On Education

Entertained to Death

In Disconnected: How to Reconnect our Digitally Distracted Kids, Thomas Kersting states that, “More kids than ever before, are struggling to communicate, socialize, or cope effectively with real-life matters because they are not living in the real world” (pg 9). Kersting goes on to say that the solution to this growing epidemic is less time spent on and with technology. No more than two hours a day, he pleads, no technology in the bedroom or at the dinner table, he argues, and only limited, if any, time should be allowed while at school because the average American teen spends more than 63 hours per week, “immersed in electronic media, not including school-related technology” (pg 18). The statistic is staggering, but its implication is terrifying. Young teens (and many adults) have forgotten what it means to think, to build sincere relationships, and to prove that they are something much more than mindless machines. The have forgotten what it means to be human, to think and feel and live. They’ve forgotten what it means to be alive.

Kersting and others have clearly articulated the legitimate need for less technology in the home and classroom.  They have proven that kids, teens, and adults need to put away their devices and spend quality time with each other, truly experiencing the world.

The question we need to ask now is,  what about those moments when the devices are on. When they and we are binge watching HBO shows, listening to our favorite songs, or flipping through our favorite feeds, what then?  As Derrick Jensen, author of Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution argues, “It is the {movies, videos, Instagram posts} that we for amusement or purely for pleasure that may have the greatest and least suspected influence upon us” (via). And he’s absolutely right. How we entertain ourselves is just as important, if not more so, than how often.

“Technology by itself, Jim Collins argues in his New York Times bestseller Good to Great, “is never a primary, root cause of either greatness or decline”, it simply is. Unchecked and free to roam, however, it has become a predator of our minds and lives. It has consumed us. And for that, we are responsible. Just like John Hammond was for the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.


“The world's just changed so radically and we're all trying to catch up.” Alan Grant says while sitting at a table, surrounded by other doctors. He and the other scientists have just discovered life’s new reality, that dinosaurs exist, and he is struggling to make sense of it all. “I don't want to jump to any conclusions,” he continues, slowly, deliberately, “but look: Dinosaurs and man, two species separated by sixty-five million years of evolution, have just been suddenly thrown back into the mix together. How can we possibly have the slightest idea what to expect?”

John Hammond, the mastermind behind Jurassic Park, can’t believe the skepticism, “You're meant to come down here and defend me,” he says, “and the only one I've got on my side is the blood-sucking lawyer!”

Hours later, the dinosaurs will be loosed, lives will be lost, and John Hammond will have come to realize the full weight of his “lack of humility before nature” (via) and abandon the island.

I remember the first time I watched Jurassic Park. I was ten and visiting my grandparents for the weekend. They had already seen the movie and felt it absolutely necessary that before anything else, before we went fishing, caught up on life, or even ate dinner, we had to watch the movie. So we did, and I can remember nothing else from that weekend visit.

The movie was terrifying and more real than anything I had ever seen, and when my parents bought the VHS a few months later, I watched it again and again and again because the dinosaurs looked so real, the music was epic, and the storyline riveting. From start to finish, I was hooked. If my English teacher had asked to me fill out a plot map of the story, including major and minor characters, I could have done it instantly. But if I was required to write a short essay on what it meant, I would have tilted my head, much like the Dilophosaurus does when Newman tries to entice him into a game of fetch. “What does it mean?” I would have asked, “I don’t have a clue - it’s just a really good movie!”

And it was. But it was also a warning.

Technology is the way of the future-- always has been, and always will be. Technology has transformed and improved our world in fantastical ways, but “If we are to remain globally competitive in today’s world,” Tony Wagner writes in Creating Innovators, “we need to produce more than just a few entrepreneurs and innovators. We need to develop the creative and enterprising capacities of all our students” (4). In other words, our children, our students, and we ourselves need to gain control of technology, not be controlled by it. We need to embrace it, holistically, because it is the way of the future, but also separate ourselves from it. In many ways, technology has become necessary to sustain life, but it is not life. Nor is it the source of life. But for many, that is exactly what is has become.

For an educator, this is a terrifying contradiction to bare. On the one hand, in order to remain globally competitive, schools and educators must embrace technology and aggressively implement it into the classroom so their students (and school) can achieve global relevance and local prominence. On the other hand, Dr. Ian Malcolm’s warning, “You’re scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

In hopes of providing students the greatest opportunity for future success, we (educators, parents, and humanity at large) have lost control of our own technological creation. We believed we could create and control our simple devices, but rather quickly and right beneath our noses, we have lost control. We have failed. “Technology and all of these devices have made their way into our lives at such a lightning-fast pace” Kersting writes, that “we simply didn’t see it coming” (pg 59). Now, it runs free and rampant, for hours upon hours each day, with little to no supervision. Even when we know that it shouldn’t because, let’s face it, no adult or parent or teacher wants to admit that we’ve have succumbed to peer pressure and allowed our kids more than we thought we should, but we all have. And now, people are dying. Emotionally, relationally, psychologically, even physically. All because we still believe in the illusion of our own control.

Just like John Hammond.

“With this place,” Hammond says while the ice cream melts and dinosaurs roam the park. “I wanted to give {the world} something that wasn't an illusion. Something that was real. Something they could see, and touch. An aim not devoid of merit.”

John Hammond’s heart, like parents and teachers, was in the right place when he set out to change the world, so too was his mind. But in his quest for achievement and innovation, in his pursuit of godliness, he became blind. Blind to the living and breathing dangers of his creation, and blind to the truth that just because he created the dinosaurs, that did not mean he controlled them.

“When we have control—” Hammond begins to argue.

“You never had control!” Dr. Sattler shouts, “That's the illusion!” and then, “Now, I was overwhelmed by the power of this place, but I made a mistake, too. I didn't have enough respect for that power. And it's out now. The only thing that matters now,” she continues, “are the people we love. Alan, Lex and Tim… John, they're out there where people are dying.”

And she’s absolutely right.

In our current time, we do not fear dinosaurs, but we are still in danger of the perception of control. Perhaps even more so because the danger that lurks now doesn’t roar in the wilderness or ripple the surface of a puddle, warning of its approach. Instead, it rests quietly on our coffee tables, sits comfortably in our pockets, and innocently promises a better, more connected and simplified life. So we trust it, us it, and increasingly come to depend on it. For work, knowledge, social interaction, entertainment, or whatever, we allow our own creation to dictate or moods, our ideas, and our lives; we allow it to consume us, just like the ancient dinosaurs of Hammond’s creation.

Getting rid of our electronics or limiting them to just a few hours a day won’t protect us or our children from these real and present dangers because the problem we have created and the solution it requires is much more complex than simply hiding our head in the sand. It was our minds that created this problem, so too must it be that our minds get us out it.


The fictional dinosaurs of Jurassic Park were created out of a wild abandonment for discovery. Hammond was playing God, but with the limitations of mankind’s perspective. The introduction and evolution of technology has a similar genesis and storyline. In hopes of making the world a better place, we’ve pushed the envelope of what could be, advanced our technology and our lives into what was once considered only fantasy fiction, and placed upon our shoulders and minds the role and duties of god. All with a limited perspective of what could and can happen.

Fortunately for us, technology is a bit different than roaming dinosaurs and our minds more capable than electric fences. We have the power to contain and even control technology, but in order to do so, we need to step back from the valley, disconnect ourselves from the awe and wonder of what we’ve created, and think. “The more we become used to just sound bites and tweets,” Kersting writes, “the less patient we will become with more complex, more meaningful information. . . . we will “lose the ability to analyze things with any depth and nuance” (pg 4). In short, we will lose the ability to prove we not mere machines, but humans, filled with passion and fear and hope and love. We lose the ability to prove that we are indeed alive.


“Look around at all the empty seats,” I said, two days after the Douglas High School shooting, “Now imagine that instead of those students being out for basketball, they were never coming back again because someone shot up our school.” My students looked around the room. “What if the sub you have today in history class," I continued, “wasn’t temporary but permanent. Because instead of taking a personal day, Mr. Boyle gave his life so that others could live.” They looked back at me, at each other, in complete silence. Nobody moved, checked their phones, or worked on late homework. The ceiling lights hummed.

“I never quite know how to handle these types of moments,” I said, struggling to find words of comfort or explanation, “I just know we need to address it, talk about it, and make it personal.” So we did, spending the next twenty minutes discussing school shootings, why they happen, how to prevent them, and what their prevalence might be saying about our society at large. We didn’t solve the problem, we merely addressed it. Then we wrote letters to the students at Douglas High School.

During lunch, I read them. All of them. Then I threw a few of them away. Partly because they were a bit shallow, but mostly because they could easily come across as insensitive, even those written with the purest of intentions. One letter in particular stood out the most. It was from a junior who was a starter on the boys basketball team and an overall good student and great kid. For his letter, he quoted his favorite song “God’s Plan” by Drake. I don’t remember which lyrics he specifically chose, but it doesn’t really matter because none of them work. Not even a little.

“Why would he write this,” I remember thinking, “How is this even remotely comforting or appropriate?” The only answer I’ve been able to come up with is that he didn’t know what he was writing because he didn’t understand the song. Not fully, anyway. Just like John Hammond didn’t fully understand the ecosystem of Jurassic Park.

After discovering the splendid grandeur of  the park, the visitors are taken to the laboratory. Rather quickly, the terrifying reality of the park begins to set in “You have plants in this building that are poisonous,” Dr. Sattler says to Hammond, “you picked them because they look good”, not because they were best for the dinosaurs.

In many ways, that is what this student was doing. He knew the song was popular, that it said overtly positive things like, “God’s plan” and that it was a song that dealt with pain and struggles -  “And still, bad things. It’s a lot of bad things.” So he wrote them down, believing and hoping the lyrics could help, even though he didn’t fully understand what he was saying nor the true meaning behind the lyrics he was invoking. His heart was in the right place, but his mind was not. Much like John Hammond.

For me, this moment exemplifies one of the more dangerous ways we have lost control of technology’s power.  With little to no consideration, we pick and choose, like and post, quote and mimic based on little more than what looks or sounds good, unconsciously allowing another’s moral compass to dictate and guide our own.

Especially our children.

“Younger people, particularly teens,” writes Michelle C. Pautz, an associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton, “are much more likely to be impacted {by movies} than older adults because they are still developing and shaping their world-views” and are therefore “more likely to absorb all sorts of influences, including influences from film.” An influence that “may be quite substantial” because, without thinking, they mimic what they see and hear.

