We Expect A Lot Out of Kids

We expect a lot out of kids.

I don’t mean this in the sense that teachers have high expectations, or that parents push their kids to succeed.

I mean that we ask kids to do big things, hard things that we don’t even ask adults to do, and we don’t give them a choice about it. We even structure their lives so that they can’t make a different choice.

Kids don’t get to opt out of getting an education.

We don’t force adults to do anything–even pay taxes. If you didn’t make any money, you don’t have to pay any taxes!

Of course, as an adult, you probably don’t want to live in a situation where you do nothing all day and make no money. You want to be productive, you want to find work you enjoy, you want to contribute and you want to be rewarded for your contribution. You want to do all of this because the alternative is starvation, both physical and intellectual.

But you get to choose the manner in which you do this, and you have an incredible number of ways you could spend your free time, even if you have little choice about occupation or income. Even if you have no money to spend, living at the start of the 21st century is vastly more interesting than living at the start of basically any other century. If you lived 100 years ago, you probably wouldn’t even have a radio.

When you are born in America, you are given a responsibility you cannot get rid of: you have an obligation to become educated so you can contribute. You are expected to contribute, particularly economically. You have no option to do something different for the first 18 years of your life.

In addition to not giving kids a choice about whether or not to be educated, we also create a lot of false choices for them, choices that aren’t really choices. You technically have the option to not participate in extracurricular activities, or sports, or music. You aren’t forced to take a foreign language class. You don’t have to do your homework or study for tests. But good luck getting into college. Even the informal structures of the system incentivize kids to make certain choices and take certain paths.

Kids are acutely aware of this, and it is this lack of choice which creates the constraining feeling many students experience. The fact that K-12 education is–from the consumer’s perspective–the cheapest education they will ever receive is not very consoling given their feelings about its context. Working with kids is a constant balancing act between allowing students freedom and constraining students in order to put learning (however it is valued and counted) first, as often as possible.


We build education policy in this way: if a high school is not graduating kids, and if a school system is not producing kids who perform well on standardized tests, we scrutinize and punish that school system. This ensures that everyone who works in that school system is bent on the goal of getting all the kids to learn as much as humanely possible–at least what can be measured and tested–and to complete the work required to get a diploma.

In this model, students are viewed as a homogenous group whose achievement data–averaged–describes the level of success of the system. And the goal of that system is to produce competent and effective workers who will stimulate economic growth. School is not really for kids–it’s for taxpayers, and they demand a return on their investment.

Don’t get me wrong–I am very in favor of educating our next generation. I know the alternative to mandatory free public school is child labor–that was the state of affairs once and nobody wants to go back to that. And there are definite benefits for kids. School is a place where we can help kids discover the world and teach them the skills to make their lives successful and meaningful. But we shouldn’t fail to acknowledge that we assign an enormous involuntary responsibility to people who are still very young. Being alive expects things of you whether you like it or not.

What do kids think about this?

Well, as a kid, you are probably:

  • sleep deprived
  • sitting for 7 hours a day
  • having most of the choices about how you spend your time at school made for you
  • eating too much junk food (Rockstar! Sour Patch Kids!)
  • still learning how to operate in the world without the benefit of a fully developed prefrontal cortex or an effective set of coping strategies
  • surrounded by a lot of other kids who all have these same problems

It’s tough.

So we’ve designed a structure to keep kids on track. In fact, we’ve designed it so you have to try not to get a high school diploma these days.

Don’t do your homework? You get put in an intervention period where you get one-on-one attention every day from people to help you.

Have a disability? You have a yearly IEP and a caseworker whose entire job is to follow your progress and help your classroom teachers adjust instruction to meet your needs. You will have enough time to finish every assignment to the best of your ability–deadlines become completely flexible for you. You can even stay in school until you’re 21.

Don’t know how to do an assignment? You can email your teachers 24 hours a day or look up basically all high school level knowledge online. There are myriad apps to practice many skills you would learn, all available for free.

Not showing up to school? We will send a truancy officer to your house to collect you and bring you to school.

Not behaving in class? We have a wide range of behavioral interventions to implement that will teach you how to get along with others, as well as a system of rewards and punishments to encourage you.

