Things I Know 306 of 375: We know who we are by what happens when things go wrong

An apology is the superglue of life.  It can repair just about anything.

– Lynn Johnston

“I just wanted to apologize for what I said up here. This is a space for coming together, and talk like that isn’t what this is about. I’m sorry.”

Then there were applause and shouts of “It’s okay” as the young man walked back to his seat.

From the other side of the auditorium, I watched as those seated around him patted the student on the back.

I’d been there to see the moment he was apologizing for. As part of a student sketch at Codman Academy’s Community Circle, the student had decided to ad lib one of his lines when describing the character played by one of Codman’s teachers. He’d said the character was a “douche.” A visitor to the school, I could still tell the student had gone off book.

Several things were remarkable to me about the episode. The least of these was what the student said.

Put an adolescent student in front of his peers with a microphone and you are asking him to play with power, to experiment with voice and discover where the line of what he can and cannot get away with lies. In the most fitting and least academic terms, he was feelin’ himself, and the school had invited it.

More interesting was the school’s reaction. The collective inhale after the line was uttered told me everyone else in the room recognized we’d left the script behind for a moment. But there was no outburst. No yells of agreement or signs students in the audience agreed with the statement. And that’s the thing, I know those students existed. At some point in time, this teacher had to have made a comment or taken an action that put him on the other side of at least one student’s good graces. If ever there were a moment for that student to give voice to his frustration anonymously, this was it. No one did.

And that’s culture. No one yelled assent because everyone understood the norms of the space. It was the message I attempted to convey when I would respond to student cursing in my classroom with, “We don’t use those words here.”

Whatever their differences, the assembled students knew they did not use those words here.

I should point out there was a space of about 20 minutes between the ad lib and the apology. Other business had been attended to, and I’d almost forgotten what had happened. Somewhere in that 20 minutes, someone had reached out to the student. Someone had removed the act from the moment and worked to process how what had been said fit with the definition of what it means to be a positive member of the community. I have no proof for this, but years of experience working with teenagers tell me I’m probably correct here. Naturally non-reflective, teens need intervention to help process actions and events. Some adult had likely intervened, and it is to their credit.

In many schools, the student would have been pulled from the circle, yelled at, and assigned a punishment with no mention of apology or what it means to be a community member.

That wasn’t what happened. Someone in the audience, I’m guessing the student’s advisor, had the clarity of thought and purpose to ask what they could do in that moment to help the student understand and learn from the verbal gaff. They’d responded as a teacher.

More than anything else, I was impressed by the student. Public speaking is more terrifying to the masses than anything else, and he stood alone in front of his peers to speak. Not only that, what he had to say was an apology. Few teenagers want to stand in front of their entire school. None wants to stand before the assembled masses and say they were wrong. Somewhere within this young man was a strength of character and commitment to community that allowed him to learn the power of saying “I’m sorry.” It did not excuse what he’d said. The words were out there. Saying he was sorry did work to make amends, to show that he valued the space and the people enough to ask for a chance to earn their trust again.

Many schools have Community Circle or some version thereof. Many schools get the circle part of it right. Few schools get right or focus resources on the community part. Codman does. At SLA and Phoenix, I knew we’d gotten it right when I saw how we reacted when someone went wrong. If anything, that’s the measure of a community.

Things I Know 287 of 365: Here’s where I’m from

I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

– George Ella Lyon

As we closed out our final meeting of the small group section attached to one of my courses, we engaged in a conversation on the importance and shape of teacher autobiography. We ended with a writing exercise. I wanted to call Bud, because I knew how happy he’d be.

After brainstorming the sensory details we associated with our individual school journeys. Then, we looked at George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From.”

Our job was to re-imagine Lyon’s work filled with the stories of where we’re from. It was a beautiful task, and I thank my colleague Tracy for giving us space and safety to create and share. We began our time together this semester by sharing the basics – name, home, experience in education, etc. Tracy gave us a space to mark the end of our time together by, again, sharing who we are in a way that honored the intimacy inherent when a class becomes a community.

