especially children of color.

I say “WE,” because each of us is complicit in allowing to this happen over and over again when we don’t stand up to make it end NOW.

I’ve come a long way from my first few years of teaching. Those years when I required absolute compliance. Those years when I didn’t listen to a “sob story,” because I didn’t trust the kids to do what they were “supposed” to do. Those years when a lot of my students hated me and didn’t trust me at all. I didn’t trust them. I didn’t respect them. As their teacher, I was supposed to anticipate that these students would try to get the better of me… would try to be lazy… would try to do anything but what they were supposed to be doing… if I didn’t have the upper hand.

Now, I look back on some of those kids I had… the really defiant ones… and I know they were hurting. I know they needed me to teach them that life was more than what we learning in the classroom… that someone could care about why they were upset. That sometimes an adult who will just LISTEN is more important than following the rules every step of the way. And I wasn’t that teacher.

I’ve read and heard a lot of comments about how “kids are so disrespectful nowadays,” and how they need to be taught respect properly. (Read here: we need to teach them to fear us). Any time I’ve ever heard someone use the phrase, “they need to be taught to respect me,” it always comes across as derisive. Full of contempt. As a child, why would I ever want to respect someone who wants me to fear them?

How can we teach kids to respect us if we don’t respect them?

How can we teach kids to trust us if we don’t trust them?

I am the adult in the classroom. THE ADULT. I need to ensure the safety of my students… yes. But they are in my care, and I take that very seriously. My second priority as a teacher is to help these children love to learn. My first priority is to make sure they know they are cared for. They are trusted. And yes, they are loved. When they make mistakes… and they WILL… I need to be the adult who can think past the mistake. I need to be the adult who sees the child in front of me. The child waiting to see how I will react.

I didn’t do that when I first became a teacher, and that still haunts me. I will not make that same mistake again.




*I didn’t link to the video. There are too many of these types of videos. This is a crisis, and we have to step up. Do better.

Start With The Kids

School started for us at Anastasis Academy last Wednesday. We’ve had three days with our classes so far, and I’m so excited about all the possibilities in store for our students.

My students on the playground (c) Michelle K. Baldwin 2015

My students on the playground
(c) Michelle K. Baldwin 2015

I have nine kids in my class this year, four of whom were with me last year, too. They range in age from 5 to 7, and watching every little aspect of the school day through their eyes is an incredible experience already.

I should back up a bit and explain that we have meetings with each child individually before the first day of school. We call these meetings “Learning Profiles.” We ask the kids about themselves, their favorite movies, what they like most about school, their best vacation ever, etc.

One of the questions we ask is, “If you could change anything about yourself, what would you change?” Every single one of my littles replied with either “Nothing!” or “I don’t know… probably nothing.” (Wouldn’t it be awesome to go back in time to that place when we really liked exactly who we were?)

I always enjoy these learning profiles so very much. The kids make me smile, laugh, and sometimes even cry. Most importantly, I get to know quite a bit about these little friends before they join the rest of their classmates for their first day.

Before school even starts, we spend time getting to know each child… even those we’ve had in class before. We start with the kids.

Not the curriculum. (We don’t have boxed curriculum at Anastasis, but even the thoughts about what we want to do with our students come later… after we actually know something about the kids in our care.)

Not the rules.

Not the routine of each day.

Not which gimmick or trendy education panacea will be best for our students and help raise their test scores.

We start by having conversations with every single kid and really listening to them. And these kids have a lot to tell us about what they want to learn about, how they like to learn (spoiler alert: none of them likes to sit still all day!), etc.

Our school’s founder, Kelly Tenkely, often talks about how she started our school with specific kids in mind. That these are “kids with names.” That kids are more than test scores. That children are NOT data points.

As a teacher, I think very intentionally about every single child in my classroom… and I start truly considering what each of them needs.

Many of you reading this post know I’m a connected educator. I believe very strongly in connecting my kids with other classrooms, educators, and experts around the world to learn from them and share what we’re learning with them. I love bringing other connected friends into my classroom, either in person or virtually, to expand our learning beyond our classroom walls.

But I don’t start with those connections.

At Anastasis, we like to get our kids out of the classroom to other learning experiences – museums, performances, and service learning opportunities –  just to name a few.

But we don’t start there.

We start with the kids. If any one of us thinks we know what’s best for these children BEFORE we get to know them, we are doing a huge disservice to those in our care.

