Observant #OneWord2019

The end of 2018 felt like a blitzkrieg, with assessments and commitments bombarding any peace I might have felt. As 2018 drew to a close, I knew I would have to find a more centered approach to my teaching life.

For 2019, I have chosen to focus on being observant. Observant can mean being wary, alert to potential landmines. When one is observant, this can mean thinking before doing. It can mean having a keen awareness of the world, perceptiveness. All of these definitions imply inaction.

For me, being observant does not mean inaction. It means taking note of what is occurring in my life, reflecting on what will be the best possible choice, and acting upon that choice. It means being present in the moment, right as it happens, and it means serving others assiduously.

For me, 2019 will bring new clarity as I focus on my #OneWord2019.

“Flickr Friday: Finding peace within” by Rupa Panda is shared under Public Domain.

This post serves as a mentor text to my students, as they craft their one word resolutions as part of our Kindness Rock Project.


Reflecting on The Immortalists

“In New York, he would live for them, but in San Francisco, he could live for himself. And though he does not like to think about it, though he in fact avoids the subject pathologically, he allows himself to think it now: What if the woman on Hester Street is right, and the next few years are his last? The mere thought turns his life a different color; it makes everything feel urgent, glittering, precious.” Chloe Benjamin, The Immortalists

I did not like the book. I found the shifting point of views and the premise that none of us will live forever irritating. I kept waiting for it to crystallize, to become meaningful, and instead, I found the book ending. No magic here, except the slight of hand a card trick might leave.

And yet.

Did I dislike the book because of the graphic descriptions of homosexual relationships in San Francisco at the inception of the AIDS epidemic?

I had, in fact, totally forgotten about The Immortalists. It had become one of the many books I had binge read this summer.  Then I came across this tweet thread:

In this thread, Shaw marvels at the innocence of today’s youth. They discuss, “in a scholarly way . . . how [AIDS] galvanized the gay community . . . [and] paved the way to make things better, in the long run” (Shaw).  And I think about my own cousin, who had he lived in the time described in The Immortalists would not be here today. As Shaw thinks back to living through those early days, he cracks the door for those of us who were not there.

The long run, he describes, was not better.

Friends, colleagues, loved ones, disappeared from Shaw’s life. They leave behind objects as memento mori, ephemeral as condensation on a glass in summer. By using these objects as keystones, Shaw helps us to imagine the grief he still feels.

It reminds me of this book that I had forgotten. The graphic descriptions of Simon’s rise and fall did not connect with me. It was too much. The decadence and impossibility of The Haight put me off. I looked away, uncomfortable. Shaw’s thread drew me back.

As I glimpse inside the “cold rooms with hot lights” that represent Shaw’s memories, I realize that his memory moves me much more than Simon’s story. I can’t put aside this thread. It lingers, a lemony taste in my mouth, a stinging in my eyes, that I cannot release.

“Men’s Shoes” by Robert Sheie is shared under a CC by 2.0 license 

Owning your mistakes

As a white teacher, what should you do when you realize that what you’ve said in a public space is racist? Two things: one, you must apologize. Two, as your phone blows up and notifications pile up in that public space, you must stop and reflect. Some comments you get will be helpful, as was @rlnave above.

They will open your eyes to what you sound like to other people, to the fact that you have more to learn. It’s important that you stop and think about what you said and why you said it. So let’s unpack a little why the NPR article When Calling the Po-Po is a No-No originally struck me as non-college worthy.

I have been in education for over twenty years now. I have a Masters in Instructional Technology and have taken over 25 hours in others masters level work, enough so that a local university certified me in their College Credit Plus program. For those outside of Ohio, this means that I can teach college classes to high school students. Why do I include all this information? To say that up until this point, I had a certain expectation of what a “college worthy” article sounded like.

Here’s one I shared with my students last year: “In Defense of a Loaded Word,” by 

I was wrong.

