The Dual Power of No, Thanks.

No Stone Unturned

Within the multi-billion dollar self-help industry, there are countless books about mindset changes and single words. The Power of No. The Power of Now. Year of Yes. I’ve got nothing against this trend; in fact, I greatly appreciate reflection and taking a dive into how and why we (I) behave the way we (I) do and what changes might be worth considering.

As an educator, I’ve come to particularly appreciate No. Not blunt, straight-up rejections of professional opportunities or requests, but rather: I appreciate the offer. No thanks. If you’re comfortable with yourself and your personal and professional strengths, then why focus limited time and energy towards potential distractions? And taking on — or rejecting — extra duties is a real issue for many teacher leaders who are asked to carry much greater workloads than their colleagues.

But I’m not advocating being a rotten team player. Far from it. Because if you do turn down an extra school duty — whether it serving as a teacher’s union representative, SBDM council member, club sponsor or a department chair — then consider flipping your own No, thanks response into demonstrating that you would prefer to contribute in other ways.

And after delivering your own message of No, thanks, don’t be afraid to hear it in return when you are the one making an ask.

Rejection is one part of your professional journey, and it’ll be more prevalent if your brain simmers with ideas and ambition. I know from plenty of experience: I’ve been told No, thanks by publications, fellowship committees, employers, and others in my educator and writer life. This doesn’t discourage me; instead, it catalyzes me to devise new pathways.

Perhaps you’d rather design a new elective course than serve as a PLC leader. You may or may not get what you want, but you’re more passionate about innovative curriculum design that serving in a more traditional leadership role.

Eight years ago, I found myself in a similar situation as mentioned above. After proposing to create a class on digital literacy and storytelling, my superiors provided radio silence in return. The absence of reply felt even more harsh than a No, thanks. But I continued to pitch the idea to those willing to listen; it led to a new position in a new school and district, grant opportunities, and a revitalization of my education career.

Here’s another hypothetical scenario: Perhaps you’ve been asked to sponsor a school club. It happens to be the bowling team, and you can’t stand bowling. The stale bowling alley smell from decades of spilled drinks and clouds of Marlboro smoke seems to seep under your skin. But you do have a passion in service learning, so after saying no thanks to the bowling team, you present the idea to sponsor and create a new club. Even if your idea is initially rejected, believe that a building leader or other organization is out there who will embrace you and your interest.

Of course, there are times when saying No, thanks is simply a method for survival or a way of protecting well-being. Hypothetical case in point: Your graduate school studies are stretching you too thin, and you can’t currently serve on the school’s budget committee — doing so could add that extra bit of stress to spill over, leading to a knotted-up neck and tension headaches. Explain to your boss that once school is over, you’d be happy to get more involved. Teacher burnout is a real issue, and No, thanks can be literally be a career saver.

Just last month, I got hammered with probably the most painful No of my professional career. Throughout the fall, I spent hours upon hours applying for a Distinguished Award in Teaching Fulbright grant to research education in New Zealand. For six months!

I ended up receiving a flat out rejection email with no feedback. After building a unique and accomplished educator resume over 13 years, it stung. Big time. But my desire to travel and learn — leading to my application in the first place — will turn this heck, no into something better. My wife and I are already scheming for some global adventures and volunteering.

For someone who has come to embrace No, thanks as a pathway to professional satisfaction, I’ve also come to learn that meaningful, fresh professional experiences remain dormant when we’re afraid of hearing “no” in return.

Shooting Free Throws Underhanded in School

No Stone Unturned

Here are some thoughts about teacher leadership and facing discomfort when attempting to do the right thing, especially when it challenges the status quo.

Washington Bullets v Golden State Warriors

BALTIMORE, MD – CIRCA 1974: Rick Barry #24 of the Golden State Warriors is at the free-throw line against the Washington Bullets during a circa 1974 NBA basketball game at the Capital Center in Baltimore, Maryland. Barry played for the Warriors from 1972 – 77. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

A Priority: Changing How We Talk About School

Room 137

The following post first appeared on my Bluegrass Dispatches blog at the Center for Teaching Quality.

Wordle: Thunder words

In 2008, one of my first published articles challenged the dominant discourse in education. I was fed up with the way many of my colleagues and administrators conversed about teaching and learning, believing their words stifled innovation.

I heard grades, standards, depth of knowledge, future, rigor, and test scores all the time. But I wanted to talk about and employ pedagogy relating to community, inspiration, discovery, projects, and the present.