Don’t do anything in class? We will notify your parents, keep you out of extracurriculars, put you in special small-sized classes where you can’t hide from the teachers, or drag you into the office to be isolated from the rest of the kids until you catch up.


All of this isn’t working? We have self-paced computer classes available for you to take that will get you your high school diploma.

That still isn’t working? We will pay for your enrollment in an alternative school where you will be given a part-time job that earns $12 an hour. You will work four hours a day and attend classes designed specifically for kids with your interests and abilities the other half of the day.

This is a lot of second chances–way more than the world gives you after high school. If you go to a school that has the resources to do what I’ve described above, if you don’t graduate in 2017, it’s because you TRIED not to. Dozens of adults attempted to catch you over the course of a decade, and you would have to willfully resist their help every step of the way–and they are persistent and demanding, because they get punished if you don’t succeed, and they know how few opportunities await you if you lack a high school diploma.

Compare this with what college looks like: everything is your fault, and absolutely nobody cares if you succeed or fail. If you don’t go to class, nobody says anything. If you want to flunk out, nobody tries to stop you. If you don’t understand, nobody will check in with you partway through the semester and force you to go to tutoring. If you don’t advocate for yourself, no one else will. It’s more humane in the sense that nobody is forcing you to do anything, but if we are measuring return on investment by graduation rate, colleges pale in comparison to high schools. Just compare the high school graduation rate with the college graduation rate: “Just 5 percent of students complete their associate degrees in two years… At non-flagship public universities, just 19 percent of students finish in four years, and just 36 percent do so at flagship or research universities.”

Source: US News and World Report


The high schools graduation rate? 83% of students graduate in 4 years.



High school looks like this, from a kid’s perspective: You wake up in the morning sleep deprived because your circadian rhythm is two hours later than the adult circadian rhythm. Then you go to school where teachers tell you to complete work that you find challenging (or maybe completely unchallenging) but probably uninteresting–not because it’s wholly uninteresting, but because you are so sleep deprived it is hard to really be engaged with anything fully. Plus, most humans don’t love all subjects–you have your favorites. If you don’t do what we say, we push and prod you. We keep badgering you and pestering you.

You HAVE to learn this stuff. You never said you wanted to. It doesn’t have to do with what you want to do for work. Maybe you don’t even want to work. Maybe you’d like to be a lazy bum. Maybe you’d like to live on an organic farm in Ireland. Maybe you’d rather play video games professionally. You don’t have a choice. You’re a kid. You must become proficient in all areas.

You don’t get to make choices about this. Other people make these choices for you. They explain to you why these are good choices, but you’ve never seen the outside world and you don’t obey the incentives of the adult world–yet. Adults are motivated by status, money, material wealth, pursuing their interests, and the satisfaction of having completed good work. You are motivated by free time to spend with your friends, athletic and extracurricular success, and whatever distractions you can drum up on your smartphone. You don’t care about the adult world, and you are not all that afraid of being unprepared for it, because you’ve never really seen it. You may even resist a lot of the advice adults give you, and then 10 years later you will resent that they didn’t push you harder and hold you more accountable.

We don’t force any adult to meet the levels of achievement we demand of students, and we don’t micromanage the lives of adults the way we do children, and we don’t refuse adults the option to opt out of the system.

When I ask a kid to do something, they are trusting me that it will be helpful for them later. And they will probably have to delay that gratification by at least a decade. If you go to college, you don’t really make money until you’re 22-24 years old.

And when we talk about changing the way schools work, we can imagine all sorts of alternatives, but in implementing those imagined alternative realities we crash into the unfortunate truth that there are always trade offs and balances we struggle to get right: freedom and choice can breed chaos, clarity and specificity can lead to a rigid system, and decentralized decision making can lead to indecision.

Here is what we should acknowledge in order to keep our empathy for our students up front:

Being a kid is hard. We demand a lot of kids. We don’t ask kids whether or not they want to participate in the rat race, and we don’t let them opt out of it. We ask kids to trust us–a lot. And kids do. They put an enormous amount of trust in us every day. They trust that what we are asking of them will be worth it, and it is our responsibility to make sure that it is.


On Going Back

The kids come back on Tuesday.

It’s been a long summer, and I am ready for it to end.

