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.


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.

WHEN LESSONS ADD UP STUDENTS ENGAGE (And Teachers Teach Better) – The Shift Paradigm Series

lesson.001Imagine yourself in classroom. Where you are observing a teacher and her students. You watch the lesson that she is teaching. Scan the room. Look at the students. See the behavior of each student that corresponds to what is happening in the lesson.

Are students engaging? Do they do what they are supposed to do? In five minutes, see what is happening in the lesson. Scan the room. What is each student doing? Are they on task? Repeat every five minutes until the bell ends the class period.

As you watch, a pattern emerges of the students’ engagement with the lesson. Most likely the pattern is like this. The class begins with attendance, announcements, and other business. Then the lesson starts. A majority of students, but not all, engage with the lesson. As the lesson continues, fewer students engage. Over time, less than half are engaging. At some point, as engagement dwindles, the teacher attempts to re-engage students by raising her voice. Perhaps she says, “Pay attention, this content will be on the test.” Or maybe she calls on a student, one, not engaging with the lesson, who is distracting a student near him. Student engagement keeps dissipating. As the period winds down, students and the teacher idly pass time until a bell signals class period done.

Hold on to the pattern. We will come back to it in a moment. In the meantime, think about how What Teachers Teach dominates the current educational discourse, and has for over a decade.

What Teachers Teach drives the standards that guide the curriculum that in turn determines what students are supposed to learn. Further, it drives the efforts to measure student, and sometimes, teacher, performance against the standards and curriculum and is the basis for the standardized tests that are the primary measure of performance. Some of the discourse about what teachers should teach occurs at the federal and state levels, a little of it happens in the private sector, but most takes place locally. Regardless of where the discourse occurs, you saw the end result of it in the lesson you observed.

Now, return to the pattern that you saw in the classroom. As you do, think about the field’s longstanding discourse. Were content, standards, and tests present in the lesson?

YES they were. However, their presence in the lesson, as the dissipating engagement of students made apparent, had little effect on student learning and the teaching of the teacher. The minimal effect is due to a disconnect that exists between the high levels of learning and teaching that the field seeks, its discourse about how to get both, and what actually happens when students engage with the lessons that they are supposed to learn.

Learning, as you saw, is about minutes and moments. When students engage minute-by-minute with a lesson they learn what the teacher is teaching. If, over time, students’ engagement with a lesson declines steadily, then their learning declines too. So if greater learning the Field of Education’s penultimate goal, then student engagement is an essential indicator whether progress toward attaining the field’s goal is occurring. The quality of a lesson asserts a direct and powerful effect on students’ engagement. The volume of a teacher’s voice and having items on a test do not.

To better understand the relationship between learning, engagement, and lessons, think about the lesson you saw in the classroom. Was it complete? Was its quality high? For instance, did it have sufficient structure to engage all students from beginning to end? Did it help all students understand why what they were learning mattered? Did the lesson connect to the lesson from the previous day? Set the stage for the lesson tomorrow? Was an instructional approach (e.g. direct teaching, cooperative learning) readily apparent? Did it employ instructional strategies (e.g. guided practice, rotate and check)? The answer to each question is NO.

If all students are going to learn at high levels, and perform well on standardized tests, then the answer we must seek is YES. Getting there requires that all lessons be complete, high quality—all the time. Here is why.

A complete, high quality lesson solves the engagement problem. A sizeable sequence of complete, high quality lessons solves the learning problem. Solving the learning problem across several classrooms makes standards attainable and achievement gains possible for a school. Attaining standards and achieving gains in multiple schools makes attainment and gains possible for a district.

Such attainments and gains at widespread scale necessitate that we take up the challenge of designing and building high-quality lessons. There are two routes we can take. One route is obvious, but little travelled. The other is little considered and under construction. Let’s start with the obvious route.

To understand the obvious route please consider a question that I often ask teachers—over 2500 of them during the past 15 years. How long does it take you to design and build a complete, high-quality lesson? A lesson that you are confident will engage every student for an entire class period. One that you are certain each student will master, and necessitates no re-teaching on your part.

Typically, the answers I get range from 1 hour to one day. Teachers quickly adjust their answer, when I say a complete lesson may include a PowerPoint or equivalent presentation, a video, connections to curriculum standards, and, of course, the dreaded lesson plan.

They adjust their answers, again, when I mention the requisite worksheets, handouts, and rubrics. And upon hearing visuals, manipulative, and graphic organizers they adjust yet again. Adjustments finished, they say that to design and build one complete, high-quality lesson for one class period, will take them one day to one week.

