Final Reflection of 2015

I promised my students, in the name of being willing to do what I ask them to do, that I would take the final reflective assessment. In essence, I have to prove my growth throughout the 12-week term. I hope I’ve done that well here.

Much of the reflection is in regards of this website: the culmination of our term’s work.


I am blown away by how much I continue to learn through books. After experience, reading is the place I learn the most.

  • The Great Gatsby–It’s been about five years since I read this book and the moment I picked it back up, I got excited. My awareness of current society (which has grown incredibly since I now pay the bills, think about paying for my daughters’ educations, consider what retirement should be) is richer. It allows deeper connection.
  • Copper Sun–It’s not part of my daily thinking to consider the atrocities of slavery, but after reading this book, I couldn’t help but have empathy for slaves and think about slavery’s implications to today’s world.
  • The Scarlet Letter–There is health in truth. As Hester wears her truth on her sleeve (so to speak), she works through the horror of outcast only to come out a stronger, more accepted person. Dimmesdale maintains his secret to an unhealthy level.
  • The ancillary reading–specifically, I love Chopin. Her turn at the end of the short story, “The Story of an Hour” is exceptional. Every year, I enjoy the looks on my students’ faces when it happens. Chopin reminds me of surprise.
  • Where You Go is Not Who You Are–This was an essential read for me. I learned what I’ve been thinking for a long time: it’s not the place, it’s the person. If you have self-confidence, you can do great things from ANYWHERE.
  • What’s Math Got To Do With It?–This is a must-read for any parent who has a student struggling with mat–which turns out to be a lot. My best learning experience with this book was the hour-long discussion it led to in class. My students know this struggle all too well. Now, I am learning it, too.
  • The Dark Night–It’s pure joy for me to read graphic novels. I learn that visuals aid in understanding. Me, a die-hard book guy, needs reminders that visuals–graphic or film or whatever–can significantly aid understanding. It did for me with this book.
  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children–here, I need a summer kickoff read and it’s working very well for that. I’m enjoying the value of the genre–the set up. The author does a nice job with relationships in the book and I look forward to finishing it up in the first week of summer.
I like myself as a reader. I read all kinds of genres and I learn a lot. Two of the books I’ve read this term are on recommendations of my students and I love that they have a place in my reading world, too.


I have read these pieces many times over. I have read them in high school, in college, in grad school, and in class as a teacher–and still, I learn.

Specifically, this term, I have learned the following:

  • The Wizard of Oz is a piece of feminist literature. Really, I have never seen this piece through this lens. I’m incredibly grateful to have new perspective. I love it even more when that perspective comes from my students.
  • I remain saddened by the oppression of our Native Americans. After reading that section of our website, I am motivated to read more Native American literature–if I can find it (a big part of the sadness).
  • Music is an important piece of our history. From the slave songs to The Jazz Age to Stevie Wonder, music is prevalent in showing growth and change in our culture.
  • I have a lot to read (well, learn) about the War on Terror before I make too many claims about it. 
  • I haven’t paid attention to the value of films, but they can be great supplements to literature. They give us visuals of history in a way that millions can (and want to) see.
  • I also didn’t know that Abe Lincoln didn’t have many books. I’d like to inspect that more and learn why that was the case. What can be gained by reading the same–say–five books over and over? Apparently a lot.



I didn’t know how this term would turn out the way it did. In many ways–the important ways–it exceeded my expectations. Before I get into that, though, I’d change a bit about the way we created:

  • First, I would have asked some web developers to come in to support our work. Students should have learned from those pros. We did a good job, but I LOVE pulling in the community and I didn’t do much of that.
  • Secondly, I would have made this a six-seven week project. I think we would have ended up with roughly the same product in a shorter amount of time.
  • Thirdly, I would have developed a better system for personal accountability. As is the case in the real world (and for that, I’m not too sorry for this), some people work harder than others. In the future (should I do this style again), I would have nets to catch those who were either struggling or just not trying.