As children, this is cute. As adults, it’s terrifying. At such a young age, if the brain is allowed or encouraged to mimic and repeat what is seen and heard without considering why, if young learners are not taught, guided, and reminded, over and over again, to take captive the thoughts that enter their brains, to analyze and critique their implied value, and to measure that value against what they know to be good and right and true, then they will lose that which is most precious to them: their ability to think and reason and make unique decisions. They will lose their humanity.

According to the Washington Post, “Teens are spending more than one-third of their days using media such as online video or music — nearly nine hours on average . . . For tweens, those between the ages of 8 and 12, the average is nearly six hours per day.”

That is terrifying. And not just because it seems to be an exorbitant amount of time wasted, but because of the transformative impact that 6-9 hours is having on their minds, actions, and lives. As Steve Turner states, “It is the {movies, videos, Instragram posts} that we for amusement or purely for pleasure that may have the greatest and least suspected influence upon us” (via).

In response, many schools and parents are banning phones or setting heavy restrictions on time allowed. This although noble and held with great intentions is sufficiently incomplete because it does not fully address the problem. Not talking about the influences of technology or analyzing and dissecting the messages and impacts of social media does not solve the problem. It magnifies it.

We as educators and parents - more than ever - cannot hide from the power and influence of technology. Nor can we believe that simply restricting its use or throwing it away will completely save those we love from it’s unintended consequences. We need to be spending the time and energy teaching our children (and ourselves) how to regain control of the technology we’ve created. “Our devices have become such a part of who we are,” Thomas Kersting writes, “ that we may be losing sight of who we are.”

Regaining control of the content our technology produces allows us to regain control of who we are, what we are, and who we want to be. It provides us an opportunity to prove that we are not mindless and aimless and satisfied with mere entertained. Taking control of our devices means taking control of our lives. It means proving we’re alive, not mindless machines.


“The block walls featured just two decorations,” Nick Heil, editor for Outside Magazine writes, “an American flag and a sign, cribbed from Fight Club, that read,

Every word you read of this useless fine print is another second off your life. Don’t you have other things to do? Get out of your apartment. Meet a member of the opposite sex. Stop the excessive shopping and masturbation. Quit your job. Start a fight. Prove you’re alive.

When considering the effect technology has had on our lives, the same could be applied. Eerily so. But because we cannot eliminate it entirely from our lives (if we wish to stay relevant, anyway), then we must learn to control it. And in order to do that, we must first gain control of ourselves, our thoughts, our minds.

When in middle school, I was into punk and hardcore music - a far cry from my mother’s taste, soft contemporary Christian music. One day, after months of attempted tolerance, she asked me to bring my music down to the living room so she could read the lyrics. “These aren’t even complete sentences,” I remember her saying. The CD’s were soon stashed under her bed and out of sight. She didn’t want my mind “rotting” from listening to such junk.

Looking back, I believe my mother’s intentions were in the right place, that she was concerned for her youngest boy and wanted to care for his mind. So she did the best she knew how. Or at least, she did something other than passively allowing me to sit and listen to something she thought was suspect.

“Indifference and neglect often does more damage than outright dislike” Dumbledore states in Order of the Phoenix, and my mother was not indifferent. She was, however, lazy - at least in this moment. Taking my CDs and removing the bad influence from my room was easy action because it was immediate. It didn’t require a discussion and took very little time, but the outcome with clear: I no longer had access to the influential music. But what lesson did I learn? What skills did I gain? And what were the unintended consequences of such her actions?

The simple answer is that I learned to keep my music and my thoughts to myself. The more complicated answer is that my mother lost an opportunity to learn something about her son, to teach him the more valuable lesson of what it means to be curious, and why it is more important to wrestle with the meaning of something rather than toss it out just because we don’t like the way it looks or sounds. By throwing out the music, she lost the chance of teaching her son what it means to be a man of discernment and what it means to be alive. She lost the chance to talk about urinals.


When Urinals Speak:

At the beginning of every year, I show my students this photograph and ask, “What is this?”

It doesn’t take long for someone, most often a boy, to shout out, “A urinal!”

When I ask them, “What does it mean,” the room typically goes silent.

“All art,” according to Gene Roddenberry, the writer of the hit TV series Star Trek, “is an attempt to answer the question, 'What is it all about?'" Which means every time a child or teen or adult opens Instagram or Youtube; whenever they watch a movie or HBO show; whenever they listen to music, they are absorbing answers to someone else’s world view. And if they are doing so with indifference and neglect, they are relinquishing control of their thoughts, actions, and lives and living according to someone else’s set of rules. And they don’t even know it.

According to legend, on April 9, 1917 Marcel Duchamp submitted this piece to the “‘unjuried Society of Independent Artists’ salon in New York—which claimed that they would accept any work of art, so long as the artist paid the application fee.” He titled it, Fountain. My students challenge its validity, “How is this art!” they often exclaim, which is exactly where they need to be! But all too often often, their question ends there, perhaps with a scoff and a laugh, neglecting the very purpose and joy of art: to answer life’s most essential questions.

“How is this art?” my students challenge, after staring at the used and useless urinal.

“Because it answers the essential question,” I tell them, “but the more important question,” I say, “is this: what is his answer?” As you can imagine, the discussion that follows is full of toilet humor, and they love it. So do I, because we’re learning and laughing, because we’re analyzing and critiquing, and because we’re doing it together, refining each other’s answers, and considering another’s perspective. We’re discovering what it means to think, to regain control, just as the gods of education intended.

Then, after they’ve bought in, we watch a trailer from the original Star Trek TV series and one from the newer blockbuster hit movie. I ask them, "What do you think these films are about?" and they say things like, "good vs evil," "don’t be afraid to fail," or "the struggle of living for others vs living for self,” all of which are great and good answers. Then I show them Roddenberry’s quote, that he created Star Trek as “an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms" (via), and my students are stunned. “He meant all that,” they say.

“Yes,” I respond, “he meant all that.”

For the rest of the year, the prompt, “What is it all about?” is the essential question that every student must answer for every piece of work. And by the end of the first quarter, I don’t even have to ask it. They do it themselves. Which is exactly where I want them to be, because it’s exactly where they need to be. No longer indifferent; their minds no longer neglected.

Instead of taking away my CDs, my mother could have asked, “How is this art?”, “What does it mean?”, or “Why do you like it?”, allowing for an opportunity to not only teach me how to think, but to learn a little something about me, as well as herself. Instead of widening the gap between us, she could have entered my world, understood my angst, built a small connection of trust, and opened the door for more and deeper future conversations.

Instead, she widened the gap of understanding and lost an opportunity to teach her son how to think about the world, and perhaps learn a little about how he already did.

We’re not going to get rid of cell phones and computers. Shutting them down, although helpful and an exercise worth pursuing at times, will not only aggravate the problem, it will strengthen the illusion of control. Instead, we, the adults, need to embrace the music, movies, and social media outlets because they are the museum of our time, of our children’s time, and if want to help them, teach them, and to love them, we must learn to love what they love. If we do, not only will we begin understand our children and students, we will begin to understand ourselves. We will begin to understand humanity and the purpose for living.

Just as the gods of education intended.

What Museums Say:

Like Roddenberry, Neil Postman believed museums were an answer to the fundamental question, “What does it mean to be human?” He also believed they had no choice but to provide an incomplete answer. “Every museum,” he argued, “gives only a partial answer. Each one makes an assertion about the nature of humanity - sometimes supporting and enriching one another’s claims but just as often contradicting one another” (pg 163).

The role of the observer, then, was not to merely walk the halls of any museum, absorbing the various displays of humanity’s answers, and then continue on, that would be careless, indifferent, and downright foolish. Yet, that is exactly what is happening today with our modern expressions and assertions of what it means to be human.

Social media is our modern world's Museum. It is an instrument of survival and sanity where mankind has a chance to tell their story and to share of their struggles and hopes and fears and dreams. It shares what we know, what we don’t, where we’re going, and where we’ve been, both good and bad, because it is the story of humanity. It is this generation’s outlet, their search for purpose, and their attempt at answers.

Why is it not part of our curriculum?

Our students, to paraphrase Postman, have continuous and instant access to all forms of artistic expression, be it music, film, design, literature, or photography. “As a consequence,” Postman argues, “their receptivity to popular forms is well developed and appropriate. But their capacity to respond with educated imaginations . . . is severely limited” (pg. 167). They are aware of and fully capable of navigating the terrain of social media but are equally incapable of understanding what it means. Instead of analyzing, thinking, and purposefully choosing for themselves, they mindlessly follow, clogging our modern museums with superficial and unoriginal answers to life’s most essential question.

“What does it mean to be alive?” You tell me.

In his New York Times Bestseller, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, Tony Wagner writes, The interest in and ability to create new knowledge to solve new problems is the single most important skill that all students must master today” (pg 142). One must be able to think, to sift through the ideas and opinions of those around them, gathering bits and pieces of information, and then create a new and unique thought, solution, or expression. They must think, not merely swipe through images or gather information. And we as teachers and parents must be the ones to teach them how to think about that information, even if it isn’t always met with grand applause.

Consider this, an email from a former student.

Hey Miller,

Over the past few months I’ve come across a few songs, passages, movies, and even university classes that reminded me of you. They possess some quality that you appreciate... like those enigmatic storylines that you always desire to surround yourself with - whether through literature or self-created. This is just a note to say that I think of you often and, although some of my peers had well..mixed feelings toward your method of teaching an AP class, you have fostered in me a love of poetry and story and a desire to study both beyond the surface level. It’s quite a gift and it brings me daily joy. I doubt it will leave me and I hope you know how you’ve impacted my love of the these arts.

As a teacher, a father, a human, this email means more to me than any test score ever could because this is “life-long learning” and what Adam Grant calls “being original.”

“Being original doesn’t require being first,” Adam Grant writes in Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, by Adam Grant, “It just means being different and better.” But in order to be different and better, one must know from what they want to be different and better. They must know how to think, how to create, and how to step out and away from the crowd. They must continually prove they are alive.

“Can you imagine,” Neil Postman writes, “‘museums’ as a specific subject in high school or college?” Or of a class or project that asks students to create a museum that depicts their worldview? A museum that employs a full range of expressions (visual art, music, technology, film, etc.) that collectively provides partial answers to the world’s most essential questions?

Can you imagine what our students and children would learn, what we would learn, and the relationships we could build?

