THE (not so) GREAT WALL – The Sacred Places Series

Since the earliest times, people have ascribed sacred significance to certain places. Such places—whether human made or naturally occurring—typically inspire awe, and often invoke devotion and respect. Not surprisingly many of these places are revered and well known. There are some places, however, that are less known, even hidden. They await discovery. Here I pay homage to a place that has sacred meaning for me.

wall-picture-001I stand atop a flat stone. My feet and legs feel the coldness it radiates. My eyes see that it connects to other equally cold stones. They in turn connect to stones, on and on to make a Great Wall. An expanse—30 feet wide, 25 feet tall, and 13,171-miles long—that coldly splits mountains, plains, and desert. Forming the northern boundary of what was once ancient China.

I think about the Emperors who wanted the wall. The cold, distant manner in which they treated the millions of laborers—soldiers, peasants, and prisoners—who built the wall. How the backs of the laborers must have ached from the tons of bricks, rocks, sand, and dirt they had to carry. That using the simple tools of the time to process these materials would have pained their calloused hands. The way the sweat, blood, and flesh of the laborers bind everything together here. Making each inch and every ounce of the wall a cold, somber, and unspoken tribute to them.

My perseveration on the building of the wall abruptly stops when history grabs my mind. Forcing me to ponder the long forgotten merchants, priests, families, and Silk Road travellers who once stood where I now stand. The countless lives lived and lost here. Empires and eras the wall has shaped. Trade and communication it enabled. Battles fought and deals made on these very stones. How the cold, inert, and unfeeling wall has for over 2300 years affected these things and more.

img_0113-2The west side of the wall pulls me to it. Struggling to keep my fear of heights in check, I nauseously peer over the edge at its steepness. The smooth stone-on-stone patina of the west wall, has no cracks or crevasses into which a finger or toe might fit. Leaving no way for scaling it. Too thick and too hard, there is no way to bore through it. Sending a cold, uncaring message to people outside of the wall—GO AWAY!

On the east side of the wall, I look at its steep and impenetrable capacity for keeping people inside. Coldly insulating them from outside influences and opportunities. Curtailing their mobility. Encouraging collectivity. Quelling rebellion. Stifling creativity. The inside wall is constant reminder to people living here to maintain the status quo.

Walking along the top of the wall, I think about all the energy and resources it has taken to maintain this massive structure for all these years. The constant diligence and never ending attention to detail that doing so requires. How for the wall to fulfill its obligation of keeping people out and in, there must be no softening. For a warming of resolve at one point compromises the integrity of the entire wall.

A gate is the only way to get from one side to the other of an uncompromised wall. Heavily fortified and carefully guarded, gates are located at predictable intervals along the wall. A gate on one side is opposite a gate on the other side, a passageway between them.

img_0106-2People wanting to pass through the wall must first go through one gate. Then pause in the passageway while the gate they just came through is closed. And finally when the gate on the other side opens, they go through it. Passage is not free. Nor, as the tedious steps, tolls, taxes, or tariffs make clear, are the people passing through the gates.

The passageways between most gates have a stairs leading top of the wall. The stone atop the wall on which I have been standing, is near one such stairs. I walk down it to a passageway. Then go out a gate.

Walking away, I think about my life and the walls I erect. How some walls I erect keep me safe, mitigate risk, and preserve health. These I construct from experience and knowledge. They set boundaries of behavior—moderation in food and drink, balance between work and play, acceptable places and relationships to enter, and so on. These walls rest atop a foundation of prudence.

I erect other walls to repel, curtail, and control people with whom I do not want to engage. Many of them are different than me. Others challenge my thinking. Some question my authority. I build these walls with my actions, thoughts, and beliefs. They, like the Great Wall on which I recently stood, tell people to GO AWAY. Emotions and values are the foundation on which such walls rest.

Some walls I erect to prevent people from seeing my true nature. They hide my vulnerabilities, mask my intentions, and help me avoid responsibility. Sublimated needs, kept secrets, and repressed feelings are the building blocks for these walls. Selfishness is the foundation on which I build them.

Continuing to walk, I think about how fears, doubts, and insecurities led me to erect each type of wall. How fear of injury, taking risks, and getting sick prompted me to erect walls of safety. That doubts of being good enough or different compelled me to erect walls that kept people out. And the way my insecurities became a justification for not giving voice to my needs and intentions.

Stopping to look back at the Great Wall one last time, I see the way it coldly splits the countryside. How it enables people on one side to not deal with those on the other side. I think about the walls I erect, how they enable me to avoid dealing with issues within myself. That when confronted by an issue, rather than deal with it then and there I erect a wall.

It has been seven years since I stood atop the Great Wall. I have done my best to apply the lesson I learned there to my life. To see the walls I erect or encounter. Consider why each is there. Call it by its true name. Refuse to maintain it. Let it crumble and fade away.

Mastering this lesson has brought me face-to-face with the cold, hard truth about my walls. They do not curtail people and issues, they curtail me. To bring down walls, acceptance must replace fear, openness must replace doubt, tolerance must supplant small-mindedness,  and giving must replace selfishness. Amidst the present day talk of erecting more and bigger walls, I choose to be accepting, open, tolerant, and giving. What do you choose?


Note: This is the fourth post in the Sacred Places series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

A MAJOR FEAST: Giving, Getting and Taking – The Heartland Series

In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.


On this Sunday morning in 1960, the parsonage of the Methodist Church of Corydon, Iowa is bustling with Christmas activity. There is a dinner to fix, 9:00 AM service to attend, presents to open, and a feast to consume. Dad, Mom, Pamela, and I are each doing our part.