My advice to you as you continue with your newly started school year or before those kids walk into your classroom for the first time in 2015-16:

  • Forget the gimmicks. These are not the things that are going to help your students learn.
  • Forget the outside connections for a while.
  • Take the time to get to know your students. (I know that many of you are in situations where you have two or three times as many kids in your classes as I do. I also know that you’re not able to have Learning Profile meetings before school like we do.But that doesn’t mean you can’t get to know your kids before everything else grabs your focus.)
  • Take the time to ask them about themselves.
  • Give them a reason to open up to you, and then keep that privilege sacred. When a child trusts you enough to share something personal, show her that you value her and what she has shared.
  • Ignore the advice from your undergraduate training that told you to hide your “humanness” and to be the “firm, but fair” teacher. Instead, show the kids you really care about them (not just their learning).

THIS is where you start when you want to improve a child’s education. It always starts with the kids.


The Pinterest Mentality

I’m not knocking Pinterest. (Please, no hate mail.) The tool is not really the problem. The mentality of how people thoughtlessly and mechanically use this tool IS the problem.


[CC licensed photo “3D Broken Copyright” by]


Many of us work really diligently to teach our students to be digitally literate: navigate digital environments, think critically, access and analyze digital information, and produce creative and relative digital content.

Part of digital literacy also includes digital citizenship and understanding intellectual and creative property of digital content. You see a photo online? Someone took that photo, and THAT person owns the rights to that photo. You do not have the right to use that digital photo. Same thing with music, art work, writing… we know this. It’s not okay to use someone else’s work without explicit permission. Even WITH permission, there are still  restrictions on how and when you can use that work.

Creative Commons provides licensed work (photos, music, video, etc.)  with options to use freely. **If you don’t already know about Creative Commons – take time to do so.  I license a lot of my photos and even this blog with a Creative Commons license. Feel free to share, but be sure to post proper attribution. (The photo in this post is a Creative Commons photo with attribution specific to how the creator wanted to be credited.)

So, back to Pinterest. Pinterest is that tool that allows you to easily (too easily, in my opinion) curate sites you want to save: recipes, fashion, quotes… you name it. When you save a pin, it scans the website for all photos to use as the “face” of that pin. In the case of a photo, the photo itself is saved as the pin, but the OWNER’s information is not saved with the pin.

And then the photo is repinned. And repinned again. And repinned again. The 500th person to repin that pin may or may not have access to the original site where that photo was posted. There is absolutely NO trace back to the owner.

Two years ago, I found on Pinterest an education poster that I wanted to revise and use in my classroom. I spent DAYS trying to track down the original creator of the poster to no avail. You can read my post about the need for ATTRIBUTION and the rest of that story here.

To this date, I still do not know who created that poster. 

And guess what? My version of that poster- the one that I drew based on that original poster? Now MY POSTER is being shared, reshared, and pinned without attribution. We are two levels deep in sharing without properly crediting the work that was created.

This is the Pinterest Mentality. We don’t even think. We pin. We retweet. We don’t stop to make sure that someone’s intellectual and creative property is respected enough to ask permission to use OR even to include the creator’s name with the work. And I hate to even type this, but educators are some of the worst offenders. Fair Use does not exempt us from all copyright restrictions. “It’s for education” is not an excuse.

Pinterest (and tools like it) makes it really easy to ignore the owner of the “work” being pinned… but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

If you teach your students not to plagiarize, they should also be learning that they can’t use creative works without permission. The adults need to learn this, too.

Model appropriate use and respect of the work of others. If you want to share something (or repin), be sure to add attribution somewhere in the description of what you’re sharing.

Digitally literate and respectful educators shouldn’t be the exception… we should be the norm.

Dreams Fulfilled

As the school year came to a close for us this past May, I realized that I had just finished my 20th year in education: six years in 7-12 vocal music, eight years as a technology professional development coordinator, two years in elementary general music, and the last four as a teacher at Anastasis Academy.

At each stage in my education career, I have loved working with my students, both children and adults. But somehow, I always felt something was missing. I didn’t always like that students were required to learn a certain way or a pre-defined set of skills and concepts… and that I was required to teach in a certain way. It didn’t seem like real learning to me.

