A TOUCH OF FORGIVENESS – 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.

The Methodist Church of Corydon, Iowa sits on the northeast corner of the intersection of North DeKalb and West Jackson streets. A steeple accentuates its grey-shingled roofline. Stained glass windows soften its red brick walls. A rose-shaped one distinguishes its front side. On which a thick, wooden door serves as the primary entrance to the church.

Standing at the door, I read, yet again, the note left on the kitchen table for me this morning. “Meet me at the parish office, 9:00 AM,” it says. Scribbled below the words is…Reverend M. E. Weston.

At  8:58 AM, I pull the door open. Step through it into the church lobby. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I find my way across the lobby. I pass an empty coat rack. Step around the bin for donated clothes. Go by the table on which a display of the Upper Room rests. Head up the stairs to the hallway that leads to sanctuary. Then stop at the door to the parish office.

At precisely 9:00 AM, I take a deep breath then knock on the door. It opens decisively. Leaving me standing face-to-face with Dad. Looking at him—formally dressed in a black suit, starched white shirt, and tie—I realize the man before me is the minister of the church, not dad.

“Mark Edward, I’ve been expecting you,” he says. “Please come in.” Pointing to a chair in front of a large desk, he tells me to sit there. As I settle in, he walks around the desk. Then seats himself in a large desk chair on rollers on the opposite side of the desk from me. Eyes on me, he leans forward. Puts his elbows on the desk. Intertwines his fingers and clasps his hands together.

“Mark Edward, is there something you need to tell me?” he says. Heart beating rapidly, breathing laboriously my eight year-old mind races madly. “What is it I need to tell him?” I wonder. Could it be my messy room? Not cleaning Major’s poop from the yard? The pranks I play on Pamela? Not lifting the lid when I pee?

“Come now, Mark Edward, tell me what you’ve done,” he says. My mind fills with an assortment of indiscretions. Could it be my not eating the Brussels sprouts Mom served at dinner last Sunday? Wearing my underwear for three straight days? Not doing my math homework? My head about to explode with possibilities, I silently pray, “Great God in heaven, tell me, please, what have I done?”

A calm settles over me. Me being here, in this office, with the minister of the church, I conclude that what he seeks from me must be church related. Focusing, I think about the times I misbehaved during the Sunday service? The time I was late to Sunday school because I was outside playing in the snow with my dog Major? Perhaps it is about me plugging up the toilet, or drinking the grape juice for communion?

Interrupting my church-related-list-running reverie, he says, “Tell me what you’ve done, there will be no punishment. Truthfulness is the path to forgiveness.” Oh, how at this moment I so need forgiveness. But for which of my many transgressions should I seek it?

Sitting here, before him, my mouth is suddenly dry. I lick my parched lips. The rubbing of tongue on lip triggers a memory of the candy bars—a maple flavored Bun and a Zagnut bar—I ate yesterday afternoon. Each cost me ten cents at the Rexall drug store, on the square, downtown.

Thoughts arise within me of the table in the church lobby on which copies of the Upper Room are for sale. How the booklet is the basis for the daily devotions of the women of the church and an integral part of their monthly Prayer Chain meeting. On the table is a small, square, wooden box with a hinged top and clasp. In has a one-inch slit. Through which each woman who takes an Upper Room, slides a dime.

Tears welling up in my eyes, I know what warrants me being here. Realization turns to words. “I took two dimes from the box,” I say. Tears cascading down my cheeks, I lean forward, face in hands, elbows on knees. A few seconds later, a hand touches my shoulder. I look up. There is Dad, with tears in his eyes.

On this trip to Heartland, the memory that greets my arrival involves two candy bars, a donation box, and the minister of the church. It is a lesson about truthfulness, confession’s soul cleansing affects, and the power of forgiveness. Me realizing that discomforts from being devious arise from my desire to be virtuous. That living truthfully requires I confront such discomforts, and by so doing diminish my devious nature.

On a deeper level, I have come to understand that the encounter in the parish office was about the roles each of us must play. That Dad is sometimes Dad; other times the minister of the church. That sometimes I am son, other times parishioner. That sometimes roles overlap. When they do, it takes great care to preserve the unique goodness of each role, while honoring the possibility of new roles emerging.

Moreover, I now recognize that inherent in each role we play, should we care to see it, is a lesson. In the case of Dad and me, the lesson is about coming forth from a place of love. Being resolute, yet yielding. Teaching while learning.

For these reasons, this time as I leave Heartland, my heart carries a newfound sense of gratitude for the way Dad’s hand on my shoulder planted seeds of love within me that to this day continue to blossom. With each bloom that comes forth I think of him. And of the meaningful moment we shared in the office of the minister of the church.