The beginning of the year is full of wound up, latent potential. You and the kids are well rested. You come in to the year feeling fresh, with lots of great ideas you concocted over the summer when you finally had enough time to relax and reflect. Your classroom is clean, the floor waxed. There is not as of yet any work hanging over your head, there are no papers to grade, no conflicts to mediate. You haven’t yet taught a series of less-than-perfect lessons, or felt bogged down by the messiness of planning a unit that just won’t seem to come together. You don’t yet feel like you are drowning in a sea of email and paper scraps and student requests and little things to remember. You say to yourself, “This year will be even better than the last, because it can be. I have reflected on my practice and learned from what worked and didn’t work last year.” You indulge and relish the clean feeling of the beginning before the messy work of real teaching begins again.

Brush Messy Colours Color Colors Craft Motley

Teaching is kind of like spending 180 days working on a painting by orchestrating the simultaneous assistance of 120 or so small paint brushes, each manned by independent-minded artist. When a mistake is made, you can’t erase the paint. If you try to, you will just smear it everywhere. You can paint over the mistake, but that looks sloppy. Better to just acknowledge it and move on to the next part of the artwork. Most of the time the painting is a ridiculous, interesting, colorful mess. But 120 paint brushes and 180 days means there are bound to be mistakes, there are bound to be rebellions of color here and there, parts that don’t fit together, conflicts that result in brazen brush strokes, over-thick layers in some spots, too-thin patches and unsightly blotches in others.

But eventually it comes together. At the end of your time painting, you’ve got a wild masterpiece that everybody has contributed to, and that nobody really likes all the parts of, but that we collectively own whether we like it or not. It’s not perfect but it’s as good as it’s going to get, and it has to be good enough, because there will never be another one just like it or to take its place.

So I am excited to go back. I cannot wait to get back to working with kids and colleagues and painting the mess that will be English class until June 2018.


The Problem with Boys and the Decline of Men

I recently read this article about decline of men.

Here’s a key quote:

“…men of all races and ethnicities are dropping out of the work forceabusing opioids and falling behind women in both college attendance and graduation rates.”


When I finished reading that article, all I could think of was:

  • What am I doing as a teacher to help the boys in my classes be prepared to succeed in the current economy?
  • Am I helping them develop the skills that will be rewarded?

One issue to address about the article before we go any further: “the decline of men” does not mean that men are worthless, devoid of talent, or lacking in capacity, potential, or humanity. It means that men as a group (specifically a particular subset of men) are struggling more than women as a group to find a meaningful place in the job market now that the market has changed and does not reward the traits or skills they, as a group, currently possess.

One narrative about the issue goes like this: it is time for men to change because the world has changed. Suck it up and just do it, boys. The changes you need to make are possible because the other half of the population is already on board. Put down the video game controller, get off the couch, and stop adventuring in guyland.

Here’s another narrative about boys that has been floating around in discussions about education: the experience of school is not designed to accommodate boys’ natural playfulness, competitive instincts, their need to move, to be rough and rowdy. School unintentionally discriminates against boys in this way, and that is why boys are not succeeding like girls. Additionally, boys, as a group, have a harder time delaying gratification and sitting still.

Boys must learn certain skills–ones the market values–if they want to find success as men. But ordering them to suck it up tells an ineffective fairytale, one that allows us to wash our hands of responsibility for men: that it is easy to change, and so it is entirely men’s faults that they aren’t killing it at the American Dream. If it really were so easy to change, most people would have done so already.

This is the context in which I think about my responsibility as an educator, and as a man who has made it to adulthood without becoming part of the statistics illustrating the “decline of men.”

Part of my responsibility is to meet my learners where they are whenever possible. In an attempt to do that, I should be asking myself the following questions:

  • How do I design this lesson to accommodate some of my students’ (of any gender identification) natural need for activity: to move, to speak, to showcase, to deliberate, to argue, to compete?
  • What kinds of reading materials are my students most going to connect with, especially considering what research tells us about male reading preferences?
  • What kinds of writing tasks are my students going to find most engaging?