A good friend of mine, Sharon Comisar-Langdon (who just retired after 34 years!) visited Colorado a while back. It was great to catch up with Sharon and her husband, Randy. I found myself going on and on and on about how much I loved Anastasis and the incredible opportunities we have for our students. At one point, Sharon remarked, “Michelle, what you’re doing at this school is what we ALL went into education to do.”

That statement has stuck with me since that time, and she was right. I have never been happier as a teacher than I am now – watching our students at Anastasis grow in their confidence, ask amazingly deep questions, and become excited about learning! This is a place where students LOVE school. This is a place where teachers love school!

I watched a lot of my teacher friends post countdowns to summer break on Facebook and other social media sites a few months back, and I realized at the time, I had no idea how many days we had left. As much as I enjoy sleeping in occasionally during the summer, I’m not excited for summer break anymore. I miss my students! I miss the joy of learning I am so privileged to witness in those children every single day.

I didn’t mean this to sound like a commercial for our school, but more a testament to what happens when you stick your neck out and do something DIFFERENT. Anastasis is different.

To Kelly Tenkely (who is actually celebrating a birthday today), I express my profound gratitude. Thank you for thinking, “why not me? Why shouldn’t I just start my own school?” Thanks for writing a blog post that started Anastasis. Thank you for making a place where people WANT to be – what I have always loved about teaching and learning happens because of your dreams and drive to make them happen.

This also makes me wonder… why don’t more of us do this? Why don’t we stand up to the lawmakers, those who make and enforce policy, and demand what’s best for kids? Why do we insist on “fixing a broken system” with more of the same things that make kids unhappy? Learning should be an experience that is enjoyable, challenging, and based on the needs of each child. I don’t see that happening in most places.

My friend, George Couros, often asks, “Would you want to be a kid in your classroom?” I can truly answer an enthusiastic YES to that question now… and I wish my own children could have experienced learning in this school as well.

As a child, I knew that I wanted to become a teacher, because I love learning… and I wanted to share that love and joy with others. As much as I enjoyed my previous experiences, there was always something missing. Teaching at Anastasis is not just a job. Now I am able to share my passion about learning with our students. As Sharon noted, I get to do what I always dreamed about doing. The smiles on their faces, the realization you see in their eyes when they learn something on their own terms, the pride they feel when they see their progress, and the joy they experience because they know they’re in a place that honors them as unique individuals – THAT is what I wanted to be able to experience when I dreamt about going into teaching. Dreams fulfilled.

Hurry Up and Learn

I just finished my 20th year in education: 12 years in a classroom and 8 years in technology professional development (with about 3.5 years in corporate technology in between).

As a teacher of children, I’m patient. I see the look in the eyes of the children who don’t “get it” yet, and I am able to work with them until I see that lightbulb go off. I never want my students to feel rushed or hurried in their learning, because that’s not what learning is about. “Hurry up and learn” makes absolutely no sense.

With adults, I haven’t always been as patient. I will admit to listening to people talking about education and thinking, “come on already!” But just as it is detrimental to students, this lack of patience can be harmful to bringing along the adults, too. I’ve learned to be more patient as I’ve gotten older and seen that same look in the eyes of adults.

When I was in tech PD, I was responsible for a lot of different types of training, including those that were program or tool specific. My favorite sessions to write and help lead were the sessions that were more about philosophy, pedagogy, and modes of learning… and then looking to see which tools we could use to help accomplish the goals. I’m very curious by nature, and when I don’t know how something works, I teach myself. Over the years, I’ve learned that not everyone is like that, and that’s okay.

What I continue to remind myself is that, regardless of where I am in my own journey, there are many others still at the beginning. Step one. If I’m impatient with them, then my goal of helping others to move forward breaks down… and those people are discouraged.

I don’t want to be that person who turns someone off from new ideas or trying something for the first time, yet I’ve seen this happen (often) in our network. Shaming another educator (or parent or student or whomever) for not knowing what everyone else apparently already knows is not okay. It doesn’t make you seem like an expert… it makes you seem like a jerk. Think back to your best models and teachers. I’m guessing they weren’t jerks.

Sometimes the people around you who are the most resistant to learning something new are the ones who are the most insecure about their learning. People used to ask me what I thought the difference between teaching children and teaching adults was. I always responded, “Adults are more challenging, because they don’t give themselves as much grace as children do.”

Finding a safe place and a certain level of comfort is important to help cautious learners take risks. That can look different for everyone. Some prefer to tinker independently, and others need a helping hand.