Why Stories Matter:

Several years ago, before I was a teacher, my wife and I ran a group home for “troubled teens” from in and around the Philadelphia area. Six teenage boys lived in our home, all of whom brought their own unique struggles, but one kid in particular was a problem. His name was J.C., and he was scary. He was a fighter, had been in and out of the system for years, and was not a fan of authority. Especially white authority. So from the start, he and I clashed. He would curse in my face, refuse to follow rules or expectations, and constantly begged me to fight. I didn’t of course, because it was against the rules. But also, he would have kicked my ass.

So when my grandmother came to visit, I was terrified. Highly religious and extremely conservative, my grandmother stood just above five feet tall, said words like, “my lanta,” and laughed like child. She was precious and sweet, and I knew J.C. would eat her up. And he did.

About two days into her stay, me and most of the boys were outside raking and cleaning up the backyard. J.C. was inside. So was my grandmother. As time went by, I became more and more nervous, so I went to check on how things were going and found my grandmother sitting at the table with J.C.. He was reading her his raps and she was holding his hand, crying. They wrote letters for months after she left and he went on to prison. Because my grandmother loved what he loved, and he loved her for it.

My grandmother hated any music that wasn’t worship music. But even more than she hated, she loved. And she loved J.C. and his personal journey and story.

A few days later, before heading back home, they took this picture:

Boys with Grandma

Instead of her personal preference, my grandmother chose J.C.. She chose his music, his experiences, and all his differences over herself. In exchange, he trusted her, he embraced her and accepted her, and he let her into his world and life through months of letters that they exchanged back and forth. They built a bond that acknowledged the difference but chose, instead, to focus on their similarities. That they both struggled, that they loved family and life, and that, try as they might, it did not work out exactly as they had hoped, but neither was willing to give up.

All because she chose to sit and listen to his raps.

From that day forward, I learned from my grandmother and started investing in J.C., his life, his interests, and his person. Not because I wanted compliance, but because my grandmother was right: he was more important than my personal preferences or pride.

Parents and teachers must do the same.

We must never shy away from controversy. Whether it be confrontational discussions, problematic perspectives, or difficult world events, we must be willing to wrestle with the content, openly and honestly, without dogmatic criticism or pious perspectives. Whatever the kids are listening to or watching, if they’re engaged, it must quickly became part of our class and living room discussion, if only because it’s what they love. And if we want to know them, if we truly want to have a voice or make any difference in their lives, we must choose them over our own personal taste.

Over the years, I’ve attempted various ways of implementing this idea into my class. There was Art Starts, where every class began with a relevant piece that the students had to analyze, dissect, and interpret before the class began. There was Music Video Friday which, as you can probably guess, had us watching and wrestling with various music videos. But the best moments, the ones that seemed to matter most with my students were the ones that were organic. Like the day after Childish Gambino dropped “This is America”, and we spent the day poring over it, wrestling with the images, the lyrics, and the question, “What is it all about?” Or the class when, while teaching at a Christian school, we wrestled with Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” because it was making international headway and all my students were talking about and listening to it. Several teachers were shocked, even outright angry, that we would cover such material in class, but the students loved it, I loved it, and we all learned a great deal that day. About the world, about each other, and about ourselves. “What better, safer place is there than a classroom?” I told my questioning boss. Because it’s true. If one’s classroom is not safe enough to discuss such controversial issues openly and honestly, if students are unable to bring in their material, their influences and talk freely and openly about them, then I would argue that that teacher and their classroom are the problem, not the content. Just ask my grandmother. Or my fellow student, Rylie, who, in an end-of-the-year-letter, wrote,

"I learned not to judge people and to consider everyone's perspective because no one is completely right, it's all how you see the situation. You made us discuss deep topics & because of that Jesilyn and I are closer than we've ever been."

At a more recent staff meeting, as a team-building exercise, we watched Second Hand Lovers, dissected its content, asked probing questions, and attempted to answer Roddenberry’s essential question. I was nervous how the film and activity would be received, but as often happens, a room full of great teachers blew the activity out of the water, picking apart the details, asking insightful questions, and listening to one another’s potential answers. “I had my thoughts on the film pretty early on,” one teacher told me later in the day, “but then I started really listening to those at my table. Their interpretations were radically different than mine and it forced me to think outside myself and consider their position, their perspective. We didn’t agree,” he said, “but by the end, I understood a bit more about where it was they were coming from. Which was the point of it all, I think.”

Yes it was.

Tell me again why a museum of stories are not part of our curriculum and monthly staff meetings?

Where to Start : Some Personal Favorites:

What I love most about this list is that many of them have come from my students. “Thought you’d like this,” or, “Thought of you,” messages that randomly pop up in my messenger, Instagram, or email are some of the highlights of my teaching career, and I hope they never stop.

In no particular order:

  • 2+2=5 Another beginning of the year video that can help set the stage of why we learn. But also, why the imaginary guns? “Because they’re killing the imagination,” a student once said. Brilliant.

  • Second Hand Lovers by Oren Lavie “Why does she smile?” I ask, after the third or fourth watch. The discussion that follows is pure gold. Love this one.

  • We are Witnesses : Documentaries of crime, punishment, and humanity Chimamanda Adichie says that the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but incomplete. These short documentaries share both sides of our stories.

  • I Promise by Radiohead. Wait till the end. Then, after a round or two of watching and analyzing, check out what Thom Yorke had to say about it.

  • Caroline: A tough watch, but when compared to Patrick Lencioni’s  Fundamental Attribution Error, it becomes a powerful example. "The Fundamental Attribution Error” Lencioni explains, “is the tendency of human beings to attribute the negative or frustrating behaviors of to their intentions and personalities, while attributing own negative or frustrating behaviors to environmental factors” (via).

  • Happiest Person in the World: Love this video. Students do too. And the lessons they glean from it are immeasurable.

  • Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes: I’ll say no more.

  • Poilus: Love this film about infantry soldiers in the French army who are waiting to leave for the battlefield. I love that humans have been replaced with rabbits.

  • Double King: one of the greatest short films . . . ever.

  • Bus 44: This one is a bit tough and should only be watched with a warning. The discussions that follow can be pretty amazing, though, especially when the question is asked, “Why does he smile?” Like Secondhand Lovers, there are multiple viable answers, which only adds to some powerful and rich discussions.


I don’t know. Neither does my staff, my students, nor anyone in my family, but that’s what makes it fun, unremarkably unique, and deeply beneficial. Because when we gain the skills and experiences to use technology in purposeful ways, to express and evaluate who we are, to analyze and critique what we are, and consciously wrestle with ideas and truths of what we want to be. Suddenly technology no longer has control over our lives. It enriches it.

Just as the gods of technology intended.

On Movies in the Classroom: Some Extra Thoughts

In schools, movies have gained a bad reputation. Ask any student or parent why teachers watch movies and they will answer with one if not more of the following:

  • It is what teachers do the week before Christmas and/or summer break

  • It is how English teachers end a book unit (think Of Mice and Men, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Crucible)

  • It is how teachers teach history

Ask my father, and he would tell you movies have no place in the classroom - ever - because in his experience, raising up four kids through the public school system, they were abused and misused, “Kids watch too much T.V. already,” he would say, “Why do you have to do it at school?” To him, movies in the classroom was a waste of time. And he wasn’t wrong, then.

Now he is.

Movies and short films should never be deleted from a teacher’s syllabus and classroom repertoire. Nor should they be relegated to mere prompts. Rather, in many cases, and often, they should be the content, just as long as we follow some basic guidelines.

Connect Museums

All great artists steal from other artists. Invoking images or ideas of prior works allows them to not only enhance and clarify their purpose, it allows them to connect with others from around the world and throughout time. It allows them to be part of something bigger and greater than their own thoughts. Teaching students to look for these nods to other artists is not only high-level thinking, its a reminder that there is something bigger than them, that their struggles and wants and needs are universal, and that there is indeed a deep and real purpose to art and movies and social media. They are not here to merely entertain the world, but to explain it.

Do this as teachers. Don’t merely watch a movie based on the book you already read (they will probably do this on their own anyway). Instead, create your own Film Meets Literature unit where students are required to take a piece of literature and connect the themes, ideas, motifs, tools, tricks - whatever - and relate them to other mediums of possible inspiration.

Here are a few of my favorites from the past few years:

Lord of the Flies with The Village

Frankenstein with Jurassic Park

The Great Gatsby with The Notebook

Ender’s Game with The Power of One

Counting Coup with Free Solo

Catcher in the Rye with Into the Wild

To a Mouse with “God Made A Farmer

My Papa's Waltz by Theodore Roethke with Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” or Creedence Clearwater Revival’s, “Someday Never Comes” . . . a tear jerker. For students and teachers alike.

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Education  :  Chapters to my book

What Mr. Rogers' Quiet Neighborhood Can Teach Us About Our Loud and Busy Lives


Fred Rogers began the episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood just like he’d done a hundred times before, “by putting on his cardigan and buttoning it up.” Only this time, according to Hedda Sharapan, a producer and actor who was often involved with the show, something wasn’t right. “He had started at the wrong buttonhole; he was one button off.” The crew expected Fred to start over. Instead, He gave Sharapan a look and kept on, ad libbing an explanation to his children audience just “how easy it is to make mistakes” and then spent the extra time showing them how to correct it (pg, 193).

Any other show would have snubbed the first take and instantly recorded a second. Not so with Mr. Rogers. He understood that mistakes were a huge part of life, that they were essential to life, and that his young audience needed understand that. So embraced the silly mistake and used it as a teachable moment, because he cared deeply about children, and because he knew exactly what they needed most.

After years of training, researching and observing young children in the classroom and in life, and after studying and listening to them and their stories and thoughts, Rogers become a master teacher who cared deeply for the holistic development of children. They became his chief concern. More than money, more than fame, more than job security, Fred Rogers cared about his children audience.

Which is why, in contrast to his competition, Mr. Rogers’ show was slow, even crawling at times, because he knew that was what his young audience needed.

“Rogers’s embrace of reality also included breaking one of the established rules of television, a prohibition against footage that is essentially empty. While Sesame Street used fast pacing and quick-cut technique to excite and engage their viewers and keep them glued to the screen, Fred Rogers deliberately headed in the opposite direction, creating his own quiet, slow-paced, thoughtful world, which led to real learning in his view” (pg, 194).

Fred Rogers believed children were entertained enough. That instead of another fast-paced tv show that kept children distracted, what they needed was time.

“He really was interested in the child as a developing person” Maxwell King wrote in The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, which is why Rogers feared constant entertainment; it would engage his audience but weaken their minds. And if they had a weak mind, they would not fully grasp who they were, what they were, and how they thought.