Part of my responsibility is also to prepare my students for future situations that they are currently unprepared for. While you may spend some time in school showing off skills you’ve mastered, the focus should really rest on pushing the boundaries of your knowledge and skills. In an attempt to bring my students–and particularly the boys–learning experiences that will prepare them for what is to come, I should be asking myself these questions:

  • How do I increase my students’ social skills and maturity levels?
  • How do I help my students to become better listeners and more empathic communicators?
  • How do I teach my students to delay gratification?
  • I can sit still for long periods of time, and I also have a strong need to be active. What is it that allows me to sit still when necessary? How have I designed my own learning experiences and environments to balance my need for movement with sustained focus and stillness, and how can I apply this in my classroom and teach this to my students?
  • What does success really look like? Does it have to fit our traditional definitions? Can we define success in different ways that give boys a shot at being successful in contexts that matter to them, even if that doesn’t mean 4 years of college?

Part of my responsibility to my male students is to show the path of a man who has achieved success and mastered the skills that will give them the ability to find their own success in the ‘new’ economy too. It’s key to meet learners where they are and to cater to learning styles that aren’t currently valued in school, but it is also imperative that we teach boys to master those skills they will need for this economy and for citizenship–ones the statistics say they are lacking.



What do you think about this topic? What questions would you ask yourself? What would your answers to my questions about how to reach students? I’d love to know your thoughts–leave a comment below!

Trauma and Our Students – What Teachers Can Learn

I read a book called The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D.

I highly recommend this book to those who work with students. Many of our kids have experienced trauma and it gets in the way of their ability to feel safe and comfortable, to form trusting relationships, and to relax and enjoy the experience of discovering the world around them.

The book’s title is derived from the observation that trauma survivors experience trauma as physical symptoms, not just as mental and emotional turmoil. Those who have experienced trauma may appear to be “fine,” but their hormone levels, cortisol, blood pressure, heart rate, etc. all tell a different story. Healing from trauma requires dealing with the physical as well as the mental and emotional–they are inseparable.

Students who come from impoverished communities are more likely to have experienced childhood trauma, yet they are also the students who are most likely to attend under-resourced schools that lack programs which would help them to cope effectively with trauma through things like art, music, theater, dance, and physical education.

We as educators can benefit from learning more about trauma in order to help our students who are unlikely to receive all of the supports that would aid them in coping effectively with their trauma. But even without any formal knowledge or training in working with kids with trauma, many educators have successfully intuited students’ needs and provided them with the kinds of support they need.

Here’s a brief video from the author, Dr. van der Kolk, about childhood trauma and the impact it has on the trajectory of a person’s development:

For those interested in a deeper dive, here a 100-minute long lecture Dr. van der Kolk gave that explores many of the concepts from the book.

Here is what I took from my reading and how I think it applies to teaching:

Big ideas:

  • Lots of people experience trauma in all kinds of contexts and for many different reasons–it doesn’t take one particular form and it can affect anyone.
  • It is hard to feel safe, relaxed, and comfortable if you are frequently being bombarded with strong negative emotional and physical sensations (the effect of traumatic stress).
  • It is obviously hard to learn if you do not feel safe, relaxed and comfortable.
  • People who are traumatized are at risk for engaging in behaviors that help them to deal with intense negative physical and emotional sensations in the short term, but those behaviors can be counter productive in the long term (self-destructive behavior, drug use, attention seeking behavior, avoidance, isolation, aggression, etc.)
  • Even kids who are not traumatized can gain from learning about how to self-regulate their emotions, engage in activities that put them in sync with others (music, theater, etc.), and strengthen their social support networks.

Other takeaways (though there are many more key points I have not listed here):

  • Trauma occurs when a person experiences a fight-or-flight situation and is unable to take some kind of action. If they become trapped and are unable to escape or act when experiencing intense fight-or-flight emotions, these emotions can become imprinted on the brain and trigger traumatic stress reactions in the future.
  • Those who have experienced trauma experience their brains “reactivating” the trauma and flooding their bodies with stress hormones. This causes them to experience uncomfortable emotional and physical sensations. From a mental/emotional/chemical standpoint, their brains frequently repeat the experience of the trauma.
  • Trauma reactions begin as the brain’s way of triggering the fight-or-flight response to keep the person alive but later become an obstacle to living an enjoyable, engaged life.
  • People who have experienced trauma can often end up engaging in self-destructive behaviors as a way of attempting to regulate the overwhelming feelings caused by trauma.
  • Those who have experienced trauma can disconnect from themselves in order to numb their feelings to avoid experiencing the intense emotional discomfort of traumatic stress.