As Pamela and I do our part, Major, my 175-pound, apricot colored mastiff watches us set the dinner table. Put a hand-carved nativity scene mid-table, atop a white tablecloth. Arrange four place settings, each with two forks, china plate, knife (blade toward the plate), two spoons, water goblet, and wine glass. Then add a rolled, bright red napkin exclamation point to each.

Then, in the kitchen, Major watches Mom prepare dinner. She is trying to have every dish ready, or nearly ready, before church, so after church finishing touches will make dinner ready for serving. On the stove, tomato soup simmers in a pot. Peeled potatoes boil in an 8-quart stockpot. Broth for gravy sits in a 2-quart saucepan. And green bean casserole bakes in the oven. With each stir that Mom gives a pot, the drool hanging from Major’s jowls lengthens.

Major’s eyes widen as Mom looks in the refrigerator at the salad bowl containing an apple, raisin, and whipped cream concoction. Then at the smaller bowls holding homemade pickles—cucumber, pepper, and melon. And a plate of neatly aligned deviled eggs, lightly sprinkled with paprika.

When Mom places three loaves of uncut, freshly baked bread—white, cinnamon swirl, and mixed-grain—on a wood platter on the counter, Major fidgets. When she places a big slab of butter on a dish next to the bread, drool streams from both sides of Major’s jowls.

Nearby on the counter are two jars of jam (one rhubarb-strawberry, the other cherry), a jar of crabapple jelly, and one of peach preserves. Beside them are a cherry pie, apple pie, and a platter of homemade cookies, assorted bars, fudge, and two types of divinity. An 8-pound smoked ham sits in a pan on the other side of the counter. When Major see it, splat! His drool hits the floor.

Table set and meal as ready as can be, we head to church. Dad drives. Mom sits beside him, fiddling with her hair. Pamela and I in the backseat, dreaming of what awaits us after church. Major at home.

At the church, Dad, stands in the narthex, greeting parishioners. Mom, Pamela, and I stand beside him. I hear Dad thank the Milners for the eggs they gave our family. Tell Mrs. Gargin how much we appreciate her cinnamon bread. I see Dad embrace Dr. Gramel for giving us a ham.

My ears perk up when Mom gives Francine a hug of thanks for the gift of dill pickles and strawberry-rhubarb jam and inquires about her niece, and my pal, Julie. Next, a thanks for a bushel of apples, follows a thanks for bread and fresh milk, and a thanks for a cherry pie.

On it goes as Dad walks down the aisle to the altar. A nod here, a wink there, acknowledge the generosity of particular parishioner. While during the sermon, Dad, shares God’s word, I look around. People smile, some laugh, and a few cry—as they receive Dad’s gift.

Riding home, warmness pervades the car that has yet to warm up. We speak no words. Giving and getting occupy my thoughts.

Once home, the warmness of the car carries Pamela and me into the living room. There a Christmas tree (a gift) stands guard over a pile packages. Pamela and I sit on the floor, Dad on the couch. Dutifully waiting for Mom to join us, we listen to her bang and clang, open and close, in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on dinner.

Mom’s ear-piercingly-loud “OH NO!” shatters our reverie. We dash to the kitchen. There, Mom stands over Major. Lying on his bed in the kitchen corner, a ham-bone is by his side. Belly swollen, breathing labored, the source of Major’s misery is the 8-pound ham that is now inside him.

A memory about a Christmas long ago waits my arrival at Heartland. It reminds me that a gift’s true value resides not in the item, but in the spirit in which it is given. That personal labor adds value to a gift. As does giving a gift freely with no expectation. That a gift’s value increases when the getter partakes of it joyfully and the giver expresses thanks genuinely. How value grows exponentially when the warmth that a gift generates in the hearts of the receiver and giver warms the hearts people around both.

As for Major, well, miserable Major teaches me a lesson about taking. That some people take because of lust or greed, others take to fulfill what they lack or need. Sometimes, as is the case with Major, people take because of alienation. Regardless of reason, taking breaks trust. Mom leaving the ham on the countertop is an act of trust. Major eating it, broke the trust. I will think twice before doing so again. As this trip to Heartland reminds me, there is a place at the table, part to play, and gifts to receive for every member of our family except Major. Having none, he takes the ham.

Over the years, I have come to see Christmas not as an event but a way of living. That generous gifts of belonging, supporting, and love are what generate the warmth that knows no time or season. Nurturing faith, hope, charity in myself nurtures the same in others. Doing what I can, where I am, with what I have is always my greatest gift.

That day, as I sit at the dinner table, the events of the morning sit with me. I think of each bite as a gift, every morsel the fruit of someone’s labor. How the abundance before me, is, even with no ham, nonetheless major feast. A moan from the kitchen reminds me that I have what I need, no need to take more.


PS. In the year ahead, I will give freely of my gifts and express gratitude for my abundance.

Note: This is the 26nd post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

McMurray Hill: A Transcendent Moment – The Heartland Series

In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.

mcmurray-hill-pic-001A deep stillness is there when I wake up. Curious, to understand it, I get out of bed. Go to the bedroom window. Peering through its frosted pane I see trees, yard, and streets smothered by freshly fallen snow.

I rush out of my room, down the hall, to Pamela’s bedroom. There, I quietly open the door. Silently approach the bed in which she is sleeping. Stand as tall as my ten-year old body can stand. Put my lips near her ear, then whisper, “Wake up Pamela. There’s fresh fallen snow. Wake up.”

Pamela, my older sister by three years, opens one eye, then another. An ever so wry smile graces her face. Indicating she understands the significance of my words.