“Our job in life,” Rogers believed, “is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is - that each of us has something that no one else has - or ever will have - something inside which is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness, and to provide ways of developing its expression (pg 237).

For Mr. Roger, in order for children to discover their uniqueness, they needed silence, time, and space. Silence so that they could hear themselves think, time to consider those thoughts, then space to work them out, to fail, and then to try again. They need opportunities to be human, and they needed adults to model humanity for them, to teach them, and to encourage them that life can be hard but that we can always work to correct it. Even when it’s something as simply as a missing a buttonhole.

“One of the major goals of education,” Mr. Rogers believed, “must be to help students discover a greater awareness of their own unique selves, in order to increase their feelings of personal worth, responsibility, and freedom” (pg 328).

In contrast, classrooms, living rooms, and car rides that fill the silence with gimmicks, screens, and distractions leave little room for such self-reflection and no time for imagination.

“Fred Rogers lived out the conundrum of modern life: embracing technology and using it in imaginative ways to benefit children, while rejecting the dehumanizing aspects of complex technological advancement” (pg 80).

For our children’s sake, for our future’s sake, embrace the silence, fight for the quiet, and allow time and space for children to think, make mistakes, and try again. It’s what Mr. Rogers would do. And he was the master of a pretty amazing neighborhood.

But so can we.

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Education  :  Parenting : Living

Mass Shootings : We are Responsible.

Photo by @davideragusa

Photo by @davideragusa

It happened again. This time, in Thousand Oaks, California. You and I both know how the days and weeks to come will play go.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to . . .” we will hear whispered from podiums, while “Enough is enough” banners are posted on websites, blogs, and social media. And for a brief, brief moment, the country will be unified in grief, shock, and horror of what our country has become. Then someone will point the finger of blame. Then another. Then another. Until everyone is pointing, shouting, and condemning, calling for reform, calling for justice, and demanding someone does something to stop this madness.

All the while, someone somewhere will have made a plan, written a note, or posted a video. Right under our tear-stained cheeks and upturned noses. Just like they did in Columbine, almost 20 years ago.

“Eric Harris was a psychopath,” David Cullen concludes in his New York Times bestseller, Columbine, “he was a narcissist, he was a sadists. He wasn’t out to bully bullies, he was out to hurt the people he looked down upon . . . humans.” He wanted to destroy everyone, all of us. Yet fortunately, he only made it to thirteen. He had planned for many more.

According to the investigation that followed Columbine, Eric Harris wanted to go down as a legend. He wanted to make a mark bigger than the Oklahoma City bombings and he wanted to be remembered forever. So he planted bombs in the park on the other side of town, set to go off as a diversion for the cops. Luckily, they didn’t. Neither did the propane tanks in the cafeteria (which would have killed hundreds) nor the bombs in his and Dylan’s cars (which were set to detonate after the police and paramedics arrived, killing them too). In fact, Eric and Dylan never intended to enter the school. Their plan was to wait outside and pick off the surviving few as they fled the carnage of Columbine.

But things didn’t go according to Eric’s plan, hardly anything in fact, except for one seemingly minor detail: the media was there, and they granted Eric Harris his deepest dying wish. He became famous.

Dave Cullen, an author and elite journalist, was “one of the first reporters on the scene” at Columbine. He then spent the next ten years writing Columbine, which is “widely recognized as the definitive account” of the school’s massacre, and for many of the 300-plus pages of his heart-wrenching book, Cullen spends a great deal of time talking about who Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were, what happened in the days prior, during, and after the infamous shooting, and how people from across the country responded.

But that’s not why he wrote the book. He wrote it because he was trying to figure out why Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did it. Once answered, he concludes his book with the most important takeaway of his journey: how to prevent this from ever happening again, and who is responsible.

His findings are not extenuating.

Dave Cullen’s conclusion of who is responsible for Columbine and every shooting and massacre is not a familiar one, nor is it a popular, but it is the most accurate and reliable one.

The answer of who is responsible, according to Cullen, is us. We are responsible. Malcolm Gladwell says the same, but where Gladwell fails to provide a solution, Cullen does. It is us. We are the solution.

Let me explain. Or rather, let Cullen explain.

Almost 100% of the time, the perpetrator of mass killings is male, and “{f}or his glorious week,” Cullen explains, “the spectacle killer is the hottest star on earth. He dwarfs any sports champ, movie star, president, or pope . . . They spill a little blood, {and} the whole world knows who they are . . . His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”

So, “If you’re planning a spectacle murder,” Dave Cullen once told a CNN anchor, “here’s what you do:

{There are} two routes to the elite club with the star treatment: body count, or creativity. Choose body count, and you’ve got to break the top ten. The media loves scorekeeping and will herald your achievements with a banner beneath the victims as they grieve. For creatives, go for originality and horror . . . Maximize the savage nature. Make us fear movies theaters, or churches or {school} - and a Joker costume at a Batman movie takes theatrics literally. Live TV was a great twist - only took two victims in Roanoke to get the big-star treatment. Surprise us.

The anchor was justifiably horrified, but that was the point. “These are the tactics the killers have turned on us so callously,” Cullen writes, “They cracked the media code. Easily.” And if the media care about ending this, “we in the media need to see our role as clearly as the perps have. We did not start this, nor have we pulled any triggers. But the killers have made us reliable partners. We supply the audience, they provide the show” (pg 380).

In these few short paragraphs, Cullen models the role we all need to take after events such as these occur: point the finger at ourselves, find where we are responsible, and take ownership of it. Just like Andy Dufresne.

Like everyone else, my favorite scene in Shawshank Redemption is the one where Andy Dufresne emerges from the septic tanking, raises his hands to the air, and is finally free from the deathly Shawshank prison. But it wasn’t until I read those lines from Cullen that I understood why I love that scene, and how Andy Dufresne was able to get there.

Throughout the first half of the movie, the audience is left in the dark as to Andy’s involvement with his wife’s murder. There’s that scene in the beginning, of him stumbling from his car, drunk, and carrying a gun, but nothing more. He adamantly denies killing his wife, but we are never fully convinced of his innocence. Till we hear the story of Elmo Blatch, an old cellmate of Tommy’s, and then our suspicions are confirmed, Andy Dufresne is completely innocent and absolved from the murder of his wife. Somehow, though, that isn’t enough. The movie isn’t entitled Shawshank Absolvement, it is Shawshank Redemption, and Andy is not yet redeemed. That comes later, after Tommy has been killed and Andy beaten, placed into solitude for calling the warden “obtuse”, and at the brink of ruin. And like Cullen, as he comes to grip with the harsh reality of what has happened and who is to blame, his hammer of judgement falls to no one else but himself.

“I killed her Red,” Andy he says with a dull sincerity to Morgan Freeman as they sit in the yard, leaning against the giant stone wall, locked in Shawshank Redemption. “I didn’t pull the trigger but I drove her away. And that’s why she died, because of me.”

Red leans down and sits on his heals, “That doesn’t make you a murderer,” he counters, and he’s right. But so is Andy. He didn’t pull the trigger, but he did play a part. A small part perhaps, or at the very least a forgivable part (no on goes to prison for being a bad husband), but a part none the less. And once Andy is finally able to see that, he is able to admit it. And once he admits it, Shawshank could no longer contain him. He is free.

A few scenes later, he climbs into a sewage pipe and crawls to redemption.

“We did not start this, nor have we pulled any triggers”, Cullen admits, echoing Red’s “That doesn’t make you a murderer.” But Cullen, like Andy, isn’t content with being absolved. He wants freedom. Freedom from a grey and deathly prison, freedom from guilt and shame, and freedom from fear that this will indeed happen again. So he accepts his portion of the blame, “we supply the audience, they provide the show.” He acknowledges his responsibility and admits his complicit role. Then, like Andy Dufresne, he climbs into the sewage pipe and beckons us to do the same.

We, on the other hand, continue to sit in horror and amazement, waiting for someone to unlock the cell.

“For the past few years,” Jason Kottke writes, “whenever a mass shooting occurs in the US that gets wide press coverage, the satirical news site The Onion runs an article with this headline written by Jason Roeder: ‘“No Way To Prevent This,”’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens’.”

After each mass shooting, our nation raises its hands in grief and disbelief, “How does this keep happening?” Then, because there is never a clear answer, we quickly defend ourselves, our beliefs, and our rights, leaving many people absolved, very few freed, and even fewer redeemed.

There are two definitions offered for redeemed:

  1. the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil.

  2. the action of regaining or gaining possession of something in exchange for payment, or clearing a debt.

Both require an admittance. Both require action. Neither point to someone or something else.

I, like the rest of our country, desperately long for these headlines to be eradicated from our headlines. I’ve also been convicted by Cullen and Andy and believe that casting the blame onto others will only perpetuate the acts. But because I’m not a journalist, I cannot rest with Cullen’s admittance. I must find my own, as an educator.

So far, I’ve come up with three.


“Education is inherently selfish” I found myself saying to a room full of educators, “we spend so much time and effort convincing kids to pursue school and grades so they can better themselves and their future” I said, “we encourage them to follow their dreams and be whatever they want to be, but for what purpose?” I found myself trying not to look at a particular school that has geared their entire program around personalized learning and a system that focuses on each kid as an individual, that teaches each kid to learn at their own pace, in their own way, completely isolated from their peers.

Why school? Why do kids have to go? And why do they have to take the classes that they do? A school I once taught for attempted to answer that question with a giant poster that hung in the hallway for each student and teacher to read. “Do it for you,” and it bothered me every single day.

Is that why kids need to be in school? So that they can go to college, get a nice job, and buy nice things? Or is it so that they can collect experiences and enjoy life? So they can learn how to “Follow their heart”? If so, no wonder they’re miserable.

After they’ve pursued every relationship, dating the hottest boy or girl they can find, after they’ve driven the coolest car, bought the the newest technology, and worn the nicest clothes, what next? After sex, popularity, success, and whatever else their hearts desire. what happens when they’re still miserable, empty, and without direction?

Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, says, “When the product motive becomes unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen” (via). The purpose of education, as is written and expressed today, has become unmoored from the deeper more existential purpose: to discover our gifts and talents, to hone them, and then figure out ways to give them away. To serve others.

And for that, I am responsible.


Teachers and coaches (perhaps even parents), my friend Glen Walenda once theorized on one of my recent blog posts, “often treat {children} as future people instead of people. We are so blinded by their potential we don't see them in the present.” In doing so, we concentrate on the superficial, the tangible, and the quantifiable measurements that will help them succeed (whatever that means) later on in life, when they’re future people.

