Friday, February 24, 2012

A Letter to the 14-Year Old Me

by John Spencer

Dear John,

So about school. I know you feel like a failure, but you're doing better than you think. You sometimes feel guilty about hating school while liking your teachers. Sometimes you even do the assignment just because you feel bad for teachers who internalize your apathy and think it's their fault. Don't beat yourself up over this. You think that FOIL is irrelevant to your life? You're right. You feel that the Periodic Table of Elements won't change how you live? Again, you're onto something. On most days you get frustrated and ask the question, "How will this help me live better?" Don't let school beat that question out of you.

Don't think that you suck at math simply because you don't memorize algorithms. Math is more than memorizing. Don't assume that science isn't your thing, just because you don't like to rip apart an animal in class. Some day when you have your own children you'll rekindle your love of science and realize it was never really all that dormant in the first place. Your penchant for staring at the sunsets or walking barefoot in the moonlight will never cease.

One of the greatest insights you have into life is that it's a vapor. I think you've always had it, but Lynn's suicide certainly drove that point home. I know you're squirming right now in the fact that I mention it. You want to brush it off with, "well she wasn't a close friend and really I'm okay." But I've seen you crying at night and I want you to know that there really was nothing you could do to save her.

You yearn for something real. The bad news is that you'll only get it in bits and pieces along the way, but when you do, you'll be amazed. You'll have some of the most life-changing teachers who speak truth into your soul in ways that others can't. You're deeply existential and sensitive and I know that feels like a curse right now, but it's a beautiful thing.

Beauty. You still cringe at that word. You still keep your poetry secret. That's fine, I guess. That solitude is how you will refine your craft. But there's nothing wrong with loving language. Being poetic isn't unmanly. Un-macho, perhaps, but not unmanly. Real men are warriors and poets who dream and act and listen. Embrace your desire to write. I know, I know, it feels like you're wasting your time reading books and writing stories, but these will serve you well in ways that you cannot predict.

With regards to being geeky, I can't help you. I know it seems like the girls aren't that into you and it's true. They prefer assholes at this age. For what it's worth, you've ignored some amazing geeky girls as well. Quit trying to learn how to throw a ball through the hoop. You and I both know they were lying to you when they said, "You can be anything you want to be." You're never going to be a star basketball player. But you know that sheer sense of joy you feel when you are almost floating on air in mile 7 of a long run? Someday you'll feel that on mile 19 as well.

The good news is that someday character will matter more than brawn and your acne will clear up and you'll find someone who is beautiful and intelligent and intriguing. You'll wake up next to her every morning and feel like the luckiest man in the world. And, yes, I know your junior high brain; you'll have plenty of sex and yes, it's all that it's made out to be. You won't call it sex, though. You'll call it making love and none of that will make since until you find that woman who will change your world.

In terms of your emotions, they never go away. You have moments when you lose your temper and you get frustrated with how easily you are hurt. You can't escape that. It is a part of who you are. Except, here's the neat part: they are redeemed somehow. I'd say God is a part of the process, but I remember what you were like in the eighth grade. That agnostic part of you laughs at the idea of God and for now that will do just fine. But someday that will be shaken. It's what happens when you ask too many questions.

Your anger will transform into this strong sense of social justice and you'll fight for what you believe in. Your sensitivity will move from something self-centered to others-centered and you'll find that your ability to listen and to empathize will make you a great dad and husband and teacher (permission to laugh at this - I know you can't believe you'll ever want to go back to school when it's over).

I know that life feels pretty awful. The cliques seem cruel. The kids seem fake. The subjects seem irrelevant. Trust me, even at thirty-one, I cannot look back on fourteen nostalgically. But I understand your hope that things will get better and I want you to know that your hope isn't wrong. Things get better. Way better. By the time you're my age, you'll spend most days feeling like the luckiest guy on the planet.

I won't end with a trite phrase like "be true to yourself" or whatever. I just want you to know that you'll be okay, John. You'll be okay. It really does get better.


