Slice of Life Challenge day 8 #sol17

Title: “Slowing down”

Gathering up my things, I quickly paced myself through a mental checklist.  My computer. Check.  My notebook. Check.  My favorite blue Pilot pen.  Check.  What about those copies I need? Oh wait, there they are.  Check.  Okay, time to go.  Gripping the now familiar handle of my office door, I heaved it open (it’s a really heavy door) and quick-stepped into the now empty hallway toward my destination.

In my typical high-paced clip, I headed down the gleaming hallway to my meeting. To my right as I passed the exterior door near my office, I could see the sun had begun to shine outside.  Briefly I wondered if it had begun to warm up at all? But no time to think too much about that, gotta get to my meeting.

And then I saw her.  It was Jess, my colleague, someone I pass this way often.  Jess teaches art, and sometimes we take the opportunity to speak of our new babies.  How are they sleeping? Walking yet? They’re only a month or so apart. But we don’t chat very often.  We always just say hello as I race by her room.  And today was no different- for me- as I smiled and delivered my somewhat whirlwind greeting, “Good morning!”

As I blew past her, it registered that she had said something, but I wasn’t sure what it was.  Slowing down, I turned back to face her.  I saw she was standing, her face alit with that radiant smile, but today there was a visibly inquisitive nature to it.  “I’m sorry, what?” I asked.

“You’re always in a hurry,” she re-stated, almost like a question.

In response, I briefly explained, “Oh, right.  I guess I picked that up in New York.”

And that’s when I began to contemplate muscle memory and its many powers.  As a staff developer in New York, I had learned to take my cues from a high-intensity job and a fast-paced city.  I never felt I had the time to discuss new babies, or notice the sun shining or…well, slow down. Ever.

Jess reminded me in her own way that I don’t live in New York City anymore. And so the next day, I tried slowing down a little.  I tried breathing a little more.  I tried not rushing from place to place like a self-absorbed comet.


And guess what? No one noticed. Except me, of course. And the day unfolded just fine.  A good lesson. Sometimes we all need to be reminded that haste, though ostensibly keeping us “on track,” can help obfuscate some of life’s most important simplicities.  Like sunshine.  And talking about babies.




Slice of Life Challenge day 7 #sol17

Just because we taught it doesn’t mean they learned it…

Title: “Rainbows”

After surveying the room for just a moment, I quietly decided the most accurate word to describe this group of sixth graders was ‘busy.’  For two weeks now, these sixth graders had been investigating the question of whether or not zoos were, indeed, worthy of public funding.  In other words, are zoos really good for animals?  An argument piece.  Twenty-four writers leaned into their outmoded Dell computer screens, some of them looking as if they were searching to learn the meaning of life itself.  A few typed feverishly, while others just stared, heads in hands covering their temples, contemplating a partially finished draft.  It looked like some of them, too, were perhaps hoping for divine inspiration to animate their fingers in order to produce much-needed revisions.

Clutching my demonstration notebook close, I settled into a chair next to Scott.  Immediately I noticed his screen looked a little different than everyone else’s.  At first glance, his draft resembled a series of rainbows, with colors painted over his words like the streaks of tempera my daughter Lexi loves to fashion across paper in art class.  Leaning closer to Scott’s screen, I asked, “So, how’s it going with your writing? What can you tell me about all these colors?”

Stretching his arms in the air and leaning back in his chair, Scott informed me with great confidence, “Well, I’m making sure I have enough evidence.”

I peered closer, squinching my face in an effort to better read his words and study the efficacy of this new highlighting strategy.  Scanning each of the three rainbows adorning Scott’s draft, I searched for quotation marks, statistical facts, expert opinion, explanations or definitions…  Anything that resembled “evidence.” There were none of these things. Turning my head from the screen to face the writer, I also noticed there were no texts visible anywhere in his writing space.  No articles, charts, books, notes…nothing.  Let’s probe a little more, I thought.  “Can you say more about that, Scott?”