Thank you to all those who engaged with me yesterday on this topic. Every time a white person thinks they’ve finally uncovered and dealt with all their implicit biases, there will always be one more ugly spot. Racism is an institution in our country, and white people benefit from it. The only thing you can do is learn more. Start over. And know that a lifetime of white privilege won’t be fixed overnight. It takes work. Do it.

“Adel Abidin: I’m Sorry” by einer von denen is shared under a CC 2.0 license

Talking Colorblindness with my 12 yr old

What do you say to your almost teenager when an author you both love experiences something neither you nor she will ever experience? That’s the time you open the box called “white privilege.” Today was that day.

To understand just why we had to have this discussion, reader, you need some context.

She wants her mostly white suburban middle school friends to read Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi. She’s just as excited as I am that Jimmy Fallon chose it as his #TonightShowSummerReads. She declares that even though the book is YA and will be a part of our #ProjectLitBookClub at the high school, her middle school book club she started just this summer will read it too.

Yes, reader, she started a #ProjectLitBookClub. You see, I took her with me to #ProjectLitSUmmit18 in Nashville this June. At this event, we heard Kwame Alexander talk about the importance of great books for kids. We heard Nic Stone give tips on writing. In fact, we even had Mr. Alexander and Ms. Stone autograph books for us. Mr. Alexander spelled her name right on her autograph, asked her what grade she’ll be in next year, and told her “Eighth grade is cool.” Needless to say, we bought a huge pile of books to take home.


She was so excited about the event, she decided then and there that she was going to start her own #ProjectLitBookClub this summer. She wasn’t going to wait till school started like I was. So we came home and settled in, and starting reading the books.

One book we bought was called I am Alfonso Jones, by Tony Medina. It’s a graphic novel that I picked up because it’s one of the @projectlitcommunity midlde grade books and because I thought her brother would like it. She read it first. We talked a little about it, mostly her telling me she thought her 9 year old brother might be a little too young to read it and that it was sad. After I read the book and realized that it dealt with police brutality and after I cried, I let her brother read it, too. It’s our world now. We have to learn to live in it.

She shared her experiences with her friends. The book club grew by one, and they got together to decide which to read first: Wishtree by Katherine Applegate or Rebound, by Kwame Alexander. Here they are, deciding.


They decided on Wishtree. She made a blog. After a few weeks of futile texting, where no one showed up, she added one to her club.


They were having a blast. Until today. When Ms. Adeyemi shared her story, and my kiddo overheard me talking about it with her dad. She wandered into our bedroom, where I sitting there rage crying, and asked me what happened. I read the tweet thread Adeyemi had shared. She started crying, too, and said, “But the police are supposed to be people who protect us. Why were they so mean? And what does colorblindness mean, anyway?”

So we started talking. I explained that, when people say they “don’t see color,” they are speaking from a point of privilege. That although on the surface it seems they are being fair, what they are really saying is, “Your story is not important. I don’t believe you.” I explained that although neither she nor anyone else in her family is ever likely to have police threaten us in our home, for people of color, every encounter with the police is one where they have to be afraid. And reader, I brought up Philando Castile.

She had never heard Mr. Castile’s story. She didn’t know that even when you do everything you’re supposed to, you can still die after an encounter with the police. And she got mad. She asked, “What can we do about this?” And we talked about the difference between empathy and sympathy.  That sympathy shuts doors between people, and empathy is making a connection, reaching out and saying, “Me, too.” That the only way we can feel empathy for others is by hearing their stories.

Reader, I explained that as white people, we are like goldfish in a fishbowl. Ask goldfish how water feels, and they’ll never say wet, because they don’t know what water is. It’s just there, all around them, protecting them. Just like white privilege.

Reader, our family talks like this all the time. Behind closed doors, and, let’s be honest, behind the closed door of my classroom, I have these conversations with young people. But we are deep in Trump country. To have any chance of understanding the world outside our tiny town, our kiddos must know the stories of others.

So she says, “We are going to have to read I am Alfonso Jones next year. We need to have these conversations.” And I agree.

If you made it to the end of this post, and you want to help the high school students I’ll teach next year to have these hard conversations, consider donating a little to my donor’s choose project.