Next, I ask, “And how many ready-to-go, complete, sure-to-engage and produce-mastery-of-each student, high-quality lessons do you have?” Whatever response the question elicits, I welcome with a gentle smile, supportive nod, and receptive ear. Ten to 30 lessons, most teachers report. A few teachers offer up that they deliberately use one such lesson during semi-annual observations. Most talk about how they keeping their high quality lessons safe and frequently back them up.

Finally, I ask, “When and where do you design and build high quality lessons?” Teachers tell me how each day the have a 60-minute period for planning and preparation, 25 minutes for lunch, and barely enough time to go to the bathroom. That they must design and build lessons during evenings, weekends, holiday breaks, and summers—while raising families, taking classes, and living their lives.

Let’s do some calculating. First, a typical teacher teaches at least 180 days per year. She teaches four lessons per day. So that teacher needs, at least, 720 complete, high quality lessons per year.

Second, a typical teacher needs at least one day to design and build a lesson. Let’s assume she can use her one-hour of daily planning time to do so. And that maybe, just maybe, she can make one lesson per week. She will, working every week with no breaks, she will make the lessons she needs in 13 years and 10 months.

Third, if a typical teacher spends a five-day week building lessons, nothing else. Does so for 52 weeks (no vacations or holidays). Annually she will make 260 lessons. So in 2 years and 9 months she will have the 720 lessons she needs.

The calculations shed light on the challenges that await travellers who take obvious route. Hopefully the other route is better.

The little considered route involves creating the conditions necessary for all students to engage in their learning all the time. The presence of certain practices makes such conditions possible. The conditions emerge school wide when multiple teachers teach, share, compare, and refine lessons containing the practices.

Technology, in the form of a toolkit, enables teachers to design, build, deliver, share, and refine complete and high quality lessons based on specific Common Core Standards or Provincial Expectations.  Building one lesson takes a teacher 30-minutes. With the toolkit, doing so involves her clicking through a series of screens, accessing libraries, inserting elements, and attaching resources. Doing these steps automatically aligns the lesson to an appropriate standard. When the steps are done, a teacher, with one click, produces a handout, lesson plan, rubric, and homework assignment. Another click produces a PowerPoint-like presentation she can use with a classroom of students. Yet another click initiates a feedback process that improves the quality of the lesson and its delivery.

Independent researchers, using a controlled match methodology, found significant increases in student engagement and instructional quality at schools using a prototype of the toolkit. The increases came within 60 days of the first use of the toolkit. Moreover, its continual use led to sustained levels of high engagement and high quality instruction. Not surprisingly, these outcomes are prompting numerous conversations about next steps for the toolkit approach.

If you are a teacher, you know the impact that high quality lessons have on student engagement, learning, and achievement. Also, you know why so few teachers travel the obvious route to such lessons. For you, a toolkit is an exciting and much welcomed possibility. Hang on! Help is on the way.


Note: This is the fifth 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.

LESS IS MORE FOR TEACHERS (and Better for Students!) – The Shift Paradigm Series

Less is more.001

Conjure an image of a school. Visualize yourself entering a classroom. Students and a teacher are there. What do you see the teacher doing?

Chances are, the teacher you see is not resting, reflecting — or even preparing a lesson. Despite the relative importance such tasks play in the design, delivery, and improvement of high-quality instruction — teachers rarely have time to do those tasks at school. So the teacher you see is likely delivering instruction, managing students, assessing performance, or organizing resources — including technology. As you watch the teacher, it becomes painfully apparent that she has too much to do, too many students with whom to do it, too little time to get everything done, too many interruptions, and too many regulations demanding that she do even more. Further, you almost certainly see her doing several tasks at once.

Now conjure a classroom at a different school. See a teacher there calmly moving amongst students sitting in groups of four. Each student is engaging with other students in the group and each has a laptop computer, iPad, or smart phone to do their work. When the teacher stops at one group, she and her students have a lively exchange. When she stops at another group, again, a lively exchange ensues. After an exchange with yet another group, the teacher, acting on feedback from the groups, uses her iPad to send a message to each student in the class. Upon receipt, each student reviews the message and acts accordingly.

After the teacher’s last stop, she sits with us. The student she brings with her describes the unit-ending, problem-based lesson that is underway, pointing out that the lesson counts for 40 percent of the unit grade. We learn that this level of focus is important because the students and teacher share a goal of every student mastering every lesson and passing every exam. Attaining the goal accounts for 10 percent of each student’s final grade for the course and is a major part of the quarterly evaluation of the teacher.

