Tag Archives: Passion

If We Don’t Who Will

Some days you walk out of your classroom feeling that nothing spectacular happened that day. Nothing was learned and even less taught. A lingering cold, wrapped in exhaustion, wrapped in lethargy, wrapped in an overwhelming sense of banging your head against so many walls that you’re not sure where you are or how you got in. Forget about any notion of getting out.

The room is dark and empty, but still heavy and slipping away from you. The classes came and went, their opaque faces drab and reflecting your frustration. You ever try to teach a group of thirteen year old boys the power of metaphor?  The subtle beauty of poetry, the understanding that beneath their carefully constructed shell of angst and machismo, there may just be a tinny furry animal waiting to sing. Might be whimpering now, beneath the dirge of braggadocio and false self-esteem, but if you can convince them, they may perhaps hear  a more authentic Yawp, but on days like these there are few rooftops, and what little plateaus may glimmer in the fog are tame and totally translatable into words like defeat and failure.

They didn’t learn today. Words were exchanged, ideas shuffled, you sang tired song and danced a sad dance, but they saw right through you. They saw  through the mask and realized that the clown was only human and the lessons he was selling were false and trite and unnecessary. You could see the words dribble from your lips, as your convoluted ideas grew higher and higher drowning you both in wasted effort. Thesis statements, understandings, abstractions, imagery, truth. What do you know of such things to have the gall to teach? Each child struggling with his or her own inability to comprehend or grow or learn. Your teaching rather than act as a life preserver, awkwardly transforms into anvils of confusion, which you carefully tie around each ankle and watch them sink.

Sure there was the literal kid, confessing his in ability to see what could be. Trapped in a world of what is. His young brain, trained by rulers and numbers packed so snuggling into his perfect little box. His eyes looking into yours, cold, “I don’t know why the world is beautiful.” Even after the claim of the worlds beauty was one of his professed truths. “Let’s make a list of things you find beautiful,”  you reassure him. “Mountains okay! That is good. What do mountains tend to represent?” Blank stare. Quiet. “If mountains were people, how would they act, how would they look?”  Whispering. Unsure. “Yes good– strong, wise, old! What else is beautiful?” We are getting somewhere. This is scaffolding. This is teaching. “Rivers. Yes! Sure they are fast and flow and change. What do they do to mountains? Shape them! Perfect.” High fives. “Have you ever been to a mountain? Swam in a river? No? Oh….” The high is low. Poetry without experience is nothing more than empty words.  You both stare at dead letters blinking on the page. You google a few images of mountains and rivers and ask him to write a poem about a little boy who sees the beauty in the world, but has never felt it. You hope for the best. How do you teach what could be, when we live in a world of what is?

People criticize teachers, bloggers, writers who only promote and share their success stories. Claiming that by sharing what works we set the bar too high. Perhaps they are right. Maybe we do need more posts sharing the days where it just didn’t feel right. We tell our students that they cannot hope to achieve at the highest level all the time, but we hold ourselves at this high standard. We are so afraid to admit that some days we just don’t have it.  It feels good to admit that. Because after all, we have been doing this long enough to know that these days come and go. We know we will head back into the classroom, we will look back into those eyes, we will sing the song, we will dance the dance and we will teach kids poetry god damn it, because if we don’t who will?


Hope That Helps

I recently received the following email from a student I taught in eighth grade a few years ago. She is at university now.

Hey Mr.R!
Long time no talk. How are you? How’s the family? Hope you’re all doing well. I’m going into my second year now at the University of Waterloo in Canada. I sort of hate it, but I’m learning to deal with it, so I guess that part’s okay. I wanted to ask you for some advice – I’m in a weird place right now. They really don’t prepare you for college in high school… Well, anyway, I’m kind of stuck between wanting to be an English major and struggling with what my odds would look like career-wise, and trying to pick something more “practical” like Psychology and going to med school etc. I’m so confused and it’s so unbelievably frustrating to be debating myself about my entire future… please help!


My response:


You find yourself in a familiar spot for anyone who has ever been entranced by the word. For every person who’s been tricked into believing that perhaps a living can be made from prose and metaphor and creation and bliss.

The reality, and I really hate to be the one to tell you– as perhaps I was the one who lit the fire, or at least fanned it early in your life, is that there is nothing practical about literature or writing. It is a dead end road obstructed with angst and pain. Forget about careers and security and normality.

You may be one of the lucky ones who has the tenacity, talent and verve to become an actually writer. A tattered creature scraping by enough money to make what they call a living, but the reality is more likely that you will fill your head with the magic of words and find yourself powerless to exist in a world that seldom values them.

Maybe you will become a teacher who spends her life hoodwinking others into believing that art and beauty and dreams are more a human act that working and careers and money can ever be.

