A Little Bit of Modeling. A Whole Lot of Love.

I taught a class tonight and made it home just in time for bedtime.  I’d been looking forward to stories – and expected my daughters to be on their way up to bed.  But what I found instead was that Ani was already in bed and tucked in.  She wasn’t feeling super well and had retired early.  

Without packing her lunch.  Which meant it was going to be my job.  

But I found out that the lunch wasn’t made because I caught Teagan, her younger sister, already in the process of packing two lunches.  Without any prompting or complaining, she was helping out.  Just to be nice.

That, though, wasn’t what floored me.  I watched Teagan grab a Sharpie and begin to mark up the sandwich bag she had just filled full of sliced peppers, a staple vegetable in our school lunches.  Immediately, I told her that she needed to show her mother what she had done.  

She did this1:

Teagan Loves Ani

 

I can’t tell you how proud I was.  But I can tell you that I never told her, explicitly, that the way you help someone feel better is to write them a note.  That was something we modeled for her by slipping notes her way from time to time.  

You can’t teach love, so much, by way of demanding it or requiring it or lecturing on its finer points.  You’ve got to model it.  You’ve got to live it, or at least try to, and let the lesson come through a little bit on its own, as we trust that our children, or students, or colleagues, pay attention.  

Tonight’s scribbled notes2 were a fine reminder that, even when an example isn’t perfect, plenty of times the message still gets across.  

And I wonder where and how I could be modeling love better, myself.3  

  1. It’s maybe a bit hard to read – but it says “I love yuo (sic) Ani! (Heart) Teagan”. []
  2. She wrote a similar message on the pizza in another sandwich bag, too. []
  3. Later, Teagan chose Peter Reynolds’ The Dot as her story for the night.  Love notes to sisters and that book were the one-two punch of love for me tonight.  If you haven’t read that book, oh, you really should. []
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Would You Please Say Something Nice?

After the announcement last week, and carrying on into today, I’ve gotten such nice messages from people, many I know, several I do not, saying the nicest things about me. It’s been pretty nice.  Really nice.  Wonderfully . . . you get the idea.

I wonder why we don’t always take the time to say nice things to other folks whenever we feel them, rather than waiting for a social cue like a big announcement or award or life event.

And then I saw this video, and realized that he said what I want to say pretty well:

It’s Thanksgiving Eve here in these United States.  Thanksgiving is certainly a time for being grateful and remembering to honor the people we are thankful for.  So would you do something for me this weekend?  Won’t take but five minutes, tops.  Take a second to think about someone for whom you are thankful, or proud of, or excited to know, and write them a short note, email, tweet, status update, or any other message, and let them know.  Be sincere, and be specific, but take the moment.

It’s so worth doing.  And so easy to forget to do.  Go ahead.  I’ll save this corn dog for you for when you get done.

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A 500-Year Flood (of Gratitude.)

It’s quit raining in Fort Collins at the moment, after three days of continual drizzle and sometimes pounding rain.  Last night, a patched hole in my roof began to drip a bit of water into the house.  That’s nothing.

The town where I work right now, though?  It’s cut in half by the river that’s blown its banks across the town.  Two other communities in the district where I serve are cut off from the rest of the world as all the roads that could get you in or out of there are no longer available for travel, or are simply gone.  And to the south, in Denver, more and more reports of flooding and evacuation.  They’re calling it, in Longmont, a 500-year flood event.

But it’s not raining here right now, and tomorrow my children will head to school, as they have a pretty normal day.

Across Twitter and Facebook and the eavesdropping police scanner app I promised that I wouldn’t download or turn on, I’m seeing/hearing/checking in on lots of folks who are having terrible evenings.  Homes flooded.  Families separated.  Water seeping into places water just doesn’t usually go.

And there’s pretty much nothing I can do tonight from my reasonably dry home not so far away from the communities and students and teachers I serve.  Save for listening and watching and cheering on the bus drivers and support staff and police, fire, and community leaders who are digging in and helping out as best they can.

Being helpless isn’t something I’m all that good at.

So let me say this, as I’m wringing my hands in helplessness and thinking of how to help down the line:  If you’re in the thick of it tonight, and bringing comfort, or blankets, or warm snacks to those without; if you’re driving a borrowed bus around the drowning streets of a Colorado town, taking families to safety, or reuniting them; if you’re coordinating shelters, or support, or just passing information along as a way of making sure it’s out there; if you’re helping right now; if you’re doing what you can,

well, then.