Giddy with excitement I hurry back to my room. Where, off go my pajamas, and on come pair of underwear. A turtleneck slides over my head. I wiggle into a pair of long johns. Then pull on socks, jeans, a wool sweater, and shoes…in that order.

Pamela meets me in the kitchen. We eat the breakfast—oatmeal with raisins, cinnamon, and brown sugar—Mom has waiting for us. After which we each put on galoshes, a scarf, stocking cap, and coat. After putting on my coat, mittens dangling from a string running sleeve to sleeve, I head outside. Leaving Mom to fret over Pamela’s coat and gloves.

When Pamela steps out the back door, she finds me waiting. Astride a slick, five-foot long, brand new, never been used Flexible Flyer. Eager to get going, I fidget as Mom positions Pamela on my sled. After which she wraps a quilt around Pamela’s feet and legs. Satisfied that Pamela is warm and comfortable, Mom sends us on our way. Me pulling, Pamela giggling, we head to McMurray Hill.

Located on the other side of Corydon, about a mile from our house, McMurray Hill is hardly a hill. Too steep to pave and heavily rutted from years of neglect, most of the year no one cares about the hill. That changes in January and February when the hill becomes a treacherous quarter-mile sheet of snow and ice that attracts thrill-seekers from throughout Wayne County flock to its incline.

The thrill-seekers, in turn, attract townsfolk seeking a much-needed diversion from the winter tedium. Wrapped in blankets, they huddle hillside, sipping beverages from thermoses and brown paper covered bottles. Their cheers send forth people on sleds, toboggans, and an occasional car hood. The oohs and ahs they emit mark each slider’s downward progress, or lack thereof. An encounter with a snow pile, tree, or the creek at the hill’s base, earns a slider a grateful round of applause. A string of lights, running top to bottom and back to the top of the hill, gives a festive feeling to the hill

Today the hill attracts Pamela and me. When we arrive, a line of people waits to slide down it. Carefully I help Pamela off the sled. Walk with her to a picnic table, where three of her friends are saving a seat. When I am comfortable that she is comfortable, I add myself to the line. Seven people stand between the hill and me.

My pulse quickens as a boy twice my age launches, slides, and skids off course. My throat tightens as the cheers of the onlookers send Bob, manager of the local Texaco station, off down the hill. Cheers grow louder as he and sled go sideways. Applause erupts when they part ways, tumbling separately to the bottom. My palms become moist when Mrs. Hayes, mother of classmate Emma, takes her turn. Getting a cheer and applause similar to the ones previous sliders got, none of who made it safely to the bottom of the hill.

When my turn comes, my clothes are sweat soaked. Knees wobble from fear, not cold. Stepping to the line, I refuse to look down the hill. Instead I look to Pamela, my dear fragile sister. Her smile erases my doubt. She mouths the words, “Go Mark-E.” A wave of her hand sends me forth with confidence.

Gravity pushes. Speed builds. Time slows. Mind, body, and sled meld together. Leans and weight shifts, not thoughts, respond to bumps and ruts. Down I go. The bottom of the hill rushes toward me then flies by. Up the opposite side of the hill I go. As some deft foot dragging brings my body to a halt, my mind speeds up. Yet, somehow I find the wherewithal to look up at Pamela.

Our eyes lock. The expression on Pamela’s face is unlike any I have seen before. The complete and utter love, admiration, and hope it conveys tell me that I am no longer her little brother. I am at once elated, overwhelmed, and confused. A nod of her head shows she understands my emotions. Her smile tells me that I will be okay. The tears that run down her cheek reveal Pamela’s joyful realization that, from now on, my future is her future.

After gathering my wits, I walk up the hill that I had slid down. The applause of the townsfolk, though loud, passes through me. My thoughts are with Pamela. I think about how as I pull her home, she will giggle and tease me about the accomplishment of this day.

On this trip to Heartland, a memory of sliding down McMurray Hill awaits my arrival. It reminds me how important setting goals and overcoming fears are in achieving success. That looking past the weaknesses and failures of others enables me to transcend fear and achieve success for Pamela and myself.

Going deeper, I recognize that the sled ride down McMurray Hill changed Pamela and my dynamic. How afterwards my going where Pamela could not go expands her world vicariously. Her external fragility activates my inner strength. Love connects us. And, I will forever be Mark-E, Pamela’s little brother.


Note: This is the 25nd post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.


Teachers are an important part of my life. Early on I learned to seek them out. Welcome them when they appear. Thank them for finding me. See the meaning in the experiences we share. Join me here as I honor one of my teachers. See if I learn the lesson taught to me.


Eulogy for James Louis Andersen Delivered October 21, 2016, at Hamilton Funeral Home West Des Moines, Iowa

PLEASE take a deep breath,

Exhale slowly.

Again, breathe deeply, exhale slowly.

FOLLOW the breath into your heart.


Push aside sorrow,

Let go of sadness.


Hear Jim’s soft, distinctive voice inviting us

To join together,

To experience, and then reflect.

To muster up the courage,

To LISTEN respectfully and intentionally,

To share, internalize, and grow.


LOOK at Jim. See how  he nods.

Notice that with each nod,  Jim encourages you to explore and learn.

FEEL a peaceful energy growing within you.


As the energy grows, feel a desire to strive, and serve,

To fully actualize your self.

AS the energy grows within you, LOOK at Jim.

See the way his presence makes it okay for you to cry,

To play, laugh, create,

And to love.

NOW, think about my words,

This experience.

The way both evoke, in your heart:

Feelings of Jims enduring friendship,

His never-ending support and encouragement,

And, his courageous teaching.

IN this moment, with these words, experiences, and feelings,

Let us, together…acknowledge,

That what resides in our hearts,


PLEASE NOD if you understand this.