You ask me advice about practicality? I know little about the subject. Follow your heart and what you love, the rest will fall into place. Do what you believe will make you happy. Think of what has always made you happy thus far and stick with that. Do not be led by practicality. There are more than enough people following those pursuits. There is nothing wrong with Med school or psychology, but do it because you love it and you feel you have no other choice. Do not allow your decisions to be made based on what you think you should do. Make them based on what you must do.

Whatever you do, will be the right choice. Life is long and simple and pleasant when you do what you love.

Hope that helps.

Mr. R

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by aroid

Do you have any advice for her? What would you say?


Power in Energy

I have never been a fan of numbers. Can’t (don’t, won’t?) do maths. Physics ain’t my thing. I do, however, have a nagging curiosity about the nature of the universe and the magic with which it is made up. I simply choose to express my curiosity through words–poetry and metaphor, stories and allusions. There is a poetry in numbers, I am sure, but I only feel it when I translate it into pictures and words.

So when I saw the video below about the power of stored energy and chain reactions, my mind immediately sprung to an analogy and a song:

Until your back’s up against the wall
You never know yourself that much at all
So you’ve got to share your love with a friend
That’s all that you’ve got left in the end
Living in this city of pure confusion
People misled by their own illusion
All this action, no satisfaction
We’re all linked together like a chain reaction
Play or fold, love is bold
What is the future that will unfold?

Beastie Boys

Take a look:

I couldn’t help but think about the concept of stored energy and release, of change and revolution in– politics, in education, in personal growth. My mind lit up to reveal how, “a person is a person no matter how small.”  I am so often frustrated with the slow pace of change in terms of educational reform, or politics change, or social justice, but this clip reminded me that we live in a universe of stored and released energy. I may feel like the tiny 1mm x 1mm domino, but perhaps someday when I simply lead forward a bit and reach that tipping point, the larger dominoes (traditional schooling, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc….) will to topple over. Or maybe they are in the process of falling as we speak, but we are stuck in a slow-motion frame and it feels like it is taking forever.

Then I thought about the power of positive energy and love and karma and what this energy could be capable of when released! Not to get all metaphysical here, but there is power in energy, as evidenced in the clip, so be aware of how you harness, store, use and release it.


Fun and Games

A few days ago, I was bemoaning the existence of exams,  (Glad to see I am not alone in my dislike of exams by the way.) when Adrienne, bless her heart, said something like:

Reality is not all fun and games.

The conversation continued with a bit more detail–about the need for balance of assessments, the value in creating timed conditions for students to illustrate learning as a way to deal with future anxiety and stress, so on and so on. It was a great chat as usual, but I won’t say much more about it here, in case I misquote what was said. The gist of it, at least for me, the part that stuck in my head, was the quote from above: Reality is not all #funandgames.

My first reaction, the one that sprung from my gut was, “Sure it is.” Or “It should be!” or “You wouldn’t say that to a six year old.” At which point, I remembered that I have a six year old at home, and I often catch myself saying things like Reality is not all #funandgames to her all the time! Reality check. Damn!

It is okay to make a huge mess, but we have to cleanup afterward.

Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do,  so we can do the things we want later.

There is time for play, but there is also time to pay attention and work hard.

You get the point. I get the point of balance and hard work. I have swallowed the bitter pill of reality my fair share of times. I have sat through meetings. I have wallowed in bureaucracy. I have given exams; I have taken exams. I get it–life can suck, but we learn from it. We just have to do it.

We all know that as mature, competent, “successful” adults we need to balance our fun and work. We know, usually, when to suck it up and just do it, so we can kick back and enjoy other things. We have learned, through years of schooling and work and university and exams and tax papers and bank accounts and DMV lines that reality is not all fun and games. We have learned to navigate this reality, and for better or worse we function in it. We thrive in it even. But why do we compare learning with reality? With work? With chores? Why does learning become another chore we must slog through to get to the good stuff? Why can’t it be the good stuff? What if we created schools that exuded the idea that Learning is all fun and games and kept reality out of it all together? I know, I know balance, quantifiable results, assessments of learning, test scores, GPAs, university, back to reality!

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by rolfekolbe

I guess what I am grappling with is–How successful are we as schools, teachers, and parents at instilling this balance in the people with which we interact? We can all litter our walls with Learner Profile posters and scream till our voices are hoarse about balance, but do we practice what we preach? For me, school has always been a place where Reality is not all #funandgames, and I have always wanted it to be Learning is all #funandgames. I hope I have been clear that I understand the value of both, but I think schools spend more time preparing students for a reality of exams and bureaucracy and work and taxes and things we dread, than inspiring in them a love of life and learning and creativity and art and fun. Not all schools, obviously. And yes, of course schools are doing amazing things like service learning, outdoor ed, drama, art and music programs, sports and many other things, but for some reason in the end, it all comes down to grades, achievement, scores, exams- preparation for Reality. We use words like rigor and excellence and college entrance to convince ourselves and our students that they need this, but do they really?