Lessons/implications for teaching:

  • Feeling inexplicably ill–experiencing a variety of physical ailments that seemingly have no root cause–is a common reaction to trauma.
  • Students who have experienced trauma can view the world through a lens of hostility–their “map” of the world predicts and assumes that danger and hurt is unpredictably around every corner. This has significant implications on their (lack of) feeling of safety, a prerequisite for calming down enough to focus and learn.
  • Feeling safe and calm is the opposite of the terror and intense negative physical sensations associated with trauma. Learning can happen only when students feel safe, calm, and in control.
  • “Problem behaviors” often begin as ways of “defending” the student from having to feel some of the intense negative emotions and physical sensations. For example, to avoid feeling alone and unaccepted, a student may engage in distracting, attention seeking behavior.
  • Art, music, recess, gym, theater, play, and movement–activities that allow us to be in sync with one another through physical movement–are incredibly therapeutic for students who have experienced trauma.
  • If we want to help students who have experienced trauma, providing opportunities for connection–particular connection that does not require language (i.e. music, play)–can help students to feel “in sync” with the people around them and to initiate feelings of safety necessary for resolving trauma.

Key Quotes:

Trauma’s effects:

“After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system. The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their life. These attempts to maintain control over unbearable psychological reactions can result in a whole range of physical symptoms, including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and other autoimmune diseases” (53).

“The sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present, where they are literally relived. As long as the trauma is not resolved, the stress hormones that the body secretes to protect itself keep circulating, and the defensive movements and emotional responses keep getting replayed” (66).

“Ordinary day-to-day events become less and less compelling. Not being able to deeply take in what is going on around them makes it impossible to feel fully alive” (67).

“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from themselves” (97).

“Many of my patients respond to stress not by noticing and naming it but by developing migraine headaches or asthma attacks” (97).

“[In traumatized children] the most innocent images stirred up intense feelings of danger, aggression, sexual arousal, and terror… we could only conclude that for abused children, the whole world is filled with triggers. As long as they can imagine only disastrous outcomes to relatively benign situations, anybody walking into a room, and stranger, any image, on a screen or a billboard might be perceived as a harbinger of catastrophe” (108).

As the ACE score rises, chronic depression in adulthood also rises dramatically. For those with an ACE score of four or more, its prevalence is 66 percent in women and 35 percent in men, compared with an overall rate of 12 percent in those with an ACE score of zero” (146).

“Traumatized people are often afraid of feeling. It is not so much the perpetrators (who, hopefully, are no longer around to hurt them) but their own physical sensations that are now the enemy. Apprehension about being hijacked by uncomfortable sensations keeps the body frozen and the mind shut. Even though the trauma is a thing of the past, the emotional brain keeps generating sensations that make the sufferer feel scared and helpless. It’s not surprising that so many trauma survivors are compulsive eaters and drinkers, fear making love, and avoid many social activities: Their sensory world is largely off limits” (208).


“Social support is a biological necessity, not an option, and this reality should be the backbone of all prevention and treatment” (167).

“Learning how to breathe calmly and remaining in a state of relative physical relaxation, even while accessing painful and horrifying memories, is an essential tool for recovery” (207).

“At the core of recovery is self-awareness. The most important phrases in trauma therapy are ‘Notice that’ and ‘What happens next?'” (208).

“Study after study shows that having a good support network constitutes the single most powerful protection against becoming traumatized. Safety and terror are incompatible” (210).

“While human contact and attunement are the wellspring of physiological self-regulation, the promise of closeness often evokes fear of getting hurt, betrayed and abandoned” (211).

“Once you recognize that post-traumatic reactions started off as efforts to save your life, you may gather the courage to face your inner music (or cacophony), but you will need help to do so. You have to find someone you can trust enough to accompany you, someone who can safely hold your feelings and help you listen to the painful messages from your emotional brain” (211).

“When we play together, we feel physically attuned and experience a sense of connection and joy… the moment you see a group of grim-faced people break out in a giggle, you know that the spell of misery has broken” (215).

“People who actively do something to deal with a disaster–rescuing loved ones or strangers, transporting people to a hospital, being part of a medical team, pitching tents or cooking meals–utilize their stress hormones for their proper purpose and therefore are at much lower risk of becoming traumatized” (217).