Thank you.

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Stomping on Sandcastles

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Last week, my family and I made our annual pilgrimage to the ocean to visit with family and reconnect with all that is good and true and beautiful about the beaches like the ones I visited as a child. My children have begun to appreciate the beauty of the ocean and the creative canvas that is the sand on the beach. Most mornings of our trip, we hauled our buckets, shovels, rakes and other tools and toys from the house to the beach to play and dig and make and tinker around.

My children being children, we didn’t make the greatest castles. Their creations were often abandoned mid-creation as they noticed a new tide pool or an enticing wave that drew them away from the sand. But our little bits of towers and tunnels were strewn about the beach every day, awaiting either a little more attention or the daily scrubbing from the tide as it rolled in. One great thing about a beach is that it’s a fresh canvas every day.

One afternoon, my wife and I were sitting by the ocean, making plans and dreaming dreams and having all the conversations you can have when freed from the daily grind of work/home stress. Mostly, we were just being in the moment of sitting together in the presence of something delightful, watching waves and smelling salt air. As we talked, I was people watching, one of my favorite past times, and I was paying particular attention to how walkers, runners, and the motley crew of assorted beachcombers were navigating the sand creations strewn around the shore – both “ours” – the ones my children and nephews made, and also the ones made by other folks who shared the beach with us that day.

The tide was coming in, and it was clear that the time for the castles was short. They’d be gone within an hour or two. But most folks didn’t think about that. They worked their way around the castles and trenches, giving them as wide a berth as they could, taking care not to trod upon the things that other people made. I remember when I was a child on the beaches of North Carolina, and coming across others’ castles when we made it to the ocean. Sometimes, we’d find an exceptional one, and look for ways to make it better, or we’d finish up a section that clearly was incomplete, decorating towers and moats with bits of shell and driftwood washed up the previous day. I spent an especially memorable day helping a kid I’d never met before – and haven’t seen since – digging out an elaborate underground fort, complete with plywood walls and sand steps down while my father and his father looked on and surf fished closer to the water.

It’s always been my thing to make better the stuff I see, or to admire the beauty that others had left behind as their day took them away from their labors of love1.

But back to this particular day.

There was a group of folks walking down the shore who came across a small series of towers my nephews has made that day, already beginning to be kissed by the approaching tide. What others had avoided, these folks stomped on, knocking each one down as they passed. On their walk back from where they started, they again stomped across the towers, reducing each one to a damp lump of sand.

And I wondered why anyone would do that.

I’m sure they didn’t think about it as they passed, about the time and attention a five year old gave to making sure the lines and angles and compactness of the sand was just right, about the care an eight year old gave to ensuring the towers all matched once finished, about the tide licking its way across the castles. These castles were doomed, certainly, and abandoned by the children, but did they have to end like that?

I’m sure those folks didn’t think about what they were doing while they did it. They were in the moment and enjoying their friends. And they didn’t do anything wrong, really. I just thought it was odd.

And I wonder as I write what it is that pushes some of us to admire and add to the beauty that we find, and what pushes others of us to stomp on it. In the public spaces we all share, how do we ensure that we’re inviting appreciation and contribution, making sure the canvas is refreshed and available, while keeping the stomping to a minimum.

My moment on the beach was a good reminder to me of the types of spaces I want to promote and build and perpetuate. And maybe a reminder about the type of guy I want to be when I’m walking through a gallery of other people’s stuff, wherever I might happen to come across it.

Certainly, the castles and creations that many of us will make aren’t always very good. But I hope you’re helping to make them better, and not stomping on the ones you come across. And I hope, too, that you’re working to build spaces where we can encourage things getting made and made better, rather than just stomped down as they pop up.

  1. At least, I try to make that my thing. But I fall short. Lots. We all do. []
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September 12th, 2001. A Wednesday.