Because that’s what how we know we are doing a “good job,” when our students are scoring well and paying attention in class. It’s also how we’re failing.

The best comedy, according to George Carlin, is a process of digging through the layers of humanity. Instead of simple jokes, the best comedians spend their time talking about feelings and who we are, our loves and likes, our fears and nightmares, and the stuff that makes us, us. That makes them, them. The human being stuff. The stuff that no standardized test or classroom assessment can ever measure.

Curriculum, teaching strategies, and assessments are important and necessary to gauge learning, but how to live life, how to work through struggles and celebrate victories, how to engage humanity and find our purpose in life, these are what we stay alive for. These are why we learn. But because we cannot measure them, no funding is attached to them, and because it is easier to grade knowledge rather than character, education focuses on GPAs rather than character, compliance rather than curiosity; it focuses on the future people rather than the now people.

For that, I am responsible.


 The most “influential and inspiring people,” according to John Dickson, “are often marked by humility” which is “the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself” (pg 24). Fred Rogers would agree. “The real issue in life,” Fred Rogers believed, “is not how many blessings we have, but what we do with our blessings. Some people have many blessings and hoard them. Some have few and give everything away” (via).

Schools, however, don’t often teach students to give their resources and blessings away. Instead, we focus on individualized learning, valedictorians, and high GPA’s. We focus on counting our blessings and building resumes.

We buy letterman jackets, award honor rolls, and crown kings and queens.

People of character, however, focus on how they can best give away their gifts and resources rather than hoarding them. They care more about their classmates, their community, and whoever else might be in need. They rarely focus on their own.

They care more about living in harmony than they do standing in the spotlight.

“Harmony,” the poet, theologian, and philosopher John O’Donohue states, is everything uniquely itself, “and by being uniquely itself, part of a greater community” (via). Sadly, I have not taught that enough in my classes.

I have focused on the uniqueness of the individual, but not on how their uniqueness fits into the great narrative. I have focused on their gifts, their talents, and dreams they want fulfilled, but I have not taught them well enough the responsibility of those gifts, and the joys of giving them to others. I have focused too much time on developing their resume virtues, not their eulogy virtues.

I didn’t pull the trigger on any mass shootings, but that doesn’t mean I don’t play a part or that I’m unable to prevent the next one. Because I’m an educator, I’m responsible for building and guiding a culture. And so far, I haven’t done the best of job.

For that, I am responsible.

Andy Dufresne crawled through “five hundred yards of shit smelling foulness, {we} can’t even imagine.” Dave Cullen did the same. For ten years. Then, like Andy, he emerged, clean and redeemed on the other side.

Like Andy and Cullen, we didn’t pull the trigger. But we have pushed each other away for the sake of ourselves. And that’s why we die.

If we, as a country, truly do believe enough is enough, that “No one should ever have to go through this. Period”, and that, names of victims on the back of shirts just isn’t enough, then we too must be willing to endure the worst we can imagine and take whatever responsibility we can upon ourselves and change. We must choose another rather than ourselves, our freedoms, and our rights.

If we can do that. Then, maybe, just maybe we too can emerge from this shit-smelling foulness that isn’t hard to imagine. And when we do, like Andy and Cullen, we too can be free, and clean on the other side.

We can find redemption.

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Education  :  Chapters to my book

Why Mr. Keeting is Responsible for Neil's Death

First, press play.

Mr. Keating has inspired teachers for generations, and probably always will. Whether it be his embodiment of Carpe Diem, standing on his desk to help his students "see things from a different point of view," or having his students march in court yards to stress the dangers of conformity, Mr. Keating was a master at inspiring minds and challenging the status quo. His boys learned to “think for {themselves} again, to suck the marrow out of life, and to express their own unique voice. Mr. Keating was a powerful leader, and one worth emulating. However, he is also the quintessential example of just how dangerous our words and ideas can be.

The opening scenes of Dead Poets Society are crucial to understanding the purpose and the pitfall of Mr. Keating. We are introduced to Welton Academy, one of the best preparatory schools in the United States, by witnessing the first day of school: the light of knowledge, Weltons’ four pillars (Tradition, Honor, Discipline, and Excellence), and the sense of overbearing and high-achieving parents. Especially for two of the main characters and roommates, Todd Anderson and Neil Perry. 

Todd is following in the footsteps of his older brother, the valedictorian and merit scholar, while Neil, an only child, is trying to live up to his parent’s expectations of becoming a doctor. Throughout the movie, these two boys wrestle with their relationships with their parents, Todd dealing with his parent’s absence (sending him the same desk set for the second year in a row), and Neil with his father’s overbearing presence (forcing Todd to quit the school annual because he has “decided {Neil} is taking too many extracurriculars”). They are the same different of one another. 

Then comes Keating.  

Mr. Keating also “survived Welton” and is therefore all too familiar with the difficulties and dangers of its restraints. So instead of adapting to its continued and current culture, he challenges Welton, its traditions, and its purpose, and the boys suck it up completely. For them, a starving group of young boys who are eager to live life independently and to the fullest, Mr. Keating’s words and ideas are the marrow of life. Which is often the hope and desire of every aspiring leader. 

Mr. Keating knows his audience. He knows their culture, what they need, and where he wants them to go. In this, Mr. Keating is a good leader. But he also has the personality and ability to get his eager yet often shy followers to go where he needs them to go. He encourages the boys to bring back the Dead Poets Society, inspires Knox Overstreet to woo and win over Chris Noel, and, in one of the most iconic scenes from the move, he breaks Todd Anderson from his restrictive shell. Mr. Keating does this because he, after weeks and weeks of teaching and investing, has earned the boys’ trust as a friend, as an educator, and as a philosopher. In this, Mr. Keating is a great leader, and so his influence and impact continue to grow. 

At the beginning, in one of his first classes, Mr. Keating has his boys rip out the introduction of their textbook, Understanding Poetry. “Be gone Mr. J. Evan Pritchard!” he yells, encouraging them to break through the bonds that bind their minds and actions, “I want nothing left of it.” Then, as he retreats to his office to grab a trash bin, the Latin teacher, Mr. McCallister, happens to walk by, misinterpret the chaos, and barges in. When Mr. Keating returns, they engage briefly, then depart. Later, at lunch, they discuss the minds of young men and the purpose of education. Shortly after, and throughout the movie, the two become friends, talking over tea and engaging in slight moments of friendship. Near the end, Mr. McCallister is seen waving goodbye from the window, an indication that he will miss his friend and, although not always in agreement, has grown to respect Mr. Keating and his views. A mark of any good leader.  

Mr. Keating also shows the breadth and depth of his influence over the boys when he rebukes Charlie Dalton for his “lame stunt” he pulled with the telephone call that had God calling, asking Welton to allow girls into the school. “I thought you’d like that,” Charlie argues, confused at Keating’s rebuke, “"There's a time for daring and there's a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for." Charlie not only hears these words, he understands and applies them. As Mr. Keating leaves, Charlie puts away his drum and stops telling his story, because he knows it no longer matters. Living life of passion does not mean “chocking on the bone.” In this, Mr. Keating, yet again, demonstrates his leadership in that he not only inspires, he corrects and directs. He isn’t afraid to rebuke his boys, and instead of hammering them for their mistakes, he uses their mistakes for teachable moments, which only builds and strengths the bond of trust between him and them.  

Then, at the height of his teaching, when the boys seem to be soaring, when Neil is staring in the play, when Knox has finally won over his girl, and after Todd has inspired every English teacher and want-to-be-poet with his sudden recital of “The Sweaty-toothed Madman,” all hell breaks loose. Neil is suddenly whisked away by his father who spits at Keating, “You stay away from my son.” Soon after, Todd is shaken awake in the middle of the night and told through soft whispers, “Neil’s dead”, and Mr. Keating is to blame. 

“You guys didn’t really think he could avoid responsibility, did you?” Cameron says to the boys while they hide in the attic storage.” 

“Mr. Keating responsible for Neil, is that what they’re saying?” Charlie asks. 

“Who else do you think, dumbass?” Cameron shouts, “Mr. Keating put us up to all this crap, didn’t he?” And Todd won’t stand it. 

“That is not true, Cameron, and you know that,” he says, holding back tears, “He didn’t put us up to anything, Neil loved acting!” 

“Believe what you want,” Cameron shoots back, “But I say, let Keating fry.” 

This scene is crucial, for two reasons. One, the choice of characters and the words they use are extremely critical. Cameron has always been portrayed as the one not fully immersed in the teachings and ideas of Keating, so it isn’t a surprise that he sides with the administration. It also is not surprising that he does so with such cruelty, because there needs to be a quick and clean separation. “Let Keating fry,” is heartless and calculated, but it also creates in us, the viewers, a sense of “Us vs Them”, and there’s no way we are them – those who blame Keating for Neil’s death. We are part of the Dead Poets, those who believe in Keating, his teachings, and Carpe Diem, and we believe he is innocent! 

Great leaders, however, do not have the luxury of passing responsibility. Great leaders, at all times, must evaluate the actions and reactions of those they care for and ask, “What role did I play? Where am I responsible?” For Keating, he needs to look no further than his classroom. 

In the most watched and adored scene of the movie, Mr. Keating brings Todd Anderson up to the front of the classroom and helps him create poetry, and it’s magical.  

Todd is terrified, believing “everything inside of him is worthless, and embarrassing,” and therefore refuses to write a poem or speak in front of the class. But Mr. Keating, being the great leader that he is, refuses to let him sit comfortably in his shell. “I think you’re wrong,” he argues, “I think there is something inside of you that is worth a great deal.” Shortly after, he pulls Todd to the front of the class and asks him look at Walt Whitman and describe what you see, "Don't think, answer, go!" Mr. Keating says, "free up your mind, use your imagination, say whatever comes to mind, even if it's total gibberish." And out comes one of the most quoted poems about Walt Whitman ever uttered. 

However, what Mr. Keating fails to supply is context and an anchor for such behavior because, applying that same technique, that same way of thinking and living to other emotions in a very different scenario results in the death of Neil Perry. 

In the final scene of the movie, right before the students climb on their desks, the headmaster is teaching the class. He asks what they've been reading, and Cameron responds with, "Mostly the Romantics."  

"What about the Realists?" the headmaster asks? 

"We skipped over that part," Cameron responds. 

Mr. Keating knows his boys need a break from tradition, that they need to be free thinkers, but what he fails to understand is that he was a graduate of Welton Academy where he was encouraged/required to wrestle with and learn from a variety of minds and ideas, not just the romantics. Mr. Keating had a well-rounded perspective of life and living. However, with his boys, he provided very little balance. He didn’t have them think for themselves, evaluating which philosophies of life were more appropriate, and why. Instead, he only focused on the Romantics, and this, for young and influential minds who are used to strict structure, oppression and tradition, was extremely careless. 