“How well we get along with ourselves depends largely on our internal leadership skills–how well we listen to our different parts, make sure they feel taken care of, and keep them from sabotaging one another” (280).

Conclusions/policy recommendations:

“Poverty, unemployment, inferior schools, social isolation, widespread availability of guns, and substandard housing are all breeding grounds for trauma. Trauma breeds further trauma; hurt people hurt other people” (348).

“We are fundamentally social creatures–our brains are wired to foster working and playing together. Trauma devastates the social-engagement system and interferes with cooperation, nurturing, and the ability to function as a productive member of the clan” (349).

“People can learn to control and change their behavior, but only if they feel safe enough to experiment with new solutions. The body keeps the score: If trauma is encoded in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching sensations, then our first priority is to help people move out of fight-or-flight states, reorganize their perception of danger, and manage relationships. Where traumatized children are concerned, the last things we should be cutting from school schedules are the activities that can do precisely that: chorus, physical education, recess, and anything else that involves movement, play, and other forms of joyful engagement” (349).

“Children and adults will do anything for people they trust and whose opinion they value. But if we feel abandoned, worthless, or invisible, nothing seems to matter. Fear destroys curiosity and playfulness” (350).

“People who feel safe and meaningfully connected with others have little reason to squander their lives doing drugs or staring numbly at television; they don’t feel compelled to stuff themselves with carbohydrates or assault their fellow human beings. However, if nothing they do seems to make a difference, they feel trapped and become susceptible to the lure of pills, gang leaders, extremist religions, or violent political movements–anybody and anything that promises relief” (351).

“The greatest hope for traumatized, abused, and neglected children is to receive a good education in schools where they are seen and known, where they learn to regulate themselves, and where they can develop a sense of agency” (351).

“It is standard practice in many schools to punish children for tantrums, spacing out, or aggressive outbursts–all of which are often symptoms of traumatic stress. When that happens, the school, instead of offering a safe haven, becomes yet another traumatic trigger. Angry confrontations and punishment can at best temporarily halt unacceptable behaviors, but since the underlying alarm system and stress hormones are not laid to rest, they are certain to erupt again at the next provocation” (353).



What are your experiences working with kids with trauma? Are there other resources you would suggest or strategies you have developed to help students cope? Leave a comment–I would love to hear your thoughts!

Energy Management is Greater Than Time Management

Teachers talk a lot to kids about time management (we are really just telling kids to stop wasting their time). Adults seek to improve their time management skills (whatever that is supposed to mean) as a “productivity hack.” As if being better at Google Calendar was the secret to getting more done.

You don’t need a productivity hack. You don’t need to manage your time. You need to manage your energy.

Energy management is more important, more powerful, and more effective than time management.

When I have a lot of work to do, and I am tired, I do not chug another coffee, turn up the music, and grudgingly slog through it.

Instead, I take a nap.


I am not wasting my time. I am recovering my energy.

Here’s a little secret about getting things done, a “productivity hack”: even if you have a lot of work, it kind of doesn’t matter how much time you have to get it done. It is true that you need time to let creative ideas marinate and connect inside your head. It is true that you can only type so many words per minute. But it is also true that work expands to fill the time allotted, and even if you reduce the amount of time you have to complete a task, you will probably still be able to finish it.

You will make it happen. Working against an urgent deadline is often necessary to get you moving. Think about your students and when they get their work done. You know what the most productive time of the week is? Sunday night between 11:00 PM and 1:00 AM. You gave them a week to work in class, and they mostly used it to chat in Gmail and look at cat memes. But the deadline motivates them and gets their brains clicking when they should be sleeping. Think how much better they would be if they knew how to actually manage their energy.

And if you manage your energy and take a nap when you are freaking tired, you are going to recharge enough to be creative and to work quickly.

Working slowly and uncreatively gets less done in more time. It’s unpleasant. It feels like the right thing to do because you are grinding through. You are proving to yourself and the universe that you are dedicated. It feeds your inner martyr.

Teaching does not need more martyrs.