The way we talk about school has shifted a little bit, but it’s still dominated by language relating to content standards and testing, sometimes pushing aside more meaningful ideas and practice.

Our language reflects our philosophy, and I wonder how often we educators blindly accept words set forth before us without examining underlying belief systems behind the lingo. Here are a few phrases or words worth critically challenging:

College and Career Readiness (CCR)

It has a nice ring to it, no?  We all want our students to be prepared to succeed after they stroll across the stage after graduation. I can’t argue with that.  Are students really CCR by solely posting a minimal ACT score? Of course not, but this is way these words have been twisted. I’m bombarded daily with reminders of the need to increase CCR scores, and I’m tired of it.

Being CCR means a lot more than a qualifying test score.  It means being able to communicate using varied mediums and devices. It means being able to ask questions and solve problems. It could mean building student capacity to identify community and school issues, making their world a better place.

Focusing on CCR scores ignores the fact there can be meaningful, varied opportunities right NOW. Not in the future. “You’ll need that (insert content or test score here) years down the road” is simply an excuse for bypassing authentic teaching and learning in the present.

  • Let’s talk about how we define CCR in our schools. Let’s talk about what we can do right now, in order to provide students valuable skills and experiences in the present.

Achievement Gap

Like CCR, this discourse is focused on student deficit, rather than student strength. Sure, we’d love to see groups of students achieve on more equal levels. But by focusing on what students lack and trying to build a bridge to span these gaps, are we missing opportunities to explore student strengths? How are student schedules altered by focusing on student weaknesses? Then there’s the whole issue of how achievement is defined within this discourse, which is in the context of standardized test scores.

  • Let’s talk about what it means to focus on student strength instead of weakness. Let’s talk about different definitions of achievement.


Yes, it’s great to make informed instructional decisions based on what we know, but you’ll be hard pressed to convince me that teaching and learning is best served by examining quantitative data.  Can meaningful experience in the classroom really be distilled to multiple choice data?

More educators should ask why? when it comes to quantitative data, like Esther Quintero questions in her Answer Sheet column at the Washington Post.  “Excessive faith in data crunching as a tool for making decisions has interfered with the important task of asking the fundamental questions in education, such as whether we are looking for answers in the right places, and not just where it is easy (e.g., standardized test data),” she writes. Quintero is right–we often aren’t collecting the right data or asking the right questions.

  • Let’s talk about why we collect certain types of data.  Let’s talk about embracing qualitative observations as an alternative or supplement to narrowly-defined multiple choice data.

I’ll admit I need to do a better job starting these conversations within my own building, and tomorrow’s inservice day will be a good place to start. How about you? What do you wish was talked about more in schools? Outside of school, what places/organizations use language that seems to distract from worthwhile goals? 

Show Me Respect, Or Else!

No Stone Unturned, Room 137

A few weeks ago, two students showed up for English class a few minutes late–not the first time–and shuffled into their seats, smirking and tossing their backpacks to the floor. While I began to explain the lesson, a hand shot up from the back of the classroom.  “Mr. B, can I go to the bathroom?” He’d been in the room for two, maybe three minutes, and now he had audacity to request leaving.


I glanced back with a scowl, feeling my heart thump a little louder than normal. Are you kidding me? I thought.  The same student just displayed a disregard for the start of class by being tardy. Given that we’d been discussing the idea of respect in the context of the book The Other Wes Moore, I fired back. “You’ll have to wait.  You realize how disrespectful it is to ask me after coming to class late?”

“How is it disrespectful?”  he responded without sarcasm. I took a breath, realizing that he perhaps had no clue why his action was disrespectful to me and our classroom time and space.  It was a teachable moment, and I regret missing the opportunity to have a productive conversation.

Many students have skewed notions of respect, largely fueled by pop culture, fear, and violence. Ask students what respect means, and you’ll likely get a thousand different answers.

Some will tell you it’s about fear and power. Think about the bully who trolls the hallways, puffing out his chest, bumping students with his shoulder, demanding respect. Respect based on fear, violence, and intimidation.

Some will tell you it’s all about making sure you acknowledge their presence, their being, regardless of their behavior. I think about times when I’ve asked challenging students to move seats to minimize their off-task behavior, and they openly state they don’t like being disrespected like that. What?!

Others, mostly our refugee students, will provide a definition of respect based on family status or age. One Cuban girl told me she has to respect all the elders in her family.