Here is where I’m from:

I am from tater tots,

from madrigal dinners and holding your breath in the boys bathroom.

I am from painted cinder-block walls.

(Covered in essays and coats of arms to disguise the normalness of it all.)

I am from chalkboards that wanted to be dry erase boards,

the pride of a strong FFA chapter

and knowing we’d be champions in meat judging

if not basketball.

I am from the safety of the choir room,

from Hemingway and yearbook editing.

I’m from the old guard who knew their duty to be sacred.

They’d taught our parents’ parents, and they’d teach us.

I’m from being sick the days we learned to use scissors,

and finding it didn’t matter because the teacher was right-handed.

I’m from scholastic bowl, Alanis Morissette’s debut album,

pizza that looked like it came on a giant saltine,

huddling around a speaker phone to interview a victim of Kent State,

being bumped a grade and then terrified as Mrs. Miller explained how she hated freshmen because they smelled –

making her laugh in spite of herself throughout that entire year.

I am from hallways and classrooms –

built by people who knew –

their hope and ours depended on knowing more than they did.

Things I Know 232 of 365: I met the Car Talk guys

Don’t drive like my brother.

– Tom and Ray Magliozzi

Did I ever tell you the one about the time I met the Car Talk guys?

Monday, I had the chance to speak virtually to the District Technology Leaders of Orange County, CA about what digital spaces and digital learning can and should be. Rather than risk running late for class or getting cut off from my apartment’s super sketchy Internet access, I travelled to campus and reserved a room in the library so I knew I’d be able to hardwire into a network connection. At the appointed time, I spoke for an hour to and with what I was told was a room of about 20 people from around Orange County about the spaces they could imagine online and they affordances of such spaces. It was a learning experience in how to shape a talk around of people I can’t see or physically interact with.

The Car Talk guys were not a part of the talk.

Feeling suitably pleased with the talk, I headed to the Crema Cafe in Harvard Square for a lunch. Normally, I’d head to the commons on campus, but I was feeling pretty good, so I thought I’d splurge.

At Crema, I ran into a few other folks from my program. They were sitting at the bar whilst I was waiting for my grilled cheese, and I struck up a conversation. Three of them needed to head to class (none of them the Car Talk guys), and I took one of their seats next to Meaghan and Eric to catch up on our weekends.

I took off my bag and set it at my feet between the wall of the counter and my chair.

Ten minutes later, as Meaghan and Eric were standing to leave, I heard Meaghan say, “Where’s my bag?”

I looked to where I’d seen Meaghan’s bag when I sat down, “It’s right over…” Nope.

We looked around. I looked from table to table, pointing to the bags at strangers’ feet, “Is that it?” as if we were playing some impromptu game of I Spy.

None of the bags was Meaghan’s.

I looked down at my own bag.

Well, I would have, if it were still there.

My bag, too, was missing.

Again, I surveyed the immediate area of the cafe – this time for my bag.


I stood and walked the length of the building – nothing.

I walked up the stairs to the loft seating – nothing.

In the initial moments, my thinking was that someone we knew had moved our bags and was going to pop up from behind the counter – that rapscallion. And then we’d have a pint of ale and sing sea shanties.

No such luck.

Our bags had been stolen.

We had been robbed.

We caught the attention of one of the women behind the counter and explained what had happened. In an understanding tone, she said they’d had a problem with that before and said she’d go get the phone number of the police.

I called and the voice on the other end said an officer would come to us. After I hung up, I learned Meaghan and Eric had asked if the place was outfitted with security cameras.

“Yes,” said the lady, but not on the space where we were sitting. They were more focused on the front of the cafe, near the entrance.

“Could we see them, just the same? Whoever had taken our bags had to leave somehow.”

We needed to talk to the owner.

Excellent, how could we do that.

The lady pointed to the front of the shop. The owner was showing around a new hire. She’d be with us as soon as she could be.

While we waited for the police officer to arrive, the lady told us they’d had a meeting just that morning where the employees had talked about how their weren’t adequate security camera’s in the place and that they needed more.

This was offered in a tone I suppose was meant to help us feel better.

“See,” she seemed to be saying, “we weren’t ignorant of the possibility that your day would suck a few minutes after you sat down to your iced tea and grilled cheese.”

So kind.

We went outside to wait, away from the noise and frustration of the cafe.

Eventually, an officer arrived to take our report.

While we’d been waiting, I popped my head in to let the lady we’d been speaking with know we were outside when the owner was done.

We never heard from the owner.

At some point, a new lady, a manager, came out to talk to us. It was as she was reiterating the lack of adequate camera coverage and the fact that they’d had a running problem with bags being taken that the police officer showed up.

She stood their for the first part of the conversation, and I’m not sure when she headed back in.

The officer took our details.

We described our bags and their contents. For me, it meant my laptop, iPad, course packs, statistics notes and two books for class were gone.

Meaghan lost her laptop, course packs, a paper due that day, her wallet, cell phone and keys.

The officer, after explaining the process for filing our case and the assignment of a detective, tried to make us feel better.

They’d had several cases of bags being taken, he said. From this place, particularly, he said. They tried to increase their presence, he said.

We thanked him kindly for his time, and he headed off to do more policing.

“Should we go talk to the Car Talk guys,” I asked Meaghan and Eric.

I’d noticed when I walked outside that the voice of one of the men sitting at one of the cafe’s outside tables sounded like a voice on which I’d been brought up.

As soon as the man to whom the voice belonged stood up and said, “Do you want anything, Tommy?” I knew it was the voice of either Click or Clack of the Tappit Brothers. They’re otherwise known as Tom and Ray Magliozzi .

“I guess we might as well,” said Meaghan.

The table had been feet away from us as we talked to the police officer, and they were clearly interested in what was going down.

We exchanged pleasantries and told them the story of what had just happened.

I found myself rushing through the explanation of the events to get to the end. After we’d said our piece, we were met with “That’s terrible,” and “That’s horrible,” and “I’m so sorry.” They were to be the refrain of the next couple days.

I accepted their condolences tersely and said, tripping over my excitement, “Are you the Car Talk guys?”

One said yes, the other said no, and that sealed it.

We told them how important they’d been to us as we were growing up and that we’d been longtime listeners, and they said thanks in their trademark self-depricating fashion.

We didn’t ask for autographs. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

Anything we would have asked them to sign had just been stolen.

We walked away wondering at the weirdness of the universe.

In the day since, I have learned exactly what kind of community I am a part of here.

Our program director, Lola Irele, sent us immediately to the head of Student Affairs, Liz Thurston, when she learned what happened.

Thurston asked us what classes we were in and what had been taken. This morning, I had an e-mail explaining that replacement course packs were waiting in the registrar’s office.

I received an e-mail from one of my professors, asking me if I needed anything and letting me know I had extra time on an upcoming assignment if I needed it.

Thurston e-mailed all of our professors to let them know what happened.

Classmates I met just a few weeks ago started e-mailing offering to help, lend course readings and let us know they were sorry to hear the news.

Charlotte, one of the three who left the cafe just before I sat down, started a chipin campaign for people who were interested in helping to offset the costs of replacing what had been stolen.

All day today, I’ve been getting e-mails letting me know people have been contributing.

I won’t be going back to Crema Cafe. It’s not because that’s where my bag was taken, but because the owner never paused from showing the new employee around the place to see if we were okay.

I will be thankful for the community here at HGSE. People who I’ve spoken to only once or twice have gone out of their way to help out when there was no pressing reason to do anything.

Plus, I got to meet the Car Talk guys.

Things I Know 159 of 365: I was surprised

We wasted the good surprise on you!

Big Daddy

I’m not an easy person to surprise.

No matter how diligently they tried to conceal it, by the time Christmas rolled around, I’d usually surmised what my parents had bought me.

It’s what comes from being naturally curious and observant, I suppose.

So, today, when advisory began and the advisees I saw graduate last year, after three years with me, showed up, I was impressed that I knew nothing of their plans.

Having received word that I’ll be leaving SLA, my alumni advisees organized a party in conjunction with my current crop of advisees.

They sat down with Matt, my co-advisor.

They got Diana to find out my favorite foods (mashed potatoes and sugar cookies – not usually together).

They organized themselves and threw a party today.

From all the paths they’ve taken after graduation, they returned to celebrate.

Today, I felt special. I felt loved.

I told them what is true – I’ve hundreds of former students out there in the world. I’ll never know what becomes of the vast majority of them. These 40, though, they have my heart. I was not only their teacher, I was their advisor, and that lives somewhere special in my mind. I will always count myself as their advisor.

In Cambridge or Illinois or anywhere else in the world, I will always care for and support these students.

Today, they supported me.

When talking to Bud about my day, I commented I got to experience what it means to be part of a caring community. It was a further reminder that every student and every teacher deserves to learn in such a place.

Things I Know 81 of 365: Teachers need to play too

Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.

– Joseph Chilton Pearce

We’ve arrived at that part of the school year where The Man can get you down. Usually, The Man is time – time together, time between breaks, time in the house during the bleaker months. This year, The Man has incarnations in the form of budget cuts, layoffs, the neutering of organized labor, and, yes, time.

Between sections of standardized testing today, I sent Chris a message.

“Can Pia lead us in a game at the staff meeting today?”

“Dunno,” was his reply.

I didn’t think about it again until I walked into the library a few minutes before the meeting.

There stood Pia, our health and P.E. teacher and one of my dearest friends, blowing up a beach ball.

“You’ve never looked sexier,” I said as the limp orb hung from her mouth.

We both cracked up.

Chris started the meeting.

There we sat, 30 professionals battling to get kids into college, through testing, to counseling, beyond adolescence. Somewhere in there, we teach and learn. If we have the time and energy after, we cobble together lives with friends and family.

“Before we get started,” Chris said, “Pia has a game for us.”

She broke the library in half with a clear dividing line.

“We’re playing chair volleyball,” she said. “This is the line. If it hits the floor after you touch it, the opposing team gets a point. Beyond the pole is out of bounds. You have to stay in your chair to hit the ball. All body parts are fair game.”

A couple teachers straggled in.

Both sides of the room erupted, “You’re on our team! You’re on our team!”

In our shirts and ties and our skirts and heels, we were 12.

Pia sent the new arrivals to my team.

After the other side protested, she said, “I cheat how I wanna cheat.”

I walked to her and palmed her a dollar.

“Okay, so it’s 1—0 to start,” she said indicating my team was up a point.

And then it began. It was tremendous.

The ball bounced off of people and bookshelves and the ceiling and tables and chairs. We were screaming and yelling and laughing.

Somehow, Pia’s scoring bounced around as often as the ball, and I got the definite feeling, no matter who scored the most points, the game was headed for a tie.

After about 10 minutes, Pia called the game and we clapped and laughed and sounded our barbaric yawps.

Sometimes, in the middle of a class just after lunch, when heads are bobbing and eyes are heavy, I’ll have my class stand and compete to see who can stand on their tiptoes or one foot the longest.

That’s what we did as a faculty today. March is the class after lunch of the school year. Later in the meeting, we talked about differentiation, multiculturalism and school partnerships – the business of school.

For 10 minutes, we took time to play and be people together.

Try it.

Things I Know 74 of 365: Story is currency

On the day when man told the story of his life to man, history was born.

– Alfred de Vigny

Stories have always fascinated me. My family trades stories like currency. From the garbled message from my cousin Milo explaining why the book I sent him was so important to my great-grandparents’ and now grandparents’ recollections of where we come from, stories matter in my family.

When I interviewed to teach at SLA, I was asked to describe my dream class. I was nervous and unprepared. I have no idea what I described. Now, though, I am teaching it. Second semester, for two years now, I teach a class called Storytelling to SLA seniors.

As I’ve explained before, Tuesday afternoons, I set up the class like a performance space, heat a percolator of coffee and one of hot water for tea. I set out cream and sugar and cookies. Beside them, I have a tip jar.