September 12th.  That’s the day everything changed.1

A few weeks previously, I had begun my teaching career as a graduate student teaching freshman composition in room 110 of the Natural Resources Building at Colorado State University.  I remember room 110 very well because it was where, six years previously, I took my first English class as an undergraduate at the school.  Introduction to Literature. 2

As an undergraduate, it was my job, I thought, to unpack the secrets of the stories and novels and plays that we read together.  And I wrote.  Lots.  Every week, I produced two typed pages of thinking and reflection and wondering about what I was reading and why it mattered.  This was college.  It was important.

And back in room 110, with my class of college freshfolk, I was in charge of helping them to unlock the mysteries of the College Essay, the texts that they were expected to produce early and often in their college careers.  These 18 and 19 year olds were looking to me, a 23 year old grad student, to provide them with the keys to college literacy.  Or, they had to take the class, and I was in their way.  Either way, there we were, from 10:00 to 10:50 every MWF.

September 11th was a Tuesday.  I remember because that made September 12th a Wednesday.  At 10:00am, I was supposed to “teach.” And no one said otherwise.

I made one of the most important discoveries of my teaching career that day3, when I decided that class would be optional.  It made sense to go.  People, I thought, were counting on me to make sense of this.  And that couldn’t be done.

But there was something I could do.

I emailed the class that no one had to be there, but that I would be there.  Attendance, for a change, would not be taken.

I didn’t expect anyone to show up.  But they came.  Not all, but most.

And I started class.  Sitting on a table in the front of the room, I reminded folks that no one had to stay that morning.  I would not advance the syllabus.  Instead, we were together, and something monumental had happened.  What, I wondered, did folks want to talk about?

And I don’t actually remember the specifics.  I remember that there was lots of misinformation and rumor in the air that morning, and that mostly, as someone who had read several articles, watched some CNN, and had spent the previous afternoon in the newsroom of the student paper, where I had worked as an undergraduate, and would work again that Spring, and pulled everything I could off the AP wire as it was released, I was likely the “expert” in the room.

Like that makes any sense.

But I dispelled rumor where I could, suggested sources for folks to explore if they wanted to know more.  I mentioned the school’s counseling program for students.  And it was quiet.  Not silent, but much quieter than a usual day of argument and conversation.  We were together, but we weren’t really talking all that much.

I guess it was just normal, or whatever on September 12th could approximate normalcy in the wake of the events of the day before, and normal, on September 12th, 2001, felt pretty good.  It was enough.

On Friday, September 14th, we resumed talk of what makes good summary, and how to use others’ ideas in the services of our own, and all the things that you talk about in a college writing class.

We kept going.

And now, as we look back and consider all that’s happened in the world in the last ten years, and how that day changed this country, and me, and most other folks I know in some way, I get the feeling that keeping going is a pretty good way to honor that day.

By all means, take a deep breath and a look back.  Think about what happened and what that changed or what that didn’t change.  Reach out if you need or want an ear.  Look after yourself.  Consider what’s worth doing and what’s worth remembering and what’s worth working to restore.  But then, one last deep breath.

There’s much to do.

Let’s keep going.

  1. Sure.  September 11th.  I woke to the phone ringing and was told to turn on the news.  I’d been married for all of three months and what I saw on TV didn’t make sense.  Still doesn’t sometimes. []
  2. I sat next to What’s Her Name, who took good notes and who, three years later, I would date.  Once.  And screw that up royally by inviting a friend over to watch television with us.  As I drove her home, I backed into a car in the street behind my apartment.  It did not go well.  A second date was dodged.  By her. Repeatedly.  I didn’t understand what happened there, either, until much later. []
  3. The discovery, for me, was in two parts – first, that the world doesn’t stop when you start your class.  Be of the world and in the world as often as you’re about and/or removed from the world. The second part is about modeling and how teachers, in some sense, are always on.  We are always being seen as teachers.  So might was well act like one, even if, at 23 then, and 33 now, I don’t always have a clue as to what that means or should look like.  “What would a teacher do?” is a question I approach as I prepare for any class or learning experience.  And it’s one I’ll always struggle with.  But in this case, a teacher would dig in.  Check facts.  Explore sources.  A teacher would seek to be sure his students were okay.  A teacher would pause and reflect.  So that’s what we did. []
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On Skinned Knees & Lessons Learned

It’s skinned knee season in our home, with two girls riding bikes of the two and four-wheeled variety, and a third toddling along just behind – ready for far more than she’s capable of.