Mr. Keating didn’t kill Neil Perry. Nor is he solely responsible for Neil’s death. He did, however, fail to grasp his influence upon his boys and properly assess their needs and struggles. The boys needed a break from tradition and the ability to think for themselves, just as Mr. Keating believed, but they also needed structure and balance to their rapidly changing hormones and emotions. They needed the freedom to feel and express their emotions, but they also needed to know how to evaluate them, to balance them, and to check them against other, much less ambiguous and fluctuating truths such as principles and ethics. They needed to be taught how to evaluate their emotions, not just embrace them.

In many respects, Mr. Keating was a great leader. He inspired his boys and, for the most part, brought out the best in them. However, he was incomplete. “Don’t think, just answer,” he taught them. But outside confines and safety of his classroom, this way of thinking lead to death.  

Mr. Keating doesn’t deserve to fry, as Cameron suggests, but he does deserve a healthy dose of responsibility for the role he played. “In my class, you will learn to savor words and language,” Mr. Keating encourages his boys, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” However, placed in the minds of young men who are unable to grasp their severity and consequence, who cannot align and judge them to strict and grounded principles and ethical standards, those words and ideas can also destroy.  

And for that, Mr. Keating is responsible.  


What to Teach, when We're Wrong

I’ve mentioned before how discipline has the potential to draw in our struggling and most difficult students, but what about when we struggle? What about those moments when we lose our cool and don’t act with perfect love and patience? What happens then?

Our first response might be to defend ourselves, blame our students or just “chalk it up to a bad day,” because it’s easy and natural to want to mask our failures and imperfections with excuses and defensiveness because nobody likes to be perceived as weak or incapable. But when we do, when we choose to lift up and defend ourselves over another, we sacrifice the opportunity of teaching one of the greatest lessons life has to offer. Mainly, what it means to fail, to ask for forgiveness, and then to rest in the beauty of reconciliation. We miss out on teaching our students (and reminding ourselves) of what it means to be human.


After showing the provocative music video, “This Is America” by Childish Gambino to the class, we spent some time dissecting its many symbols and themes and discussing the perspectives and ideas of Mr. Gambino. We talked about race and guns and the art of expression. We talked about the Jim Crow era and related it to the recent Starbucks and Yale incidents. We wrestled with the concept of reality and the power of perspective. Then we watched my favorite scene from Men In Black.

Shortly after Will Smith’s character is confronted with the reality that aliens do in fact live on this planet, the movie cuts to him and Special Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) sitting on a bench, over looking the Hudson River and the iconic Twin Towers.

“1500 years ago,” Special Agent K says, concluding their conversation, “we knew the earth was the center of the universe, 500 years ago we knew the earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago you knew humans were the only species on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.” We then talked about what we know and how we know it and how that relates to stereotypes and prejudices and the fallibility of reality.

            It was shaping up to be a fantastic lesson.

 “So,” I said, sitting on the table in front of the class, “With this in mind, is Childish Gambino wrong?” I asked.

            “No,” they responded.

            “Is he right?”

            “No,” they said again.

            “Then what is he?”


            “Exactly.” And I privately gave myself a pat on the back, “You’re killing it B-Mill!”

Then all hell broke loose.

As a teacher who has gained the respect of most of my students, I’m pretty used to kids tracking with my lesson plans and accepting most of what I have to say – even if they don’t necessarily agree with it completely. However, every now and then, one student takes it upon him or herself to challenge me. And today, it was the confident kid in the far back corner, the one who doesn’t say much but always has an opinion.

“That’s bull,” he said, and the whole class turned.

“What?” I said, more shocked then anything.

“That’s bull,” he said again, “America isn’t like that.” He then went on to explain why he thought Gambino was unfair and his interpretation of America false, because “Racism isn’t that big a deal anymore.”  

“What are you talking about?” I yelled, “How can you say racism isn’t a big deal, it’s a HUGE deal!!!”

When he didn’t believe me, I went after him, because he was wrong and he needed to know it. He needed to take a lesson from Special Agent J and realize what he thinks he knows isn’t reality. When he argued again, I got louder and challenged his sources, his lack of experience, “You’re only a freshman,” I said, “How much of the world have you seen?” and then I picked apart his argument word by every friggen word until, eventually, I won. Or rather, until he sat back in his chair, arms crossed, and stopped talking. Then the bell rang.

On his way out I tried to make amends. “Hey,” I said, waiving him over.”

He came, reluctantly.

“I appreciated you speaking up today,” I said, “Please keep doing it.” I stuck my fist out for our usual fist bump because he wouldn’t look at me and I wanted to make sure everything was okay. It wasn’t.

“Brother,” I said as we walked towards the door, “you gotta be willing to see things from a different perspective. You’re reality isn’t complete.” He still wouldn’t look at me and I could tell he just wanted to go, but I kept at it. I kept talking and not listening. I kept arguing, even though he wasn’t saying anything.

Finally, he turned, “I respectfully disagree,” then picked up his pace and headed to his next class. The door clicked shut behind him and I knew I had failed, that my words no longer had merit, and that I had lost him. All because I knew I was right.

That night, with my kids finally tucked into bed and my wife working on the couch next to me, a sort of sickness swirled in my stomach. I tried to write, to lesson plan, to grade papers, to watch YouTube videos, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop thinking about the day’s class and the example I had set.

I thought of how the entire year’s worth of building trust and arguing for the power of stories and the need for kindness had all come crashing down in less than ten minutes. I thought of all the times I prided myself as an open-minded guy who loves and embraces everyone. I thought of my “Dialogue not Monologue” speeches, of how we spent a week discussing Chimamanda Adichie’s perspective on single stories and stereotypes – “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story” and how those words had become the anthem to our year, in everything we read or watched or discussed. And my stomach churned because, suddenly, all that was just words and ideas that didn’t really mean a thing. Because I had failed to make any of it come to life, to make it tangible and alive, in the classroom, where they could see it and hear it and experience it.

Because I cared more about what content then I did about the person.

 “Agh,” I moaned, shooting up from the couch and not really knowing where I was going or what I was doing.

My wife jumped, “What?” she asked, a bit startled, “What’s wrong?”

I told her about my student and how I responded. She listened, asked a few questions, then said, “Why don’t you just apologize?”

Because I’m the teacher was my first thought and because I’m not wrong was the second. But then, after a moment, it hit me, because you are the teacher, you are wrong.

I was wrong because I didn’t put into practice what I had so desperately wanted my students to learn: be willing to hear and see things from another’s perspective. And I was wrong because I had treated my student with less respect than he deserved, all because I disagreed with him, because I knew I was right. I was wrong because I chose to be right rather than to do what was right. My good friend, Erik Beard taught me that.

Erik and I have been friends for almost 20 years, and for the first ten or so, we were close. We traveled the country together, played music from Shel Silverstein books, battled in sports, and made thousands of campfires together. We even argued. But, like many of the discussions in my English classroom, we argued about things that were at a distance and outside of ourselves. They weren’t immensely personal, more philosophical. Until suddenly, they weren’t.

I don’t remember exactly what Erik said, I just know it was personal and, for whatever reason, offensive. I remember too that I didn’t say anything at first, I just fumed. For days. Until I couldn’t take it anymore. Then, I called him up “Brother,” I said, “We need to talk.”

“Sure,” he said, “When?”

We decided to meet the next morning at our usual diner. I got there early with my journal that was packed full of thoughts and arguments and as I waited, I read them over and over. When he finally walked in, I was ready.

How we started the awkward conversation isn’t clear, but judging from how I’ve handled similar situations in the past I can only assume we dove right in. I probably didn’t even let him order a coffee. What I do remember though is me laying into him and explaining, with acute detail, why he was wrong in what he said, how he said it, and when he said it.

At first, he argued a bit, defending his intentions and clarifying his position, but I wouldn’t hear it because I had my journal, my thoughts, and a clear defense. Eventually he just sat there, listening and occasionally clarifying.

When I was finished, he calmly said, “I’m sorry.” Then, “I hear you. I don’t fully agree with you, but I hear you.”

That was it. No argument, no defense, and no excuse. Just, “I’m sorry.” And it completely disarmed me.

I remember the short pause of silence, the waitress filling our coffee cups, and me closing my journal. I also remember that that was when we started to have a discussion, when we looked at each other and acknowledged, “We’re on the same side” and began working through the pain and frustration of what happened. That’s also when I learned I could trust Erik with anything, that he was safe, and that he wasn’t really concerned about being right, but rather, doing what was right. He chose me over what he knew. And over the years, that has made all the difference.

So the next day, after the students filed in and took their seats, I walked to the front of the class, sat on the table that sits below the whiteboard, and asked, “What was the point of the video from yesterday?

“To spark an argument,” someone whispered.

“To listen to and see things from another’s perspective,” another student said more confidently.

“Exactly,” I said, pointing at the latter, “That was what I had hoped for, but because of how I responded to my man,” and I pointed to the student, “I ended up sparking an argument and doing exactly what I was asking you guys not to do.” I looked around the class as my heart began to race. Everyone was looking straight at me. “And because I challenged him in front of you all,” I continued, “I need to also say, in front of you all,” and I waved my hand over the entire class, “that Student,” and I looked straight at him “I’m sorry. I took advantage of my position as a teacher and I was unfair to you as a person.”

He stared back at me. The class went silent.

“I disrespected you,” I said, “and I wasn’t kind or respectful to your perspectives. I apologize. Will you forgive me?”

“Yes,” he said, “Me too. I got angry too.”

“Are we good?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, “We’re good.” Then class continued, and to be honest, I don’t really remember what we covered that day. And to be even more honest, I don’t really care because I don’t think it really mattered. There were greater things going on.

When class was over, I met the student by the door, “Thank you,” I said.

“Thank you,” he said, lifting his fist for a pound.


I think what’s most frustrating about being a teacher is that not every student will agree with what I have to say, with the lessons I’m trying to teach, or how I perceive the world to be and the changes that need to happen in order to make it better.

            Some kids leave my class still insensitive, still ignorant of the plight and difficulty of the many lives that surround there own, and still completely absorbed in satisfying their own self-interests, and that frustrates the hell out of me. If I can’t get kids to think, if I can’t get them to be better people and contributors to society, what am I doing? Why am I wasting my time?