If you go to a conference, hopefully you’ll find sessions that meet your needs. Personally, I learn best in sessions where I can participate and discuss. I like to verbally process what I’m learning and doing.

Some people like great storytellers. Keynotes and lectures- the good ones, anyway- can be great for a lot of people. A good storyteller wraps you up in her story, shares the emotional connections to the learning with you, and makes you feel the learning. Lectures aren’t for everyone, but I don’t think we should throw them out completely just because some people don’t like them.

For the record, shaming a mode of how information is shared isn’t okay, either. I’ve seen a lot of backlash toward keynotes and lectures at conferences. Yet, the good keynotes are often packed. Ignite sessions are always packed. This tells me SOME people still find them useful. If you don’t, then don’t go. Seems like a simple solution.

The point of this I guess is simple: find what works for you. Ask for help when you need it. Mentor others who are just beginning to learn things you have already learned. If you don’t like lectures, find something else. If you prefer someone showing you step-by-step how something is done, look for a workshop that caters to that need.

Most importantly, be encouraging. Check your snark level. I love snark more than most, but I’m learning to hold back… because what I might think is old news or something we all SHOULD know isn’t necessarily the same for someone else.

We’re all at different levels in our learning, and we learn at different paces. If we truly below that we should honor those differences in kids, we should honor that in the adult learners, too.

Guest Post – Addressing the Viral “Epic Dad Response”

My friend, Nolan Schmit, is a teacher and composer extraordinaire. What I know most about him is his commitment and dedication to the students he serves.

Today, I read a post that Nolan wrote in response to this viral story: Abington dad’s letter becomes matter of principal. (I purposefully chose THIS link, rather than the other incredibly sensational posts I’ve seen about it.) As is typical of stories that elicit an emotional response, it was shared widely, and outrage grew as quickly as the story made the rounds.

My first thought after reading this story was: Yay! Parents who want to (and can afford to) take their children on learning trips are awesome!

My second thought was: schools don’t always have the option of defining “excused” and “unexcused” absences on a per case basis. It doesn’t mean that those types of family trips are discouraged… just that it’s how they’re defined. I know this all depends on the school and district.

Nolan didn’t leave it at that. He responded today with what I think is a justified perspective, and I wish that those who are seething with outrage would consider the position that schools are in when it comes to students and absences. I asked Nolan if he would consider reposting/guest blogging here, and he agreed.

Nolan Schmit -

Nolan Schmit –

Nolan’s response:

OK. I’ve got to say something. It doesn’t take a lot to get me fired up, but it takes a lot for me post something like this. I feel the need to be an apologist for public education, especially when misinformation is floating around.

I posted part of this on a friend’s page, but am reposting it here.

There is a photo going viral from a guy named Mike Rossi who is upset with his kids’ school because he took his kids on a vacation during the school year and the school wrote him a letter saying the kids’ absences are not considered “excused” absences. Rossi wrote a letter back to the school to “slam” the school for being so rigid and to tell them how educational and valuable the trip was. Many people are treating Mr. Rossi like a hero for “sticking it” to the school and, by extension, the government for being too intrusive.

Let me first say I am in favor of kids having these types of experiences, because THEY ARE VALUABLE and open up the world to kids. Travel and other opportunities for enrichment are needed, desired and invaluable. As Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” I’m on Mr. Rossi’s side on this part of the issue.

To be fair, though, he can’t blame the school. Public education has been under fire for decades and people have DEMANDED that there be accountability. Because of these outcries and the subsequent results at the ballot boxes, we ended up with NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND.

The good part of NCLB is that it has encouraged improved practices in the classroom and has made teachers much more aware of how to reach ALL kids. I’m a better teacher now than when I started and it is not simply due to experience, but some great professional development that resulted from the mandates of NCLB.

The bad part is that schools are put in an impossible position on several fronts. First, it is impossible for 100% of students to achieve the same level of proficiency on any skill or topic on a given date. Punishing schools for this is beyond crazy. That’s like firing your kid’s coach for incompetence because she was unable to coach your kid to run the 400m in under 52 sec.

Second, TODAY the measure of success established FOR schools, right or wrong, is standardized testing. Kids pass the test = good teaching. Kids fail = bad teaching. We take no mitigating circumstances into account. For instance, a child can arrive from the Ukraine with NO ENGLISH skills in third grade and are expected to be at the same level of proficiency as their English speaking peers by fourth grade. This is INSANE. There are many teachers fearing for their future, because when a kid misses school, they miss the content being covered. While the trip may be invaluable, the content covered in class is the ONLY content over which the students will be tested and, in some districts, the only measure by which teacher success is determined.