And I’m not one to stop someone who’s trying to make progress, even if that progress might be dangerous.

So we’ve been through lots and lots of boxes of Band-Aids for hurts both real and imagined. And we’re quick to wash out wounds and make sure that we keep them looked after.

But no matter how well we wash and watch, some of them are going to leave permanent marks. Like the time Ani discovered that you can’t make a ninety-degree turn on a bike. Or the time that Teagan realized, in a most unfortunate way, that you cannot stop a tricycle like Fred Flintstone could stop his car.1 Quinn forgets, sometimes, about “down.” She’s still kind of new.

Each of those moments hurts. But hurt can have an upside. In fact, some would tell you that hurt, or pain, has an evolutionary advantage. It tells us when we hit a limit of some kind.

And those marks will help them remember the stories of the injuries one day. They’ll proudly show the little scars and blemishes that never quite go back to normal and explain that they rode a bike early, or took a chance on a curb or wrestled with a cat or went head over handlebars in a moment of panic.

But hurt, like fear, well, it just hurts. And to know someone you love is hurting is the worst kind of pain, a pain of helplessness and empathy and doubt.

Oh, how I wish I had a suit of Nerf and armor that I could force my children to wear when they go out into the world, or want to wrestle that cat. To be able to ensure the safety of my children, be they walking to school or traversing a steep hiking trail along the edge of a narrow cliff, would make my sleep come much easier.

But I don’t. And the marks and memories would be hard to accumulate from inside an impenetrable shell of foam. I also suspect it’d be mighty difficult to hear with all that Nerf so close to one’s ears.

There are plenty of days I want to say “Today, let’s stay here, where cars and cats and cliffs and sticks and stones and words can’t hurt us.” But I can’t. Because that’d be parental malpractice. As a dad, it’s my job to listen and bandage and help my children to be brave, to not stop when it’d be a whole lot easier and may well hurt a great deal less and be more safe to just stay still. Being brave? It’s important. And I hate it. Oh, there are days I very much dislike that job.

As a teacher, that’s my job, too.

I hope you’ve got a kit full of peroxide and Band-Aids with you as you take your charges out into the world. I hope you, and they, are being very brave.

  1. Of course, Teagan would have no clue who Fred Flintstone is. Or was. Whatever. But I do find it interesting that “Flintstone” is in my Web browser’s dictionary. []
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Safe Places & What Is Yet To Come

I had the opportunity earlier this week to sit in on a conversation with teacher librarians and other media staff during a kickoff event to start the school year. We were sharing some lunch and talking about our hopes for the year – specifically, we were discussing how we will be working to build libraries that are places of community.

That’s a fine thing to be discussing.

One media staffer said that it was important to her that her library be a safe place, a place where students could expect to be sheltered from, well, the stuff that can be unsafe about a school.

And that was a good hope. Lots of head nodding. Lots of talk of sitting in circles and making things and libraries as spaces where crafts were made, and stories were read and books were explored and questions were asked. And often answered.

And I thought that was good. They spoke of love without using the word. What could be wrong with that?

And, at the same time, I started to get angry.

See, many of these library folk that I visited with the other day were facing new challenges as library folk. Some were in the library alone, whereas before they were a part of a team. Others were entering into roles as clerks in the absence of a full teacher librarian1. As we seek ways to save money in our school district, we have had to make hard choices about whether to staff classrooms or libraries. These are not easy choices.

But when such kind and thoughtful people advocate for such important spaces as school libraries, well, I feel like maybe they shouldn’t have to fight so hard.

A project I’ve been loosely following is asking folks right now to think of libraries as enchanted spaces, and of libraries as verbs. And I will think this year of this round table of library folk, dreaming of spaces where children find love and security and story and words and literacy. Spaces and places where the skeletons of dreams receive flesh and animation from books and pictures and websites and exploring and wondering and discovery. And I am enchanted.

And I am enraged.

This week, our state courts are hearing the case of a large coalition of school districts arguing that the state of Colorado is not meeting its constitutional mandate to provide a proper education for the children of the state. And our Governor, while supportive of the intent of the lawsuit, is concerned that it might succeed, because of what that might do to the state budget.

What might not investing in enchanting spaces and people do to the state? That we have to have this argument in court suggests we’ve all lost.