The teacher tells us that she and her colleagues teach the lesson every year, refining it each time. They came up with the initial design for it five years ago using a software toolkit that teachers share with students, parents, and administrators. Teachers use the toolkit to design, deliver, assess, and refine all their lessons. Students, parents, and administrators use the toolkit for their unique purposes and needs. Everyone uses it to provide feedback about the current lesson. Thanks to the toolkit’s capacity for enabling, processing, and reporting feedback, the lesson and all other lessons improve with each delivery regardless of the teacher or user. The performances of students, teachers, administrators, and parents improve each time they interact with a lesson. The student and teacher are quite confident that all students will master the current lesson and subsequently pass the exam.

Two schools, two classrooms, two teachers: similar yet very different. How? Let us find out.

One difference is quite visible at the first school. Multi-tasking is the norm for teachers there. When in this mode, the cognitive load of teachers at the first school increase considerably as the efforts they expend to do everything that they must do. For students to learn what they must learn in this context, short-term processing capacity of the teachers’ and students’ minds are pushed to the limit and the reserve strength of their bodies is depleted. This everyday high-load reality is the dirty little secret every teacher at the school knows but dares not acknowledge or talk about.

Instead of confronting their secret openly, teachers at the school individually struggle to keep in check their respective cognitive loads. When load-weary, they sometimes do routine tasks in autopilot mode. Other times, they cut corners, inadequately prepare for class, or deliver instruction that is incomplete. Regardless of how they lighten their loads, each time they compromise student learning and generate more load for themselves later; but they somehow need to stay afloat. Yet, each teacher knows she is working as hard as she can. Predictably, the school reports no annual gains in achievement.

At the second school a key difference is visible too. There, everyone—students, parents, teachers, and administrators—shares responsibility for learning and teaching. Each has a clearly defined role and specific, measurable goals for learning and teaching. Their common language and understanding of instruction defines their work. Feedback guides the work they do and how they do it. Assessment of individual and collective performance informs what they do next. They rarely are overloaded, multi-task seldom, and year-over-year the school reports significant gains in student achievement. Everything adds up.

Teachers working at schools like the first inevitably figure out that the coping strategies they each construct actually do not lighten their respective loads. They come to understand that no effort to improve learning at the level of a classroom or beyond will possibly succeed unless the high-load challenge that teachers face is solved. Multi-tasking and maxed out, none of them can do more or perform better. So any improvement effort that heightens their load just makes what it seeks to improve worse.

For teachers in these schools the educational paradigm to which they adhere is the source of their load. The paradigm assigns each of them exclusive pedagogical responsibility for student learning. Their devotion to meeting that responsibility inevitably dooms them to careers of unattainable goals and high-load misery.

Six years ago, teachers at the second school chose to confront the dirty little secret. They began dispersing control for learning and teaching across all stakeholders, including students and parents. In short order, new and genuine commitments to roles, goals, practices, and processes, and tools were in place. Their toolkit makes the core educational work—teaching and learning—of the school powerful yet doable. They are a self-organizing school. Not surprisingly, school-wide performance is at an all time high and so is morale.

Improving education requires permanently liberating teachers from the painful and exhausting effects of their loads. Conjure all you want about fixing the prevailing educational paradigm; loads will not abate.

The time for a new paradigm is here. With stakeholders sharing responsibility for learning and teaching and having technological tools designed to enable, drive, and support their efforts, teachers can be more effective and energized. Teachers at the second school give us a glimpse of the new paradigm’s potential. Let us expose the dirty secret and change the conversation, and change the work of teachers, students, parents, and administrators so that all students can learn and be successful.


Note: This is the fourth 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.

FIND THE GOOD AND PRAISE IT – The Learning Lesson Series

Alex halley.001.jpeg.001

A large red, white, and blue shuttle bus sits at the Nashville International Airport, its diesel engine idling noisily. The notes on my lap are for the speech I will give later today. Now, rather than preparing for the speech, I watch people scurry about the bus loading area. Every one of them is from somewhere. They all have places to go. Each is unique yet similar, a story waiting to be told.

I am here as part of Governor Lamar Alexander’s Tennessee Homecoming 1986, a series of events at which the stories of Tennesseans are told. Thousands of people have come to Opryland USA, home of American music, for the largest homecoming event of the year. I am proud to be an invited speaker.

Unfortunately, I missed the event’s opening day due to a flight delay. Today, with most folks already at the event, it is just the driver and I on the shuttle bus to Opryland. Pushing a dashboard button, the driver closes the bus’ doors. Shifting from park to drive, she jerks the bus forward.

“Wait, wait,” yells a man rushing toward the bus. “Don’t leave without me.” A tap on the brakes brings the bus to a quick stop. A button push opens its doors. A man—sixtyish, with short grey hair and round glasses—boards the bus. A nod, a smile, he settles into the seat next to mine. With a button-push, then a shift, the 12-mile trip to Opryland begins.

“You here for business?” says the man.