I empathize with schools, because they have a job to do. Schools don’t have the right to tell parents what to do with their children, but how can schools do the job of educating when kids aren’t in class? You can’t say, “We demand that our kids score well on these tests, will fire you if they don’t, and we can pull our kids out of school as much as we want. If they don’t learn, it is STILL YOUR PROBLEM.”

You can’t have it both ways.

If you vote people into office who have no clue how to craft legislation as it relates to education, this type of thing is the result.

I’ve been in public education for 22 years. I am not a stereotype. I am not owned by a political party. I don’t hate home-schooled kids. I don’t hate private and parochial schools. My liberal friends would call me conservative. My conservative friends would call me liberal. I care about one thing and one thing only. I want every student that comes into my classroom, no matter what their background, beliefs, skin color, religion, life philosophy, culture, race, sexual orientation, economic status, skill set, degree of physical and mental wellness, talents, limitations, interests and ambitions, to treat others with and be treated with kindness and to be able to learn to the best of their abilities. That’s it. I am not unique in this respect. The vast majority of my colleagues feel the same way. Kids are why we got into this profession. We want to give children the tools to live a rich, fulfilling, healthy, purposeful life.

I would prefer that schools were free to allow more opportunities for enrichment, but enrichment now takes a backseat to test scores. We’ve voted, we’ve made our beds and now we have to lie in them.

Our society has put all the educational eggs in the assessment basket and forgotten what constitutes real learning and the impact other life experiences have on the total education of a child.

Thanks for letting me ramble, but when I see or hear misinformation being spread, I feel obligated to stand up for truth and facts.


We Are More Than Our Mistakes

I was reading an article today about influential people, and one specifically caught my attention. Serena Williams had written about Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative,  and she mentioned Stevenson’s beliefs that “every person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”

There are those who believe in “justice” as punishment and shame… as if those are the deterrents to future mistakes or crimes. In my experience (personally and with others), shame doesn’t prevent someone from choosing the wrong path. It only serves the desire to avoid getting caught. Shame doesn’t necessarily lead to better actions or choices.

What has helped me as an individual to avoid repeating mistakes is grace, forgiveness, and compassion from others and from myself. When I realized that my mistakes weren’t part of my identity, and that I could learn  from my mistakes… THAT was a time when I experienced true growth.

I grew up in the religious dichotomy of “an eye for an eye” and “forgive others as you have been forgiven.” As a young kid, that was tough to reconcile. Personally, I viewed punishment as something to avoid at any cost, because I wasn’t certain about forgiveness. Again, that didn’t always translate into doing the right thing.

As a parent and an educator, however, I see the cost of a punitive society on our children… children who grow up to be our neighbors. I often ask myself why we, as a society, tend to enjoy the suffering of others so much. If we didn’t, people like Jerry Springer and Maury Povich wouldn’t have careers or celebrity. This is nothing new, though. For centuries, audiences have reveled in the “delights” of others’ suffering. Schadenfraude can be fun, right? A little snark never really hurt anyone, did it? When you’re the recipient of people shaming you, it does hurt.

Decades ago, a person with a past could move to another city or across the country and no one would have a clue. That’s impossible now. A single mistake can now be broadcast in real time and shared with millions within seconds. How does this allow us to learn from mistakes, especially in our youth? Even worse, what if our “mistake” didn’t really happen, but someone with an audience said it did? How does a person recover from that? Beyond the internet trolls that will pounce on anything, how do we shape our own reactions when something goes viral now?

In her TED Talk, The Price of Shame, Monica Lewinsky says, “Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop.” I think often about this young woman who has felt the wrath of shame to a degree that most of us couldn’t ever imagine. Was she shown grace and compassion?

How does all of this translate to children? How are children treated in their schools when they make mistakes? How do we as educators react to those mistakes?

I can’t imagine who I would be today if every mistake I ever made was broadcast far and wide for anyone to see. And I doubt many of you reading this would be able to fathom that kind of public attention. It’s not enough for us to tell kids to avoid social media or posting everything in their lives. That’s not the world they live in today.