On the same day that I got to have lunch with our library types, our school board president addressed the library group and talked about some of the research that he conducts in his day job. He studies institutions and public policy and, well, people. It’s fascinating work.

He mentioned during his talk that while it makes sense to consider the points and arguments that would lead to rational loyalty towards institutions one would value, folks don’t fight for rational loyalty. They fight for, and will work to save, protect and defend, the places and institutions with which they have emotional attachments. And I want our schools to be places of emotional attachment in the best possible way. Places of pride and hope and joy and love and respect and kindness and the best of what we might could be.

We are, after all, beings of emotion and then ration, rather than the other way ’round. No matter how hard we might wish otherwise.2

And I wonder how to go after the emotional jugulars rather than the heels of rationality. As one who pretends rationality, I wonder about the best way to do this. And I remember the teacher who called across the parking lot to me the other day to tell me that she might have lost her way, that she might not know what’s worth talking about or spending time on lately.

And I know what she means sometimes.

And I write tonight because I don’t know if I’ve lost my way or not, either. But I seek enchantment. And safety. And hope. And think they’re within reach.

And I remember a kid with glasses too big on a face too small in pants too tight with friends too far between who needed a quiet place to read where no names were called and the books and the stories could keep coming. And I remember the library folk who made sure that I could focus on the dreams in the books rather than the whispered pokes from the jerks.

And I am enchanted anew.

And so I’ll keep reaching, and seeking. And I am eager to begin a new school year, to reach again with smart folks to try to be the best that we can be.

You come, too.

  1. It’s cheaper, you know, to staff a library with a clerk rather than a licensed teacher. But what, I wonder, does that savings really cost? []
  2. It’s true. Rationalize your love for the child that left a soggy mess in one of your shoes the other morning. The little girl who made you dance on the sidewalk with her. In front of all the neighbors. Simply because she could. You can’t rationalize that. You love her anyway. []
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Leave A Little Love for Them

I’ve been teaching an awful lot of Google Mail and Calendar classes lately, as my school district is moving into its new email platform1.  And I mention during these classes that students will have email next year.  In fact, it’s one of the big advantages for us – student email, somebody in the IT department figured, would cost us, at a minimum $500,000 – $600,000 to handle licenses and other odds and ends under our old system.

And the response to that’s been pretty positive.  We said when we started that we’d be offering email for secondary students only.  And then the elementary teachers started asking for mail for younger students.  Eagerly.  And we’re thinking about it and talking about how to make that work.

But I have to remind folks during the training that, even though the younger students are in the universal directory, and have access to Google Docs and other tools and services, they can’t yet access their email2.  So if you send a younger student an email, they won’t get it for several years.

It was when I said this out loud today, not the first time I’ve said it, but the first time I was struck by what that might mean, that I realized that there might be a feature in there.

Suppose that when these students do get to access their email boxes, they’ve a few important notes written by people who care for them waiting during their email orientation.  We could, if we wanted to, use the dormant email accounts of younger students in our district as a sort of time capsule for sending good stuff their way ahead of time.

I see plenty of reasons why the messages might never be read, or get lost among the clutter of notifications and odds and ends and whatnot that will also be waiting for those students when their mail’s turned on.  But wouldn’t it be neat to send care packages to the future versions of our students today?  Quick notes and longer messages of moments where they chose well, or were worthy of a moment’s pause.  An occasional picture or two or a piece of work that really, really stood out, perhaps?

It’s likely wishful thinking3 , but I suspect the sending of the messages, received or not, would be a useful and productive pause for each of us.  A time to honor the students our children are, and the people they may well be.  It couldn’t hurt to take a moment to write down a few words to a child.

And I like the idea that sometime in the future, a student in the middle of a moment of doubt would stumble upon a note from a time when they did something well, or worth doing, or worth sharing.  I like that perhaps they might get a chance to remember.

I say yes.  That’s worth doing.  Let’s make our digital spaces just as warm and inviting and kind as our physical ones.  ((And let’s make sure our physical spaces are warm and inviting and kind, too.)) Of course, our students who’ll have email access today, well, I suspect they wouldn’t mind a kind note or two, either.

So let’s get right on that, okay? If you’ve five minutes this week, jot a note, electronic or otherwise, to a student who’s up to something interesting.  Make their day.  And mean it.((And, if you’d like to write to your future self, there are certainly services that you can use to do that.  Try it out.))