“Well,” he began, “I am making sure I have at least three pieces of evidence for each of my three reasons.  That’s what the colors are for.”  Ah, that’s what the rainbows are for.  Got it.  However, what he was adding was unfortunately not “evidence,” but more of his opinion.  I thought I might have my teaching point here.

I moved this conference forward by paying him a compliment on the clarity of his claim and reasons.  “Look how strong your reasons are, how separate!” I gushed at the end of my compliment.  “Now Scott, may I offer you a tip?”

Scott looked at me and nodded.  I proceeded to explain that the word evidence, typically in this type of writing, often means proof offered from a printed text.  I directed him back to the notes I knew he had taken; and after explaining with an example in a mentor text how this might look, Scott was able to successfully incorporate a quote he had pulled regarding the confining nature of zoo animal enclosures.

As I left that day, I was struck by one particular aspect of this conference. I knew what I taught Scott today was not the first time he had “learned” the concept of text evidence.  Well, more precisely put, it was probably not the first time he had been “taught” that concept.  And so I suppose it could be argued that he was just not “following directions.”  But I think there is something more to be learned here; and that is that what’s “obvious” to us is just not always obvious to kids.  For whatever reason.  So we must remember that just because we “taught it” doesn’t mean they “learned it.”

A cherished mentor once taught me, “People learn through frequency, repetition, and duration.”  And I would assert that that means kids, too.



Slice of Life Challenge day 6 #sol17

Sometimes birthday plans can change…

Title: “Gratitude”

Today is my birthday.  Although I know there are some who prefer not to notice birthdays piling up, viewing them sometimes as they do magazines piling up in the corner basket (“I wish those things would stop arriving at my house!”), I for one look forward to my birthday each year.


This year, our plan was to travel to the Connecticut shore to see old friends, dine in an old favorite restaurant, and stay in an old favorite hotel.  All as a family.  We would then rise and shine at whatever hour the children opened their eyes, and join our friends for brunch- maybe even after a swim at the hotel.  And then, after inventing a leisurely plan for spending the day in the historic shoreline town of New London, we would return home for a family dinner at the homestead.

But the kids are sick. Hmm…yeah, that’s not gonna happen.

And so, the plan has changed.  And I know I could be bummed out about that, I suppose.  But a mentor once told me that when you choose life for everything it is, and everything it isn’t, you are just so much happier.

I feel so fortunate to be the father of three wonderful children, the husband to one amazing wife.  And to be the son of two wonderful parents.  And the friend to so many wonderful people. And the grandson of a wonderful Grandmother.

Today I am grateful.  As I write this morning, my daughters have awakened.  They’ve come downstairs.  And each of them has hugged me. With their cold-stricken, cough-hampered voices, they’ve said to me, “Happy Birthday, Papa!” So I must sign off.

But I will close with one of my favorite lines to one of my favorite movies, “Jerry Maguire.” This line was delivered by the actor playing Dicky Fox at the end of the movie; he says, “I love my wife.  I love my life.  And I wish you my kind of success.”



Slice of Life Challenge day 5 #sol17

Title: “Tired”

Quietly as possible, I gently pulled on the handle.  But it didn’t matter. My attempt at a noiseless entry was instantly dashed by a metallic CLICK! of the latch bolt, which seemed to mock my effort by saying, “Don’t even try it!”  At that moment, 21 heads all turned in my direction.  My intention had been to slink into this classroom unobserved.  My intention had been to NOT be a distraction to the class.  However, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  Oh well.

Finding a tile on the speckled white floor to study, I kept my head down in hopes that the 21 students would return their gaze to their teacher, who, before my abrupt entry, had been in the midst of addressing them all.  I waited a beat.  Okay, I think I can look up now, I thought.  Slowly raising my head, lips closed and hands clasped nervously behind my back, I raised my eyes again.  I haphazardly fixed my tie. Phew!  It appeared I had quickly become uninteresting, and everyone had returned their stare to the teacher. Perfect.

Everyone, that is, except Maya.

For whatever reason, Maya continued to hold her stare on me.  Soas not to become a further distraction, I mouthed a friendly “Hi!,” pulling my right hand from behind my back to offer a waist-high mini-wave.  Maya responded with a yawn, then a smile.  Taking a quick look around to be sure no one else was looking at me, I noiselessly inquired, “Tired?”

Closing both eyes for a long blink and shaking her head in the negative, Maya silently mouthed, “So tired.”

It occurred to me at that moment that we educators sometimes forget kids are actually people.  No, I know that sounds bad, and I don’t mean it literally.  But in the new harried and pressure-filled world of high-stakes testing, teacher evaluation systems, student learning outcomes, indicators of academic growth, smart goals, Bloomboard, EdReflect, data gathering, assessment-centered curricula, performance data, and on and on and on…we sometimes begin to conceptualize kids as ‘our little data machines.’  Our jobs have sometimes begun to feel like “‘teach’ them-get them to prove they ‘got it,’ and put that in a spreadsheet.”

Maya reminded me that kids are real people.  They’re daughters.  And sons.  And granddaughters.  And grandsons.  And best friends.  And sisters.  And brothers.  And cousins. And second cousins.

And sometimes they’re tired.  And sometimes they’re hungry.  And sometimes they have bad days.  And sometimes they have good days.  They’re…well, like us.  People trying to find their way in the world.  And with one small yawn, Maya reminded me of that very important fact.


Slice of Life Challenge day 4 #sol17

Title:  “Important”

My heart slowly relaxed as the familiar, mechanistic churning noise filled my ears.   I had just gently pressed the blue “Start” button on the copy machine.  “Thank goodness,” I thought.  The wonderful, yet not always dependable friend we call The Copier, had been experiencing some issues as of late.  So I was relieved beyond measure to know she was feeling better and would be able to produce the copies necessary for the teacher training I was planning.

Suddenly, I heard a voice next to me.  “We need to talk.”  I turned.  It was my assistant principal.  It struck me at that very moment that linguistically those words do not imply anything more than a general statement.  Diagramming this sentence, really all we would come up with would be subject/verb/prepositional phrase, or something like that (it’s been too long since those mundane days!).  And yet I noticed, “We need to talk” consistently strikes fear into my heart– especially when it is delivered by a superior in the workplace.

“Um, okay,” I stammered.

“I have some concerns,” she added.  Okay, now if my anxiety hadn’t been linguistically justified before, it probably had a pretty strong case now.  I grabbed my copies and followed her to her office.  The door closed behind me, and I heard the metal blinds ominously rattle behind me as it clicked shut.  Once inside, my assistant principal, facing me directly, began explaining that she had attended an important meeting on a student recently.  And when searching for an important piece of information regarding the student’s reading records, she had come up empty.  Silence.  Pause. “So do we have this information?” she asked, looking me- the Reading Consultant- straight in the eye.

“Yes, we have that,” I responded.  Phew.

After a brief search of our Google drive and a physical file cabinet, we discovered that we had both a spreadsheet and a physical record.  At that point, my AP and I looked at each other and– I am going to admit– felt pretty good.  This kid had not “slipped through the cracks”, as the saying goes.  Decisions could now be made in future meetings that were based on real data we had collected on the student. We had not missed him.

As teachers, mentors, parents, guardians, specialists, and administrators, we need to realize our jobs matter.  Each of the students under our purview possess incredible potential.  And knowing that, each of them must be taken seriously, because the educational decisions we make for each child should be based on what we know about them already.  It is about being responsive not to some outside force, but to each individual child.  

I can’t say we will get it right each time, because let’s face it– working with kids is hard.  It just is.  But it was nice to know we got it right this time.

Slice of Life Challenge day 3 #sol17

Title: “Teamwork”

“Where’s my black shirt, honey?  You know, the one with the long sleeves?”  I queried.

“I saw it downstairs.  I’ll grab it for you,” my wife answered.  And off she went.  I couldn’t believe the hustle and bustle of the day had begun at 6:30 in the morning.  Wasn’t this supposed to happen after I get home from work? But not today.  Today was a little special.  I glanced over at my kindergartner sitting on my bed with my one year-old.  Yep, there was a twinkle in her eye.  She knew today was special:  Papa was going to dress like Cat in the Hat.  When had that ever happened?

My wife returned presently with my black shirt, and the process began in earnest.  Scooping up my youngest baby, I headed downstairs with my five year-old in tow.  “His tummy needs to be white, Mama,” I heard her say.  This girl knew her Cat in the Hat.

As I made my way to the kitchen, I shot my wife a questioning look. Hmm…a white belly? Let’s see… “Ideas?” my face tried to wordlessly ask.

“Hold on, I think I know what we can do,” she responded.  And she was off.  A minute later she returned with fabric scissors and a large piece of white felt.  Where did that come from?  Brilliant!

And that is how the morning proceeded.  Between the expert consultation of a kindergartner, the mad McGyver-like skills of my wife, and the moral support of my new baby, by 7:15 I had, indeed, become Cat in the Hat!


Because of the expert work of my team at home, our Read Across America Celebration was a little more fun.  And sometimes going all-out to promote reading…well, it’s worth it, right?  Yes, I received some strange looks driving to work, I’m not going to lie.  But as adults who are in the privileged position to impact young people,  sometimes we need to go a little over the top to brand ourselves as lovers of books, as readers, as people who live the words we preach to children: reading matters.  In the words of journalist and author Simon Van Booy,  we want to exude the message, “[I] read books because I love them, not because I think I should read them.”

Thank you to my team at home for making this transformation possible.

Slice of Life Challenge day 2 #sol17

Slice of Life Challenge, day 2. “Remembering”

Title:  “Remembering”

The meeting ended.  Closing my computer, I said my good-byes to colleagues departing .  With the amazing precision that only teachers can demonstrate, everyone had heard the bell ring , gathered their papers, computers, writing implements, and student work and slipped out the door, all within the span of 32 seconds.  Almost everyone.  I lingered. And next to me sat my colleague, MP.

“It was twenty years ago today,” I mused, staring at her multitude of books on the south wall.

“Twenty years?” she asked.

“Yes, it’s been twenty years since my brother’s accident.”  In fact, today did mark twenty years to the day that I lost my brother to a fatal car accident.  And twenty years is a long time.  Well, it seems like it should feel like a long time.  Strangely, though, as I leaned on my elbows, hunched over the table in MP’s seventh grade language arts classroom, it suddenly didn’t feel like a long time.

“I’m so sorry,” MP offered.

I started to explain that, really, I was fine.  Forcing a smile to my face, I said, “Time helps.  It makes a big difference.  Makes it better, easier.”

But then I thought of my own girls at home, my two older ones.  And I began to explain that I often speak of my brother and tell them stories of times when he and I were their age (they are two years apart, just as my brother and I were).  For instance, there was a time when we put the soap bubbles on our faces to “make beards” and called our mom into the bathroom to “check out our beards!”  And there was the time when we played the drums together in my first grade classroom, attempting to cover the music of an obscure German pop group, “Kraftwerk.”  And then there was the time we caught my grandfather smoking cigarettes beside the house in California, even though his doctors had forbidden it.

And that’s when I realized I wasn’t feeling fine anymore.  I could feel the tears spring to my eyes unexpectedly, right there in this empty classroom.  Luckily I happened to be with someone who means a lot to me, someone who I knew would understand.  A trusted friend.

“I’ll be thinking of you today,” she said softly.

As I sit to write this small slice of life, I am reminded of the importance of two things: the first is the importance of having a relationship of trust with someone with whom you feel comfortable sharing the most difficult times; and secondly, I’m reminded of how important it is write about these times.  One of my great mentors once said, “Writers write to hang onto moments of trouble.”  I suppose this gives texture to our writing lives.  And I suppose that’s a good thing.

In memory of Sean Kelly Ball, 1970-1997