What we MUST do is become the models of grace and compassion OURSELVES. We must show them what it looks like to forgive. That even, in the midst of a seemingly unforgivable offense, that we can show compassion. That all human beings are worthy of grace, even when we hate what they might have done against us.

Again, back to my upbringing… I remember learning “love the sinner while hating the sin.” There are a multitude of sins that might be considered heinous (and I am not the one to define what is considered a sin and what is not), but if I don’t have room in me to forgive and give grace, then how can I expect forgiveness and grace for myself?

I’ve also been thinking about Marilyn Zuniga, a teacher who was suspended because her students wrote get well letters to Mumia Abu-Jamal. The reaction to this news was swift, intense, and full of outrage. This story went viral… yet I wonder… what lesson about compassion does this really give to kids? If we teach children to be forgiving and compassionate, shouldn’t we be less concerned with who deserves their forgiveness and compassion? Is “forgive others as you have been forgiven” only reserved for those whom we deem deserving of forgiveness and compassion? Or are we back to “an eye for an eye?”

As an adult, I find this all troubling and extremely confusing. I can’t imagine what kids are trying to glean from our examples.

I remember reading articles about restorative justice in schools, specifically about how damaging zero tolerance policies are to students (this one is very good). In my experience, those who advocate for zero tolerance generally don’t want to apply the same types of policies to themselves or their own children, yet it’s ok for “those other kids.” In our school, I love that we don’t have blanket policies regarding student behavior and mistakes. Each situation is unique. Each child is unique. A standard policy cannot possibly account for every situation, nor should it.

With my students this year, we have looked at what apologies are, and how our mistakes are ours to own. When one of my students apologizes to another, the last thing he asks is, “will you forgive me?” We are prepared to understand that we don’t have to be forgiven… yet my students always answer “yes.” When I asked them why they always agree to forgive, one little guy responded, “because I want to be forgiven if I make a mistake.” From the mouths of babes…

I always want to strive to be the person who considers that there is good in everyone, and that all are worthy of being more than their mistakes. As a teacher, I HAVE to be that person; otherwise, I have no business working with children.  I want to be the one to reflect on my own reaction to someone else’s transgression, real or perceivedand be the first to offer grace and forgiveness. I haven’t always felt this way. It’s been a personal journey of several decades, and I wish that I could go back to the students I had when I first started teaching to apologize for my lack of compassion. I wasn’t that person yet.

Who will you be?


Yes, Motivation DOES Matter

I teach in a school where I get to see children excited about learning. Every. Single. Day.

Is it always perfect? Of course not.

Do the kids sometimes get frustrated when they’re challenged with something difficult? Absolutely… but (stealing Tom Hank’s line again from A League Of Their Own) the “hard is what makes it great.”

When a child learns something new and rises up from a challenge, they find so much about what’s inside themselves. (We all know this. Should know this.) As a teacher, there’s nothing like seeing the satisfaction and joy on a child’s face when he/she has accomplished something that initially seemed too difficult. I love seeing how motivated my students are about what they want to learn.

Important to note… we don’t do traditional testing. (or grades, or homework, or grade levels, etc.)

This morning, my friend John Spencer shared an article and asked for thoughts: Does Student Motivation Even Matter? 

The article goes on to note that students actually perform better on tests when they are not motivated… as if this information should tell us something valuable. Students who are motivated to learn do not perform on tests as well as their peers who aren’t motivated.

Does student motivation even matter? Seriously

Do you care if kids care about what they’re learning? (Not what the curriculum tells them to care about, but what THEY actually care about.) Do you care if they are bored out of their minds? Do you care if they wake up in the morning and groan about going to school?

Do you care that they forget most of what they have memorized for a test after the test is over?

Do you care that we are producing automatons who have learned more about being compliant and filling in bubbles than about thinking deeply?

Do you care if these CHILDREN are basically little hamsters hopping onto their wheel to perfunctorily execute the “same old, same old” day in and day out?

I care, and I’m horrified. Have WE become those hamsters spinning the wheels in our own lives so much so that we don’t care if we suffer others to the same fate?

The homework battle, the incessant testing… these kids are becoming drones, and does anyone even care?

I don’t want that for MY life. Why would I even think that this would be ok for a CHILD?

Children should be running. Playing. Discovering. Examining. Creating. Singing. Dancing. Making mistakes with the freedom to learn from them… and that won’t go on a record to haunt them from one level to the next.