            It’s easy to get discouraged when, at the end of the day, the week, and sometimes even the year, it seems like not enough change actually happened.

But then I remember Mr. Furman.

During my senior year, while scraping by with a 1.75ish GPA, my English teacher, Mr. Furman, read my short story journal entry to the class and said, “Brian, you are a good writer.” It didn’t matter much then, but almost five years later, while in California and sitting on a blanket in a sea of freshly cut grass with my new fiancé by my side, his words suddenly floated to the surface and challenged everything I’d known about my direction in life. That next semester, I transferred into the English Ed. Program.

My students may never remember the essay questions surrounding the life and death of Lenny from Of Mice and Men. They probably won’t recall the songs we annotated or the videos we unpacked, and I can almost guarantee that none of them will miss filling out the infamous PDP notes

But they might remember the days we wrestled through failure, forgiveness, and all that other human being stuff.

They might remember, even if it’s many years from now, how they had a teacher who wasn’t afraid to be wrong, to admit their fault, and who consistently chose them – the students – over himself.

They might remember a classroom of freedom and safety and authenticity, where they could wrestle with ideas and failure and grow and learn without fear of ridicule, and when they do, hopefully, they will pull their heals out from the ground, care less about speaking than they do about listening, and do what is right.

But even if many of them don’t, even if I never hear from them or see how much they’ve changed and grown, I choose to believe that at least a small percentage of them will and are because, as a teacher, I choose to believe in hope, in the example of Mr. Furman, and the reality that education isn’t simply about what they score on the test today, but rather, what they will know tomorrow.

You know, the good stuff. The life stuff. The human being stuff. The reason we chose to be teachers stuff.


For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Education  :  If school was like rock climbing  :  Metric Fixation : how standardized data impedes classroom innovation

Metric Fixation : how standardized data impedes classroom innovation

From Jacques Tati’s  Playtime  (1967).  Image courtesy Les Films de Mon Oncle – Specta Films CEPEC

From Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967). Image courtesy Les Films de Mon Oncle – Specta Films CEPEC

I really appreciated this article, "Against metrics: how measuring performance by numbers backfires", by Jerry Z Muller, a professor of history at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D C..

"The key components of metric fixation," Muller writes, "are the belief that it is possible - and desirable - to replace professional judgement (acquired through personal experience and talent) with numerical indicators of comparative performances based upon standardized data (metrics)."

Ever since venturing into the world of education, this dichotomy has been my passion, and my nemesis - how do I reconcile data driven assessment with the non-measurable goals? At what point do grades and GPA's begin to drive education in the wrong direction?

Muller seems to be asking similar questions.

He goes on to say that "the most dramatic negative effect of metric fixation is its propensity to incentivize gaming" - an if/then reward system - that encourages professionals to "maximize the metrics in ways that are at odds with the larger purpose of the organization." Like grades over curiosity, resume virtues instead of eulogy virtues, and content over humanity.

Daniel Pink, the NYT and WSJ Bestselling Author of Drive, says, "When the profit motive becomes unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen," ethically sometimes but also in lame service and crappy products (via). In education, we call that teaching to the test which is also a lame service that ends with a crappy product. 

I think my favorite part of the article, though, was when Muller writes,

The source of trouble is that when people are judged by performance metrics (high stakes testing) they are incentivized to do what the metrics measure, and what the metrics measure will be some established goal. But that impedes innovation , which means doing something no yet established, indeed that hasn't even been tried out. Innovation involves experimentation. And experimentation includes the possibility, perhaps probability, of failure. 

How many classrooms have you been in that celebrate and embrace failure? That allow for innovation rather than memorization? 

I'll end with Muller's final words, "The more that work becomes a matter of filling in the boxes by which performance is to be measured and rewarded, the more it will repel those who think outside the box." 

You can see Daniel Pink's TED talk here or read his bestseller here (to date, it is one of my Mount Rushmore books for education). Or, you can watch a brief animated version of his thoughts below. It sums up most of his ideas, in a skiing across the water sort of way. 


For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  On Education  :  If school was like rock climbing  :  Prince EA's, "I just sued the school system!!!"

Also, if you haven't signed up for the monthly news letter, please scroll on down and do so! 

Anyone signing up this month will get a handwritten "Thank You!" card. 

Let's go rock climbing!


Zion has been begging me to take her rock climbing because "she's the best rock climber in the family," and she isn't lying. Most of it has to do with her being fearless, but she's also just really good at it. So today, after weeks and weeks of her begging and pleading, I took her to the gym, fit her into a miniature harness, and sent her up the wall. She was so pumped, so excited, and so eager to show off her skills. 

Then she failed. 

About half way up, she got stuck, then tired, then scared. "I want to come down," she said, and was slowly lowered down. She was so disappointed.

Eden was next and she made it slightly higher. Then she too wanted to come down. 

Now I had two girls who had failed. But both wanted to try again so we gave high-fives, gave a few climbing pointers, then sent them back up. And this time, both of them made it all the way to the top! Eden even started to cry she was so happy and proud. After I hugged them and kissed them and told them how proud I was of overcoming their fears and working so hard, I started thinking about school and assessments and those all consuming and toxic grades I'd entered earlier in the day.

Suddenly, I wished I could take my students rock climbing because, What if schooling was like rock climbing? What if instead of grades for what was accomplish and known, students got second chances, third chances, and forth and fifth chances? What if instead of teaching by standing at the top of the mountain, pulling and cajoling and threatening students up the steep and daunting cliffs, we stood behind them, sending out words of encouragement and guidance ("now grab the green hold with your left hand . . . good!") and assured them that if they fell, we'd be there to catch them?

I know almost every teacher or parent has heard something like this before and have all come to the same conclusion: it sounds great but it's impossible. What teacher has the time or the effort to allow kids to fail and try, fail and try, fail and try? And quite honestly, what kid wants to try this hard on a subject they hate? The answer to both those questions is, "not many." 

But I also know the system is broken and needs fixing. That students have stopped trying on assignments they think are too difficult because, "{they're} gonna fail anyway, so why try?" and that many of them have given up hope of ever succeeding in school. "It's just not for me," they say.

And they may be right. School, as they have traditionally understood it, may not be for them. But learning is. And that is the cardinal sin of education, students are terrified to try and learn because, as Carol Dweck calls it, they have a "fixed mindset." 


People in a fixed mindset "believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits" (via). And years of schooling, of grades, telling them over and over that they're not smart, that they won't get it has cemented the idea that talent alone creates success. And some kids have it, while others don't. 

People in a growth mindset, however, "believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point" (via). They care more about the effort, the hard work, and the process, not the product. 

Schools and grades, by and large, support a fixed mindset; rock walls don't. They encourage the process more than the product, and they teach service.

The main reason why I was able to take my kids climbing today was because one of my students is a certified belayer, and he offered to take my kids. 

More times than not, kids in schools today are told that they need to be there so they can go to college so they can get a good job so they can live a decent life. School is all about serving they self. There's even a banner in my school that reads, "Do it for you," which might be the worst reason for attending school I've ever heard.

What if, instead, students went to school to not only learn their gifts and talents, but to learn how to serve and give back? What if kids and students were given ample opportunities to serve others, not just themselves?

It sounds daunting, if not insurmountable. It sounds like rock climbing. 

And that excites the hell out of me.

On Discipline : Beyond Consequences

The students knew “G” was going to lose it eventually because they knew him, and because he’d been brewing ever since the first week of school. But I didn’t. I was new to the district and didn’t know “G” from Adam. So when he yelled, “Man, Fuck this shit!” and slammed his book shut, I was a more than a bit stunned. When I told him to sit back down, he refused, saying, “This is bullshit!” and walked out the door.

We were in the throws of reading “The Crucible” and just about to read one of my favorite scenes, so instead of following “G” out the door, I smiled and I asked them to continue on. “G” could wait.

A few minutes later, the bell rang and I went to the principal’s office and asked for “G” to not be suspended or get detention. Instead, I asked that he be allowed to spend the next week eating lunch with me.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because of my father,” I responded.

Growing up, I often heard stories of how biblical shepherds handled sheep that constantly strayed – they would break the sheep’s legs.

Then, because the sheep could no longer walk, the shepherd would carry it on his shoulders until it healed. During this time, a bond of trust would form between the shepherd and the sheep. Once healed, the sheep would no longer leave the shepherd.

So, when my mother told me not to borrow her bike and I did anyway, she tried to break my legs.  

My bike was fine, but hers was better, and the road to my friend’s house was long. So long in fact that it took thirty minutes for her to catch up in the car. It took her less than three minutes to bolt from the car, stuff her bike into the undersized trunk, yell, “WALK HOME!” and whip the car around and through the oncoming traffic.

By the time I made it back to the house, the cool of the evening was beginning to settle in and I had some pretty fantastic excuses worked out.

I walked through the front door, parched, and ready to wash myself of blame and trouble. She too was ready, “Go to your room,” she said, “Wait for your dad to come home.” When she didn’t glance up from her floured tabletop and rolled out dough, I knew I was in trouble.

The hours between then and my dad’s pickup bouncing over the curb were forever. The hour it took for my father to slowly open the door and sit on my bed was even longer. The talk, however, was less than a minute: “No TV, no friends, no phone, for two weeks.”

“TWO WEEKS!” I yelled.

“Yes, two weeks,” my dad said, even though it was summer, beautiful summer, when kids should be out with their friends, riding bikes, fishing in small ponds, building forts, and getting into simple mischief.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. Not only was I confined to the acre and a half of my parents’ property, I was to memorize Bible verses, read books on the Lord’s second coming, and “think about what I’d done.”

Taking the bike was the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” because it was just one of a hundred times I was disrespectful, disobedient, and selfish, and I needed to learn my lesson. I needed to have my legs broken.

As a child, my mother didn’t yell and scream when I misbehaved, but she did place the responsibility for punishing a disobedient and defiant young boy upon his father. She had a hand in creating the consequence, but he was the one who enforced it, who sat with me in my anger and tears. He was the one who talked me through it, who listened to my weak negations, and who patiently, with tears in his own eyes, refused to budge or relent but affirmed that I would indeed be grounded for two weeks.

He was also the one who took me fishing.

About a week into my grounding, I was sitting in the backyard, reading, when my father came home from work and asked if I wanted to go to the river for the next week. I still had to read and memorize, but I could do it from the camper, after running bank lines and trotlines and swimming in the great currents of the northern Mississippi River. “Of course!” I yelled.

“Great,” he said, “then pack up your stuff. We’ll head out early tomorrow morning.”