“Yes,” say I. Then without missing a beat, I tell him about my job at the National Conference of State Legislatures, the reason for the trip delay from Denver, my professional trajectory—teacher, counselor, association president, and program director. My mouth running faster than the turning wheels of the bus, I even mention the speech that I am going to give later this morning. He listens intently. Graciously, he inquires about each. When he asks about my speech, I offer up its title—The Public In Education—the major points I intend to make, a joke I will tell, and summarize the conclusion.

Twelve miles covered, Opryland in sight, up the long driveway goes the bus. When we disembark at a covered landing, the man insists that I disembark first. My luggage, he insists on helping me carry. On the landing he shakes my hand and gives me a business card. I shove his into the right pocket of my suit pants then give him mine. He holds it between the index and thumbs of both his hands. Gives my card a good long look. Then looking me square in the eyes, he says, “Mark, you’ll give a fine speech.” I give him a smug “of-course-I-will” nod, turn, and head to the assigned conference room where a podium and 125 people await me.

Speech done, applause received, hands shaken, and time to spare before returning to the airport, I go to Grand Auditorium II where the featured keynote is about to begin. As I walk in, Governor Alexander is finishing a story about Minnie Pearl and her lifetime of service to the people of Tennessee. When he presents Minnie with a plaque, 3,104 people stand as one for a rousing ovation.

Presentation complete, Governor Alexander begins introducing the keynote speaker. As he does, I settle into a back row seat. I can only hear some of what he says—Henning, Tennessee, Coast Guard, interviews of Miles Davis and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and author of Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. After which he says, “Please give a big Tennessee Homecoming welcome to Alex Haley.”

Much to my surprise the man from the shuttle bus steps up to the podium. As he does, my hand goes into my pants pocket, hurriedly seeking the business card I received a few hours ago. Holding it between the index fingers and thumbs of both my hands, I give it the good long look—Alex Haley, Writer—that it deserved when I received it.

In a rich voice, with a steady cadence, Haley recounts his life. Telling stories about people, places, and lessons learned. After one story, he says, “Either you deal with what is the reality, or you can be sure that the reality is going to deal with you.”

As Haley continues talking about dealing with reality, he mentions that family is the link to our past and bridge to our future. I consider the reality of the man I met on the bus. How he reached out to me. The familial way he inquired about my reality. How he listened intently, despite my rambling response, after asking about my speech. His intentionality made me feel like my speech mattered—my reality mattered. Yet, when I did not ask about him, he seemed not to take offense. Then at our destination, he halved my load as we left the bus and ever so respectfully received my business card even though I snubbed his.

Later, I am thunderstruck when Haley says, “Find the good, and praise it.” I think about how, on the bus, I was too self-absorbed to see the distinguished teacher who, through a twist of fate and delayed flight, had stepped in my life. Unbent by great accomplishment and fame, the teacher was approachable, humble, and curious. Even though I was not. He sought to understand my reality, and hear my story, yet I did not reciprocate. These heartfelt acts of praise kicked awake the good that was asleep within me.

The good within me burns brightest when my approachability, listening, and inquiring give praise to the people I encounter and situations I face. My flame of goodness is further fanned by the gold stars, quotes/pictures, and blog posts that I send forth via social media. Each pays homage to teachers I have had, to those whom I have yet to meet, and every person who teaches. The good within me, that Alex Haley travelled a lifetime to ignite, stays bright through my praise of others. Find the good and praise it.


Note: This is the 12th 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.

DEAR KEVIN – The Learning Lessons Series


Dear Kevin,

Much time has passed and many miles have been travelled since the occasion of your high school graduation. I still fondly recall you beaming with pride as you walked across the stage to receive your diploma and shake hands with superintendent MacDonald. Oh the relief you must have felt, diploma in hand and goal achieved. Afterwards, what a good reason you had for celebrating with your parents, family, and friends.

In route to becoming the Class of 1980, my heart was warmed each time you and your classmates overcame a challenge. The private victories that propelled each of you toward commencement were well known to me, as were the defeats. That is why I, a first time school counselor with his first graduating class, was so elated when every member of your class graduated on time.

I vividly remember the first time you came to my office. It was early September of your ninth grade year—1976. Your teachers and classmates had mentioned you—a gentle, friendly, tall, and somewhat effeminate boy—to me as someone to keep an eye on. So that day, when you crossed my office door, I was ready (sort of). You had just failed an Algebra 1 exam. With tears flowing, you said, “Mr. Weston, I try, I really do.” I listened, provided comfort, and helped you regroup. The few Kleenex I had—I was not ready—went fast.