I am significantly harder on myself than not. I criticize myself more than I praise, but the following are the outcomes I love:

  • This was a truly collaborative effort. Students supported each other–and me. We asked genuine questions. We found genuine answers. The reason for doing the work was honest and good.
  • The quality of the work is something of which to be proud. I don’t know much of what ended up on the website. The reader who takes time to learn, will learn.
  • These students are risk-takers. We didn’t know where we were going with this, yet it resulted in a hugely positive outcome: the development of a website which other educators and teens can explore to gain their own learning.
The goods here FAR outweigh the negatives. And the negatives can be ironed out with better work by the teacher in the future. The positives, I think, can never really be found in purposeless work.
In my quest for meaningful work, I am glad we took this leap. The result is meaningful. It can be shared to many–and it can be enhanced. I see our work as a gift: a gift to the readers and a gift to the teachers who could take it over one day.
I have grown as a teacher, too. This term–this year–I’ve had the opportunity to be the dad of a teenager because of our exchange student, Anna. She has opened my eyes to a lot of ways that classrooms work. Mostly, I’m glad to work in a place where everyone can approach students differently. Students themselves are different; they NEED different educators and role models. But this is the biggest way I’ve solidified my teaching: TEACHERS MUST ENGAGE THEIR STUDENTS. How that is done is up to the class and the classroom teacher, but it must be the goal. There are lots of ways to engage, but it needs to be the goal, not student obedience to a less engaging experience. 
Finally, I’ve grown as a dad and husband. I need more dates with my wife, but it’s getting harder now that the kids are getting older. We’ve had fewer dates this year than in years past. It’s time to reclaim that part. That said, I love watching my children age. I love the conversations we have. I love that I’m going on a mission trip with my twin 11-year-old girls. This is just another age where impressions are made; I’m so glad to be one person who gets to shape my four girls’ lives. 
  • Start confronting unmotivated students better. Keep the philosophies, but be more direct with the few who aren’t working to their potential.
  • Stop quitting on Poem of the Day. There is much value in poetry and students (I don’t think) get much of it. It’s worth the three minutes at the end of the day. 
  • Continue caring deeply about giving students meaningful work. And continue reflecting on it to keep it meaningful throughout the process.
  • Start taking control of your education. Find relevance in what you’re doing. With clear, positive communication, you will find that most teachers can individualize the work.
  • Stop apathy. It will get you nowhere to NOT care. If you have a problem, address it; don’t give up on it.
  • Continue to imagine and create. We, as a society, are counting on you to do this. Even if it doesn’t seem like it sometimes, we need your ideas. Keep creating them and giving them.
Thank you for an outstanding term.

Watch DOGS Observations

Last Wednesday, I spent an entire day at my daughter’s school as a Watch DOGS (a program trying to get dads into their son’s/daughter’s school). I expected it to be fun. I expected it to be rewarding. I expected to be tired. All my expectations came true, but I was surprised about some of the other observations I made.

  1. Since I teach at the high school and my own children are at the elementary/intermediate level, I couldn’t help but look at the students as–well–young high schoolers. If I had to put money on it, I’d feel confident in identifying the prom queen, the well-rounded student, and the bully already in second grade. It made me question just how much change a person really goes through in his/her lifetime. Are the determining traits–such as motivation or lack thereof–really solidified at such an early age? As a teacher, I refuse to believe that. I hold onto the fact that people can change based off of their interactions with others. But–Wow!–I saw mini-teens in those elementary classrooms.
  2. There is an achievement gap–in kindergarten. I found this to be sad, but already at age five or six, it was clear that students are coming in to their education at vastly different levels. This says a lot: primarily, it talks about the role of parents in the first five years. It is essential to have involved, caring, motivated mentors in an infant’s and toddler’s life. That was clear. It was also confirmation that, at the high school level, we must be very careful about how we use grades. If we are judging only mastery of skills with our letter grades, it is now abundantly clear to me that we are setting some students up for failure. (By the way, we’re also setting some advanced students up for getting away with not working hard. That’s equally bad, isn’t it?) The achievement gap is real (even when students first start school) and to expect all students to be at the same place at the same time academically–and tie it to such an important aspect of their assessment–is wrong. Grades must mean more than mastery. They have to contain major elements of improvement and work ethic as well.
  3. I’ve been wearing my Fitbit recently (with some mild gains–well, losses in pounds, anyway), thank you very much. I thought it would be a good way to judge my activity between the high school and the elementary school. It’s true that the elementary school had me active at lunch and recesses and all of that, but the number differences were drastic. High School Steps on average: 4200. Elementary Steps: 9500. Is it true that elementary schools are more active than high schools? And, if so, is that why students tend to look at elementary schools with a much more positive attitude?
  4. I had more high fives on Wednesday than I’ve had in my past few years combined. At every turn, students were asking for high fives. I was asked to join in tag, basketball, Kendama, four-square. I got hugs from students I’d never met before. In just seven short years, they’ll–generally speaking–be pushing away adults, discouraging their parents from setting foot in the high school. Very few high fives between students and teachers there. It’s all–well–just an observation. I don’t even claim it to be bad. Students do need to claim their independence, right? But students also need to be celebrated. So, I think I need to hand out a few more high fives in the last three weeks of the school year.
I expected to leave that elementary school being my girl’s Daddy Hero. I think that mission was accomplished. But it also goes to show that a day away at the elementary school might have made me a better and more understanding high school teacher.

A Tough Project Equals Great Opportunity

Two weeks ago, I welcomed thirty-one students to my one section of Survey of American Literature, a class I’ve never taught before, but am getting because of an overload in numbers to the teacher who usually owns this class.

I had taught most of these students in a writing class earlier in the year and they embraced my pedagogical turn for an authentic audience. So, I started thinking–how could I give an authentic audience to an American Literature class which focuses on reading throughout the history of America. Could such a class have an audience? Does an audience really motivate a class like this?

I’ve learned, in my path to better teaching, to embrace uncertainty and also to rely on the students’ judgments when they’ve earned the right–and these students had.

I gave them a choice–read and respond in our more typical fashion or create a new, more relevant textbook. They chose, unanimously, the task of enhancing the entire textbook experience instead of reading the teacher-prescribed list. Sounds like more work. Sounds like more fun. Students, when they see the purpose, will choose the harder work.

The work started with some deep analysis of the already-existing textbook published in 1999. Here were a few student observations:

  • You know the supplemental material is out-of-date when a “Connection to Modern Day” uses an opinion piece titled Is HDTV Here To Stay?
  • It doesn’t use the Internet to make any connections.
  • The literature pieces look good, but the book doesn’t show us the relevancy. 
  • It’s heavy–really heavy.
After that, another good discussion ensued–this time on organization. The students decided that, instead of a more traditional organizational style put together chronologically, they wanted their textbook written by voices:
  • the African-American voice
  • the War voice
  • the Native American voice
  • the Social Injustice voice
  • the Inspirational voice
  • the Books-to-Film voice
Already, based on the titles my students are choosing, I see more women and people of color represented. It’s exciting work–and it’s only just beginning. 
We’ll do the best we can with our little amount of time, but it’s fun to honestly say, “I can’t wait to go to work to see how my students surprise me next.” 
I’ll be sure to keep the blog posted–but, first, we could use your help. 
Please give us some titles. Just follow this link to help us on our search for meaningful, exciting literary pieces. 

Anne Lamott, My Muse

How is it that Anne Lamott comes into my life at just the right moments?

She must be my professional, spiritual, and emotional muse. Through Lamott’s book, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, my whole being got an adjustment, like tuning up a car before a road trip. After reading this book, I’m good to go for 3,000 miles.

My Professional Muse

“Pay attention, take notes, give yourself short assignments, let yourself write shitty first drafts, ask people for help, and you own what happens to you.”

Earlier this school year, I was working in isolation and frustration–and not getting the best results because of it. I had, for the sake of my schedule, stopped blogging which meant I stopped getting reflective. I wrote shitty first drafts of my lesson plans, but then I didn’t improve on them. I didn’t ask for help from the people around me who so clearly knew what they were doing. Now, I’m firing on all cylinders. I’m sharing more. I’m asking for more help. I’m still writing shitty first drafts of lesson plans, but then I make them better. I need to own both versions of myself as an educator and keep pushing for improvement–just as I ask my students to do.

Truly, if we all do this in our careers, we’re going to act out of difference-making, not out of fear or efficiency. We must knock off manageable bits at a time, allowing for those bits to first look like trash. Then, through our notes, through paying attention, through the goodness of the people around us, we’ll make a better product.

My Spiritual Muse

“On Sundays, Veronica [Lamott’s pastor] kept repeating what Paul and Jesus always said: Don’t worry! Don’t be so anxious. In dark times, give off light. Care for the least of God’s people. She quoted the Reverend James Forbes as saying, ‘Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.'”

It’s been a solid year and a half since our family stopped going to church consistently. I miss the people. The people of St. John’s Episcopal in Grand Haven, Michigan are good people. It’s not them. It’s just–we’ve fallen out of routine. We even like being at home together on Sunday mornings.

But Lamott’s book has allowed me to see an important part of spirituality: the poor. And we’re not just talking financially. Perhaps the poorest people have money, but don’t have self-love or the love of others near them. The poor might be my students who hate school. Are we serving them appropriately? Are they getting treated with the care they deserve? How about the bullied? Are we paying attention? While work must be always be done, I’m so glad to know that many do care, that educators and students are making efforts to have a culture of encouragement: Spreading a Little Kindness in Spring Lake.

Students and community members, alike: we must take care of the poor; it’s a prerequisite to personal or heavenly salvation.

My Emotional Muse

“…from the sixth chapter of Luke: ‘Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.’ Now try as I might, I cannot find a loophole in that. It does not say, ‘Forgive everyone, unless they’ve said something rude about your child.’ And it doesn’t say, ‘Just try.’ It says, if you want to be forgiven, if you want to experience that kind of love, you have to forgive everyone in your life–everyone, even the very worst boyfriend you ever had–even, for God’s sake, yourself.”

I have an easy time forgiving others.

I have a near-impossible time forgiving myself. I’ve always felt I had to be the best person for my family, my employers, my colleagues, and–well–just about everyone. Being perfect is tiring and–let’s face it–impossible. It’s time to admit it and embrace it. I just couldn’t handle people seeing me struggle. But, I do.

I struggle at balancing job and family.
I struggle at balancing a friggin’ diet.
I struggle at balancing what I want to be with what others want me to be.

Often, I end up at a version of myself that is not quite what I want. But I’m working on that. And the work starts by forgiving myself of the past and then aggressively moving on to the present and the future.

Thank you, Anne Lamott, for the lessons.

Thank you for being my muse.

Student Voice: Directing Young Minds

Such an honor to share this blog with a student every Wednesday evening. Each week, I simply ask them to “Write something about education.” Then, they do–beautifully, I might add.

This week, I’m happy to introduce Kelvin B. Teachers, if you’re ever wondering why you must do a good job, Kelvin offers a good reminder.

At times, education can be perceived as simply sitting in a cold brick building (that gives off a prison-esque vibe), punching numbers, and doing your time just as a convicted criminal may experience. However, there is so much more to education at its core. Apart from simply civilizing society, education is a passionate and personal  lifelong experience that we, as humans, are equipped with the ability to do. There is infinite knowledge to be learned for our finite time-limited minds. Education is preparing a world that is more productive, imaginative, creative, and caring than the world we personally were raised in and accustomed to. An educator is an artist. They are molding the delicate future minds of our world, daily perfecting their craft so that, hopefully, they themselves learn and grow while enabling others to do the same. Until the end is here for our race, we mustn’t take the act of education and educating lightly. There is a crucial responsibility for educators of the general population, those hiring educators, and those educating the educators of tomorrow to pour their life and soul into what they do. They are some of the most powerful and influential people in society. Teachers, instructors, directors, etc. carry on the knowledge of the human race and equip their students with the ability to know how to tap into the database of the universe. Education gives us a taste of eternity and what wealths of knowledge lie ahead of us in this wonderfully complex world. It allows us to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.

#loveteaching: The Light And The Dark

Gary Abud, Jr. (Michigan Teacher of the Year, 2013-2014) started a social media teacher campaign using #loveteaching to connect educators this Valentine’s Week and it allowed me to do some nice reflection.

I #loveteaching for one reason: I get the opportunity–every day–to mold young people’s minds. I get to encourage them to use their words to express who they are and what they believe. That’s a BIG deal.

Somehow, in one class, I get the privilege of teaching–

  • the grammar goddess who scoffs at others for misplacing their apostrophes
  • the cynical smart guy who doesn’t think highly of his abilities–or anyone else’s for that matter
  • the quiet exchange student who is slowly getting more and more confident as time moves on
  • the feminist who wants to move away from girls getting in trouble for dress code violations to teaching boys how to avoid objectifying them
  • the adopted activist who wants to build a non-profit for students who live challenging lives
  • the girl who wants to be goth, but can’t because of her mother
  • the photographer
  • the grade-below smarty
  • the Jesus freak
  • the atheist
  • the actor
  • the athlete
  • the organist

I get to challenge myself–to use my brains, my creativity, my compassion, and my passion–to connect with these young people, to get them to think deeply about who they are now and who they want to be.

But there’s a sadness that must be admitted: as soon as the autonomy, the passion, and the purpose are gone, I will no longer #loveteaching.

Here’s to hoping the educational system understands what it must do to keep its most dedicated employees.

Student Voice: Changing The Way It’s Done

I love sharing this space with my students. This week’s student voice is junior, Elise. Elise’s voice is rich; you’ll see.
In first grade, something happened to me that would change my opinion on school forever. My class was working on an almost stereotypical spelling worksheet, thirty sticky sets of hands scribbling away. (Why are young children always so dang sticky? Is there a giant vat of apple juice we older people don’t know about, that kids are constantly swimming in?) I decided to write my name in cursive, believing it made me more superior to the other first graders, not “Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett superior”, but “Audrey Hepburn and Truman Capote” superior (not that my sticky mind knew who those people even were). As I looped the E incorrectly and dotted the mishaped i, an unforgiving hand whipped out of nowhere and grabbed my wrist, tugging it back so my pencil dropped to the desk, taking my longing for some sympathy with it. My first grade teacher, stared down at me, her face pinched, and made sure I knew I wasn’t the superior one by saying, “No cursive. That’s for when you’re older.”  
Whether that sounds overly dramatic to you, that’s how my mind chose to remember it. And by remembering something like that, my hesitance towards teachers has been prominent ever since. In the beginning of high school, they made me nervous, especially the English instructors (it’s my favorite subject, I NEEDED them to like me so I could cry with them when Gatsby and Tom Robinson kicked the bucket). 
But when a student is given a good teacher, it’s magical. 
Over the past weekend, one of my favorite teachers invited me to a conference at a public school near ours (Kent Innovation High School). There were many inspiring seminars, ones with bacon pianos and ones with wikki sticks and ones with ideas on today’s traditional school system that blew my mind. 
The most incredible part? The teachers.
One of the best seminars happened to be led by the teacher that invited me (I may totally be biased, but it was dang good). It focused on bullying. Not the typical “bullies are evil”, “oh look at that poor nerd being beat up by that jock”, “Draco Malfoy, you bully!” My teacher targeted how confronting the bully isn’t always the right path of action. Bullies are going through heartache just as much as Elizabeth Bennett did with that crazy Darcy fellow. Sometimes, all one needs to do is put an arm around the victim’s shoulder (direct words from said teacher). Let them know that they are not alone. They are not ‘stupid’ or ‘fat’ or ‘nerdy’. And the bully isn’t the devil rising from the depths of Tartarus either. The bully is simply in pain, like the victim.
With over fifty talented teachers scattered around one building, I realized this idea of empathy over confrontation directly correlated to my experience with teachers. When a student encounters a ‘bad’ teacher, that instructor is not bad; he just wasn’t meant to teach, or she isn’t the best educator for that particular student. Atticus Finch changed my life when he said, “You never really understand a person until…you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Unless students have taught a rowdy class of kids before, we cannot know the struggles of teachers, just like the victims cannot know the struggles of the bully, or the bystanders cannot know the pain of the victim, and so on. “To perceive, is to suffer.” (Aristotle said that, and I don’t even care if it makes me sound pretentious). To feel empathy with someone, is a power some don’t hold. The only thing anyone can do now, is put an arm around those who hurt, and let them know that they are not alone. 

Attending Conferences WITH Students

It’s a revolutionary idea: let’s start attending conferences WITH students. I know, I know. It’s nice to get away from the task of creating meaningful experiences for them in order to create meaningful experiences for ourselves. But I tried it this weekend at NovaNow in Grand Rapids and I’ve never had a better, more meaningful conference experience. 

First, taking a half dozen students out of school for a half day (Friday PM) creates a bond that cannot be replicated in the classroom. Just to talk to these students on the drive to and from the conference was a real treat. We discussed what they should expect from an educational conference (teachers working on their craft while embracing the fact that students are there to learn) as well as the weekend’s goings-on. No matter the topic, the time to talk with teens is rewarding in and of itself.

Then, once present at the conference, we split up: they attended a session on project-based learning while I was wondering about “the end of teaching as we know it” with some other deep thinkers. The time apart allowed for great experiences and then greater discussion when we came back together. We spent the next session together thinking about “the artist, the maker, and the standardized test taker”. Throughout the session, we were able to think deeply about how students learn best and what schools of the future should do for student growth. Overall, the answer was–balance. Students should have the opportunities to build meaningful products, but they should also know how to sit and listen, how to take a test here and there. Balance. I like it.

Finally, it was my honor to present Elevate Empathy with their help. By having students in on the conversations of bullying and empathy, we can see the realities of it. And, in turn, they get an adult’s perspective. Never in my short time running workshop sessions has there been more meaningful discussion. Why? We had students. We’re all in the educational trenches together; it’s imperative that we come up with educational solutions together as well.

In the end, it’s the NovaNow leaders to thank for the opportunity. They see the value of the teen. It’s because of their forward thinking–and my students’ willingness to have unique experiences–that I could have the best conference experience I’ve ever had.

Student Perspective: Class Size Matters

Well, it’s Wednesday. That means, it’s time for a new student perspective. Again: my only instruction before students write is “write anything you want about education.” This blog opportunity is just to highlight the brains and overall talents of students at Spring Lake High School. 

And tonight–it comes from junior, Abby. Abby sees that class size matters and challenges all parties (students, teachers, and administrators) to fix the problem.

Education, an endless ocean of knowledge cycling through the minds of the young and old. It is first introduced to us before we know it and is carried on our backs forever. It begins simply–creating a base of common sense to grow on. Then suddenly, all at once, thrown into courses that require a lot of time and effort to comprehend it all. That is why we have teachers and many years to form an education that acts as a seed. A seed that, with the help of experiences and other people, can develop into our blossoming intelligence. That is my outlook on schooling. But not everything goes as well as planned. 

Like I said, it starts off simple. Beginning our structured education in preschool or kindergarten, we get the basics of math, literacy, and penmanship. Gradually, things get more difficult; our responsibilities evolve and the material gets more complex. When students are in dire need of guidance, they have nowhere to turn. Normally the teacher is the most common form of help, but now, as class size grows, teachers are burdened with a higher workload. Students often hear about class size increasing and how teachers have more pressure to instruct a larger number of students and grade many more assignments. This does no good for anyone because now students must seek for help in other locations because educators are now preoccupied. It’s like swimming in a pool: you, as the student, is the child playing innocently in the shallow end while the teacher is the lifeguard. If a few youngsters are at the pool that day, it is easy to see who needs help and guide them along. But if it is a busy day and many people are squeezing in the pool, it is easy for that lifeguard (teacher) to miss those few who are quietly drowning. We can’t let struggling students drown in the ocean of school. No one gets left behind.

Connection is Life

It’s a personal truth: connection to others drives me. And disconnection makes me feel lonely, unmotivated–sad.

This weekend, I’m taking the time to reconnect with family and friends. Sometimes my dedication to my job–the planning, the grading, the ski club chaperoning, the letter of recommendation writing, the committee attending, the professional development thinking, the unsettled contract contemplating–just gets in the way of being in the moment with those who mean most to me.

But yesterday? I coached my youngest daughter in her first basketball game ever. I skied with the twins and had meaningful conversation up the chair lifts. I played a board game. I watched Empire Strikes Back. I ate popcorn. I had a late-night texting conversation with my Swiss exchange daughter who’s having an incredible time in Disney World. I was all in on life, on the moment. I was connecting. And when I connect, I’m most alive.

This blog helps me connect as well, so it’s now officially time to bring it back. With my quick writes, I get to connect to myself. Sure, I’m very thankful for those of you who do read these words (to be frank, I’m not sure I’d do this if you didn’t–remember, the whole connection to others thing), but it allows me to check in with who I am, who I was, and who I want to be.