Yet few will actually give you a textbook definition of respect: admiring and recognizing people for positive qualities, abilities, or achievements. Or acknowledging the traditions or routines in an environment, not wanting to interfere or harm.

The following passage from the book, a story about two men with the same names and drastically different fates, seemed to have an impact on many students.  In the scene, one of the Wes Moores, now a cadet at a military academy, witnesses a fellow student command attention and deference based on qualities he’d never witnessed before back in his Bronx neighborhood:

“In spite of myself, I was impressed. I had never seen anything like that before. I had never seen a man, a peer, demand that much respect from his people. I had seen Shea demand respect in the neighborhood, but this was different. This was real respect, the kind you can’t beat or scare out of people. That’s when I started to understand that I was in a different environment. Not simply because I was in the middle of Pennsylvania instead of the Bronx or Baltimore. It was a different psychological environment, where my normal expectations were inverted, where leadership was honored and class clowns were ostracized.”

Wes Moore, like many students I deal with, need to be deliberately taught different modes of perceiving themselves and the world.  There is perhaps too much emphasis on academics in school, given the social-emotional deficits students bring to the table.  Is it more important to learn the periodic table or learn and practice real tolerance and respect?  How do you think you learned respect?  If you are a teacher or have/work with young people, what are you observations regarding respect?

Can You Imagine Schools Without Sports?

No Stone Unturned

Americans are known throughout the world for being competitive people. We like to win Olympic medals, build the biggest houses, and maintain a superior military force. We have the most human and natural resources any nation has ever known. But do we have the best schools?  

Perhaps we have the very best at the top, but we also have too many schools that fail to provide and foster academic opportunities.  

Many people, including Amanda Ripley writing in The Atlantic magazine, are out to figure out why our schools and students–on average–lag behind other nations less prosperous than ours. Ripley’s latest argument piqued my interest–could sports be the primary reason many of our schools are mediocre compared to schools in less prosperous nations?


Sports are a bigger deal here than anywhere else, yet few people seem willing to critique our collective obsession with Friday night lights, homecoming basketball games, and training year round for various activities. Ruth, one of my foreign students who hails from Rwanda, said she couldn’t believe how important sports were to Americans upon arriving in the country.  

Could our focus on sports detract us from better academic options and outcomes? Or are sports so integral to our school communities that we couldn’t function with them?  

Ripley cites a school district in Premont, Texas–perhaps the most crazed football state in the nation–that cancelled its sports programs in 2012 in order to save the school. The cost of funding the teams was simply too high. Some students were outraged, and others transferred to neighboring school districts.  So what happened?

The first fall without a football program, 80% of the students passed their classes, compared to 50% the year before. 160 parents showed up at parent-teacher conferences, compared to 6 the previous fall. The money saved went to raises for teachers. As the district’s budget became balanced, sports are gradually being reintroduced, but the former football coach says the culture shift has been striking–in a good way. “Learning is going on in 99 percent of the classrooms now,” he said, “compared to 2 percent before.”

Talking with students in my English III class last week, even some athletes admitted that sports may be overemphasized. Yet Cory, a junior on the baseball team, made the astute point that for him and many others, sports motivate many students to do better in school and keep grades up. And then there’s the way sports can bring people together.

Think about how community traditions, support, and participation merge during a typical football game.  Take our homecoming football game, for instance. The band, cheerleading squad, dance team, and alumni all participated in the event. The softball and baseball teams, I believe, manned the concession stand and ticket booth. Our football team played and won the game, of course.  So many people are able to come together, helping create school spirit and culture.  

As for me, I had a wonderful experience playing high school football and baseball, and some of my best friends today were members of the 1998 Crimson Tide gridiron team in Concord, New Hampshire. I had tough coaches who instilled life lessons.  I’m also fortunate to have had well-educated parents who knew that doing well in school–not being a football or baseball star–would be the best ticket to college.

During the past ten years as a teacher, I’ve interacted with far too many students who struggle in the classroom, but spend hours upon hours at practice, instead of going to tutoring, reading, or otherwise being involved in something more academically-oriented.  Many students talk about the importance of doing well in school, but their actions speak louder than their words.  

In many cases, it’s not the students’ fault they value their athletic experiences so highly–they are reflecting our societal values.  Yet I can’t help but wonder how much stronger our schools might be if all the money, time, and energy poured into sports–on all levels– was funneled in other directions.

Are sports overemphasized in your communities?  Can you imagine school without sports?  

School Segregation Persists, But Not In Louisville

No Stone Unturned

If you’re a black public school student in Chicago, there’s a 70% chance you’re in an intensely segregated school (90%+ minority student body).  Similar trends occur for Latino students in Los Angeles.  Examine enrollments in many urban districts across the land and you’ll see similar trends suggesting that despite our country’s status as a melting pot, many of our public schools are more like one or two ingredient stews. 

chicago public school students

And according to The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, fifteen percent of black students and 14 percent of Latino students attend “apartheid schools” across the nation in which whites make up zero to 1 percent of the enrollment.  

There’s no law driving these numbers, but there is also little being done to remedy inequities, and The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss sums up the research: 

“Segregation in public schools has been linked to a number of problems that affect the achievement of minorities. Schools with a big majority of students who live in poverty have higher dropout rates, fewer experienced teachers and far less resources than schools with majorities of middle- and upper-class students. The studies note that expert teachers and advanced courses more common in predominantly white and/or wealthy schools help create educational advantages over minority segregated settings.”

If the above is true, then how come there aren’t more incentives for experienced teachers to teach in more segregated schools?  How come policy-wonks obsess over closing the achievement gap between white and minority students, yet most school systems accept these types of structural inequalities?  

Civic leaders and policy makers in Louisville, Kentucky, however, have long determined that we don’t want de facto segregation to rule the roost.  After all, we could have neighborhood schools that are intensely segregated by race and income.  We’re no different than many urban areas regarding housing and neighborhood demographics.

As school ended this afternoon in Louisville, thousands of public school students boarded buses to begin their journeys home.  For some, a simple five or ten minute drive delivered them to their stop.  For others, their trek included a transfer at a bus depot, and a much longer trip.  There are students who live in the predominantly black West End and attend schools in the lily-white eastern suburbs.  And vice-versa.

I grew up in Concord, NH, and I always attended my neighborhood public school.  It seemed like everybody did.  Bake sales, open houses, and other community events were big deals, and they were also relatively easy to get to.  More than 90% of my classmates were white, and I was oblivious and insulated from the challenges–both on a personal and systemic level–that plague our urban schools.

I honestly don’t know what would be better for our community.  We still have large achievement gaps.  We still have disproportionately high discipline problems with minority students.  We still have “schools within schools,” where tracking and AP courses result in classrooms segregated within our buildings.  Home and neighborhood influences still seems to exert greater sway over educational outcomes, despite the fact that many of our students, in theory, attend “better” schools due to busing.

I’d like to believe the busing has positive effects on the educational attainment–and also the personal growth–of our students.

Even if the academic effects are marginally positive, isn’t busing a good thing to help foster tough-to-measure human characteristics like tolerance? If you’re a single-parent in an impoverished part of the city, is it beneficial for your student to travel away from the neighborhood to attend school?  Does the busing lead to less neighborhood cohesion, as true neighborhood schools are generally diluted?  Do our students become more prepared for the “real world” thanks to exposure and interaction with those different from themselves?

Look forward to your thoughts.

Should We Teach “Other People’s Kids” Differently?

No Stone Unturned

Great reflection by Christopher Lehman on several issues:
“am I giving these children the same dignity and respect that I ask in return?
am I teaching them the way I want to be taught?
am I teaching them compliance or independence?
am I teaching these students differently than I would others?
Does this feel right to me?
What can I change?”

Christopher Lehman

This post is the second of two in response to CNN’s “Inside Man,” my first was posted yesterday. I decided to make this one separate because while the reflection was sparked from a few scenes in that program it goes beyond that one hour and that one particular school.

In this Inside Man episode, Morgan Spurlock visited a school in Finland where he took a stab at teaching a class, then as a comparison visited a charter school in New York City and retaught the same lesson.  Watching footage of the New York City school, I was struck again by the sharp economic lines that are drawn between so many schools in our country and how in many those lines are strongly correlated with race.

Part of this post is to ask the same big question educators continue to grapple with, one that I am fairly certain we cannot…

View original post 1,730 more words

Two for Tuesday–Video Debut and Thoughts on “Deep Reading”

No Stone Unturned, Techculture

Some recent ‘Stew posts have highlighted a collaboration between students and teachers at Fern Creek Traditional High School and the Navajo Nation.  I’m proud to present this video produced by Courtney, one of my digital media students, about our journey.  This truly represents a great range of planning, execution,and technical skill inherent in effective digital stories.