Soon, my office became your frequent destination. To each visit, you brought tears and I provided a friendly ear, reassuring words, and Kleenex (by the case). When you failed tests, tears flowed. Bullied or teased, tears flowed. Every visit had a “Mr. Weston, I try, I really do.” I listened, nodded, and doled out Kleenex

Your life changed, when, late in the first semester of your sophomore year, the humiliating incident in the locker room occurred. Legal action was swiftly taken and protections provided. But listening, nodding, and reassurances I knew would no longer suffice. The damage from the incident would linger and had to be dealt with. That is why during one of the many meetings that your parents, you, and I were having, I proposed referring you for psychological services and home study. For the first time, an “I don’t fit in here” accompanied your all too familiar, “I try, I really do.” Your parents and I agreed with both statements.

Well Kevin, you know the story. From that point on, you did more than try. With the help of psychological services, you came to terms with the incident. Soon after, when we formed a team to look at your academic and social functioning, your cooperation led to several breakthrough insights—dyslexia, poor emotional regulation, limited coping strategies, and inadequate adaptation skills for academic subjects. The team determined you to be bright and capable but lacking certain skills. Armed with those insights, the home study that I thought could be a waste of time, turned out to be a godsend. Accommodations were made, necessary skills mastered, course content learned, and exams passed. The following Fall, when school began, academic successes soon followed.

From then on, your visits to my office became more about strategies, tactics, and problem solving. Favorable progress reports replaced tears; portfolio items with passing grades replaced Kleenex. Your action-plan and the accommodations it made possible for you to really try to fit in—somewhat but enough.

Yes Kevin, your path to graduation had more challenges than the paths taken by your classmates. Your path had more lessons to learn. That is why, as you walked across the stage to get your diploma, the sense of accomplishment, relief, and celebration you felt were so sweet. Your classmates and teacher who honored your accomplish with a heartfelt applause would have benefited from some Kleenex, but the only Kleenex I had were soaking up the tears of admiration flowing down my cheeks.

Kevin, I am proud beyond words of what you did. This letter is testament to that fact. However, as you will now read, it is but part of the story.

Your life changes changed my life. Watching you encounter and overcome your challenges, made me aware of how difficult school can be for students. After seeing your difficulties, everywhere I looked were students struggling to overcome equally daunting challenges. Most of them, unlike you, do not succeed. I did what I could, but it was not enough. My conclusion? The educational system we have only works well for some students and teachers. Moreover, the system is impervious to change. So attempts to make the system work for more students and teachers will inevitably find friction, frustration, and failure.

This understanding has been my constant companion and source of passion since our time together. I carried it with me to nearly every state capitol, Washington DC, three-dozen countries, two technology companies, and several universities. As I did, every day I woke up thinking about you and other students for whom the educational system does not work. I spent my days working to create an education system in which all teachers are empowered and all students are educated well. Each night, before I go to sleep I reflect on what I did that day to make this dream come true.

Kevin, when I needed a teacher, you were mine. You taught me that trying, really trying might help a student survive, but if the student does not fit the system of which he is a part, then his path will be a tearful one. Kevin, I pledge to keep working to create a system that fits all students and works for all teachers. As I do, memories of you are in my heart.

With respect and gratitude,


Note: This is the 11th 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.

CONNECT THE DOTS – The Learning Lessons Series


school visit.001

One piece of information is a data point. A line connects two data points. A trend is a line with several data points. A pattern emerges when data points on a trend line accumulate.

As I briskly walk up the covered sidewalk to the public school building where my dear friend teaches, I give no thought to points, lines, trends, and patterns. Rather, my heart is full of excitement about a day watching elementary school teachers teach. I love spending time with teachers in classrooms. I do so as often as possible, but that is never enough.

A nice-to-be-with-you-again hug from my friend greets me at the door. Walking to a nearby conference room, we furiously catch each other up about our lives since my last visit here three years ago. She tells about her recent masters degree, presentation at ISTE, and her second baby, a boy. We arrive at the room before I can ask about her teaching and the school.

“Welcome Mark,” says the principal. After thanks-for-having-me, a cup of tea, and chitchat about her never-ending funding struggles, the principal lays out my day ahead. A morning of classroom observations, lunch with teachers, additional observations in the afternoon, ending with a weekly faculty meeting led by the principal.

First stop, kindergarten. Having been to the school often, I know the teacher and the route to her room. As I approach it,17 tiny people and a flustered aide, trying her best to remain calm, huddle together outside the classroom. Pushing past them, I go inside the room. There, I see a paint-splattered wall, an apparently tossed chair, clothing strewn across the room, and a half-naked boy cowering under a flipped-over table. “You’ll be okay,” says the teacher. “Help is on the way.” I have my doubts—data point.