I slammed my book shut and ran inside the house; my dad grabbed the tackle box and lifted me to his shoulders, just like a good shepherd should.

The next morning, we left early.

The five-hour drive to the campground was spent hearing the same old stories of when my dad was a kid on the river. How he and his friend caught a huge snapping turtle with only a net, how he spent a summer shingling the roof of his parent’s cabin, and about the time he and his friend built a bonfire so massive that it caught the attention of a barge passing by. He told me about the propane tank.

It was he and his friend’s first night away from the cabin and they were a bit scared of the dark, even though neither one would admitted it, so they threw log after log upon the roaring flames. When they found the tank buried beneath a pile of driftwood, they threw that on too. Then quickly forgot all about it.

Minutes later, it exploded, sending sparks and wood and teenage boys flying in all directions. No one was hurt and Dad chuckled as he told it, just like he’d done the dozen or so times before, which made me laugh and smile too because I loved that story.

Then, we were there. As we crested the bluff, my dad stopped, “Oh no.”

“What?” I asked.

“It’s flooded.”

The river must have just recently receded back to its normal levels because the road was covered with a layer of deep, sloppy, river mud. “Well,” my dad said, slowly pulling forward, “if it doesn’t rain the rest of the time we’re here, we should be okay.

With each nightly downpour, our fear that we’d never make it out grew, and with each passing day, my dad prepared to get us out of the mess and safely home by shoveling as much mud off the road as possible then haul and spread gravel from a nearby gravel pit over the road, all without a shovel. 

And never once did I doubt that he could, that he would, and that we wouldn’t make it home safe.

But then, a prison work crew showed up to fix all the picnic tables. When they paused for a quick lunch break, my dad asked one of them if he wanted some of our fish. The man looked at my dad and said, “You better as’ the boss firs’.”

“I did,” my dad replied, holding up the plate of freshly grilled catfish, “he said it’s okay.” The man looked around, at his other inmates, the river, then back to the plate, “Well,” he said, “You got any salt?”

Over the next thirty minutes or so, the dozen or so inmates finished off all the fish we’d caught the previous four days. I watched from the camper, hidden behind my book, but reading nothing. One man, with his mouth full, shook his head, “Shit. Dis is better ‘en my chicken,” and I knew he was telling the truth because my dad grew up on the Mississippi river, fishing, working, and learning from his parents, and he knew how to grill catfish.

Before leaving, the crew grated the road for us, laid down new gravel, and lined the old picnic tabletops under our camper and van. When it rained hard on our last night by the river, my dad slept soundly. In the morning, instead of clearing the road or heading home, we went fishing and my dad told stories of when he was a young and imperfect son.

My dad didn’t have to break my legs for me to learn how to trust him. Nor did he have to yell and scream and rain down punishments for me to respect him. He just needed time with me, to take an interest in me, and to show me that he just because my behavior was inappropriate it didn’t mean I wasn’t wanted, or loved.

Instead of creating consequences, he created memories. And in the following years, whenever I would get into trouble or found myself stuck, it was my father I went to, who I met for coffee or called on the phone while wandering the dark streets, searching for answers. Because he was the one who took me fishing.

So when “G” said, “Fuck this shit!” in front of the entire class, when he jumped up from his chair and started walking out of the room yelling, “this is bullshit!” I didn’t walk him to the office or write him up or chase him down the hall, yelling and screaming and threatening detention, suspension, or failure of the class. Instead, I let him go and thought about fishing with my father. When the bell rang, I went to principal because, like me, “G” didn’t need to have his legs broken. Nor did he need me to carry him. He just needed someone who’d be willing to sit with him, in the muck and the mire, and hear his story.

“I want “G” to spend the next week with me, during lunch,” I said, “Is that possible?” She was a bit skeptical.

“Please. Don’t write him up, just let me spend time with him.” And because I’m fortunate to have supportive bosses, she said okay.

The next day, with a ham and cheese sandwich and a few freshly cut vegetables scattered on my desk, I waited for “G” to show, but he never did. When I saw him in the hallway, I asked him about it, told him he wasn’t in trouble, but that I just wanted to talk and hang out with him for a bit. He said he’d come tomorrow.

When he showed up, I asked him how he’s doing. “Not good,” he said. Then, he told me about his family.

“My dad came in my room and asked where Mom is” he says, lounging in the cold desk, arms crossed, “and I didn’t know if I should tell him or not. Next thing you know, we’re sitting in the car for three hours. I call my mom and she says she’s at the movies but there aren’t any cars in the parking lot because there isn’t any movie showing. My dad starts crying and my little brother starts crying and I’m thinking, ‘What’s going to happen?’ Mom didn’t get home till 3am.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, knowing where this was going. He looks up.

“Hearing your parents argue is the worst. Having your ten-year old brother cry in your arms isn’t what anyone wants.”

He fights back tears. Because he’s tough.

“Mom’s crying, Dad leaves, and nobody knows where he went. Three days pass and no sign of my dad nowhere. Until the Fourth of July.”

The bell rings and “G” gets ready to go to class. “Thanks,” I say, “Thanks for sharing.” He nods gently and heads to class.

The next day, and for the four days after, he comes back.

He tells me how his parents almost got back together, but then, on a trip to the beach, they got into another big fight and he, his little brother, and his mom had to walk home in the rain. He talks about how she eventually moved out and how difficult it was because she still lived in town, with another woman.  

He tells me that was when he finally broke down and cried because the next morning, when he woke up, he found his dad passed out on the couch, “No one should have to experience this,” he says.

“G” used to be a “good kid,” a star athlete, and a decent student. Now, he doesn’t understand why he is so angry all the time, why he can’t control his temper.

“I used to be that kid thinking life would be so easy. But that just makes it harder.”

We sit in silence for a minute.

“I just want to beak down and cry,” he says “but it’s too late to be crying over something that I can’t fix. Life isn’t easy, and it never gonna be.”

“I’m sorry,” I say again, thinking of my dad and the river and wondering if and how I could lift “G” to my shoulders, because so much of his life seems bent on breaking his legs.

The bell rings, and I still don’t know what to do.

Later that day, another teacher writes “G” up and doesn’t want him in their class because he’s disrespectful and curses and needs to be taught a lesson.

He asks if he could spend his detention with me.

A week later, when he needs help with credit recovery for science class, he comes in during lunch and we work through the material together – neither of us having a clue what is being asked but finding, and sometimes guessing, the answers together.

Later in the quarter, he writes a poem about how the Fourth of July used to be the best time of year, until Mom and Dad argue, a little brother cries, and a family falls apart, and I find myself trying to fight back tears, to be tough like “G”.

Then he writes a powerful short story about his parent’s, his mother, and the day he found out she was leaving her family – her “G” - for a woman she met at work. He writes an essay on the power of music and another on anger and how it fuels his life but ruins his days, and I smile.

“G” hasn’t stopped cursing in class, but he is trying, he is showing up almost every day, and he is working on what he can – even if it might be “bullshit”, and that makes me smile. Because that means he’s healing.

I know I’m not “G”’s father or his shepherd, but I am his teacher. And when we had lunch together, when he told me about his life and the things that matter most, I listened. When he asked me if I could relate, I told him about my failures as a son, a father, a teacher, and a husband. I told him he wasn’t alone, in his failure or his pain.

I wasn’t able to take “G” fishing or carry him on my shoulders, but I do think I was still able to help him heal, if only a little,  because whenever I walk home from work and a car honks and honks and honks, I know it’s “G”, driving with his girl, just wanting to say hi.

And sometimes, it’s the best part of the day.


For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  On Education  :  On Parenting

Prince EA's, "I just sued the school system!!!"

For sure his argument is't perfect, and for sure he is a bit unfair, but there is plenty here to digest, discuss, and - if nothing else - consider. 

Because no matter what we think about fish and trees and standardized tests, all of us can agree that the youth of today are "100 percent of our future."

And they are always worth a second, third, and sometimes forth consideration of why we do what we do.


For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  On Creativity  :  Don't do homework, publish!  :  Smartest Kids in the World




Standardized Tests : More questions than answers

A typical classroom possess an endless variety of instructional strategies, assessment types, and teacher caps that service the needs of the vast variety of students and all their quirks, personalities, and interests. 

Then, after months of sweat and toil and learning everything is stripped down and discolored into a standardized test. A test which "may help us learn a little about a lot of people in a short time, but they usually can’t tell us a lot about a single person."

And t's been going on for thousands of years.

Think of a standardized test as a rule. A ruler’s usefulness depends on two things: First, the job we ask it to do. Our ruler can’t measure the temperature outside or how loud someone is singing. Second, the ruler’s usefulness depends on its design.

Rulers can’t measure the circumfrince of an orange, only length, because the ruler doesn’t have the flexibility required for the task at hand. “So, if standardized tests are given the wrong job or aren’t designed properly, they may end up measuring the wrong things.”

Like a child’s grasp of literacy or cultural familiarity, rather than their understanding of the content at hand.

Standardized tests can also have a hard time measuring abstract characteristics or skills such as creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration.

Perhaps the most crucial skills required and needed in our world today and in the future. 

It's like measuring the hight and weight of an athlete, rather than their actual play, and deciding if they'd make the team or not. 

It's passing the students who writes brilliant essays by skimming the text yet failing the ones who cry when Piggy dies  because they forget to turn in their homework. 

This, according to Sir Ken Robinson, is what's killing creativity and, possibly, the future. 

Our only hope for the future is to adapt a new conception of human ecology, one in which we start to reconstitute ourselves of the richness of human capacity. Our education system has mined our minds in the same way that we've strip-mined the Earth for a particular commodity, and for the future, it won't service. We have to rethink the fundamentals with which we are educating our children.
We have to use {human imagination} wisely . . . and see our creative capacities for the richness they are, and seeing our children for the hope that they are."

A hope that can't be measured with rulers or dots on paper. 

"The hardest part of learning something new isn't embracing new ideas, but letting go of old ones." 

So what if we get rid of standardized tests? What do we replace it with?

Is the education then left to the teachers? Administrators? Is there no longer any accountability and everyone is free to teach and learn and grow (or not) as they please?

Just because it has been thousand years of standardized tests, does that mean we should get rid of it?

If so, what? What do we fill it with? 

Sir Ken is fully inspiring and completely spot-on, and he never once mentions standardized testing. Is simply investing in the arts the answer? 

How can we truly measure all that humanity has to offer? 

How do we quantify creativity, ingenuity, and relationships? How do we measure humanity?


For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  On Creativity  :  Don't do homework, publish!  :  Smartest Kids in the World