WELL… it would be easy. Actually quite convenient, for me to stop here.

BUT I can’t. Jim would’t let me. Perhaps you feel the same way.

No, Jim would say, “Mark, what are you feeling?”

“Go deeper Mark, deeper.”jim-and-mark-001

GOING deeper, I realize that merely carrying the message of Jim’s life,

In my heart,

Is not enough.


NO, every second of every hour of every day, I must go into my heart,

Where the message resides,

And from there I must emerge.

AS I do, I send forth the message of my life,

With each, and every breath,

Action, thought, hope, and aspiration.


IN this way I will honor the life of Jim Andersen, my teacher, friend, and companion.

I will demonstrate that I learned the lesson of his life, through the way I live mine.


Note: This is the 2nd post in the My Teachers series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

A FINAL LESSON – My Teachers Series

Teachers are an important part of my life. Early on I learned to seek them out. Welcome them when they appear. Thank them for finding me. See the meaning in the experiences we share. Join me as I honor one of my teachers. See if I learn the lesson taught to me.

einsteinAugust 9, 2015

Dunwoody, Georgia

Dear Jim,

I sit here, fingers above keys, eyes on computer screen, reflecting on our just finished phone conversation. Your words, “I have Lewy Body Dementia”, freeze me in place. My hands cannot move. I cannot summon the strength to make my fingers type the words I must to say to you that I do not want to read.

Palms sweating, images of you race through my head. There is the gentle, respectful manner in which you interact with people. The ways you listen, hear, and intuit. How your personal explorations become courses through which participants courageously dig deep into their psyches, surface unresolved issues, and then seek resolution. There are images of you sailing your boat on Big Creek, hands in clay sculpting in the studio, sipping wine with friends, and munching cookies with Beth. A wry smile is on your face and a twinkle is in your eye as you do each.

The images make me think about the constancy of our relationship. How over 40-years we are rarely together, yet constantly in touch. How one week our conversation is about the meaning of life, the Iowa Hawkeyes, and the bottle of pinot grigio you drank last night. Then the next week we focus on recently read books, the state of public education, and your newest favorite flavor of ice cream. Sometimes, in person we delve into matters of the heart, share dreams and aspirations, and troubleshoot issues, as we did while riding through upstate New York, hiking in Colorado, or visiting museums in Washington DC.

Regardless of topic or location, we bring our best selves to each other. Refusing to squelch feelings. Never do we disparage other people. Always owning our words—no bullshit, no spin. We share, listen, explore. As we do, I grow. You, I think, grow too. Our bond deepens.

You are my best friend. The older brother, I always wanted but never had. The confidante I need. The advocate I must have. Yet, while each of the roles you play means the world to me, they pale in significance to the role you play as my teacher

With you as my teacher, I chart and navigate the course of my life. Challenging myself to think deeply about issues immense, and small. Viewing people and things through respectful eyes. Digging deep to be the person I want to be. Always commenting about the present, not the past or future.

scan-13The experiences we share help me to actualize my self. They stimulate my mind through the topical workshops and courses you facilitate—human relations, humor, wellness, creative problem solving, achievement motivation, and so on. You soften my heart through the experiential manner you utilize to engage me with the material you teach. How you prepare me to facilitate those very same courses helps me take charge of my own learning. The way, when I facilitate a course, I internalize what I learn from you.

Over the years, in every interaction we have, whether course, call, or face-to-face you are present, truly present. You treat me with respect. At first I do not know what to make of this, but over time I come to understand that you are being in the moment. You are living courageously. As you do, you show me how to live.

Nothing you showed me prepares me for the phone call, and the gut-wrenching feeling of the moment. My core is shaken. I want you as my strong and capable teacher, a never-ending source of love and support, not a weakened and lifeless soul. I want more phone chats, visits, and camaraderie. I want more lessons. I do not want to give you up.

I remember you saying, “Joy is part of our lives, as is pain. Living courageously involves acknowledging both.” In my heart of hearts, the place you always tell me to go, I know that even though I may want to hold on to our joys, being here, now, in this moment demands that I go into my pain. There I must accept the impermanence of life. Realize there will never be an easy time to part. I must carry on without you. As I do, I will demonstrate what I learned. Typing the words I do not want to read is the first step. Here goes.

Jim, please teach how me how to die with the dignity, courage, and respect that you have lived. Make this my final lesson. I promise to learn it well.

Your loving student,


Note: This is the 1st post in the My Teachers series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

TESTED AT THE SPEED OF LIFE – The Learning Lesson Series


Life is a series of tests that take various shapes and forms. Some tests involve people. Others are about places or situations. Many of them are complex, have numerous dimensions, and seem to never end. The short ones demand quick responses.

Some of life’s tests that come my way, I pass. Many of them I do not. Those I fail, life makes me retake until I pass them. The events of this day test me. Read on to see whether I pass or fail?

Temperatures are in the high sixties. The sun is bright. Puffy-clouds lazily float above the mountains. A perfect day for Elk Fest, the annual transition to fall and celebration of Estes Park’s signature wildlife and natural beauty.

Bond Park, the epicenter of Elk Fest, has 43 booths, hundreds of people and, ironically, no elk. There is barely room for any of us people to walk, let alone park cars and find food to eat. Proof that the thousands of elk who populate the Rocky Mountain region are more intelligent than those of us who are attending the fest in their honor.

Bzzt Bzzzt! Bzzt Bzzzt! I look at my iPhone. Caller-ID shows a call from Fran, my friend. The commotion of the fest makes answering her call impossible. Since she seldom calls me, it must be important. Feeling an urgency to call Fran, I wiggle myself through the crowd, going past one booth then another and another, until I reach the west side of the Town Hall. There, in an oasis of quiet, I press re-call. Fran answers. She starts talking. I was correct, the call is important—health issues.

While listening to Fran describe her impending surgery, I notice a steady stream of people coming in and out of the Town Hall building. It soon becomes apparent that they are not going into the building to do business with the town. Rather they are going in to do their business. As some pass by me, a few nod at me. The looks of relief on their faces confirm—business done.

As Fran and I continue talking, a woman leaves the building. I nod at her. She politely nods back. As she passes, my eyes follow. I notice that the back of her skirt is tucked into her navy blue tights. Her hind-side, though covered by the tights, is more visible to the world than she would want.

My mind is in overdrive. I think about asking Fran how to handle the situation. But there is no time. Why should I care? I consider letting the woman go on, back to the fest, where surely someone will inform her. Suddenly, the woman stops to comb her hair. She looks at me, our eyes connect. Oh my, what do I do?

Without thinking, I point to my hip. She looks down, at her hip. Mortified, she lets the comb drop to the sidewalk. Her face reddens, as her hands pull the tucked-in portion of the skirt from her tights. It falls in place.

The woman looks around. No one, except me, saw her hind-side. Her dignity preserved, she looks at me. Her lips mouth the words T H A N K – Y O U. I nod. No smile, laugh or smart remark, just a nod. Knowing that this test need never be taken again.

Later, heading home, walking along MacGregor Avenue, on the outskirts of Estes, I watch a herd of elk in a field. Munching grass—nothing more, nothing less—they are living in the moment. What comes their way, they take in stride. Each moment is their festival.

Nearing home, with night settling in, I think about the speed of life. How choosing to go to the park, the commotion there, and an unscheduled phone call brought me together with a woman, whose skirt is in her tights. The way her moment of need bound us together. How in an instant her drama became my test. How an instant later, her drama, and my test are over. The way each of us goes on with our respective lives.

Walking up the driveway, the North Star captures my attention. She reminds me that the tests of life make us better people. How true, false, or multiple-choice answers are insufficient. Only answers of the heart—manifest through thoughts, actions, and deeds—will suffice.

Unlocking the front door, I pause. In that moment, I realize the tests are part of the festival of our lives. The foibles that the tests force us to experience, add color and meaning to the events and traditions in which we partake. The connections they forge enrich us. Through them we celebrate our commonality and honor our diversity.

Entering my house, I say a prayer of thanks for the tests of this day. And ask that more tests come my way tomorrow. Then I say the same prayer for you. As I do, a nearby elk bugles…Amen.


Note: This is the 18th post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

RE-TYING THE TEACHING KNOT – The Learning Lesson Series


“Today, you will learn to tie a bowline knot,” I say. Then quickly add, “Mastery for the lesson I am teaching is you tying the knot three times without assistance. My goal is to have everyone achieve mastery, and for at least 10 of you to tie the knot behind your back with your eyes closed.”

I pause while the 100 teachers in the room absorb the learning goals for my lesson—100-percent mastery, 10-percent exceeds, and none fail. Knowing full well that not a single one of them consistently achieves such results with their teaching. Then say, “Let’s get started.”

I proceed to provide information about the bowline. How the working end of the rope and a fixed loop comprise the knot. That, during the making of the knot, a portion of the loop may pass around or through an object, such as a pole or person. How pulling the non-loop part of the line tightens the knot. The knot, when tight, will not slip or come loose.

The tightness, non-slipping is why sailors use a bowline to raise and lower the sails of their ships. Forest rangers use it to rescue people who have fallen off a cliff onto a ledge. Firefighters use it help people get out of burning buildings. Soldiers rely on the knot to repel down fortress walls. And aviators use it for tying down light aircraft.

“Okay, eyes on me,” I say. “Watch as I tie a bowline knot.” Facing the class, using both hands, I tie a bowline with a three-foot piece of rope. All the while, holding the rope, with knot and loop visible for all to see. Done, I say, “Now, you tie a bowline knot using your piece of rope.”

I stand at the front of the room, holding the rope with the knot and loop as teachers attempt to tie the knot. As seconds pass, groans fill the room. Soon, groans turn to pleas for help. Not budging from the front of the room, I wait a few minutes then say, “Who correctly tied the knot?”

Six teachers proudly present their knots. A quick check determines that four are correct. On a nearby whiteboard, I write four out of 100. Four percent is woefully short of my goal—all correctly tying the knot.

bowline-003“Okay, let’s try this again,” I say. “Please follow along. Hold one end of your rope between the thumb and index finger of your left hand.” Standing in front of the room, I hold up my rope—its end between the thumb and index finger of my left hand. “Now, with your right hand, make a small loop in the rope,” I say as I make a loop. “Now take the end of the rope in your left hand. Put it through the loop, around the rope, and back into the loop. Pull it tight.” I model each step.

Holding up my rope, with knot and loop, I ask, “Who has a correct knot?” Hands rise. I count them—33. After checking the knots, I write 31-percent on the board, 31 out of 100 correct. My goal attainment remains far away.

“One more time,” I say. “Here is a strategy for tying the knot. Watch me as I teach the strategy.” Holding up the rope, I make a loop. Holding the loop with my right thumb and index finger, I say, “This is a rabbit hole.” Holding the far end of the rope with my left thumb and index finger, I shake the end while saying, “This is the rabbit.”

“Now, watch carefully,” I say. “The rabbit comes out of the hole.” As I say this, I bring the end of the rope up through the loop. “It goes around the tree,” I say as I bring the end of the rope over the lower portion of the rope. “Now the rabbit goes back into the hole,” I say as I pull the rope taunt to form a bowline knot.

“Let’s do this together, one step at a time, using the strategy,” I say. I model each step of the strategy—the hole, the rabbit, out of the hole, around the tree, and back in the hole. At each step, I rotate around the room, checking to see if teachers correctly do each step. When not, I provide instruction.

Steps complete, I ask, “Who correctly tied the knot?” This time, most hands go up. A quick check indicates 92-percent with a correct knot. My goal near, I push on.

bowline-002“Now, please tie it again. This time by yourself, without my help,” I say. Each time a teacher holds up her knot, I review its correctness then, if correct I say, “Again.” The first teacher to tie the knot correctly three times, I match with one the eight teachers who has yet to succeed, saying, “Show her how you tie the knot.” I do the same with the second, third and so on until eight pairs of teachers are tying knots together.

Once more I ask, “Who has a correct knot?” All teachers eagerly hold their ropes high. I say, “Please check each other’s work for correctness.” The report out, all teachers with correct knots, means one goal achieved, now for the other.

“Volunteers, please come forward,” I say. Eleven teachers rush to the front of the room. I pull one aside, give her a stopwatch, and ask that she keep time. I line the remaining ten teachers facing the large group of teachers, then say, “With your eyes closed, tie the bowline knot behind your back—ready, set, GO!”

Tick, tick, tick…five seconds pass, tick, tick, tick, and then ten. Tick, tick at the 13-second mark, one teacher holds up her knot. One more second passes, another teacher holds up her knot. Then another, another, and another…at the 27-second mark the last of the 10 teachers holds up her knot. Quick inspection, all knots correct. Behind their backs, with eyes closed—second goal achieved.

When the teachers are back in their seats, and the applause subsides, I ask, “What did you learn today?” An animated exchange ensues. During which no teacher, not one, mentions learning to tie a bowline knot. Not even the ten who tie knots with eyes closed.

The exchange is about how students learn differently and at various rates. That insufficient instruction–as my first teaching shows–does work for some students. However, if the goal is for most students to achieve, and some to exceed mastery then instruction must be well designed and delivered. It must establish the relevance of the lesson, consider the learning styles of students, teach strategies that aid learning, scaffold learning-tasks, guide practice, rotate-and-check learning, harness peer power… and more.

Every time I teach this lesson, and I often do, a similar pattern emerges. As teachers learn to tie the bowline knot, their instructional practices start slipping and sliding. They question their instruction and its effect on their students’ learning. They want for all their students what they experience during the lesson. So they untie, and retie their instruction to enable that to happen. Teachers who persevere in this way, make previously unattainable learning goals attainable for themselves and their students. They have a knot that holds true.


Note: This is the 17th post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

LEARNING STROKES – The Learning Lessons Series


When a student is ready, the teacher will appear. Seldom a day goes by, that I, as a teacher do not say this phrase. If you teach, I suspect that the same may be true for you too.

The time-honored phrase, while simple, powerful and oft repeated, is, nonetheless incomplete. It represents one half, the student portion, of the student-teacher relationship. The other portion, as the events of yesterday now remind me, are of equal importance. Read on to learn why.

Standing over a teed-up golf ball, driver in hand, I am just about to swing when the starter yells, “Hey big fella, stop!” Walking toward me, after breaking my concentration, he says. “You can’t play the course alone,” he says. Then nodding toward the tiny, raisin-like, grey haired woman walking next to him, he says, “Play your round with her.”

As the starter walks away, she stands there. Looks at me through tired, watery eyes she says, “I’ve never golfed before, but it’s on my bucket list. I haven’t much time left, so here I am.” The student appears. Wanting to get on with my round, I accept the challenge of teaching her to play golf.

I start by showing her how to put a ball on the tee. Then show her what club to use, how to grip it, the way to stand, and how to swing. She takes a few practice swings. After which, club in hand, standing over the ball, she looks to me for further guidance.

I point down the first fairway. “See the spot 265 yards out there?” I say. “Hit the ball there.” She proceeds to swing, just as I had shown her. Whack! Her ball sails low and straight. Landing right on the spot 265 yards from the tee.

Standing over the ball, in the fairway, club in hand, I say, “Hit the ball so that it goes way high in the air, lands on the edge of the green, and sticks.” Smack! Lo and behold, the ball goes high then sticks on the green’s edge. Just like I told her to do.

At the edge of the green, I tell her to put the ball so that it rolls along a barely distinguishable ridge and stops one foot from the cup. She gently taps the ball with her putter. The ball, following the ridge rolls, 33 feet across and around the green, stops one foot from the cup.

At the ball, one foot from the cup, I say, “Tap it in.” She taps. It goes in. She shoots par. I say,”Congratulations for being average.”

After which, this tiny wisp of a person, throws her putter skyward, stomps off the green. Then proceeds to use her itsy bitsy arms to snap every club in half, one at a time. When finished, she looks at me and says, “Hit the ball in the hole! Why didn’t you tell me to do that in the first place.” Then, she walks off the course and out of my life.

Stunned, I stand there, on the first green, pieces of golf clubs strewn about me, knowing that she is right. When she appeared I was not ready to teach her. I should have told her to hit the ball in the hole, but did not. I forgot to start with the end, tell her the overall objective, and how each step comes together to form a whole. She did what I told her to do. Followed through from tee to green, waggle to stroke. All the while believing that the game was the steps I was teaching her. Only, after putting out, to realize that the game was about putting the ball in the hole in as few of strokes as possible.

Today, reflecting on the events of yesterday, I think about how my teaching of `the steps and parts—while ignoring the end goal—of golf was unfair to my student and deleterious to me. Every student, regardless of ability, in every classroom deserves to know the goal of each lesson. Not at the end, not at the middle, but to understand the goal at the beginning of each lesson.

Every student, after attendance, a heartfelt “good-day-class” welcome, deserves to hear something like this, “Here’s what you will learn today. Here is how you will learn the lesson. Here’s what I will do. Here’s what you will do. And here’s how you will demonstrate that you have learned the lesson.” A teacher, as I proved yesterday, who cannot articulate where their instruction is going cannot hope to get students to where they need to be.

Yes, knowing where a lesson is supposed to end up, what students are going to learn, is the perfect, and respectful, place to start each lesson. As professionals, we widely acknowledge this point. Visit a school. Go into any classroom there. Learning goals are on the walls, and written on white boards. While there, take time to talk to teachers. Chat with students. They will report that learning goals and success criteria are prime foci of district and building committees and work groups. Yesterday, shame on me, I did not tell my student to “hit the ball in the hole”.

Reflecting deeply, I see that starting a lesson with a learning goal is not enough. If it was, then, with all the goals written on all the whiteboards in all the classrooms all the students in those classrooms should be learning at high levels all the time. This is not happening. Why?

Again, I reflect on my teaching yesterday. How my teaching of ‘the steps and parts’ of golf enable my student to hit her ball smack-dab in the middle of the fairway, onto the edge of the green, and up to the cup for a tap in par. How my scaffolding of concepts and structuring of tasks help her achieve an average score for the hole. Realizing this, I understand that me not telling her to ‘hit the ball in the hole’, at the beginning of the round, deprived her of an opportunity for making a hole in one. That is the lesson of yesterday. One for which I gratefully thank my student.


Note: This is the 16th post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

TO STOP STRUGGLING, PAY IT FORWARD – The Learning Lessons Series


My energy is high, as I leave the Bear Lake parking lot, heading to the Fern Lake trailhead, 9 miles away. Walking along the eastern portion of the lake, I feel relieved to get away from the people who are milling around the trailhead. Wanting to be alone, I energetically, and often rudely pass by less-adept hikers.

An ever–so-gentle breeze caresses my hair, forcing me to look up. There, hands cupped over my eyes to protect them from the morning sun, I see three popped-corn shaped clouds floating lazily above Flattop Mountain. I am grateful for this moment, and look forward to many more of them today. If only people would leave me alone.

Sounds of my size-15 hiking boots crunching the small rocks on trail interrupt the moment. Each crunch awakens my muscles. Every step activates my lungs. The fanny pack—containing a jacket, windbreaker, lunch, and water—settles on my hips. I am energized, and eager to hike. At a fork in the trail, I head eastward to Fern Lake. I am alone, finally.

The trail steepens. As it does, my cadence slows, breathing intensifies, and leg muscles burn. One switchback follows another, each steeper than the last. My shirt becomes wet from exertion. Sweat stains the brim of my hat. It runs down my forehead, mixes with the sunscreen on my face, and drips into my eyes. Making them burn like hell.

I pause to tend my eyes, breathe deeply, and drink water. Looking down, over the edge of the trail, I know I should appreciate the majestic view below of Bear Lake, but do not care. Miles to go, I forge on…alone.

Up another switchback, then another, alone, I trudge on ever so slowly. My head throbs, back hurts, and legs ache. Doubt joins me. Why am I hiking this trail? What am I trying to prove? Can I even make it to the Fern Lake Trailhead? What if I do not?

I am pondering these questions when the trail narrows as it crosses a field of boulders. They are still with me when the trail takes a sharp rightward turn. On one side is a massive granite wall, the other, a precipitous drop. The footing is treacherous. Mind numb, I slip, but catch myself. Damn, that was close.

Scared, depleted, no energy to spare, little hope, I seek comfort on a rock. Sitting there, I drink water. Eat four fig bars. Rub my forehead. As I do, doubt keeps me company.

What to do? Should I turn around? Thump, thump, thump beats my heart. Every breath is like sandpaper on my parched lips.

pay-it-forward-images-002Crunch, crunch, crunch… the sound of boots on the narrow trail. I look up just as a man and woman come around the granite wall. They are from where I am going. As he squeezes by me, he smiles then nods. Following closely behind him, she proffers a “nice day to hike”. As quickly as they showed up, crunch, crunch, crunch, they are gone. Reflecting on what just happened, I think, “If they can do it, so can I.”

Standing up, I feel a twinge of energy. My steps seem lighter. Breathing is less strained. As I forge on, hope joins doubt and me.

Further ahead, I see a large olive-colored snake winding along the trail. As the snake gets closer, I am relieved to realize that it is seven girl scouts, each in an olive-green scout uniform, each wearing a large, same colored backpack. All are whistling, a happy tune. Stepping in perfect cadence.

As I pass the first girl, the tune jumps into my head. When I pass the second, the tune goes from my head to my lips. By the time I pass the seventh girl, I too, am whistling a happy tune. I notice that hope is also whistling, and doubt is lagging behind. They, like the other people I encounter on the trail, come from where I now go. Their tune and lively steps lift my spirit.

Whistling, with renewed energy and a lively cadence to my step, I come upon a young man resting against a rock. I can tell from his countenance that doubt has found him, his energy is spent, and he is confused about what to do next. Whistling the happy tune, I walk by him. Our eyes meet. I give him a big wink, nodding my head in his direction as I do. He nods back. Then sits up. In this moment, I feel the commonality of our respective journeys. Understand that he is me. Our struggles are the same.

pay-it-forward-images-003Walking on, I look at the majestic mountains. Catch a glimpse of Lake Odessa, far below the trail, in amongst the trees. Listen to the roar of a nearby stream. Let the shimmering leaves of the aspens mesmerize me.

A strange, warm feeling—unlike anything I have ever felt before—arises from deep within me. It permeates my being, rejuvenates my legs, relaxes my mind, soothes my lips and eyes, and helps me see clearly. I look around. Doubt is gone. And hope is heading back up the trail toward the young man whom I just left.

From this point on, every hiker I encounter along the final stretch of the trail gets a smile, nod, or kind word—sometimes, all three—from me. I have learned the lesson of this trail. I now see that each gesture, however small, is a conveyance of hope, an antidote to doubt, a soulful balm. Each encounter is part of an intricate, yet ever-expanding web of positive energy. All fuel the warm feeling within me.

I understand that a nod received leads to a nod given. A smile begets other smiles. On it goes, endlessly, hopefully. What you need, give. What you get, pay forward.

Driving away from the trailhead, I look at Flattop Mountain in the rearview mirror. I think about the mountains I am meant to climb. That many of them are within me. The trails to their peaks often wind through valleys of despair, across streams of struggle, and have dark clouds of doubt. Having learned the lesson of the trail, I now understand that while my mountains are unique, my struggles are not. Struggle is common. It is, when we connect others, where we find hope. Let’s pay that forward.


Note: This is the 15th post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

I BELIEVE, DO YOU? – The Shift Paradigm Series


I am on my own. You are on your own. When it comes to helping students learn, every teacher, in every classroom throughout the world, is on her or his own. The vast machine-like system of education, in which we are cogs, is incapable of connecting with each of us and connecting us to each other.

If you teach, you know the disconnection about which I write. It is readily apparent in the way the system of education ignores data about its performance. How the system discounts the findings of its own research. And in its benign enablement of approaches, activities, and books that do not connect to each other to form a common practice.

The disconnection is especially apparent in the system’s blatant disregard of the practical knowledge of teachers. Think about how leaders eagerly commit to new educational programs but do not adequately prepare you to integrate the programs into daily practice. Think about the many times you tap into your personal learning network for information and ideas that the system does not provide you. And think about how you, like every other teacher, have no voice, no support, and no choice to improve the system. You are on your own. You must use what you have, to do what you can to help students learn.

In response to these circumstances, many teachers, perhaps you are one construct a personal schema of practice to guide their instruction. Each of these schemas reflects one teacher’s beliefs and knowledge about learning. Like the teacher who creates it, some schemas are simple—lessons from a book, rows of desks, direct instruction, drill and practice, and homework. Others are more sophisticated and involve research proven practices, pedagogies, assessments, and technologies. None of the schema, simple or sophisticated, that teachers create reflects knowledge shared with the system or its teachers. All are symptomatic of disconnection between teachers and the system to which they adhere.

That these disconnections exist should not be surprising. After all, the system makes no effort to foster, among teachers, a common professional language, workable understanding of good educational practices, software tools for high quality instruction, or processes for collaboration among teachers. Hence, the limited reach of a teacher’s schema within and across the system of education.

What if circumstances changed so that you, and other teachers, would no longer be on your own?

If that happens, I want to believe you and most other teachers will embrace the research about high quality instruction. You will use that research to understand the conditions necessary for easily delivering high quality instruction, all the time, to all students. That you will quickly identify the practices—feedback, formative evaluation, prior-knowledge, self-reporting, and so on—that make such conditions possible. Employ those practices with requisite frequency, fidelity, and scale to significantly improve the learning and achievement of all your students. Moreover, I want to believe that over time, as results roll in, you and your colleagues will form a consensus that makes the conditions and practices commonplace at widespread scale.

At scale, you and your fellow teachers will no longer be on your own. You will have a common language with which to talk with each other about instruction. You will share an understanding of good practice. Other teachers and the system, will hear your voice. They will provide the support that you need when you need it. Delivering high-quality instruction, all the time, will no longer be a challenge. You and other teachers who teach well will no longer be threats to other teachers or the system.

Sounds good does it not? Do you believe what I believe? If so, then, here is how you might change the circumstances so that the beliefs can become realities.

Start small. Seek out teachers who believe what you and I believe. Do not waste time on non-believers. Let them keep doing what they have been doing. When you succeed, they will convert to your way of thinking.

Next, form a cluster of believers. Arrange for them to meet. Share respective schemas. Select a few promising approaches or practices. Ask each teacher to replicate, in her or his classroom instruction, one promising approach, or practice. Meet again to debrief about their experiences. Refine the approaches and practices. Replicate them again and replicate some others. Repeat the process weekly. After several repetitions, you will see four things.

One, the approaches and practices that teachers replicate and refine, will get better with each replication and refinement. As will the instruction of the teachers doing the replicating and refining. Two, after a few weeks the cluster of teachers will develop a shared schema that will have a common language, understanding of good instructional practice, and feedback process for informing the cluster, and its teachers. Three, a need will emerge or new technologies that (a) make it easy for teachers to design, deliver, and refine their lessons, and (b) help them create and sustain schemas with other teachers.

Four, instruction will return to its rightful place as the hub around which the system of education turns. As you and other teachers share, replicate and refine approaches and practices you will become aware that high quality lessons—not content, standards, or tests—are the spokes that connect you to each other and to the system. You experience how high quality lessons enable all students to learn what you teach and perform well. When they do, schools, districts, and states perform well too.

The four things playing out in your cluster also play out in other clusters. As they do, clusters connect with other clusters. They share schemas. A body of shared practice emerges that forces the system to self-organize. When this happens, connections replace disconnections. You and all other teachers are cogs no more.

I believe. Do you?


Note: This is the seventh post in the Shift Paradigm series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.