Help arrives and things settle down. My next stop is a 6th grade classroom. There, the teacher greets me then quickly tells about today’s lesson Finding the Volume of Prisms in which she employs a cooperative learning approach. She starts teaching by presenting students with an overview of the lesson, its outcome, and rationale. Students receive leadership tasks, break into groups, and get to work. The teacher rotates from group to group. Then joining me at the side of the room, she quietly offers up insights—gifted, bilingual, ADHD, and so on—about her students. Nodding toward a girl, hood up over her head, the teacher says, “She has anxiety and obsessive issues dating back to earlier grades.” Then calls my attention to the lacerations on the girl’s arms as “worrisome signs of self-harm, and a possible risk of suicide”. The teacher is acutely aware of this, and other possibilities, in her classroom. Two data points, I wonder, “Does a line connect them?”

During lunch in the teachers’ lounge, I eavesdrop on conversations, while munching on my peanut butter, honey, and banana sandwich. The one about the Cavaliers-Celtics game last night is more smack talk than conversation. Another one is about teaching O-sounds. Around the lounge conversations bounce from Valentines Day to a sale at L.L. Beans and Weight Watchers’ new program. At a table in the corner of the lounge, a barely audible conversation is underway about a 4th grade student recently put into a group home due to parental abuse. Two teachers talk about the problems she has with peers and completing classwork. Three data points, same line, I ask, “Might this be a trend?”

Stomach full of food and head full of data points, I go to the 1st grade classroom. Arriving early, the teacher tells me about the lesson I will observe. Then she briefs me about her students. My ears perk up when she mentions a girl who startles at the sound of the bell and other loud noises. A recent immigrant from war-torn Syria, a non-English speaker, these noises can cause her to sob uncontrollably. “Hopefully, not today,” the teacher says. Four data points that connect. I ask myself, “What’s happening at this school?”

Next stop, the 5th grade classroom. Upon arriving the teacher quickly explains that he is in the midst of a problem-based lesson about the poaching of rhinoceros in the grasslands of Africa. In passing, the teacher warns that one student, if here today, may act out, could distract others, and possibly harm himself. Five points, I wonder, “Is this a trend?”

Returning to the main office, the principal is ready to go the faculty meeting. As we walk down the hall toward the conference room, I say, “How’d your day go”? Not missing a step she recounts a day full of behavior related incidents… an autistic student having a melt down… an ADHD student who is in time out for hitting several students…a boy not taking his antidepressants, and more. Nodding my head, trying to listen intently but struggling to walk fast enough to keep up with the principal, I conclude, “There’s definitely a trend here.”

Later, in the quiet of my home, I reflect on the data points from the school. Each point represents a challenge for a teacher. The best-designed lessons and most thoughtful instructional approaches are no match for an anxious, compulsive, depressive, suicidal, or over or under-medicated student.

I want to believe that children do well if they can. For the children who cannot do well, like it or not, we are their early warning system. The alarm that a child’s presenting behavior—inattention, laziness, moodiness, and disengagement—sets off is an  invitation for us to understand the behavior’s underlying cause and, in so doing, connect more deeply with the child. When each of us accepts the invitation, we meet the data points, lines, trends, and patterns of children’s behaviors with our corresponding points of empathy, lines of kindness, and patterns of understanding. In these intersections reside the lessons, skills, and knowledge for surviving school—and life. Let’s meet our children there.


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


Come through.001

In Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, Alice leaps into a topsy-turvy, alternate world. A giant chessboard with fields for squares and chess pieces as characters, across which Alice, herself a pawn, must journey to become a Queen and wake up at home again. Along Alice’s journey, the experiences she has and characters—including Humpty Dumpty, March Hare, and Hatter—she meets blow her mind. Teachers who step through the looking glass of technology find a wonderland of education, as mind-blowing as the world Alice encounters.

Thanks to computers, software, and the Internet, educational priorities, values, and roles are upside down and inside out. Cookie-cutter classrooms are no more.

Classrooms that were once places are now processes. Workstations and computer labs are gone, portable devices with wireless access have taken their place. Instead of the once standard school-day-week-year with corresponding courses, bells, and periods there is anywhere anytime learning.

In these classrooms, teachers jettison one-size-fits-all stand-and-deliver instruction that they once relied on. Replacing it with personalized and authentic learning approaches. They give and receive timely feedback—frequently. They use data from the feedback to refine, differentiate, compensate, and enrich their teaching. No longer recitation taskmasters here they are guides for students and partners in learning. Groupthink is unthinkable, collaboration the norm.