Mark Edward

Note: This is the 27th 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.

BOY MEETS DREAM – 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.

Dream.001It is 4:30 AM Mountain Daylight Time on August 7, 1962, the fifth day of our 10-day family vacation in Rocky Mountain National Park. The tiny camper trailer in which Dad, Mom, Pamela, my mastiff sidekick Major, and I are sleeping rests in the park’s Moraine campground, 785-miles from my hometown, Corydon, Iowa. The campsite, shrouded in silence, alit by a big moon and star-filled sky, is the perfect place for a boy like me to dream about the day ahead.

A beam of moonlight, slipping through the front window of the trailer, interrupts my dream. It pushes me out of bed. Prods me to grab warm clothes. Tells me to be quiet as I do. Then pulls Major and me out the trailer door into the chilly night. There, standing on rock-strewn ground, I shiver while pulling on my jeans, putting on socks, lacing up boots, sliding into a thick warm sweater, and giving Major a good morning pat on his massive head.

Dressed, but still cold, I head to Beaver Meadows, a mile away, with Major by my side. Trying to shake off the cold, I walk fast. The big moon and bright stars help me navigate the rocky trail. As I walk, the dream that the moonbeam interrupted, returns. In it, I am hiking a section of the park’s 355 miles of trails, following a stream to its source. I am wildly alive. Like the animals—moose, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, bear, fox, bobcat, marmot, beaver, trout, and hundreds of birds—harmoniously living here in this 265,769-acre wilderness.

Reaching Beaver Meadows, I climb atop a big, windswept rock. Here, alone in the silence, breathing the fresh, crisp, pine-scented mountain air, I think about the dream I did not get to finish. I think about the way I am in the dream and how I am back home. That here, in the vast, broad, expansiveness of the park I am a solitary figure, a speck of dust in the Universe. I have no hometown expectations. I am not the minister’s son. The unspoken pain from Pamela’s terminal illness that permeates my family subsides here. In this sanctuary, alone in myself, for the first time I think about myself and who I am becoming.dream 1 .001Sitting in Beaver Meadow, under the stars and moon, Major by my side, I think about the soulfulness I feel here in the park. How four days ago, a ranger who was staffing the fire tower on top of Twin Sisters Mountain helped me understand the cycle of life at play here.

How three days ago, during an 11-mile drive up the narrow and curvy Old Fall River Road I saw things in Dad, Mom, Pamela, Major, and myself that I had never seen before. That Dad focuses on the road ahead. Pamela relishes the few thrills that enter her fragile life. And Major just does what he does best—drool and sleep. Mom, well, as the station wagon struggles up Fall River Road, I see that she worries about it overheating, Dad’s driving, and our safety. I notice that she gives her worries to prayer. In this case, while peering past the edge of the road at the raging river far below. Me? While I respect Dad’s driving, Pamela’s thrill seeking, and Major being Major, the credit for us, and the car, getting up the rugged road to Fall River Pass, I give that to Mom and the power of prayer.

Two days ago, at Mills Lake—surrounded by the Keyboard of the Winds, 13,497-foot Pagoda Mountain, 13,579-foot Chiefs Head Peak, and 12,668-foot Thatchtop Mountain—I was a small boy in a big place. Yesterday, while hiking to Fern Lake, surrounded by pine trees and beautiful vistas, thinking about the previous days, I concluded that only a loving God could create this place, a sanctuary full of grace and beauty for everyone and everything that calls it home. In this place I can hear my heart speak to me. I feel at home.dream 1 .002The sun peaking over the mountains interrupts my reverie. Off in the distance, an elk bugles. A nearby owl contributes a deep, melodic who, who, hoot, then another, and another. The elk bugles, again, and again. The Owl hoots. Major pulls up close to me. Looking skyward he releases a slow soulful howl. After a bit, my own heartbeat keeping rhythm, the bugles, hoots, and howls of the unlikely trio form a tune that only I can recognize.dream 1 .003A meteor streaking across the sky brings the much-appreciated and heartfelt serenade to a stop. As the meteor reaches its apogee, the North Star, catches my eye. Reminding me to launch a birthday dream. Without hesitation, with my eyes tightly closed, digging deeply into my soul, bringing forth every ounce of power within me, I offer my birthday dream to the universe. In the quietness of the park, on the rock, Major by my side, I vow to hold fast to my dream.

On this trip to Heartland, a memory of a long ago family vacation to Rocky Mountain National Park reminds me about the power of place. How, in the park a ranger, a car ride up a steep mountain road, an afternoon at a mountain-circled lake, and a hike to Fern Lake help me feel and understand things that I never would have felt or understood back home in Iowa. Moreover, that where a person is indelibly effects who he becomes.