Teaching needs dedicated adults who know how to step off the gas when it’s time to. You need to leave enough in the tank to come back again the next day and be fully present for your students. This is no abdication of your duty, or tacit permission to produce lower quality work. It is about harnessing your mental power to effectively apply it in service of your students while still taking care of your personal needs so you can live to teach another day. You need to get your work done fast enough to have a life outside of teaching, because teaching is awesome but it is not the universe.

Your new to do list:

  • Take a nap.
  • Shorten the amount of time you thought you would need to complete a project and work against that earlier deadline. You will still finish the project.
Your homework for the weekend.



Why I Am Doing the World of Math

I finished reading The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley a little while back. Her comments about math education sound like the story of my life. The book–which is fantastic by the way–compares the school experience in America to the experience in other countries. And what she says American kids think about math is exactly what I used to think about it. American kids think this:

“You are good at math, or you not. Full stop. Forget all that growth mindset garbage the guidance counselors try to teach you–it doesn’t apply to math. You are a 0 or a 1 when it comes to math.”

Let’s pause to talk about reading for just a second:

I am a good reader. My degree is in secondary English education, but I made my way through Darwinian Psychiatry without too much trouble. I think nutrition is fascinating, so I read articles on PubMed all the time about things like mTORc1, homocysteine, IGF-1, cytokines, ketones, apoptosis. In high school, just through reading, I taught myself enough x86 assembly language to create a program to back up the master boot record on a hard drive—and I even used that program once when my dad’s computer wouldn’t boot after he messed up his the partition table trying to reinstall Windows. Being able to read well is like a freaking superpower, and I have it.

But when I was 18, my ability to read well, and my ability to grow as a reader, did not make me feel in any way confident about my math abilities–or make me feel like there was the possibility that I could improve. Even ten years later, I am defensive. That previous paragraph I wrote sounds like I am trying to justify that I am “smart,” because I know I’m about to confess something shameful: that I’m bad (or was) at math.


So, back to math: I was so terrible at math the summer before college that they told me that it would take me more than four years to graduate because I would have to take so many extra, remedial math classes before even starting my major (computer science). Ouch.

I was a zero at math. I wanted to be a computer programmer, and that clearly wasn’t going to happen with the tragedy I called my math ability. And I thought nothing could change that.

My academic advisor told me that I had one hope: the ALEKS math program. (Note: for those who have not had the privilege, ALEKS is a self-paced online math education program. High school kids’ feelings about it are akin to their feelings about school lunch.) If I did ALEKS on the computer and completed a semester of math during the summer before my freshman year of college, I would at least chip away at my math requirements.

I lived with my parents and commuted to the city to sit at a computer and do ALEKS every day for 4 hours. I was in a computer lab with a bunch of other people in the same situation. We never talked to each other. There was a certified math instructor available in the lab every day to help us, but I don’t think anyone ever asked her a question that entire summer.

I know this sounds awful. Sitting at a computer doing math problems in a room with people who never interact sounds like less fun that, say, hitting yourself with a ball peen hammer repeatedly. But this was one of the most pivotal learning experiences I ever had. It was a watershed moment that was partially responsible for putting me on the path to becoming a teacher.

I had believed math was a special torture designed just for me, a task I would never master that would limit me indefinitely. But then I did 3 months of remedial math on the computer. I did so well that they decided to let me into calculus that coming September instead–which I passed by the way: B-!

I don’t know if I was just irritated with myself for being so awful at math that it lit a fire under me, or if I felt like I had something to prove, or if I just really liked self-paced computer learning, but it worked for me. ALEKS clearly is not a solution for many people, but for the first time in my life I felt like I had the ability to effectively teach myself a skill I had always believed was–and would always be–beyond my grasp. I finally bought the growth mindset rhetoric hook, line, and sinker because I had lived it.

I stayed a computer science major for one semester before switching my focus to education.

When I did this, people thought I was nuts. I had people tell me that this phase would pass, that I was too smart to be a teacher, that teaching was a dead end career, blah blah blah, the whole thing. At the time, it was really just a feeling I couldn’t explain. In retrospect, it was an easy choice.

I had just killed it at math for the first time in my life, and then because I changed my major, I never had to take another math class.


It has been almost a decade since I have taken a math class. I know all the math that I need to do in order to do my job well. I know the skills I teach well (reading, writing, speaking, argumentation, critical thinking). I know enough math to understand every article I’ve come across in a professional journal, though I admit my statistics knowledge could probably use some fine tuning.