On this side of the looking glass every student from Ottawa, Ontario to Ankeny, Iowa and Yuma,  Arizona is one click away from most every resource necessary for learning most everything. Roles and functions blur so students and teacher are learners. Technologically enabled and instructionally empowered, students morph from capitulators of facts into synthesizers of information and creators of knowledge. They use easy-to-use software to show their mastery of concepts, topics, and skills. The artifacts of their learning—images, videos, recordings, documents, and more—reside in digital portfolios that document their mastery and progress. Not surprisingly, here all students learn at high levels all the time.

Parents? On this side of the glass parents are active participants in their children’s learning and instruction. Through their child’s portfolio, parents monitor their child’s progress and communicate with teachers and other parents. They use it to provide and receive regular feedback, early warnings should things go awry, and accelerate should opportunities afford.

After stepping through, Alice struggles. She is an innocent child in a nonsensical adult world. She finds thinking and reasoning to be quite different here. To survive, Alice must adapt —play by new rules, learn a new language, and engage with a new, seemingly senseless, and oftentimes unpredictable order.

Much like Alice, teachers who step, fall, or are pushed through struggle to understand their new and apparently nonsensical world. Calm, quiet, and peaceful yet rapidly spinning to and fro from the changes wrought by technology, it is a seemingly absurd and surprisingly logical place.

What to do? Where to begin? Let’s ask Alice.

The way forward, as Alice discovers, involves awareness and adaptation. Finding herself in new surroundings, Alice adjusts to it in the “head”. She begins by rethinking her identity. Because, as she says, “I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.” The same happens to a teacher who identifies as a teacher but once through the looking glass must adjust to being a student and partner too.

As Alice shows, rethinking leads to growth and maturation. But, as she also shows, rethinking can be confusing and uncomfortable. Being ten feet tall was not comfortable, Jabberwocky with its bright colors and gibberish words calming. Problems familiar and solvable on one-side of the glass are, on the other side, puzzling and logic defying. That is why Alice, upon stepping through, feels directionless and tremendously alone. She has no support system, does not speak the language, and is unfamiliar with the terrain.

A teacher stepping into the high-tech world of education feels the same. If you are a teacher who has stepped through you know this to be true. You also know that, as does Alice, lacking direction and being lonely are temporary conditions.

Curiosity pulls Alice through the looking glass. Curiosity moves her forward and brings her back out. With a questioning and open mind, Alice greets various characters. Learning a lesson from each that enables her to move across the chessboard, Alice becomes a Queen, and wakes up at home.

Those of us who have met the characters, learned the lessons, successfully navigated the high-tech wonderland of education do not need to go back through the looking glass, as Alice did, to stay. Rather we must go back and come through again and again, each time bringing with us a teacher or two. By showing them the way through and sharing lessons about what to do once there, we enable the teaching profession and the field of education to grow and mature. This is the wonderland of learning each of us seeks.


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

GO IN TO GET OUT – The Learning Lessons Series


I am hot. The pit I’m in is deep, dark, dank, and depressing. Its walls are steep. Looking up, a light, a way out taunts me. To escape this painful place I must reach the light. I claw and climb to get there.

The pit is where I struggle with myself to change my behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, and values. Three years ago, after a barrage of holiday ads, articles, and new fad products, as well as the admonitions of family, friends, and Santa to “be good” I invited weight-loss to join me in the pit. My New Year`s Resolution became shedding 45 pounds, my post-athletic paunch. Four months or sooner I proudly proclaim I will attain the goal.

With well wishes from family, friends, and co-workers into the pit go weight-loss and I. Week 1 down a pound, week 2 up one, week 3 lost two, and week 4 gained two. A month in the pit, lots of clawing, weight-loss and I are even. If you have ever tried to lose weight, you know the helpless feeling I am experiencing.

Weary, but undeterred, I figure, “There must be some trick.” So I seek advice from people who have beaten weight-loss. The trick they say, “Join a program”.

Join a reputable program I do. After one month of meetings every Saturday at 8:30 AM, meal suggestions, dietary guidelines, daily point totals—I am 12 pounds down. Another month and I am down 11 more pounds. One more month, another 9 pounds lost. It seems the trick to climbing the wall is working the program. The next month, down 7 pounds, my goal is in sight.

The light is mere inches away when my fingers fail (Actually, too long deprived, my fingers are tired from stuffing my mouth full of glazed doughnuts, peanut butter cookies, ice-cream with chocolate sauce, burgers, fries, and much more). Slipping, sliding, calories adding up, I tumble back into the pit. Thirty pounds later, back in my big boy suit, I put down the fork and regroup.

Again I claw and climb—attend meetings, track what I eat, drink plenty of water, exercise—I work the program. Steadily I scale the wall. I want out of this pit. Twelve weeks pass, 26 pounds lost (re-lost), the bright light of my weight-loss goal is enticingly close. Goodbye weight-loss, hello good life.