If you’re super poor like me and want some resources I’ve used with my students,

  1. https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/fall-2009/colorblindness-the-new-racism
  2. https://jarredamato.wordpress.com/2016/10/08/proud-to-announce-project-lit-community/
  3. A description of how I convinced my principal to let me start our HS book club
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw
  5. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/06/21/what-the-police-officer-who-shot-philando-castile-said-about-the-shooting/
  6. https://bookriot.com/2018/07/02/tonight-show-summer-read/
  7. http://theurbannews.com/lifestyles/2017/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack/


Giving back: the case study

“I share because the learning I create and the experiences I have help others. I share to push my own thinking and to make an impact on learners, both young and old, all over the world.” from The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity by George Couros

I confess. I struggle to see that my voice matters. All my life, I’ve been told that it’s better to be humble. Be quiet, because speaking up is arrogant, and arrogance is wrong. So every time I publish a post, every time I share an idea, I am pushing back against that narrative. Everybody’s voice matters. In the spirit of sharing, here goes:

Every year, I walk into my room and try something different. Often it is a result of something I’ve read, some experience I’ve had, from going to an EdCamp in West Virginia and seeing their flexible seating, to hearing a keynote at a district PD and seeking to read more about it. Last year, my catalyst was two-fold. First, I heard Dr. Corey Seemiller speak about Generation Z, and I checked out her book, Generation Z Goes to College.  Then I attend Inspire 2017, where I learned about LRNG. That’s when I knew that 2017-18 was going to be different.

Because I teach dual-enrollment courses, I knew I was working within the constraints of my approved college syllabus. That being said, I wanted to make the experience more meaningful to my Gen Z students. This first blog post will describe how I transformed their interview analysis paper into a meaningful case study of a professional. Subsequent posts will detail how I transformed their research papers, persuasive projects, and final exams.

As with every school year, step one required me to do some deep diving into who they were as people.

To get to know the students, and for them to get to know themselves, I asked students to take the Holland Code profile test. I grouped students together, based on their Holland code profile. The Holland code is one way to determine which profession is a best fit, and it is one way to explore life after high school.

In groups based on class period and interest, students determined which profession most interested them to interview. They completed this badge on interviewing professionals and went as a group to interview an expert. This interview became the primary source document for their case study paper. Although each group member had the same audio, the papers were very different, based on the student’s own context. This part was successful.

Here’s what went wrong: some students were badly placed with professionals. Others had trouble getting their professional to follow through.  Some found that they could not get detailed answers from their interviewee. Some found the whole experience not as meaningful as I would like. So here’s how it’s going to go differently, next year.

The first problem was the way students determined their future professional interests.  Instead of asking students to take the ONET Holland Code test, I might have students try the Ohio Means Jobs Career Cluster profile, so they could work towards the OhioMeansJobs-Readiness Seal. In this way, they are not only preparing for the future, they are hopefully getting a more accurate description of what they want to be when they leave high school.

The second problem was the meaningful connection to area professionals. Luckily, one of my colleagues is looking at having a Career Fair in the fall, and she wants students to be able to job shadow a professional for a day. If my students coupled job shadowing with interviews, then they would have much more meaningful case study papers.

If you would like copies of any of my materials, from the question template I provided to the reflection I had students write about the interview process, please contact me in the comments below.

“From the darkness comes a train, cutting through the myst” by Stefan Insam is shared under a CC by SA 2.0 license

EdCamp Reflections

The Intervention Ziggurat vs. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The more you know, the more you realize you have to learn. This was never more clear to me than on June 21, when I attended my second #SpedCampOH. An edcamp is a professional development opportunity where the agenda is set by the participants when they arrive. One session I attended was dealing with “difficult” students with IEPs, which spanned the gamut of emotionally disturbed students to autistic students.  Although it has been a few years since I have taught a student on an IEP, I decided to join this session anyway.

I heard some amazingly helpful suggestions for any student and teacher relationship, regardless of label. Participants brought up the concepts of Restorative Justice to rebuild relationships among students and staff. They suggested administrators allow students and teachers private moments of conversation to rebuild trust after students return to the classroom. They suggested maintaining and sharing places for students to decompress after a confrontation, in classrooms that are not their own. They suggested the importance of observational data, to determine what triggers off-task behavior, and working with students to problem solve issues before they started. But the most interesting I heard that was totally new to me was The Intervention Ziggurat.

Much like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the Ziggurat is pyramid shaped and deals with the idea that a student cannot focus on learning new information until they have their basic needs met. Just as Maslow acknowledged the physiological needs of a student must first be met, that a hungry student cannot learn, so does the Ziggurat discuss biological needs. However, unlike Maslow, the Ziggurat acknowledges that some students need their sensory needs met, too. Harsh lights, uncomfortable textures, loud noises, all of these stressors can make learning difficult for some students.

In retrospect, this makes total sense. I know that when I switched off the fluorescent overhead lights and switched on my lamps, with their natural light bulbs, the classroom dynamic completely changed. It helps that I painted over the salmon colored cement block, changing one cement block wall to a dark, midnight purple and the other to a bright, clean white. It helped that I provided floor cushions and pillows, rolling chairs and tables, in addition to my traditional desks. And should it be that I have students with sensory issues next year, hopefully I will have provided a room for them to learn.

If not, I will know to pay attention and determine what is triggering their behavior so I can help them be successful. I’m glad I attended #SpedCampOH so that I could learn how much I still have to learn about students.

“Desk with lamp, pitcher, and vintage books,” by Unsplash, is shared under Public Domain.

KRLitClub Begins!

How do you get your principal who hates rocking the boat to sign on to controversial YA Lit book clubs? Well, let me tell you a story…

My principal and I have known each other for almost ten years. He knows that I love to try new things, from flexible seating to taking students to hear a Holocaust survivor in the final year of his life. He also knows that he’s gotten parent complaints about the new things I’ve tried, like the year I tried to flip my classroom instruction. And he hates parent complaints with a passion.

So when I heard about Project Lit Community and its philosophy I knew two things up front.

  1. My students desperately need to know what the world outside is like. Their parents and grandparents fled Appalachia for the factory rich town we live in, and those factory jobs have dried up. Even though almost all the staff I work with grew up here, our students can’t stay here. Not and have a high paying, satisfying job, that is.
  2. My principal is worried that exposing them to the outside world, with its diverse cultures, would upset parents.

I did what any rebel teacher would do. I did it anyway. And I held my breath, to see if anyone would push back. They didn’t.

It helped I started small, with five books for my dual enrollment Intro to Literature class to choose from: Beloved, The Other Wes Moore, and three modern, controversial books: Dear Martin, The Hate U Give, and Long Way Down. The students got to pick. They discussed their choice in small groups, in the last three weeks of school. I listened in, and when they needed some help making connections, I helped them with comments in their required written reflections.

And then I went to Project Lit Summit 18. And I knew I wanted more for my students.

Today was my first day back. And he asked me how the conference went. The perfect time to ask.

His first comment? “Just be careful which books you pick. You don’t want any controversy.”

Well, if you know anything about Project Lit Community, you’d know that they deal with the lives of kids today. That means there are books about LGBTQ kiddos, Pakastani kiddos, Latinx kiddos, African American kiddos, kiddos in poverty, and all kinds of folks my principal would say is controversial. So I knew I work to do.

Luckily, before the summit we had talked about a book I recently read, The 57 Bus. I had talked to him about how rich the informational text was, mixing a strong narrative with LGBTQ concepts. And thanks to the wonderful advice from Nic Stone, author of Dear Martin, I knew what to say.

“John,” I said, “you know some of our students are gender fluid. It’s really important that they see themselves in the books they read. They need to know that their stories are important, too. Remember the book I talked to you about? Project Lit books reflect more than the world they know. Our students need to know what the real world is like.  And besides, if their parents object, they can just skip the book for that month.”

It was enough. He agreed! And now, for the planning, the fundraising, the work. And I don’t have to fly under the radar anymore.