Category Archives: Personal Passions, Interests and Stories

I Am a Chronic Absentee.

Cranky Blogger’s Warning:  I’m disgruntled today.  If you are looking for rainbows and sunshine, don’t read this post.  If you want some perspective on what life is like for American schoolteachers, though, keep reading.


A few weeks back, a local news channel here in the Triangle covered an issue that they feel is a major problem:  Teachers who are “chronically absent.”  

Their definition of “chronically absent?”

Any teacher that misses more than 10 days of school in a single school year.

By that definition, I am a chronic absentee.  

I’ve missed right at 10 days of school this year.  I’ve missed six days alone attending professional development workshops and educational technology conferences — coursework that improves my practice and the practice of everyone around me.  I’ve also had to take two days off to take my daughter to doctor’s appointments — something that wouldn’t happen in other professions where I could “slip out” during the workday without question as long as I didn’t have face-to-face meetings or phone calls to tend to.

Oh yeah:  And I took one day off because I was sick as a dog.


My favorite “absence”, though, will happen later this month when I call in sick so that I can get to our team’s upcoming field trip — a ecosystems-themed scavenger hunt — early.  I want to get the hunt set up before the kids and the parent chaperones arrive, but I can’t do that because I need to cover my first period class.  The only solution:  Call in sick in order to get a substitute teacher in the building to cover that one class and then spend the entire day working with my students anyway.


Can you tell that I’m bugged by this story?

The suggestion that teachers are automatically failing their students when they are out of the classroom is flawed thinking to begin with.  The time that I spend learning and thinking and reflecting on instructional practices translates directly into the work that I do with my students.

Need proof?  Check out my digital portfolio project (see here and here), which is a direct result of a session that I sat in on at a county wide professional development day back in November.  Conservative estimate: The lessons that I am learning and the content that I am creating will be shared across dozens of classrooms, both in my district and across the country.

Was that absence worth it?

To make matters worse, I’ve used sick days and pulled cash out of my own pocket for registration fees to attend professional conferences dozens of times over the last decade simply because my schools couldn’t afford to cover those costs or to provide me with a substitute teacher.  So not only was I working to improve my practice while “being chronically absent,” I was subsidizing our poorly funded public school system — covering costs that no other professional would ever be expected to cover out of their own pocket.

And that earns me uncomfortable questions about whether or not I am making a positive difference in the lives of my students?  

A friend asked me the other day to explain what’s changed about education since the time that I entered the profession.  “You knew the work was going to be hard,” he said.  “Why are you surprised by that hard work now?”

The answer is simple:  What’s changed is the professional respect accorded to classroom teachers.  I knew that I was signing up for long hours and low pay when I graduated way back in 1992.  But in return, I also knew that (1). I was going to get to change lives and (2). I was going to have the respect of those in the community that I served.  THAT was a trade-off that I was more than willing to make.

Today — almost 26 years later — I still get to change lives every day.  But I also bear the brunt of a sea of never-ending attacks lobbed at educators– including comments from the President of our nation, who used his inaugural address to push the notion that our nation’s public schools are “flush with cash” but leaving “our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge.”

That criticism hurts.  And it makes me wonder more and more about my decision to stay in the classroom.  I want to serve kids, but I am really tired of being the community’s punching bag.




In Praise of an American Educator.

I’m not sure if you’ve heard or not, Radical Nation, but Rick DuFour — a passionate advocate for public education, a mentor and friend to many, and a proud husband, father and grandfather — passed away yesterday after a long battle with cancer.


Rick used his voice to make the world a better place for our students, y’all.

To his core, he believed that the power to change schools rested in the hearts and minds of classroom teachers who were willing to study their practice together.  Just think about that for a second:  In an era when it felt like the entire nation was working to eviscerate our profession, Rick fought for us.  Better yet, he taught us and challenged us and pushed us to accept responsibility for results.

With a seemingly endless supply of energy, Rick counseled and coached a thousand schools and districts over the last 20 years — laying out clear plans for the kinds of steps that practitioners could take if they were genuinely committed to ensuring learning for every child.  He’d nudge when necessary, unsatisfied with stagnation — but he’d also leave you convinced that it WAS possible for schools to succeed, no matter the circumstance.

And Rick made everyone around him a better person.

