Tests Can’t Tell The Future So Quit Giving Them So Much Power

He looked like a 7th-grader’s version of a gangster. Skinny as a minute, practice tattoos from his friend dotting the tops of his fingers, laughing at everything. He wore lots of red: a flat-brimmed baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, a red basketball jersey over a white T-shirt, red shoes, his neck roped with silver chains.

“Hey hey, Miss Gangsta Teacher, what’s up?”

His laugh, high and silly. And charming. I found myself looking forward to the fact that he would laugh at even my worst jokes.

“Mrs. Loughlin IS a gangster,” I said, laughing with him, teasing my friend and colleague, Elaine, who’d brought me over to the high school to help her teach night class.

“I’m not Miss Gangster Teacher, I’m Mrs. Loughlin,” she said, thoroughly unamused.

“No, you Miss Gangsta because you teach me to pass the test.”

Continue reading Tests Can’t Tell The Future So Quit Giving Them So Much Power

School Isn’t Uber And Never Should Be

My dad was an oil and gas equipment salesman for most of his life. He raised the four of us in a refinery town where the town’s fortunes rose and fell with oil and gas prices. Growing up in a boom/bust cycle imprinted itself on me, giving me a visceral sense of capitalism and business before I could intellectually understand ideas like profit/loss and return on investment, or fixed and variable costs.

So when I see yet another argument for draining public money from public schools, I feel like I’m standing in the middle of the boarded-up Main Street of my home town. All that looked so solid when I lived there decades ago is dust and plywood now. Except my high school. My high school looks the same and is still vibrant. That’s what comes of investing in a public good. Continue reading School Isn’t Uber And Never Should Be

What If We’re Designing for Disengagement?

A favorite opening question of mine in professional development workshops is: What do you struggle with the most as a teacher?

The answers are almost always:
1. Students’ lack of motivation
2. Students don’t value education
3. Parents aren’t supportive
4. Students don’t believe in themselves
5. Technology distracts students

These comments are not facts, and viewed differently, they become design questions: Continue reading What If We’re Designing for Disengagement?

You’re Saved By What You Love

This is what I wasn’t brave enough to tell you because the force of your pain scared me when we saw each other last week:

Tell me who and what you love and I’ll show you that it’s the light when all others go out.

When it’s dark here in February and you feel like quitting. When you find yourself starting to envy the people you notice on your way to work. When you feel like maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to just completely change careers because this – what you’re doing now – feels too big and too difficult to do for even one more day.

Continue reading You’re Saved By What You Love

Story As Political Act

Storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit — in state, in church or mosque, in a party, congress, in the university or whatever. That’s why. – Chinua Achebe

Stories have a unique power. They entertain even as they reveal truth. Joan Didion said that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. I would amend that to say that we, as teachers, must tell our stories in order that our students and our work may live in the public imagination.

Especially now when language has been weaponized in service of power.

George Orwell was obsessed with this same idea. I taught his essay “Politics And The English Language” to my AP juniors, and it seems to grow more relevant every year. Continue reading Story As Political Act

Creativity Is The Ultimate Kill Switch

Shall we play a game?

This is the question a computer asks the teenaged hacker in the 1983 movie “War Games,” as it begins to launch “Global Thermonuclear War.” The hero saves the day with a simple, elegant hack of forcing the computer to play Tic Tac Toe against itself, which shuts down the missile launch sequence threatening to trigger an actual nuclear attack.

Here in May, 2017, a very real, very serious global cyberattack collapsedbecause a 22-year-old hacker with the Twitter handle @MalwareTechBlogactivated a kill switch within the malicious code.

Continue reading Creativity Is The Ultimate Kill Switch

Politics, Poe & The President

Politics, like an Instagram filter, enhances nearly every memory I have of my father and me. He and my mother stuffed envelopes for Goldwater’s campaign; he painted soda bottles with elephants just like the GOP symbols I saw when we watched the Republican Convention. One year, to his great delight, I trick-or-treated as “a Republican,” draped in patriotic bunting. But what I remember most is watching his face as he watched the Watergate hearings. I tried to arrange my 8-year-old face into his, mirroring the squinting eyes, the brows pushed together. He chewed on his right thumb, an indicator of his anxiety; I bit mine, too, glancing at him sideways to keep checking.

“This is a damn witch hunt,” he said, disgustedly. Which left me wondering why Samantha from Bewitched, the only witch I knew at the time, would be involved.