On another note, Annie Murphy Paul’s essay on “deep reading” reminds us that it might be foolish to overly embrace digital text consumption, especially if it comes at the cost of forgetting–or not teaching–how to immerse one’s self in a longer, print-based narrative.  In a guest post for, I responded to Paul’s essay after posing this question on Twitter:

Picture 1

I agree with her assertion, to an extent.  But I question how well young people can tap into the power of the digital world, making connections, composing blog posts, etc., without having a foundation in deep reading.  What happens when educators and parents fall victim to an unbalanced approach to literacy, fully embracing all the possibilities of the digital world, bypassing deep, “old-school” reading?

As a teacher, I’d rather have a class full of deep readers than hordes of students hooked to their smart phones.  Students who immerse themselves in narratives and novels generally bring a lot more to the table, so to speak. They often ask more questions, write more effectively, and display greater concentration skills. Yes, these are massive generalizations, but I’ve interacted with hundreds of students over the past nine years…

I don’t know about you, but I feel and think/read differently, especially when it comes to pace and attention span when I read a screen versus a novel or extended non-fiction text on the printed page.  The implications of this massive shift in literacy skills and reading tendencies are still unknown.

When Should Students Become Responsible For Their Own Success?

No Stone Unturned, Room 137

I don’t blame Steffon for his distrust issues; after all, he’s bounced around from foster parent to foster parent.  I don’t blame Sara for her constant angst and depression; after all, she’s just come out of the closet and receives no support from her parents, who now remind her daily that she’s going to hell.  I don’t blame DeAnthony for his shockingly sparse vocabulary; born to a single mom with five other siblings, nobody read to him before he attended school.  And I don’t blame Angela for her emotional outbursts–she witnessed her mother get murdered in their trailer several years ago.

These are all real students I’ve had over the years–names have been changed, of course–and at this point, I can only pray that my attempts at guidance have helped add enough academic and life skills to their arsenal to become happy, productive, citizens.


Advising students who carry massive social, academic, and emotional burdens into our classrooms is, at times, an overwhelming task.  But as a high school teacher, I’ve got students who will be entering the adult world soon.  They need to take responsibility for their own actions.  Somehow, they must put their pasts behind them–a difficult task when such struggles are constantly creeping into their rear-view mirrors–and develop perseverance and grit to find success.

At what point should we educators, and society at large, blame young people for failing to overcome hardships and soul-crushing situations at home?  At what point should we expect, if ever, developing adolescents to confront their harsh realities and make a decision to take steps to overcome behavioral or academic issues?

I’ve been there, when I could care less that Rayvon is pissed off about his deadbeat father.  He had no right to continue disrupting class, seeking attention in all the worst ways.  I’ve been there when I’ve gone out of my way to stay after school for tutoring, providing a safe and productive place for students who’d otherwise be up to no good, only to sit at an empty table watching the second hand cycle around and around until packing up my bag and trudging to the faculty parking lot.  It’s frustrating, but I won’t stop trying.

It’s often individual educators–and not the system–who attempt to build academic and social bridges for our most needy students.  Yet there are other teachers who proclaim that it’s the students job to learn, regardless of background, ignoring situations like those mentioned in my introduction.

Americans love rags to riches stories, and there are enough tales of young people rising up from abusive homes, dilapidated housing projects, and abject poverty to become doctors, lawyers, congressmen, and professional athletes.   The exceptions are hardly, the rule, however–all you have to do is examine statistics about cycles of poverty and educational attainment.  Nonetheless, the rags to riches narrative holds a vice grip on our consciousness and our educational systems.  If he or she can succeed, why can’t you?

Yesterday marked the end of my ninth year teaching public school in and around Louisville, Kentucky.   It has been a tremendous journey thus far, and every year I’m constantly reminded of one concept from my teacher education courses: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Progress towards personal and academic growth is derailed when basic needs aren’t met.  When so many students come to school hungry, angry, stressed out, and overwhelmed, it’s no wonder that little learning takes place.

It’s not fair that some students carry massive burdens as they trudge from class to class, while other students breeze through private schools and tennis lessons, with the only uncertainty being which college or university they will attend.  And right now, many of our schools are not set up to create conditions where most students have a reasonable shot at similar outcomes as their more advantaged peers.  It will take a herculean effort.

Do politicians, and Americans in general, have the political will to reimagine school as places where students’ various backgrounds are addressed through alternative curriculums, more social worker access, and other interventions?  What is your take?  When should students become responsible?  Nature vs. nurture–am I emphasizing nurture–or the lack of it– too much when it comes to student development?