He was one of those once-in-a-lifetime mentors who was constantly teaching, whether he knew it or not.  I learned to speak from my heart after watching him testify time and again about the impact that poor educational policies had on both students and teachers.  I learned that success required personal grit and determination after seeing him grind as a both writer and a speaker.

I learned that the most important part of being influential is being approachable after watching him spend hours in one-on-one conversations with teachers or principals who needed encouragement or advice; I learned that humility and curiosity are the cornerstones of successful people after watching him ask as many questions as I ever saw him answer; and I learned that true joy in life comes from having a family who loves you unconditionally after watching him invest his whole heart into Becky, his soulmate and best friend.

Let’s face it:  The world lost one of the best American educators yesterday.  

But we haven’t lost his spirit or his soul or his words and ideas.  If we remain just as committed to the notion that together we are stronger, tomorrow’s students will benefit from the lessons that he spent a lifetime trying to teach us.

Goodbye, friend.  And thank you for believing in me.


Blogger’s Note:  As I wrestled with Rick’s death this morning, I decided that the best way to pay him a tribute was to send a copy of In Praise of American Educators — his seminal book tackling the myth of our failing public school system head-on — to Betsy DeVos, who seems hell bent on destroying public education. What better way to prove that the voice of my friend and mentor won’t be lost even after he’s left us.

I’d love it if you’d join me in that effort.

Can you imagine how powerful it would be if Secretary DeVos’s desk was buried in copies of a book written by a man who believed in both you and I and in the power of the work that we do every single day?  And can you imagine how proud Rick would be knowing that we were willing to continue to fight for the kids sitting in our classrooms?  That was his life’s mission, y’all.  Let’s push it forward now and forever.

Are you in?  If so, here’s some help:

  1. You can buy In Praise here on Amazon.
  2. When you are checking out, you can have your copy shipped directly to Betsy by changing the Shipping Address on your checkout page.  Here’s the address for the Department of Education.
  3. If you want to leave a message for Besty, you can add a Gift Receipt under “Review Items and Shipping” on your checkout page.  Here’s what I wrote:  “In memory of Rick DuFour, one of America’s Greatest Educators.  Want to improve schools?  Read chapters 1-5.  You’ll be inspired.”


Here’s Why Every American Should Oppose Vouchers.

Did all y’all catch Betsy DeVos’s — Donald Trump’s pick as Secretary of Education — confirmation hearings?  

It was a helluva’ show indeed.

Not only did DeVos need Al Franken — a former Saturday Night Live star — to explain the difference between proficiency and growth to her, she had no real idea how IDEA works, she suggested that she supports privatizing public schools, and she used the threat of grizzly bears as reason enough to question federal laws banning guns on school grounds.

Really.  Grizzly bears.  Look it up.


But the thing that should concern us the most about DeVos is her longtime support of vouchers — which allow parents to use public monies to send their children to private and religious schools — as a reform strategy.

The simple truth is that every American should oppose vouchers.  

Here’s why:  Public schools do more than educate our kids.  They provide opportunities for students to share experiences with people who are drastically different from them.  Rich students work side by side with students from poor neighborhoods.  Gay students befriend kids who are straight.  Deeply religious students meet atheists.  Children of immigrants learn with children whose ancestors have lived in America for generations.  And every kid interacts with peers of a thousand different colors and cultures — perhaps for the first time in their lives.

Do you have any idea how important those experiences are?  

One of the fundamental purposes of education has always been to prepare students for effective participation in a democratic society.  “Effectively participating in a democratic society” depends on our willingness to believe in the power of “the common good” — and believing in the power of the common good can only start when we recognize that others see the world differently than we do.

THAT’s what’s missing from the kinds of homogeneous schools that vouchers promote.  The risk of homogeneous schoolhouses is that students will study in intellectual bubbles — attending classes with kids who look and live just like they do, unaware that their core ideas aren’t always embraced by the people they are sharing this planet with.  Sure, homogeneous is easy and safe.  After all, there’s no need for compromise and no source of external challenge when everyone thinks just like you do.  But it’s not reality.

We live in a fractured nation, y’all.  You know that.  

Instead of looking for common ground, we concentrate our energies and our efforts on the ideas that divide us.  We shout one another down in person and online.  We heap scorn on anyone that we see as different.  We use our political power to pass laws that openly discriminate against anyone who doesn’t live like we do — and we elect leaders from the fringes who would sooner shut down the government than compromise with people on the other end of the political spectrum.

