“welcome” to the 80% club

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Speaking to a crowd of teachers, Brene Brown explains the intersections between shame, vulnerability, and learning. She says that 80% of the folks she’s studied over the years can remember a shaming incident by a teacher that occurred to them in school. The good news is that 90% can remember a teacher who has made a lasting, positive impact on their lives by coaxing them toward the positive vulnerability that’s essential to learning. Today, I want to focus on the 80% club and the moment that popped instantly into my mind when I considered whether or not I had earned a membership.

I’m in a small-town high school gym, and Coach Keith is choosing the team for tomorrow night’s game based on what he sees in this practice. I am diving for a loose ball when we collide at half court. My teeth jar together as Sherri Linihan’s chin comes down hard on the side of my head. I’ve run into a cinder block wall. My ears are ringing, but we are deadlocked, and I am not letting go.

Not doing it.

I see red, I feel it surging up inside, but I am not letting go. Not doing it.

Out of my peripheral vision, blurring now, I can sense more than I can see Coach Keith striding toward us. His thick white shoes, his long, long legs in royal blue polyester coaching pants, just like the ones hanging in my Daddy’s closet. He crouches down beside Sherri and me still squirming together on the floor. He leans in close and says, “Don’t you cry, you big baby. Don’t you do it.”

And you can better believe I don’t. And I don’t let go of the ball either. These are battles you do not lose if you want to make the team. I am not losing. I am not doing it.

Looking back still disorients me. My ears still ring.I still see red. I feel my fingers on the rough rubber ball (grasping grasping) trying to scoop it in close to my body so that I can get the upper hand and roll away away (gasping gasping).

I remember now what I still want to forget. Letting go.

Rolling to the side. Reaching my hand to the top of my head, feeling the stickiness before I see it. Seeing red, on my hands this time, streaming through my fingers after I pull my hand away.

My head throbs, my jaw hurts, it hurts it hurts, but I do not cry. I do not worry about blood or stitches or slipping down the grey tunnel as the harsh fluorescent gym lights flare away. I worry about being a big baby and what my dad will think if I don’t start in the Friday night game.

This is what it feels like to belong to the 80% club. The power of shame does not dissipate. It does not lead to learning.





see me / see you

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After watching this TED talk by the “8-Foot Bride” (aka musician/performance artist Amanda Palmer), we’re writing to the questions at the bottom of this post today:

This Afternoon Pages entry is the first in a 3-part series on a vulnerability that we’re writing to in relation to being a Teacher as Writer, who’s also a CO301D student, who’s also completing a UGP.

I’m nervous that I’ve made myself vulnerable to some extent by even considering the topic of vulnerability with my students. In the past, my high school students and every so often my university students as well have some observation that we should “just stick to the facts, ma’am” instead of making personal connections to class content or to one another. I sound like I’m complaining, but I’m really not. I have just always found the question peculiar because I thought that was partly what this learning and literacy thing was all about–personal engagement and interaction, right? It’s perfectly fine that some students don’t share this view, but every time it surfaces, I think about the false divide that has been created by the schooling system as we currently know it (yikes–passive voice abstracting systems, even though WE are the system) that separates the “student” and the “teacher from one another and also from the reality that we are human beings. There is an intersection here. 

But you know what? I’ve decided to show up, as Brene Brown puts it in Daring Greatly, not just as the “professor,” but as a human being in my classes. Because, guess what? I want my identity to animate my teaching. This is my life energy. This is my students’ life energy. Shouldn’t it count for something?

This intention is also based on the work I’m doing with teachers in the CSU Writing Project around our working theory of action on “sustainable teaching.” From experience, I know that it takes so much dang energy to pretend to be someone you aren’t in the classroom, for students and teachers alike.

This doesn’t mean that I’m never afraid on any given day. I’ve just learned (and will always be learning) that if I give into that fear of letting my students see me–if my students give in, too–we will have missed an opportunity to tap into the beautiful, dangerous experience of being writers, teachers, and learners with one another.

And wouldn’t that be a waste?

What does it mean to really see someone? What does seeing someone require? What does it mean to be seen? What does being seen require? What does any of this have to do with being a learner, a teacher, a writer, and a human being inside and outside of school?


wobble #5,239,084,710,928,347

Yeah, that’s a lot of numbers up there. I could put a “squared” or “cubed” numeral at the top of that, too, because, well, at least in my case, that’s what it’s like to be a writer on any given day. True, there are the occasional days of flow, too, and boy do those feel great, but more often not, what happens is that I pose/wobble/flow in a single session. Just as Antero Garcia and I have written, the P/W/F cycle is recursive, not linear.

The good news is that no matter how many experiences I have under my belt as a writer, no matter how many times I may want to throw my writing utensil du jour across the room (this can get dangerous and expensive, BTW), I know what’s coming:

pose (I can do this! Write an AP entry, an article, a letter, an e-mail or blogpost, a chapter, a book) –> wobble (I’m definitely going to do this, and it makes my head hurt and my eyes twitch. A lot. Also, there’s a grumpiness factor, and a lot of staring at the screen) –> (with enough faith, trust, and pixie dust, this will happen, too.)

I love the phrase “write toward light” because it conveys for me both:

1, Light = flow (ergo it exists)

2. Light is a stance and a subject and an aspiration for me. I want my writing to matter and be about things that matter in ways that matter. I want to add to–which sometimes means pushing back against–the conversation, whatever it may be.

3. Light flows, absent of particles and debris. While I sometimes use my daily pages just to whine and vent so I can unclog those pipes, I do want to write toward something that flows clear and clean and true.

The phrase reminds me that the wobble is worth it, so the astronomical number keeps going and going and going. Hopefully, so do I.


starting from scratch

Today’s Afternoon Pages ask us to think about starting a school from scratch.

In my mind’s eye, there would be beauty, actual aesthetic beauty, in the place. It would not look like a prison; it would not look like a big box store with walls. There would be LIGHT, lots of light because if plants need it to grow, probably it’s good for people, too. (Students and teachers are people, by the way, with faces and bodies who need to see the sun.) There would be other living things: plants, therapy dogs, a garden. There would be high ceilings in common spaces and low ceilings in cozy ones. There would be movable seating on wood floors and color on the walls, which would be filled with a rotating array of student art and writing. There would be floor-to-ceiling windows on some walls that open to the outside when possible. There would be music and zero bells. Also, probably ice cream.

As I visualize the physical space, I realize that spaces implicitly reflect our beliefs about the purposes of school. If you allow that schools have identities, then the spaces also convey and reflect values. They silently communicate who gets to be a learner, whose voices matter. Voice enables the enactment of identity.

Do you visualize yourself as a dynamic learner? Then you need a dynamic space in which to learn that reflects who you are and might become.


buy local



Yesterday was a big day; I actually got to hear Sir Ken Robinson speak at the Future of Tech Ed conference. Curiously, he didn’t talk much about technology, but he did hit on his familiar themes, as the title of his talk reflects : “Creative Schools: Revolutionizing Education from the Ground Up.” For about an hour, he heeded that awesome bumper sticker: LOCAL.

I told my CO301D class that I was coming to the conference and asked them what questions they wanted me to listen for. The thoughts and questions they posed in their blogposts are smart; you can check them out here. The overall pattern that emerged among their posts is reflected in Brooke’s questions here:

“I would… ask [Ken Robinson] what his suggestions would be in terms of changing the way that the school system works to help students become more creative? Have you seen any changes in recent years?”

Robinson got right to the point and opened by saying that the most frequently-asked questions he gets since that 2006 TED talk in 2006 are Brooke’s questions exactly. His response: the issues in education haven’t changed so much, but what has changed is the context. In fact, he said that you can’t fix education by improving the existing system. His exact quote: “If you design a system to DO something, don’t be surprised if it DOES it.” That’s why that in a decade where the education system has prized the GLOBAL over the LOCAL and has been driven by standardization, we shouldn’t be surprised that the gross national products of this design have been compliance, conformity, and competition.