John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink. He recently finished Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and A Sustainable Starta book for new teachers. He also wrote the reform-minded memoirs Teaching Unmasked: A Humble Alternative to Waiting For a Superhero and Sages and LunaticsHe has written two young adult novels Drawn Into Danger and A Wall for ZombiesYou can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The 3rd Baltimore EdTech Forum

Baltimore (and nearby) Folks:

WHERE: Digital Harbor High School, 1100 Covington St., Baltimore, MD 21230
WHEN: March 14, 2012 // 6 to 8PM
FEE: Free and open to the public

Featuring a panel comprised of Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Andres Alonso, architect and principal of Cho Benn Holback and Associates -- David Benn, and artist and UMBC professor Callie Neylan, the evening will be dedicated to conversation and discussion about the Future of School Architecture and Learning Spaces in Baltimore's Digital Age.

On July 1, 2007, Andres Alonso became CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools. During his tenure, Baltimore City students have reached their highest outcomes in state exams, across all categories of students. City Schools saw its enrollment climb, following four decades of steady enrollment decline. It posted its best-ever dropout and graduation rates, driven largely by attention to all students, a focus on adult performance, the promotion of choice and school autonomy for all schools, and intensive efforts to engage parents and community.

The recipient of the Cornell University Eidlitz Traveling Fellowship Award, David Benn practiced architecture in London, Teheran and New York, and taught architectural design at Cornell University before joining Cho and Holback in Baltimore. He has won design awards from the Maryland Society and Baltimore Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the Maryland Trust, the Waterfront Center, and the Maryland Chapter of the American Planning Association.

Callie Neylan is an interaction designer, researcher, and writer. She is an award-winning designer, with work recognized by Communication Arts, AIGA, and I.D. Magazine, and featured in the New York Times, Fast Company, and Gizmodo. Callie’s research interests include designing for the disabled, wearable computing, and the intersection of interaction design and the urban space. She is also exploring aesthetics in interaction design and is a contributing writer about design and technology for

The Baltimore EdTech Forum is an event designed to provoke visionary thinking and conversation about the future of education and technology in Baltimore. The event will be moderated by Andrew Coy, co-founder of the EdTech Forum and teacher at Digital Harbor High School.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Alma Mater

by Shelly Blake-Plock

Spending the morning at my high school alma mater today discussing pd and teaching styles. It's an interesting position to be in. Wondering what you all would say given the opportunity to talk with your alma mater about what effect they had on you (for better or worse) and where and how you would want to see them go into the new.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Solution to Burnout Is a Better Story (Part Two)

by John T. Spencer

Last year, I allowed my story to slip into the Superman Narrative. My students were scoring well. The Clipboard Crew visited often. I wrote blog posts about what I was doing; beginning to believe I had more answers than questions. I tried to hide the imperfections. I yelled at kids a few times last year. I failed miserably at teaching science. I had to apologize at least once a day for something.

I took a job as a teacher-coach, believing that I had a duty to share my expertise. It was arrogant, I know. However, it was more about fear than anything else. I wasn't sure that I could repeat what happened last year. I had slipped into the wrong story.

Outward, I look "successful" in this current position. But inside, I'm dying to be teaching full-time. I left the classroom when I still loved being a teacher and now, as I teach during part of the day, I get a taste of what I missed everyday.

So, as I think about my return to the classroom full-time next year, I want to go back to the story that I had believed before:

  • Character: I want to be faithful, courageous and wise. But more than anything, I wanted to be someone who loves people well. If my students are engaged mentally and feel safe, I'm off to a great start.
  • Antagonist: The real antagonist was the system of standardization and the lie of perfectionism. Failure isn't the enemy. It's a chance to grow. Low test scores won't kill me. Really. 
  • Plot: It doesn't have to look exciting. My actions might look impressive (a mural or a documentary) but often humble (a debate, a project, an in-depth discussion) and that’s okay. It's not about the credit, the glory or the sense of superiority I feel when I am noticed. 
  • Setting: The real setting has to be my classroom. It isn’t about what the world sees or how I am noticed within the entire school. It's not about the Twitterverse or the Blogosphere or any other catchy name we have for the echo chamber of what's working. In my classroom, I'm broken and vulnerable . . . and yet, amazing things happen. 
  • Conflict: The true conflict is mostly internal: Will I be faithful? Will I remain true to my convictions? Will I be bold enough to fight against the standardized system? Will I get suckered into the wrong story?
  • Theme: It’s about providing authentic learning for all students. It's always been about thinking better about life. Period. If I can remember that theme, I'm better off for it.
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John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink. He recently finished Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and A Sustainable Starta book for new teachers. He also wrote the reform-minded memoirs Teaching Unmasked: A Humble Alternative to Waiting For a Superhero and Sages and LunaticsHe has written two young adult novels Drawn Into Danger and A Wall for ZombiesYou can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer

Sometimes Slowing Down Leads to Burnout (Part One)

by John T. Spencer

I'm not saying we have to give 110%, but . . . 

I'm reading Trust Me right now and realizing, yet again, why John Updike was a brilliant author. I realize that he has grown less trendy in the last decade or so. Not postmodern enough. Too realistic. Too bold in crafting beautiful prose that is neither poetic nor particularly provocative. And yet every time I sit down  with his work, I am amazed by phrases like "the chemical scent of a pool always frightened him: blue-green dragon breath."

I have a hunch that Updike will be criticized for the sheer volume of his work. People like a tidy list of seven or eight really good works and let's be honest, Updike produced a few works that will be forgotten (and rightfully so). However, the only reason that he continued to write well was the simple fact that he kept writing.  He understood that the only way to refine his craft was to continue to push himself to produce more. Instead of worrying about running out of ideas, he recognized that one only grows stagnant by slowing down.

It seems counter-intuitive, but Updike's legacy suggests that burnout isn't caused by hard work as much as by a slowing down induced by fear and shame.  When I look at creative types who "burned out," I don't think it was laziness or lack of interest or the sense that they had nothing left in them. Instead, it was fear. I think Salinger, after writing Catcher in the Rye, realized that it was good, perhaps too good to be repeated and so he fled to mediocrity.

That was me last year. I worked really hard, had some great results and then fled into a teacher-coach role this year out of fear that I wouldn't be able to do it again. I ran away respectfully. I refused to admit just how scared I was that I would not repeat the kind of year I had last year. I allowed shame and fear to determine my self-concept as a teacher. And the hard part, the scary part of it, was that I loved teaching. I simply couldn't allow my success to depend upon standardized test scores. In other years, I almost hit the burnout point because of the dissonance between what I believed about education and what the system was asking me to do.

The issue was never hard work, but rather work that I was afraid I couldn't repeat combined with work that did not fit my identity. Hard work made me tired. Fear and shame led me to flee. I'm still teaching part-time, but I'm

Teaching is exhausting. I get that. A teacher spends hours in a passionate, emotional, sensitive state and on some level, that simply isn't natural. However, I have never seen a teacher burn out from hard work. Instead, a teacher is more likely to burn out by checking out, slowing down and giving themselves the permission to be less passionate and to care less in the name of balance. 

And that's me right now. I have more free time than ever before. I am not working anywhere near as hard as I did last year. I slowed down and now, as I teach only part of the day, I am dying to be back into the classroom full-time. I would rather be tired than spend my time doing something that doesn't fit who I am. I may not be able to repeat the success of last year, but I would rather fail trying than continue to slow down.

This isn't to suggest that balance is bad. Teachers need a personal life. There is nothing wrong with working fewer hours than in the past. However, when I watch teachers burn out, it is almost never because they were working too hard. In fact, the opposite is true. They often slow down as a result of burnout. Slowly, subtly, shame beats the passion out of them and they are left with a shell of a vocation. They don't burn out in explosion. They vaporize so slowly that you don't see it until it's too late.