And I was reading The Smartest Kids in the World. I was reading about math education in Poland, and I was feeling kind of dumb since I hadn’t really done any math beyond basic algebra in nearly ten years. I read about what American kids think–what I used to think–that you are born with math ability or you aren’t, and that hard work has nothing to do with it. And I got a little indignant. I can learn math. I felt a sense of responsibility. I can learn math, so I should.

I finished the book and I started Khan Academy’s “World of Math” mission. I wanted to start at the beginning and do it right, do it all the way through. Right now, I am killing it at 2nd grade math. I’ll get back to calc eventually.

Khan Academy isn’t as good of a learning experience as what I could get in an actual classroom with a well-trained teacher and a group of other learners to interact with. I would love to have an authentic, modern, student-centered, social, inquiry driven math learning experience. But I am an adult practicing elementary math in his free time—Khan Academy and my old textbooks are good enough. And here again, my reading skills will serve me well.

There’s a larger connection here, one to teaching, of course. Here it is: it is not enough that I know just enough to do my job.

I need to remember what it is like to be a learner—in all areas.

While I am definitely a learner in all sorts of areas for my work as a teacher (pedagogy, argumentative writing, reading comprehension strategies) and for fun (nutrition, psychology, biology, history, sociology, computer science, etc. etc. etc.) — math has not been one of the subjects where I have remained an active learner.

I have a responsibility as a teacher to always be a learner myself—particularly in areas that might be hardest for me. Is there any better way to develop empathy for your students’ perspective as learners–particularly struggling learners–than to still be a struggling learner yourself?

Plus, I want to add “math” to my list of superpowers. I want it for my brain, and I can have it, so I am going to. I believe in learning skills so that you can own them as part of yourself. But I can’t advocate that philosophy of learning if I never leave my little comfort zone of English literature, and certainly not if I am actively avoiding learning something out of a sense of fear and dejection.

2 + 2 = It doesn’t matter as long as you keep learning, especially the stuff that makes you feel like a zero.

Leave me a comment: what do you want to start learning that you haven’t been learning in a long time? What do you want to learn next? How are you going to learn it?

The Most Important Secret About the Modern World

Here’s the most important secret about the modern world:

The rewards for smart, creative people are greater than they have ever been.

But it is harder to be smart and creative than it has ever been. It requires more work than ever before to become the level of smart and creative that gets rewarded.

English class teaches you how to think critically and how to communicate (read, write, speak). These are the two things you need most in order to become the leader of your own life—one of the smart, creative people I am talking about.

People who can think critically and communicate effectively are basically unstoppable. It doesn’t matter what field they are in. They can learn anything they want because they can read and evaluate information like rockstars, and they can persuade others to help them with all of the other stuff they are bad at because they can communicate well.

Don’t believe me? Name one person you admire who is really amazing and awesome who can’t think critically and is incapable of talking to others. All awesome people are good at those two things.

You aren’t born good at those things. You learn how to think and how to communicate over the course of a lifetime, and you learn by doing. You have to do a lot of thinking and a lot of communicating to get good. You have to sustain your focus. You have to lift heavy–mentally. And if you aren’t doing that–if you spend your time Netflix binging and being a Call-of-Duty warrior 6 hours a day and SparkNoting the entire syllabus and avoiding hard work at all cost–if you aren’t investing in yourself, you are not going to grow. Forget grades. If you aren’t investing in yourself you won’t grow as a person.

It’s way more comfortable to distract yourself with any of the over 9000 time wasters at your fingertips than it is to read something hard, or seriously try to understand a perspective you disagree with, or write a poem, or have an adult discussion about a controversy, or give a speech, or create something that has actual value for other people. But the biggest rewards ever don’t go to people who can’t give back to others, and you won’t have anything to give if you haven’t grown your own abilities.

The best time to invest was yesterday. The second best time to invest in yourself is today.

Get started!

Here are some links to help you (post some of your favorite links in the comments too):

Find a book or audiobook

Find a library and go to it

Read the news

Write a poem or a story or anything–just write something please

Make a video about something–anything

Discuss controversial issues with thinkers from multiple perspectives

Create a blog or website

Look at art

Create art

Learn a new language