And for the record, when I write “children,” that doesn’t mean only primary aged kids. Have you talked with a high school kid recently? Some are so serious and stressed out all the time. Why do we do this to them?

As for me, I don’t want the kind of life where I am not learning something new and exciting every single day. I don’t want drudgery. In my current position as a teacher at Anastasis Academy, I’m extremely fortunate in what I get to do. I LOVE going to work every single day. I don’t wake up dreading the routine, because it’s different every day.*

That is what I want for my students… and for all children. I want them to find something that makes them happy. I want them to find and enjoy their calling. Not their job. Not their “have to.” Not their hamster wheel.

Too many kids associate “learning” with “painful,” something they must suffer through. Why have we reinforced this? Why have we allowed people who don’t have an inkling of what true accountability means to define it for us? For our children?

I want all kids to be able to experience learning the way that my students do. I want kids to care so much about the things they learn, that they begin to think deeply and ask questions.  I want all kids to be excited about learning something new and to know that school is a place where that can happen.

So, yes. Motivation DOES matter… but not if you think learning is something you could even begin to measure with a test.



*A lot of people will argue with me and say that my traditional schooling is what led me to the opportunity of finding my calling. Not true. I was one of those really fortunate kids in school, because I have a freakish memory. School was incredibly easy for me. I was able to learn beyond what was expected of me, because of my freaky memory. While other kids were forced to practice and drill facts over and over again, I was allowed to hang out in the library and read whatever I wanted. I was allowed to create art work for my school. I was allowed to spend time in the music departments learning more about music. As for my work as an educator… I had a lot of UN-learning to do to get to where I am now. An upcoming blog post will delve into this more. 

It’s All About Context – Part Two

This is part two of a post I wrote about the importance of context in learning.

Last month, my 5 and 6 year old students listened to and discussed “The Dream Keeper,” by Langston Hughes. I wrote it for them on the white board, and we left it up to display for the whole month. We talked about who Langston Hughes was, who might be the voice in this poem, what our dreams are, what our heart melodies sound like to us, and why “the Dream Keeper” would wrap dreams up for someone, “away from the too-rough fingers of the world.” Their responses were typical for 5 and 6 year old children.

One day, we drew what our dreams and heart melodies looked like for us. Each student imported a photo of the drawing into our Explain Everything app, and then recorded an explanation of what his drawing was about. On the next slide in the app, each boy typed the full poem and then recorded himself reading it – this activity was their decision. They wanted to have a typed version of the poem somewhere in this project file.

Somewhere along the way, the boys memorized the poem… completely unbeknownst to me. I only discovered this fact when we went to visit our “grand-friends” to make Valentine’s crafts with them right before Valentine’s Day. I mentioned something about our heart melodies, and the boys started reciting the poem. My jaw dropped! We never practiced memorizing the poem. We never practiced reading it aloud together, and they’re all at different stages in their reading. There are quite a few words in this poem that are challenging for many of them!

Why, then, did they memorize this poem? It was meaningful to them. They had some context of what the words meant, why someone might want to protect the dreams of another person, and how the world isn’t always kind. Every single one of them found some connection to this poem and their own dreams and heart melodies. Even now, a month later, they want to talk about that poem.

Did they learn about Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance? A little. Do they know the connection to Hughes’ Dream Variations poetry and the structure of blues music? Not really, although they did notice it “sounded like a song.” Someday when they’re a little older and come across this poem again, they will already have a foundation to build upon. They have SOME context – in this case, an emotional connection – now for some very complex ideas.

Can you imagine what they’ll be able to do with this poem when they’re older?

I can’t always guarantee that each of my students will have an instant connection to what they’re learning. What I CAN do is help provide some context for each student… and that will look different for each and every one of them.

Most importantly, I think, is to remind ourselves (often) that memorization is NOT the most essential aspect of learning. A small step, yes; but as I mentioned in the previous post, a small child can memorize their ABCs. That doesn’t mean they can read or even tell you what sounds each letters make.

I always get a lot of pushback when I bring this up, but I’ll debate this with anyone. Yes, some foundational facts must be memorized in order to move forward with more advanced concepts, but memorization cannot be our only emphasis in learning.

So… in your school, where does most of your students’ time fall? Creating? Discussing? Evaluating?

Or is their time mostly spent on recalling information that someone has told them is important?

We emphasize to our students that which is most valuable by what we spend time doing with them.