Becoming united again can only start when we find value in others — and for kids, finding value in others can be reinforced in the beautiful diversity of our nation’s public schools.



Related Radical Reads:

Here’s Why Competition Doesn’t Work in Public Education.

Breaking Public Education to Pieces.

In Praise of American Educators


I Support Kyle Williams for Secretary of Education.

Yup.  THAT Kyle Williams.  Defensive Tackle for the Buffalo Bills:









(Image licensed Creative Commons Attribution by Jeffrey Beall)

Now I know what you are thinking:  Why the HECK would we ever want to name an NFL player to such an important position in the federal government?  How is THAT guy qualified?

My snarky answer:  “Come ON.  Qualifications?  Did you see who we elected president?”

(I didn’t say that out loud, did I?)

But if you’re the kind of person that IS all hung up on qualifications, check out how Williams — an impact player for the Bills for over a decade who wasn’t given much of a chance at a meaningful career when he was drafted out of LSU in 2006 because his arms weren’t as long as they were supposed to be to play defensive tackle in the NFL — described the role that metrics should play in judging NFL prospects in a recent interview with the Buffalo News:

“So I really didn’t much care what anybody’s opinion was about whether I could or couldn’t play because nobody else knew. ‘All right, well, his arms are an inch and a half short.’ There’s a lot more involved in this game you can’t measure than what you can. That’s what makes players great. What gives guys longevity are the things they can’t put their finger on or put their stopwatch to.”

Williams is right, isn’t he?  Success in the NFL isn’t dependent on the length of  some guy’s arms.  But as ridiculous as that may sound, that’s EXACTLY why Williams slipped to the fifth round in the draft. 

Now translate that argument to education.  In our quest to rank and sort and rate schools and teachers and kids, we’ve put a hell of a lot of weight on metrics (read:  standardized test scores).  We celebrate schools and teachers and kids who do well on those metrics — and we shame and punish those who don’t.  But ask ANYONE with common sense and a bit of experience and they can give you a LIST of schools and teachers and students who were remarkably successful in spite of their “scores.”  Better yet, they can also give you a LIST of schools and teachers and students who earned the highest marks but were complete failures.

So what’s my point?  

Simple:  There’s a lot more involved in OUR game that you can’t measure than what you can.  What’s more, the things that make schools and teachers and kids great are rarely measurable — and the things we CAN measure aren’t all that important.

That’s a message that every #edpolicy maker needs to hear if we are going to create the kinds of learning spaces that students deserve.




Related Radical Reads:

Lessons Schools Can Learn from the Pittsburgh Steelers

I Wouldn’t Want to Work with Walter Payton.

Lessons #edpolicy Nation Can Learn from Andrew Luck


Buy a Kid a Book for Christmas!

Hey Radical Nation:  As you start to work on your holiday season shopping, I hope you’ll consider picking up a book for an important kid in your life, too!  There’s something special about having your own books lined up on your own bookshelf.  It sends the message that reading is important — that it is something that we believe in and invest in and spend time doing!

Have a middle school son, daughter, nephew, cousin or neighborhood friend on your shopping list?  Need a few suggestions?  

Here are some titles that have been really popular with my students this year:

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Red Queen is a dystopian novel — which means it is set in a screwed up future world!  In this world, people are divided into two classes:  Those with silver blood and those with red blood.  People with silver blood ALSO have remarkable powers that they use to keep those with red blood in their place.  Discontent grows among the “reds,” and that discontent leads to a rebellion and the beginnings of a civil war.  It’s the themes of fairness and justice that resonates with middle school readers — that and the incredible superpowers that the Silvers have!  Better yet:  Red Queen is the first book in a series — so if your kid digs it, there’s PLENTY more to read.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

I like to describe Cinder — and the remaining books in the Lunar Chronicles series — as the book you would get if you mixed Star Wars with your favorite fairy tales.  The story of Cinder — a cyborg with an evil stepmother who falls in love with the Prince of her kingdom — starts of the series.  And while she’s unappreciated, Cinder plays a HUGE role in keeping the earth safe from Levana, the evil queen of the moon who has her heart set on world domination!  The story is fast paced and full of characters that you learn to love and hate.  That by itself makes it engaging to middle school readers.  What’s REALLY fun, though, is finding the parallels to Star Wars — and there are TONS to be on the lookout for.

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

I’ve spent the better part of my career reading young adult literature and few stories have captured my attention like Steelheart.  Another dystopian novel, Steelheart is set on earth in a time when ordinary humans have been bestowed with super powers.  Some can create intense heat.  Some can turn buildings to steel.  Some can generate electricity or cause plants to grow at ridiculous rates.  But here’s the hitch:  Every time that one of these “Epics” uses their super powers, they grow a little more corrupt.  The result:  Tyrants who rule the world with impunity.  That’s where the Reckoners come in.  They are a small team committed to figuring out what the weaknesses of each Epic is and taking them down one at a time.

The Elements by Theodore Gray

One of the concepts that we talk about at length in science class is that everything on earth — the air we breathe, the clothes we wear, the friends we have, the foods we eat — is made up of elements either on their own or working in combination with one another.  Need an example?  Water (H2O) is the result of Hydrogen and Oxygen atoms joining together.  Kids are SUPER fascinated by this — mostly because they haven’t ever heard of most of the elements that we have on earth.  That’s why The Elements by Theodore Gray is such a cool book.  Gray worked to build an incredible collection of every day materials that are made of elements.  Then, he photographed and wrote about his collection.  This book is visually stunning and filled with just enough text to teach good lessons without flying over the heads of middle school readers.

Where Children Sleep by James Mollison

One of the lessons that I try hard to teach my own daughter is that no matter how bad she thinks she has it, our life here in the United States really IS #blessed.  Sometimes I think we forget just how lucky we are to have been born here.  That’s why I love James Mollison’s Where Children Sleep.  Mollison traveled all over the world photographing the bedrooms and detailing the lives of average kids in different countries.  Readers can quickly see drastic differences between rich and poor nations — and that forces some pretty deep reflection.  Given how passionate kids are about their bedrooms, this is the perfect book for introducing the notion that global poverty is real!

Spy School by Stuart Gibbs

If you scanned the desks in my classroom, you’d see three or four copies of Spy School at any given time.  It’s the story of Ben Ripley — a decidedly average middle schooler living a decidedly average life until he comes home from school one day to find a real live spy from the CIA sitting in his living room.  Turns out that Ben has been invited to Spy School — a school for kids in grades 6-12 who have shown some real talent in the arts and sciences of espionage.  What Ben DOESN’T know is that he has no real talent.  The leaders of the school are just using him as bait to try to capture a mole that is trying to destroy the school from the inside out!  I think Ben resonates with middle school readers simply because he is just like them: Funny and hopeful and struggling to be liked and falling in love all while trying to learn new skills in a new school.  This is a light-hearted, funny series that is an easy read.

Deep Blue by Jennifer Donnelly

My students made me write about Deep Blue for one reason:  I’m a dude — like literally all boy — and it is a Mermaid book.  I know, I know:  That sounds RIDICULOUS — and I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book on my own.  But I lost a book bet to one of the girls on my team and she chose this one for me.  What’s REALLY nuts is that I’m LOVING it.  It’s the story of Serafina — a mermaid princess who is forced to marry a prince from another mer kingdom to strengthen a family alliance.  While performing her Doemii — the ritual required of princesses before getting married — assassins attack, Serafina’s mother is killed, and her kingdom is destroyed.  The rest of the story is all about her attempts to rebuild her kingdom.  While I haven’t finished it yet, I can tell you this:  Every time I talk about this book in class, my kids — boys and girls — sit up and pay attention.  It’s THAT good.

Unbroken — the Young Adult Adaptation — by Laura Hillenbrand

One of the messages that I try to get across to kids is that nonfiction stories are WAY cooler than fiction stories simply because they are TRUE.  Sure, you can read about the heroic acts of Silverbloods, Epics or Mermaids.  But you can ALSO read about the heroic acts of Louis Zamperini — a real live pilot during World War II who was shot down over the Pacific and forced to survive in a life raft surrounded by sharks and salt water for longer than any human castaway had ever survived before.  And that was BEFORE he was sent to a Japanese Prisoner of War camp.  Zamperini’s story is an amazing story of the human spirit and survival, but it can be pretty intense.  Hillenbrand does a good job making it approachable in this young adult adaptation, but be sure to check this out if your child is a novice reader or still recognizing that war is a horrible thing.


Related Radical Reads:

Buy a Boy a Book for Christmas – 2015

Buy a Boy a Book for Christmas – 2013

Three Fantasy Series Your Middle Schoolers will Dig