On a deeper level, the memory that greets me in Heartland is about me being a dreamer who works to bring dreams to life by carrying them in my heart. About learning that dreams make my heart beat stronger. Now, with the perspective of time I see that the dream I met that birthday morning, atop the rock, was no ordinary dream. Fifty four years later, I am still working to bring it to life.

My dreamwork is a soulful path. Most often I walk the path alone. Sometimes, as with Major, a companion walks the path with me. When that happens I do my best to cherish and honor my dream-companion. On rare occasions a star, or moonbeam, shows me the way. Alone or with others, remembrances of where and how I met my dream give me strength to stay the course and dream other dreams.

* Dreams by Langston Hughes

Note: This is the 24nd post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

MY WAILING 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.


In Jerusalem, at the heart of the Old City is a large open-air plaza. Tens of thousands of people—pilgrims, worshipers, and tourists—come here every day. Today, Wednesday, April 21, 2010, I join their number.

Standing on the plaza, I look to the Western Wall at the far end. I think about the Wall’s sacredness. How Herod the Great had it built in 19 BC to enclose and support the Second Temple. About the destruction of the temple a few decades later and how Jews now gather here, and have done so for centuries, to lament the loss of the temple, and pray for its return. As I hear the worshippers’ lamentations emanating from near the wall, I understand the Wailing Wall.

Crossing the plaza, I approach the Wall. Looking up at it strains my neck. Just think, I say to myself, what I see is an eighth of the Wall’s original length of 1600 feet. What would my neck feel like looking at a wall that size?

Limestone blocks, each atop and beside another, comprise the wall. Most weigh between 2 to 7 tons. A few weigh more. One weighs over 500 tons. All have carefully-chiseled borders. At the margin, the border of each block measures between 2 to 8 inches wide and one half-inch deep, a subtle tribute to the wall builders’ skills.

Closer, a large open area abutting the Western Wall functions as an open-air synagogue. It is a site of constant prayers by worshippers, and has been for centuries. Per tradition, a long wooden fence separates men from women. Undeterred, people stand on chairs to watch the happenings on the other side.

A hundred, probably more, mostly bearded, mostly black-frocked men, each wearing a hat, wait in line for a turn to pray at the wall. Donning a hat, I, beardless and in blue jeans, get in line with them. As I do, my right hand touches the slip of paper in my right pants pocket.

The paper has been with me for eight days. Since the taxi ride to the airport in Atlanta, on the plane trip to Tel Aviv, while conducting business in Tel Aviv, on the plane trip to Istanbul for more business, then to Jerusalem, again for business, and now here at the Wall, as I stand in line to pray. Before leaving Atlanta, while prepping for the trip, I read that worshipers stuff pieces of paper with prayers on them into the Wall’s crack. That weekly, prayers are gathered and buried in a 2,000-year-old cemetery on the Mount of Olives. I understand that, at the Wall, every prayer is an eternal prayer.

Squeezing the paper, I give thanks for the tradition of prayers in the cracks of the Wall. Then, when my turn comes, I step up to the Wall. Its ancient massiveness humbles me. I take the piece of paper from my pocket. Fold it in half. Then fold it in half again. Facing the Wall, leaning in, my face touching limestone, I reach up high. Getting up on my tiptoes, I reach higher still. There, in a crack, beside a clump of grass growing from the wall, very carefully I place the paper in the crack.

Pushing it, as far as I possibly can push it into the crack, I feel the universe accept my prayer. It connects with me. I am at peace, whole, and complete. My tiptoes relax, arms come down, and I lean away from the Wall.

wallWalking along the Wall, pieces of paper are in its every crack, I think about the thousands and thousands of prayers offered here and the people who offered them. I hope with all my heart that when they walked away they knew, like I know, that our prayers are in God’s hands. Departing the wall, I leave my prayer, there, resting in those hands.

Now, looking back, I understand that none of us are supposed to walk a solitary and lonely path. God walks with us. He reveals many paths, some less travelled, to the same destination. And he gives us the power to attract people to walk with us as we do the work that he desires us to do. I have come to learn that as I do my work, answers to my prayers often are more about what I need rather than expect or want. Knowing that I am not alone, I have capacity to courageously accept what comes my way.

That day my reason for stepping up to the Wall was a very dear person, our love, and my destiny. The long coming and quite unanticipated answer to the prayer that I put on a piece of paper to stick in the Wall, requires that I face my demons, eliminate barriers, and overcome adversities. That now is the time I must step up to my destiny, and do so, trusting that the intended way forward will find me. And know that when fear and doubts arise, the Wall is there for me.

Each of our lives offers us many reasons to step up to the Wall. What are yours? Is today the day?


Note: This is the third 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.