Continue reading Politics, Poe & The President

We Become Who People Say We Are

Everyone who arrives at your classroom door asks themselves a form of the question: Can I trust you? This is true even if they are an administrator, a parent, a colleague, or a student. How we answer that question is important because an essential part of trust is understanding that it carries the possibility of loss whether of tangible things or intangibles like respect, according to philosophy professor Carolyn McLeod. She writes that the act of trust involves four separate actions:

  1. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable to others
  2. Thinking well of others
  3. Believing that the other is competent to do what you ask
  4. Adopting a generous mindset about the motives of others (2015).

Continue reading We Become Who People Say We Are

Finding Grace In Small Spaces

My first week of teaching was disastrous: I cried every day driving home and grabbed the phone to call my editor to beg for my job back more than once.

The only job opening at the time was for a 7th grade writing teacher, and I took it with the kind of hubris that only a non-teacher would. Any delusions of being like a teacher in the movies were quickly dismantled by the realities of facing street-wise and suspicious 12-year-olds.

Continue reading Finding Grace In Small Spaces

Being Sweet Might Get You A Seat

Being an advocate means being willing to extend grace to those with whom you disagree, but want to persuade.

There’s precious little I agree with Greg Abbott about, but I try to find every instance of common ground we have or any small action he’s taken that I can sincerely appreciate. In my meetings with him, he’s been gracious. For example, he invited me and a dozen teacher leaders in Texas to a roundtable late last year. Without cameras or reporters around, he delayed another meeting so as to give time for each of the teachers to speak. He seemed truly present and willing to listen, even to those of us who tended to ramble a bit. It was a moment of respect and I thanked him for it when I shook his hand. Continue reading Being Sweet Might Get You A Seat

Don’t Apologize For Your Strength

Recently, a person I admire asked me to tell another person some of the lessons I’ve learned from my leadership experiences. I wanted to come up with a better answer than:

To stop saying, “I’m sorry” all the time.

But as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized the truth of them. Apology is as reflexive as breathing for me. If someone bumps into me, I’m immediately apologizing. When someone robbed my house, I apologized to the investigating officer for inconveniencing him by making him fill out paperwork.

Continue reading Don’t Apologize For Your Strength

Stand Up To Stand Out

CBS This Morning introduced the 2017 National Teacher of the Year today and as I watched her poise and professionalism, I was proud to see such a great representative of our profession. But I also have to say that hearing Charlie Rose’s voice gave me a slight case of PTSD. It reminded me of the media training I’d gone through to sit in front of him, Nora, and Gayle in April, 2015.

To prepare me for the intensity of interviews, the Council of Chief State School Officers sent me to media training. This consisted of simulated interviews that were then recorded for playback to a panel for a critique. At the best of times, I am uncomfortable seeing and hearing myself on video; in this instance, it was excruciating.

Continue reading Stand Up To Stand Out

How To Pay Rent For Being Alive

After my father died suddenly nine years ago, I thought I was a model of stoic grief. I wrote his obituary, delivered his eulogy, and I believed, tastefully handled the sadness that spread over the week of his funeral. None of that prepared me for the suffocating depression that overtook me like viral pneumonia six months later.

I didn’t realize that grief is a tsunami and what looks like low tide is really a gathering wave. When the full force of the loss hit me, I could only manage to lie in bed and cycle through alternating periods of crying or apathy. After weeks of this, the only thing breaking through paralysis was anger. It settled in the center of my chest, near my heart, warping my personality, overriding my senses to see and believe that everything was black and hollow.

A tiny pilot light of hope somewhere inside my head reminded me that books are my best medicine. “Why don’t you find a book that will make this make sense to you? If it makes some sense, then maybe you’ll start to feel better” it seemed to suggest.

Continue reading How To Pay Rent For Being Alive

There’s Always Enough Time

When I was in eleventh grade, my English teacher, against her better judgement, set up a record player for me during our third period (Can you imagine, kids – a time before Spotify and earbuds? When vinyl wasn’t just cool, it was literally the only music storage device we had?) This setup happened so I could play “Time”  & “The Great Gig In The Sky” by Pink Floyd to illustrate my understanding of “stream of consciousness” as a literary device. I didn’t really know if the song met that criteria, I just wanted an excuse to play Pink Floyd at school.

The song spoke to me at 16 because it described a feeling I couldn’t quite put into words. Maybe I should’ve been reading more and maybe I would’ve found a deep river of melancholy in classic works. But I was a 16-year-old odd duck who read the liner notes on albums and thought the secrets of the universe reveal themselves through the stereo needle on each groove.

Both tracks take about 15 minutes to play, so I was doubly heroic to my classmates for both getting a famous stoner album played in class as well as taking up class time. I was clueless about its association with drugs, I just knew it haunted me in a way that other rock music didn’t. This is partly the genius of Alan Parsons, the album’s sound engineer, and partly because of  Clare Torry’s powerful wordless singing. Continue reading There’s Always Enough Time