But as we think about a new starting place for educational design, what if we started with the local instead? What if we made educational personal? What if we customized it to the community? What if we considered how the people there were learning, living, and coming alive and went from there?

But his ultimate approach to going local was to ask this question: What would happen if we honored the “buoyancy of children” rather than ignoring their interior lives? 

I’d love to hear your responses to any of his questions above, especially that last one. So write on friends. You always help me learn.


happy 12th b-day, sir ken



It’s hard to believe that this much-circulated talk is still timely. And that makes me a little sad, but it also bears witness to the fact that educational change is glacial.

I know lots of teachers (am a teacher, am married to guy who was a teacher), and I don’t know one who wakes up every morning and says, “Let’s go kill creativity today!” But I do know that often our hands are tied, or it feels as if they are. In talking with many educators over the past couple of years, I’ve learned that they feel like they’re luring their students toward creativity in spite of others who may have more power than than do in the system.

I began teaching since the turn of the century (ahem), and I had the same questions then. Around 1995, when I assigned Hard Times to my AP Lit students, we talked a lot about Thomas Gradgrind. Gradgrind is a wealthy industrialist who assumes the position of teacher in one chapter, and let’s just say his “educational approach” reflects his name. I asked my students to consider how Dickens used Gradgrind to reflect the ills of education in his time: What ills did they see? From there, we talked about their own experiences in school. How did it feel when teachers asked them to be creative now? How did they respond?

Many of them said that it felt like a glass of cool, clear water; others confessed they were fearful to take the offer, even when given the chance. What’s happened in schools? And how are we as teachers to respond to the powers-that-be that might discourage the innate human impulse to create, to the students who are thirsty, and to the ones who don’t believe they can do so anymore?


learning alongside

Today we’re writing about what we’ve learned over the course of the semester about writing and teaching. The prompt is aimed CO301D classmates, but I have to say that one of the things that keeps me in teaching is being a learner alongside my students. I’ve had hard days and joyful days and everything in between over the past 30 years, but in my daily work with students, I’ve never been bored–challenged, discouraged, inspired, yes, but bored never.

When I began teaching, this was unexpected. That’s probably because I was so nervous about being the authority figure, THE knower, in the room, that it didn’t occur to me that I could and should also model learning for my students. Those days, the connection between knowing and learning was tentative at best, and the worst thing I thought I could do was appear tentative in front of a group of 14-year-olds. (P.S.: Since I also looked 14, that was actually a good call a lot of the time.)

But the act of teaching necessarily begs learning, whether we acknowledge it or not. And learning requires vulnerability. And vulnerability is a two-sided coin that is characterized by bliss and folly. (Cf the New Belgium Folly Pack and their motto, by of Joseph Campbell, to “follow your bliss.”)

Welp, I’m pretty sure I just said that the maintaining a generative professional mindset that allows you to learn alongside your students also requires beer.  Happy hour awaits, my friends. Cheers.



No, this is not a dance move, so you won’t have to endure a picture of me attempting one.

DAPPS is an acronym describing mini-goals that you can set–either in the college setting and/or in your life outside of that setting–that will help you make progress toward a larger one. There’s been a lot of research done on this very question that has led to the DAPPS strategy. To draw on that dance metaphor, a DAPPS goal would be the dance move that’s part of a larger routine. Again, I’m not dancing here, so you can relax.

Here’s what the acronym stands for along with my DAPPS goal today.

  • D = Dated — By the end of the day on November 15…
  • A = Achievable — By the end of the day on November 15, I will…
  • P = Positive — By the end of the day on November 15, I will (aka, I can do this!)
  • P = Personal — By the end of the day on November 15, I will create handouts and complete a slideshow for the NWP conference tomorrow…
  • S = Specific — By the end of the day on November 15, I will create and copy 3 handouts and complete 1 slideshow for the NWP conference tomorrow.

That’s it! It’s actually a lot, but I’m confident I can do it. Here goes….


livin’ in limbo

desktop waitingThis is a decal at the bottom of the staircase on the basement floor of the Eddy Building. (In the house that Jack built. Oh, wait.) It was perfect for today’s Morning Pages, so I stopped, as I often do, and took a picture of the random thing for the day.