Can’t we teach students the value of hard work and learning and education free from the grip of academic reality? Can’t we focus on learning and fun and games and leave reality on hold for awhile, because let’s admit it, they will be dealing with it soon enough and for long enough. I think children who are confident, passionate and creative do not need exams to show understanding; they usually succeed anyway. But too often, we use academic rigor as the most important criteria for learning and success, and this leaves many children behind. I know, because I was one of them.  I never took the game of school seriously. Yes, I took the exams, I played my part. Some I passed, some I failed. In the end I got a 3. something from some Ivy League school, but that was reality and it was not fun for sure. I played the game to get the degree, and now have over $30,000 of debt to show for it. The learning, the who I am, has always been from from doing. It was all fun and it still is.

How long before we can look back on this system of preparatory education and create institutions where students are not preparing for a reality they find boring and riddled with anxiety? A place where they are not taking exams, but traveling, building, creating, living. Where in short they are having fun and playing games, but at the same time working hard and learning? I want a new concept of school. I think this new school needs more fun and games and less exams.

How do you find this balance in your classroom, in your school? Am I wrong in devaluing academic rigor and examinations? Why do you find it valuable? Curious to hear your thoughts on any of my ramblings. Sorry it took me a while to find my point. Good thing this wasn’t some English exam, I would most likely have scored low for not having a clear thesis and topic sentences.

People say I’m lazy
Dreaming my life away
Well, they give me all kinds of advice
Designed to enlighten me

When I tell them that I’m doing fine
Watching shadows on the wall
Don’t you miss the big time, boy?
You’re no longer on the ball

I’m just sitting here
Watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll…

John Lennon




Identify The Boundaries

People who know me, the ones who I have met, the ones who follow my tweets, the ones who read this blog, know that I am obsessed with identity. I have written on the subject extensively on this blog, and I have explored the subject in depth on my personal blog. While on the surface it may appear that I am being a narcissistic ego-maniac, I assure you my intentions are good. For the last seven years, I have been conducting an experiment of sorts.

What do we feel comfortable sharing online? What is or should be private? What can we gain by over-sharing? How does this theory of openness help us connect to others? How does it affect community? What is everyone so afraid of? Should I be?

There are countless other questions, but you get the point. I have tried to share as much as I can, to see if by sharing every aspect of my life, I can build an authentic “brand.” One that will help me gather a tribe of like-minded people who will not only help me learn, but who will also become close friends. I am hoping that by revealing as much as I can, you will help me identify the gaps and help complete me. See this stuff is deep.

None of what I have written so far is new, so why write this post again? Firstly, I wanted to share my second online stalking! A few years ago, Clarence Fisher’s English class, investigated my online footprint and discovered some interesting things. No surprises. They got a superficial, yet accurate, image of who I was in 2010.

I am happy to announce that I have been stalked a second time. This time as a part of UMW Digital Identity course taught by Martha Burtis. One of her students was assigned to dig up all she could about who I am now. You can read her complete reflection here, but there is not much out of the ordinary this time around either. Beyond being impressed that she was able to identify my daughter’s addiction to Nutella, there was little in what she found beyond my blog About Me page.

She asked me to answer some questions in a recorded interview, which I do at the end of this video. Her introduction is hilarious, despite the poor sound. The interview questions at the end of clip, however,  sound fine. The worst kind of criminal–an educator…

One of the biggest criticism of social media and online sharing is that it is somehow inherently false and duplicitous. Because we can choose what we share, the thinking goes, we only share the best of who we are. We somehow build these better alter-egos of ourselves. We never shed light on our faults, show ourselves being ugly, or delve too deep into the darkness.

I am sure there is truth to this. This is what I want to challenge. I am not sure where the boundaries are, but I am very curious. I have tried to be as open as possible, but I am sure even I have held back. I know there are some definite no-nos. Never talk about sexuality. I will promote gay rights and gender equality, because I feel they are human rights, but personal thoughts on sexuality is a no go for me.

I have begun to share less about religion these days. I am openly atheist, but I hope that as I get older, I am becoming more tolerant and focusing on my own slow Zen practice. It’ a process, a journey. I am on it. Enough said.

Politics? I used to be more outspoken, but even my energy in that field has been subdued. I am trying to sort myself out first. I will speak up about injustice and criticize system I find unfair, but I seldom get into heated debates these days.

What is the next step of this experiment? How else can I dance on the edge of private vs public, personal vs professional? This is where you come in. I need your help. I am going to ask you a few questions.  I do not expect you to answer them. I would just like you to think about where your boundaries are? What would you never share online? What kinds of questions are just too much? Then I want you to ask me those questions. Leave them in the comments below.

I am not asking you to ask me these questions, because I will necessarily answer them; I just want to see how they affect my comfort zone. I want to sketch out my no-fly zone. Identify the boundaries. I am also curious what you feel is out of bounds. I want to test the waters. I am expecting that based on your culture and personality we will have a wide range of ideas in regards to privacy.

What is too much?
What do you feel is too private to share?
What would make you feel uncomfortable?

Thanks for playing along.