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Don’t Turn Back on Closing Doors

Don’t Turn Back on Closing Doors

As I type this, it literally pains me… not because there is deep anguish over the words or phrases but because my black and blue hand still hurts from my encounter with our laundry room door.

Walking out of the laundry room with a basket in one hand, I swung the door so it would shut slowly behind me.  And never one for doing things the easy way, I challenged myself to then turn the light switch off.  As I reached across my body with my free hand, I fumbled at the switch a bit and it did not go off.  Now outside the laundry room I reached back in to flick the switch again but the closing door had advanced further (much quicker than I expected I might add) and solid wood door collided with retracting hand… ouch!

In that moment I was calm, cool, collected and began to opine on how this related to education… or maybe not.  After a few choice “inside my head” words (I couldn’t say anything out loud and prove to those upstairs how foolish I had been), I did finally reflect on how this incident applies to teaching and learning.  And I realized one should never turn back towards a closing door.

Earlier in the year, I had posted about how the realities of the school year were squeezing some of the aspirations I had for changes.  That students didn’t seem ready or willing to do new things and that assigning homework the old fashioned way seemed more pleasing to others.  I wondered if it wasn’t time to jump ship and get back to the way “we always have done it”?  But those educational practices doors were swinging shut.  Did I really want to turn back to those areas being closed off?

Thankfully, I can say NO!  While it was tough going (and still is in some ways), we stuck with the homework changes.  We tried a different hyperdoc, implemented other tools and we’ve continued working more strategically and thinking more deeply in the different content areas.  Technology infusion has increased.  And my metaphorical teaching hand has not been left bruised and battered.  My students are catching on to the type of effort and energy this new type of learning takes.  They are shaping the way certain tools like Flipgrid and Google Classroom can/should be used for their success.

While it is beneficial, and actually crucial, to be reflective and to jettison ideas or strategies that are not effective as a teacher… it is also important to allow for time.  Growth mindset requires a “not yet” type of thinking and I needed to apply that to changes being made.  Everything wasn’t perfect (and likely never would be), but it was far more detrimental to turn back on those closing doors than to give time and space for the new to work itself out.  I’m eager to see how the 2nd semester shapes up.

A Grilled Cheese Sandwich and Mathematical Mindsets

A Grilled Cheese Sandwich and Mathematical Mindsets

“What can I eat for lunch?”  A potentially loaded question when coming from anyone but certainly of high priority when coming from one’s pregnant wife.  The other day I fielded this very question and in my “husband of the year” role, began to list out every edible thing I noticed in our pantry and refrigerator before finally moving on to the freezer.

The response back was underwhelming.  Nothing sounded good.  “That all sounds like snacks… not lunch!”

I again dutifully went through the list again (looking in each door like something magically had appeared since the last food roll call).  “You could have, cheese… bread… an apple…”. Still nothing.  It was beginning to look dire.  And then it dawned on me.  I had said bread AND cheese.  “You could have a grilled-cheese sandwich.”  And with that, my wife’s eyes lit up and I regained my hero husband footing.


WHAT in the WORLD does this have to do with mathematical mindsets you ask (hopefully after going to get yourself a grilled cheese)?  It dawned on me as I was making the sandwich just what had happened. My wife in her hunger was focused on the problem – she needed to eat!  Both times I ran through the food items, she missed the ingredients that would bring her a yummy treat!  

How often do students seem to do the same thing in Math?  A problem or two show up and they immediately focus on “solving it” (or more accurately… getting the right answer).  They see the algorithm and not the numbers.  They don’t look at the ingredients but are zeroed in on an outcome.  

This is one aspect of my math instruction that I am trying to change.  I want my students dissecting the numbers, thinking about potential strategies and considering reasonable outcomes all before they focus on the algorithm (if they ever need to do so in the first place).  When my students see numbers, I want them to see pairs and compliments and understand the sense they make (ingredients).

To that end, we’ve been doing work with number strings a bit, estimating target answers to check reasonability and using quite a bit of increased DOK questions like those discussed by Robert Kaplinsky on his site.  I was excited to see this type of thinking also presented at a recent district math workshop.  It was eye opening to see how many students were going through procedural motions with trading during subtracting when they were given a problem with missing digits.  Almost none of my students saw the path through the algorithm… YET!

But some did start to see math wasn’t just a set of rules or steps to follow and conquered the problem.  I’m hopeful as the year continues, more and more will start to think this way first.

If we don’t get our students to think past the problem on the page, how will they ever grab hold of that mathematical grilled cheese?

Weird is Wonderful

Weird is Wonderful

Picture sourced from

How often do we in education base decisions off what is average? Expected? Normal?

Average test scores set the bar for proficiency. Normal performance helps determine those in need of gifted or special education.  Weird gets in the way of the pacing guide.