  1. Google Apps for Education.  We’re excited about it. []
  2. We have it shut down for them by policy. []
  3. And perhaps overly optimistic.  I suspect some people who stumble across this post will worry about the fact that they’d be communicating with a student, that the communication might be dangerous because of future litigation.  To those folks, I’d say something like: let’s not let the worst of us eclipse the best of what we might be.  Choose your words carefully, but don’t stop being a good person.  Good and kind and thoughtful people are necessary when there are so many not good folks, or so many folks trying to prey upon our worst fears.  The best way to battle a bully is, of course, to provide a compelling model of better behavior. []
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Fuzzy Thinking: Fragmenting Us in Pursuit of, Well, Us.

No fewer than three times today, my brain was tickled into considering the question that I’ve buried at the end of this hurried post. Let me recap:

1. In a few Google+ conversations about sharing1, I’ve seen folks state that the advantage of things like circles2, is that they can help you to narrowcast rather than broadcast noise.

2. During #edchat today, I caught a rather odd notion that we should be taking care to separate our professional conduct from our academic conduct. I still don’t know what that means. Strikes me as silly. More on that in a sec.

3. The prompt of this evening’s #edchat was this:

Tech won’t change a teacher’s basic pedagogical practices. How do we promote needed change in methodology?

I wondered aloud in response that perhaps it’d be more important3 if we instead asked what was worth doing, and what wasn’t – basically, what was the change that needed to happen?

And I didn’t see a good answer. But, I couldn’t stick around to see the chat, so perhaps it surfaced and I missed it.

In each of the above cases, the problem of lots of little purposes, rather than a few big ideas, arises. In the first example, an assumption that I’m interested in one piece of you, rather, than, perhaps, the person that you’re working to be, is present. In the second, the idea that our professional selves and our academic selves should be distinct and separate selves – that ourselves as teachers should so differ from ourselves as learners that we need to tell the difference – emerged. And in the third, we’re skipping the essential questions to focus on the sidelines. Let’s get to the changing before we know what’s worth fiddling with.4

Before I ramble too much on this, at a time when I can tell my brain’s only beginning to emerge from vacation, I’ll pause with a question, probably a poorly worded one, but perhaps you can help me fumble to better language -

Is it better to have lots of selves and goals for lots of situations, to fragment ourselves intentionally in the pursuit of the right self for the right situation, or is it better to have a few guiding principles that transcend our selves and help us to be better us-es in all of our spaces?

I say the latter’s the way to go. Be kind in all spaces.5 Always be curious. Share what you learn as you’re able. I’m sure there are more principles that I could tease out across the contexts and shards of my self.

Certainly, a first draft and fuzzy response to something I want to come back and play with later. And I see at least a couple of problems with my own leaning. Let’s tease them out in the comments.

  1. Actually, in most Google + conversations about sharing – it’s a new space, and folks are figuring it out by comparing it to what they’ve known before. I get that. []
  2. The organizing principle of Google + – one that one doesn’t have to use – but, because it’s there, people do. Tools and they way they’re structured affect our use of them. []
  3. And certainly more useful, although I don’t think I said so at the time. []
  4. Okay. That one might not fit – but it does in my head somewhere, so I’m leaving it in. For now. []
  5. Or at least, strive to be. I’m working on this one. []
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Love as an Essential Element of School Design

I’m about to head off the grid for a week or two, with only brief glimpses of online things.  It’s that time of year and I need a break – and I’m celebrating an anniversary with Ms. the Teacher – our tenth. A good time to pause and reflect – on many things.

But, before I go, I wanted to leave myself a note about something I wanted to think more about when I returned – and it’s this:

Larissa was responding to a question about it not being “normal” to find places, specifically schools, where love is the reigning paradigm1.  She said, plainly and rightly, that maybe love should be the norm.

Awesome.

And that’s worth fighting for.  That’s worth doing.  I like that new normal.  Bunches.  And didn’t want to forget as I slip off into vacation mode.

So get started on that while I’m gone.  Okay?

  1. My words, not hers or the questioners. You can listen to the entire conversation, which was streamed and recorded, when it’s shared via Teachers Teaching Teachers over at EdTechTalk in a little while. []
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