I’ve seen these signposts before. They’re on every floor to let you know you’re in the right place, but some lost soul interpreted the sign as I did: Have I?

I mean, how do you know, really?

What I’m learning these days in my deep dive into the literature on meditation is that it’s true no matter what. My mom used to say that I was wishing my life away. And, I admit it, that’s been the case to a large extent, but I don’t think I’m in the minority here. As the Buddhists might say, we’re addicted to clinging (to the past) or grasping (toward the future), and in the process, we miss the right now. This state of mind is especially prevalent among teachers because we are always getting kids ready for the next thing. Standards and curriculum articulation charts demand it. Since I’ve been a teacher and/or a student practically my whole life, I know it’s part of the territory.

But the thing I’m thinking about on a daily basis, and sometimes a momentary one as I space out on what I vaguely since is a beautiful day on my walk across campus, is that I often don’t realize “I’m here” either–no matter how many times I dab essential oils on my wrists, rub them together, and inhale; no matter how many gallon-sized breaths I take; no matter how many times I check in with my body and notice where the tension lies; no matter how many times I look around me to locate 3 things I can notice with my 5 senses.

All of these are good practices. They make you pay attention–at least momentarily…that is, before you forget. Why is this the case?

Well, what I’m learning is that the lure of clinging relates to nostalgia–the yearning for what used to be–while the trap of grasping is wanting for things to be better, however you define “better” to be. That’s always a changing target, of course; nevertheless, it distracts you from the now.

Despite understanding these definitions intellectually, there’s one quandary I can’t quite escape, and that is this: What if you want to get the hell away from the “now”? What if it’s a place you just want to pedal away from as fast as you can (cf Tara Brach in True Refuge) because dwelling there in that really sucky place, objectively speaking, feels intolerable?

Other stuff I’m learning: the bad news is that trauma is real, and there are lots of “life events” that can cause it (43, to be exact, according to the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory, which is a research-based quiz to determine exactly how sucky the present can actually be, especially because stresses have a tendency to pile up). Furthermore, it literally lodges in your body. That’s what PTSD is all about it. The past essentially becomes the present.

The good news is that because our brain is made of plastic, our neural pathways really can be rewired. It’s where the practices I mention above come in, like meditation/contemplation, study, plus support from others like good therapists/family/friends/doggies. From my students in CO301D, I also learned today, that sometimes, when the sensation of waiting is the present state, you might as well enjoy it.

Ergo my happy tights. They’re what’s getting me through this day, and it’s the only day, really, that even exists. I just gotta remember to look down at them every so often and be happy that someone created their awesomeness, to remind myself that I have indeed arrived, and this is the only place I need to be.




what’s your 3-foot sphere of influence?



A week ago today, we met outside in the frosty morning to talk about how our 3-foot sphere of influence. Inspiration came from this blogpost by Sharon Salzberg on the On Being website (one of my favorites) and tells the story of a man on a subway who realizes that although he may not have the power to change the world–and let’s face it, most of us teachers get into the business because we want to do that–he does have power within arm’s reach, within that 3-foot circle.

So we wrote about that in correspondence with the badges on which we’re currently working. I’m not (officially) pursuing a badge, but I kinda sorta am because I’m involved in the Institute for Sustainable Teaching with the CSU Writing Project. This group of educators from around northern Colorado have lots of spheres to influence, but it’s rough out there for teachers. Changing the world for everyone means that you often leave yourself behind, and all of us in the group have felt that, are feeling that, even and especially because we’ve stuck with the profession way past the increasingly common 2-3 years of expected longevity.

But like I said, it’s hard, not just on us individually, but because we’re nested in contexts that seem to push back against our aspirations, for our students, ourselves, and our profession. It seems as if we’re doing our work “in spite of,” and it’s taking its toll. Our goal now is to build theory around this concept of sustainable teaching and practices that will test its efficacy.

All of that is to say that the symbols in my sphere reflect our current experiment with a handful of practices that might see us through, not just as individuals, but as members of a community that’s committed to our students, each other, and ourselves.