I’ve reflected on this a bit since a recent class meeting my students and I held.  I wanted to gauge the climate of the class through my students’ eyes and also empower them to take control of their learning environment.  I expected most of the responses that came out and we had a great discussion.  But one comment stuck with me.  When asked what kind of place they wanted their classroom and school to be, one of my rockstar students responded with, “Sometimes people make fun of me because I’m weird… and I don’t want that.”



I responded by encouraging the students to be weird.  I told them that if they wanted to be normal, they were in the wrong place.  Weird is how we write awesome stories! Weird is how we find great characters and worlds through books.  Weird is how we come up with unique and beautiful solutions and strategies in math, science and social studies.  Weird is wonderful!


Although as a kid, I probably did not embrace it, I knew that I’ve almost always been a bit off from “normal”.  Nothing too outlandish and I guess I’d say in general terms, I’m just a regular normal guy.  But in truth, there’s always been something that made me different in most settings I found myself in.  And for the most part it has never bothered me.  But I’m not sure I’ve ever celebrated this concept with my students.  This moment was a chance to change that.


I hoped my students would see the value I placed on not trying to fit into a predetermined “normal” slot.  They needed to be creative and follow their own passions if they were going to be great learners… and great humans.  I especially wanted this student who voiced their concern to know I valued their uniqueness and wanted others to start valuing everyone else’s uniqueness.  And in large part, I believe they did.  


But as I have continued to think about this encounter, it’s made me wonder where I sometimes squelch the beautiful weirdness that exists in every individual that sits in my classroom.  Where does the educational system we participate in do the same? How do even our well-meaning and research based or data-driven decisions sometimes send the message that “normal” is preferred?


These are questions to wrestle with as I dive deeper into what is by far the weirdest year of my professional career… and I wouldn’t have it any normal way!

Audacity of August Meets Realities of September

Audacity of August Meets Realities of September

The audacity of August (and really June and July) has met the realities of September!

As the 2016-2017 year wound down, I found myself excited by my new found professional development (ie Twitter PLN).  Typically, I’d be looking forward to a nice summer “off” with a workshop or book skim sprinkled here and there.  But this off-season was shaping up differently. I was engaged by all these wonderful ideas to shift the way I taught. To rethink how I planned.  To jump in and try out different tools, apps and sites that could enhance my students’ learning.

All through June, July and into August, I was making a list… checking it more than twice… of all the inspiring and exciting ways to engage this next group of students that would come my way.  I was enlivened.  Invigorated. Ready!

But somewhere along the line, the realities of 24 students with differing needs, personalities and decision-making skills as well as school and district expectations came crashing down.  For convenience sake, let’s call all of this September.  The realities of September have landed heavily on all those summer aspirations.  Much of the audacious hope of August has started to buckle under the crush of behaviors, assessments and the frantic pace of “getting everything done”.

Years of compliance-based learning the root of frustration?

Some of the awesome instructional shifts and classroom management shifts have seemed to confuse or confound students (and frustrate their teacher).  In many ways, these students have never been asked to learn like this.  They’ve never been asked to take control of their learning, to be risk takers or to embrace mistakes for the positive outcomes they can bring.  They’ve never had to collaborate and communicate with peers in sustained ways. As I consider ditching the shifts to go back to what is familiar or putting my head down and powering through to what I believe is possible, I wonder if a few years of compliance-based learning is the root of the frustrations and lack of immediate success?  Are these just growing pains that will fade?  Or will this persist?  Every child is unique and every group of students is different, but has the way they’ve been taught in the past created rigidity in their expectations of “school”?  

Perhaps October will bring answers and optimism and not horrors unrelated to Halloween.

Me and Mr. Feeny

Me and Mr. Feeny

Growing up through the ‘90s of course meant watching TV (for you young-ins this means real TV… not cable or Netflix with all the choices and conveniences) and that meant being able to experience one of the greatest things ever to hit the airwaves – “Boy Meets World”!

 You had to love the crazy antics of Cory and Shawn.  And Cory’s older brother Eric was always good for a strangely odd laugh.  But a main story-line of the show was the lifelong relationship between two of the main characters – Corey and Mr. Feeny (oh and I think there was a Topanga??).

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”


By the time the show was hitting it’s stride, I had put away the “cool” answers to this question, and had settled in on being a teacher.  So I watched Mr. Feeny with keen interest.

 A year or so back, I remember half jokingly posting on Facebook that when I grew up, I wanted to be a teacher just like Feeny.  While I’m not there yet (and certainly hope I don’t follow my students through middle and high school), I had a stunning realization this week.  As we were winding down our Getting to Know each other conversations and activities, I took time out to let my current 3rd graders ask me questions.  One hit me with, “Why did you decide to become a teacher?”  I told them how when I was a kid I always answered with policeman, soldier, secret agent etc. but always heard “teacher” in the back of my head.  I also explained that by the time I was in high school, I knew I had been called into this profession and felt I could be great in it… not great for me but great for them.

 The conversation twisted and turned (as it will with newly minted 3rd graders) and they finally asked two more wonderful questions.  “Why hadn’t we done any subject stuff?” and “Why had we done all that other stuff (ie. motivational, class/school cultural, relational activities)?”  Both questions led us to a place I’d never fully been before.  I was sitting in front of my 14th class of students about to do something I had never done… be totally committed to them!

“They Deserved It!”

 I told them that what we had done was far more important than anything else we’d do with “subject stuff”.  I told them that I believed in every one of them and knew they would do great things.  I told them that homework would be amazingly important to and for them  instead of being worksheets that were only important to whoever bought the books they came from.  I told them they deserved and should expect me to be a great teacher!  Some of this I’d said before to other classes, but not with this much passion and certainly not with this much belief.

 As this went on, there was an energetic buzz in the room, in the students and in myself.  This was a different feeling.  This new year had now been set on a new, inspiring trajectory.  A proclamation had been made!  In the back of my head, for the first time as a professional educator I felt like I might just have begun becoming Mr. Feeny.

Ready for 2017-2018!??

Ready for 2017-2018!??

August 14th has arrived. While I’ve officially been back to work for two days, this being the first Monday makes it all the more real. So too does the fact that this evening is Meet the Teacher.  A new anxious and excited group of students and parents will come flowing into my classroom.


Ahh… the classroom.  As I look around Facebook (and my own building) at all the many Pintrest perfect rooms, mine can best be summed up as “Smoldering Crater”!  My desk is where it belongs, the ton of new math supplies are mostly stored appropriately but other than that, there isn’t much that screams, “parents and students will be here in mere hours”.  And I am completely at peace with this.

(Where’s my desk?)

I’ve never been the greatest decorator and my artistic ability is quite limited, so I’ve never been one to stress out too much over how my room looks.  But in years past I have spent much of the first few days back focused solely on “getting ready”.  That meant, desk tags, rows, laminating (oh the laminating) and poster hanging.  This was followed by creating stacks of papers for each desk so parents could go home with a forest full of different district centered information.  It left little time to really focus on what (or who) mattered most – students.

“Good is the enemy of great!” – Steven Covey

“Good is the enemy of great” is a quote that has come to mean a lot to me as this year begins.  For much of my career, I have been focused on being good enough.  But this year I wish to be great. Not for me, but for my students.  They deserve it.  So as I start this Monday morning, I’m thinking about engaging lesson designs, how to communicate more effectively with parents, students and colleagues to enhance student success and how best to shift teaching/learning from being centered on me up front to the students and what they are creating and how they are thinking.


The crater will get filled in… and whatever parts don’t look Pintrest perfect, the students can help create and improve once they arrive on Wednesday.  It is better like that anyway.  But just as a church is only a building and really becomes a church because of the people… my classroom is only a room until it is full of happy, engaged and energetic students.  Their desires, their passions and their creations focused on learning and being successful will make this room the caring wonderful place I hope it will be.

Run… Jump… Hold Your Breath!

Run… Jump… Hold Your Breath!

When I was younger, my family would go to Lake Norfork in northern Arkansas for our family reunion (they still do but I don’t get there all that often anymore).  The lake is a wonderful place and it was great to go fishing and swimming with siblings and cousins.  There is also a high cliff at one campground that provides a quasi-safe point to leap off into the water.  We’d go there from time to time either by car or boat but due to my fear of heights (and sub par swimming skills), I usually was a spectator.


Around the time I was 19 or 20, we ventured to this rock again.  I was all set to watch when my nephew, who was about 8 or 9, took one look at the water below, backed up and flung himself off into space.  Eventually, he landed hard in the water below and popped back up beaming with excitement.  After watching this two more times, it was evident that I could not be shown up.  I would have to put my fear (and rationality) behind me.  Tentatively, I took my place in the line of jumpers.  With a gasp, I took the giant leap!


Splash!  Here I am again taking another leap.  I have kicked around the idea of blogging for a few years now.  I’ve read certain blogs but always held back due to fear and doubt.  Who would want to read what I have to say?  There’s hundreds of blogs out there… what would be so special about mine. (The title “blogzillion” is a tongue and cheek shot at this. I must be the last person to start one right?).


Within the last few months, I jumped into the Twitter world (hope to post on this in the near future).  Here I have been introduced to outstanding thinkers in education via chats as well as had the chance to experience ideas from books such as Shift This! by @joykirr and Teach Like a Pirate by @burgessdave. These interactions coupled with the fact that I won a free year subscription to blog from #notatiste, have forced me past those fears.  A goal for this year is to see my 3rd grade students be more creators and less sponges when it comes to their learning.  If I’m going to ask them to do so, how can I sit back and not jump with them?


As with any good leap of faith, I have no idea where this blogging journey will lead.  But I know there is water down there somewhere… and I will eventually pop back up no matter what!

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