A Friday pizza party turns into a night on the town. A weeklong spat with a co-worker and subsequent binges follow. Then the market goes into a tailspin, munch, munch. Oh no! My grip loosens. To the bottom I slide, the pit darker and deeper than ever. Up 10 pounds, lying at the bottom of my pit, I stare at the light. It laughs. Then weight-loss spits in my face.

Weary, embarrassed, and humbled I wonder, “Is this worth it? Should I give up?” At this moment, with weight-loss unattained and me grounded in the pit I realize that the lesson of this place is not about working a program or acknowledging and altering the gluttonous behaviors that enabled me to add 45 pounds. The lesson is that self-change is difficult, I am hardwired to resist, and that developing the habits of mind to change one behavior sets the stage to changing other behaviors. Struggle is how I grow and mature as a human being. While my behavior de jour is weight-loss, a limitless list of behaviors—negativity, abuse, pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, ignorance, and so on—are waiting to join me in the pit. All are eager to spur my growth each is ready to be my next teacher.

As appealing as I may find no more points-to-count, meetings to attend, or weigh-ins to be, my penultimate question is not about weight-loss. It is about self-growth. Giving up, settling in the pit, perhaps even redecorating it, is a no-growth option. Same pit, same me, same dead-end.

Giving up is not for me. My way forward—achieving my weight loss goal and learning how to become a better person in the process—involves embracing the struggle that the pit represents. Letting each claw, slide, tumble, escape, and return teach me what I need to know about myself. Armed with this insight, I re-engage with weight-loss. We grapple for another month. After which I deftly scale the wall of the pit. Give the light a big kiss, and offer a grateful thanks to my teacher—Weight-Loss—for my learning. I stand ready and eager for my next teacher, 45-pounds lighter.

Are you pit bound? Weary and want to give up? Do not waste time seeking tricks and gimmicks. Confront the behavior you seek to change. Ask it, “Why are we stuck here?” The answer you receive—face yourself as a human being—is the way out of your pit-a-full-ness. This is the lesson of the pit. Learn it well.


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



When teachers are not connected to meaningful and supportive relationships they often feel isolated. If you teach, you know this to be true. Tending classrooms filled with diverse students leaves a teacher with little time for bathroom breaks and no time for professional growth and engagement. A reality that poorly designed meetings, teaming, and programming—in which a teacher is required to participate at their school—further exacerbates the disenfranchisement and marginalization she feels. All this affects her teaching and the learning of her students.

A growing number of teachers, disconnected within their respective schools, are seeking connections elsewhere, often via social media. Twitter is a popular option. With a few clicks, a teacher equipped with Twitter, can connect with people and events anywhere and everywhere.

Teacher use of Twitter follows a predictable pattern. First she does a tweet, then a like, a retweet, and a follow, next up is a #hashtag chat, followed by a direct message. Nearly every teacher who reaches this point has a Velcro moment.

Understanding the significance of a Velcro moment requires understanding the functionality of Velcro. Its hook-covered strips easily connect with corresponding loop-covered ones. Velcro’s press and pull functionality—complementary, secure, simple—epitomizes connectivity.

A teacher, who, like a Velcro strip, seeks her corresponding workplace relationships but fails to find it, is disconnected. That is why a teacher, ensconced in her Twitter enabled Velcro moment, says, “Even though we have yet to meet, and despite the distance separating us, I know you, and you know me.” The connection she experiences is a match waiting to happen and meant to be. So with each ensuing tweet, like, retweet, and direct-message the teacher’s feelings of disenfranchisement, marginalization, and isolation abate. A Skype session or Google hangout awaits them, as do edCamps, meetUps, and unconferences.

For a previously disconnected teacher, a Velcro moment is exhilarating. The bond she forges in the moment stands in stark contrast to the mind-numbing interactions she often experiences in staff rooms and school hallways. Connecting with people, who validate and inspire the teacher to grow and think anew spurs her to seek more Velcro moments. She finds the relative ease and impermanent flexibility with which she has Velcro moments with other teachers empowering and addictive (in a positive way).

Close physical proximity of teachers is no guarantee of professional growth and engagement and resultant student learning. Extensive evidence supports this statement. The recent experiences of teachers equipped with social media and energized by Velcro moments, point to a way forward to less isolation, better instruction, and higher levels of student learning through connectivity. Blazing a trail may prove to be the single greatest contribution our generation of teachers makes to the field of education.

The profound beauty of the seemingly trivial clicks, tweets, chats, and hangouts is the connections and Velcro moments they afford. It is in those moments that teachers take charge of their lives and the future of education. Let’s learn this lesson.


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