At the front of the room is a microphone. Beside it is a table with a small sound board and a laptop.

For two hours at the end of my Tuesday, I sit at that table and listen as my students share and explode moments of their lives in our weekly class story slams. Built around the rules of Philadelphia’s First Person Arts Story Slams, the rules are simple.

Three random audience judges scoring on content and presentation.

Five random storytellers.

No more than 5 minutes.

No notes.

True stories.

Tuesday, I woke up with a Daylight Saving Time hangover. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to leave their bed. I dragged through much of the day. Then, during lunch, I remembered – slams.

I set up the room, bought the supplies and greeted the students as they filed in.

Describing the stories would fall short. There’s something at once vulnerable and empowered as my students stand behind the mic and share parts of their lives the people in the room have usually never been privy to.

I’ll stop here and let you listen to two selections from this week’s slam around Malice.

No matter the discipline, story should be the currency of our classrooms.
Ralen and Freda by MrChase

A Humbling Moment

The Whole Story:

This semester has afforded me the opportunity to teach a class I’ve always wanted to teach – Storytelling. Thus far, we’re still fumbling with the ideas of what makes a story and what stories tell us about who we are. We’re playing directly and academically with those ideas every day we meet.

Except one.

Each Tuesday is story slam day. A blend of the stylings of The Moth and Philadelphia’s own First Person Arts’ story slams, the slams in class have some simple rules:

Five storytellers are randomly selected for each slam.

Their stories must be inspired by the week’s theme.

The stories must be true.

No memorization / scripts.

After each story, three randomly selected audience judges score the storyteller on content and presentation on a scale of 1-10. All the SLAms are here and here.

The room is re-arranged and coffee and tea are served.

In general, it’s a light-hearted, informal experience.

This Tuesday, though, proved one of the most profound and humbling experiences I’ve had in a classroom from my first days in Kindergarten.

The theme was “Giving Up,” and Lewam took the stage.

(audio not available in feed readers)

I’ve been working to process the story from the moment she told it.

Here’s where my mind stands. I’m at once incredibly sad and incredibly proud.

No matter how much I’ve tried or organized or listened or worked, a student in my charge felt pain within my room and within my walls.

In talking to Chris about it, he gave me the words I think I needed. Pieces of what we do will always be invisible. Pieces of our students’ lives will always be invisible. Unless we want to suit up with full-on, both-end-of-candle-burning messiah complexes, we will never see all of the invisible pieces of each child’s life. I’m not so dense as to be ignorant of this fact.

When the fact stands at a microphone in front of 30 of its peers and pronounces itself, though, the effect is markedly different. It is strikingly visible.

She stood in front of the room and said that, to her, the care and culture and collaboration had, for much of her time, failed her.

So, what do stories tell us about ourselves?

What does this moment mean?

It is complex.

When her name was called, she did not hesitate to take the mic. She did not attempt to negotiate to tell her story later or go last. She spoke truth to the power of community because the community told her it was ok.

What do we do with that?

That is, of course, rhetorical. We must honor it. To maintain integrity, we honor it.

Ego is pushed aside, and the community must reflect.

She found her voice, but felt we did not honor it. I am saddened by this and feel I did the best I could by her. It would be easy to go to “My best wasn’t good enough.” Instead, I’m drawn to the idea that my best should have been different. I’m not the only player here. Her classmates, the faculty, Lewam – they’ve all played their parts. My part is to be responsible for what I do and what I can influence. For sure, I’ll be asking Lewam for advice for the future. I’ve already told her her words impacted me more than most anything I’ve experienced in the classroom.

The Gist:

Lewam likely couldn’t have told this story last year or the year before.

She told it though.

And the room listened.

The applause you hear were the longest and most sincere of any slam we’ve put on. Even the kids who tune out or make cute jibes were silent. They saw her, they connected.

Not altogether surprisingly, she received straight 10s from each judge.

Something sits and works at my brain. What do I do with the fact that her story points to the community’s failure, but her telling of the story leads me to believe the community had something to do with helping her find her voice?

What do stories tell us about who we are?