*     *     *

John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink. He recently finished Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and A Sustainable Starta book for new teachers. He also wrote the reform-minded memoirs Teaching Unmasked: A Humble Alternative to Waiting For a Superhero and Sages and LunaticsHe has written two young adult novels Drawn Into Danger and A Wall for ZombiesYou can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer

Saturday, February 04, 2012

What We Can Learn from Great Car Salesmen

by Shelly Blake-Plock

My car was totaled in a wreck a few months back and I'm just now getting into the car-buying state-of-mind you have to be in to go to a dealership to find a replacement. Looked up the handful of models I'm interested in online -- the VW Jetta, a couple of Mazdas, the Ford Fusion, a Toyota or two, a Civic -- and did the "build your own" to figure out what I could get in the price range I had set for myself. Been to a few places on Sundays (when they were closed) just to look around the lots and see the cars in person.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the dealerships I've been considering are places that presented well online (the place just outside Baltimore that literally cut and pasted all of its inventory descriptions from a Canadian online magazine without so much as credit -- but whilst retaining phrases like "here in Canada..." -- well, they aren't getting my patronage).

Today was my first attempt to actually go in to a dealership to talk about getting a new car. It was a VW dealership on the west side of town where we were greeted by a man in a three-piece suit named Hans. A thirty-year veteran of auto-sales (most recently selling Porsches and picking up $6K a pop in commission until the economic downturn tasked him with selling Suburus and VWs, Hans had me hooked as much by his demeanor and great stories of racing 150mph on the Autobahn and his side project as a clock repairman as he did by anything he could tell me about the cars.

I knew all about the cars. I'd done my research online. I knew I liked VWs. I knew what a Jetta was going to cost me and I knew what that would run me per month. I knew all the available options and I knew what each trim offered. I knew how the car compared to others in its class and I knew what it's crash safety ratings were. Hans didn't have to tell me any of that. He just had to compel me to enjoy the car.

Not that I'd exactly equate car salesmen and teachers, but I think there is something for us to learn here. When we went for the second of two tests drives, Hans told me to accelerate hard at a certain point and, as I did, he explained the mechanics of the feeling I was getting from the accelerator pedal. As I blew passed a pickup on Route 40, he explained how best to sense all of those things -- torque, horsepower -- from the point of view of the driver's seat. Not once did he tell me the price of the car or ask me if I wanted to buy it. He just allowed me to experience it and helped me tie my experience into the engineering of the vehicle itself.

It was as much a master class in physics as it was a test drive.

As teachers, we're usually pretty good when it comes to content. And we're also pretty good when it comes to designing lessons. From a purely pedagogical standpoint, the most crucial part is linking those two things with the motivation and experience of the student. Because like any car buyer, they already have access of one sort or another to the facts. But the facts alone don't sell cars. And the facts alone don't sell education. It takes a guy like Hans who can give a master class in physics from the backseat of a speeding Volkswagon to make the sale.

Do you have a little Hans in you?

As postscript I should say that I didn't buy that car today. And I think I may have annoyed Hans a bit. But I did learn a lot and now I'm going to take that experience to the other shops I visit. And it just might turn out that I return to Route 40 and that I buy a car from Hans. We'll see.

From a teacher's perspective, however, I feel like I learned another lesson: sometimes it's not apparent that we've "made the sale". But we shouldn't assume. It's our part to impart knowledge and let that lead where it may. For all we know it will come back to us sooner or later. The challenge is to keep going out there for those test drives, riding in the backseat, and encouraging that kid with the hands on the wheel to really understand what they are doing.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, February 03, 2012

Education Beyond School

By Shelly Blake-Plock

While there has been a lot of discussion recently in the news about making the school day longer, a group of us here in Baltimore are working instead to create a new kind of after school experience for city kids.

I'll be posting the specifics of what we're working on soon enough, but for today I'd just like to know about the kinds of after school activities your kids have benefitted the most from.

From sports to internships to outreach to chess club to team debate to drama club: what after school program have you seen make a difference in the lives of young people?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad