The Walk-Ons

I always respect with great appreciation that I have had the tremendous good fortune to teach and coach great kids who have taught me more than I ever taught them.

With the success of Ohio State football and Virginia basketball, I can’t help but think about two student athletes who I have had the privilege of knowing and sharing both classroom and field/court with in the past 20 years.

Both athletes had a vision to attend their chosen school at a very young age, and both due to a family connection being so strong because someone each loved and respected had attended the school.

According to modern metrics, neither had any business playing at their “dream” school.   Speed and sizr being those which separate the D1 kid from the rest of the pack, also represent the areas where both found themselves most disadvantaged.

But never in my life have I found more of an elite composite of intangibles of human character than in Tara McKnight and Michael Cibene.

There are those who make excuses,  and then there is Tara McKnight.   Never have I seen someone work as hard, with as much humility, for her team, for her family, and with genuine love of the process than T- dog…and always with a smile on her face and genuity in her gait. She loved the process.  She was a state champion a few times, and an All-Stater. Many schools wanted her- the Ivy’s were sure she would join them.  Her pedigree in the classroom made that path even more obvious.

But she had a family full of Cavaliers at home.  An example in her father of persistence and beating the odds to play professional golf.  She wanted to be a Cav. So she went to UVA, walked on as a frosh, and didn’t make it.  So she did what most people wouldn’t do- she kept at it. Worked harder, lifted more, played the best competition.  But all the while, she worked hard in class, enjoyed college, and continued to be the kind of person you prayed your child would find ànd befriend.

Sophomore year rolled around and despite the fact that she hadn’t grown, gotten faster, or suddenly evolved her game in an unforseen way, she walked on again and made the team.  2 years later, she was named captain.  In fact, she became a bit of a celebrity.  Truth be told, it was not her basketball skills that brought her the affection of so many, rather her character, her joy, her genuity, and the way she endears herself to everyone she meets have led to her to be so loved.

So as I moved on, I truly believed Tara was a once in a lifetime kid.  And she was.  But I was blessed again by having the opportunity to work with Michael Cibene.  While Tara was quite accomplished as a basketball player, Michael was still finding himself when I first worked with him. In fact, he played golf instead of football in 7th grade.  And in 8th grade, he didn’t take the world by storm as a 130 lb center. But he had a love of the game, and again possessed that similar set of intangibles that endeared him to his coaches and peers, alike.

Over the next 4 years, his work ethic continued to develop, his passion for the game continued to percolate, and his leadership acumen grew to a high level.  He led by example, and with his enthusiasm for playing, for his teammates, and through his unwavering faith.

What always struck me as unique in Michael was how obvious it was to everyone that his growth, resilience, and passions evolved from his faith.   This strength of conviction has been integral in many a peer, and even a few teachers and coaches, reflecting on and more firmly embracing their own faith.

Michael’s grandfather, who is also his best friend, is a passionate Ohio State Buckeye.  From a young age, Michael has followed suit in sharing this passion for his grandfather’s alma mater.  He always wanted to go there- and as an athlete, he obviously wanted to play there.  But everyone knew that at 6’0 170lbs with a 40 yard dash time somewhere around the high 4’s at best, that his opportunity to participate in OSU football would come as a spectator.

Everyone except for Michael.   As the time to graduate high school moved closer, so did Michael’s efforts in this direction increase- rapidly.   A strong senior year as a defensive end, followed by making the state championships in weight lifting certainly put playing football at a DIII school in the discussion.  But OSU? The Big Ten? No way- the best player to come out of his school in many years was playing at Northwestern.  We knew what a Big Ten player looks like- and Michael didn’t fit the bill.

Then something happened.   He got to Columbus, walked on, and made the team.  It happened so naturally, as if this is what was supposed to happen.

So when he stood on the field a few weeks ago embracing his best friend and grandfather after his team won the National Championship, he exemplified, much like Tara did, all the intangibles, character, passion, and love that go into pursuing and achieving a seemingly unattainable goal.

Tara’s father once said in an interview (see the piece on Tara here) that we must love the process and working hard towards a goal.  Because just because we work hard doesn’t mean that we are going to get where we want to go, but it makes the experience more enjoyable on the way.

Many thanks to Tara and Michael for what they have given me, their peers, and all who know them: an archetypal example of what we are capable of in this world.

Falling on my Butt

Yesterday, for the first time since moving to the farm in May, I literally fell on my butt.  Nobody was around to laugh or feel bad, so I did the right thing.  I laughed at myself.  Then I got up and rather than worrying about wiping the Georgia red clay off my bum, I smiled rather admiringly at the mess I had made of myself.  

As I continued with my morning chores that the winter break affords me the opportunity to attend to more often, I thought about the last year.  I thought about how many times in life we fall on our butt, sometimes with people around us to help, laugh, support.  Som Continue reading

Coloring Within the Lines

The other day I was in a conversation with two writing teachers.   Those of you who know me know that a) I love to talk about teaching writing b) I use to be a five-paragraph essay fascist and c) in recent years I have become an advocate for many different methods of writing instruction.

So this conversation-one that I thoroughly enjoyed- was accentuated by the high level of respect I hold for the others in the conversation.   We were talking about teaching organization through highly structured formulaic strategies.  One colleague enjoys the structured formula of the 5 paragraph essay for nearly all formal academic writing, while the other teacher prefers to afford students more freedom in applying the concept of organization how they seem fit, feeling that the practice and process will ultimately lead every writer to have a sense of his or her own organizational style.

I was asked what I thought, and I used the metaphor of younger kids learning how to color within the lines of a coloring book before they can create the outlines and thus, produce original art.   I believe in the value of providing young artists with opportunities to color within the lines in order for them to see models of well-structured forms incorporated with their own interpretation of what colors go inside.  There is still tremendous skill and creativity involved in coloring within the lines.   Further, the experience will help the young creator have a better understanding of what the outline form should look like, and as mastery and creative verve develop, the artist can start to branch out on his/her own to create without the outlines.

Writers need to learn how to organize their thoughts by “coloring within the lines” until they have that sense of how to create their own structural form.  So teaching formulaic structured writing strategies is integral to helping young writers develop methods of organization.   Once they have shown creativity and adherence to the form within the parameters that teachers provide, they have proven themselves ready to not only fill in the form with their individual “colors”, but to also be masterful creators of the forms themselves.


#Blogamonth Give Thanks

That which is bitter to endure can be sweet to remember…

So as I read the topic for this month’s #blogamonth, all the obvious thoughts flooded my mind- I am so thankful for my children, my wife, my family, my friends, my colleagues, etc.   But as I thought about the topic some more, it occurred to me that there are some things that I am thankful for now, that at the time I was enduring them, I was not so able understand that I was struggling through a challenge, or perhaps I was unable to see the value in overcoming the challenge.

So as to organize chronologically thoughts in a linear manner, I will share some of these experiences for which I am thankful that I have had to endure.

As I have shared very openly, I struggled mightily as a child with what would now be diagnosed as ADHD, and there is high likelihood that I would also have been medicated for my hellacious temper.  My Montessori Principal at Children’s House in Levittown was named Ms. Cannon. She had a big green chair in her office, and a very cool canon right next to the chair.   I remember this because I spent a great deal of time with her in her office.   I don’t remember that time being horrible, or that I was enduring such a hardship; in fact, I have fond memories of those times.  But I can’t tell you the name of any other teacher I had there.  I am thankful for Ms. Cannon, because despite the fact that I spent enough time with her that she is the one I remember from those years, I remember those years fondly.  She obviously never made me feel like a bad kid, even though I was causing trouble.

I also remember Ms. S.  She is the one who sent me home from school in second grade.  I don’t remember what I did, but I do remember always feeling like she never forgave me for it.  Fortunately, I had the appropriately named Mrs. Tickle the next year.  She was a legend at my elementary school.  My sister had her, too.  I am thankful that she made me feel good about myself.  Also, her class is the earliest for which I have very specific vivid memories of lessons and activities.

My first year in junior high, I still had that crazy temper, and the ADHD was in full effect.   Crammed into a public school classroom with 40 kids in a room, I was doomed to fail.  Couple that with my short fuse and a feeling that I wasn’t going to back down from any bullying, I found myself failing all my classes and getting into fights nearly every day.   I also found myself in a very unique situation.  They kicked me out of school.   At the time, it didn’t feel like this would be something that in retrospect would evoke good feelings, but it was a life-changing experience. It gave me the amazing gift of empathy for struggling adolescents. So I am thankful that the two guidance counselors told my parents to put me in military school.   I am also thankful that my parents didn’t listen to them. 

Instead they put me in a small school where I could get the attention I needed, the positive peer-pressure to motivate me, and the challenge to help me reach my academic potential.  While I was at that Hebrew day school in Bucks County, I was not aware of how negatively some people treated me- nor was I remotely aware of being what many have said was a tortured adolescent. Actually, I was very happy in those days.   I had a feeling of belonging that helped me grow and learn. I am thankful for the adolescent blinders that I had on in those days that kept me from seeing the negativity of the adults around me at school.

One of the most difficult times in my life was my junior year of high school.  In a 9 month span, we lost my mom, my aunt, and my grandmother.   The effects on my family are still lingering.   But at that time, I found myself incredibly fortunate to be in a school that was very much a family.  My teachers, friends, and even people I didn’t know were there to support me through this incredibly difficult time.  I am thankful that I was in that type of school environment.  It certainly represented for me a key element I have always sought in schools where I wanted to work, and in the last few years, in the schools where we send our children.

During my college years, I certainly had some ups and downs.  During one such down time, my actions led to a rift between me and my family.   This rift was accompanied by a new challenge- I had to pay for the rest of my schooling.  This was a monumental obstacle for me.  But I am thankful that I knew at a young age that I wanted to teach and coach.  That aspiration allowed me to see the light at the end of that very dark tunnel.  Once I emerged at the end, I was very thankful that my father had made me work for that degree.  It made such a profound difference in my life- although I wasn’t feeling so warm and fuzzy about it at the time.

In the years since, I have always been cognizant of and openly gracious for people in my life who have supported, guided, and even tough-loved me.  Mentors like Pat Lukacs, Joe Merluzzi, and Neil Gruber at Berkeley Prep- my first teaching job, Rich Basirico at Hilton Head, Bob McGrath at Pine Crest. Good friends and colleagues like Chris Piccone, Joey Walters, Phil Consuegra and others who continue to be a part of my life.

But along the way, I reflect with thanks on those from whom I learned about the kind of professional and/or person that I do not want to be.  Whether it was negative colleagues, abusive supervisors, or those for whom the education and well-being of our students did not appear to be in their top five motives for being educators.  But I am thankful for their poor examples, as I am for their influence in my continuing to move onwards and upwards towards finding the right place for me and now for my own children.  That being said, I am a “high road” kind of guy. Regret, anger, resentment make us rot inside, and I have had too many wonderfully positive people and experiences in my life to allow that to happen, so I choose instead to thank them.

I recently wrote about my feelings about my current experience, so I will merely say that I am thankful for where I am and who I am with professionally and personally.

All of these experiences and people (and certainly countless more) have shaped me, and I am thankful to have the kind of mindset that has allowed me to grow at each step of the way.  It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been a great ride so far.  More to come.

No Surprises Here

Yesterday, we held our first #edcampdavis at the middle school for our half day of professional development.  It is no surprise that the 3 and a half hour event was massive success.  That is not to say that the edcamp style program would work everywhere to the same powerful level. I don’t believe it would. 

So that begs the question: What is it about us that had this very simple process be so remarkably impactful for our community?

There are a number of catalysts for this success. First, we walk the walk of being a community of learners who exemplify the growth mindset.  Our approach to yearly professional development programming manifests this attitude.  Entirely created, developed, and executed by members of our faculty and staff, teachers have 8 PD strands to choose from for areas of study during the course of the year. 

This element also reveals another key trait that had yesterday be so meaningful for our group- so many of our people are accustomed to raising compelling topics, and facilitating meaningful conversations on those topics.  

Further, we are a culture that easily finds comfort in a room of colleagues having candid discussions on even the most sensitive topics (having difficult conversations with parents was one session yesterday,  for instance). 

Finally, a significant contributor to the positive climate we felt in the building yesterday is the wide-spread experience with this model that many of our people have had prior to executing our day of learning.   Many of us have participated in edcamps, so there was leadership and guidance even in the process of building the board while we ate.

As a culture that walks the Dweckian walk, we benefit from opportunities to share our collective knowledge,  creativity, and passions as educators. 
The edcamp model works for us because it provides a forum that allows us to play to these strengths with great ruach (spirit) while also making our kehilla (community) stronger in the process as we build kavod (respect) for each other and deepen our chochma (wisdom).

At a time when so many schools are looking to outside sources for PD, we choose to tap into the incredible wealth of talent within our walls that lends itself to the fluid, organic collaborative model that edcamp provides. 

Writer’s Block

In my younger years, I fancied myself a bit of a tortured poet.  The more heartbroken I was about a girl with whom I was enamored, the better the verbiage I penned on the page.  The happier I was, the less I was able to compose with any kind of frequency or quality. 

I mentioned to a friend yesterday that I was dismayed that I hadn’t blogged in almost a month. Yes, I started a few pieces, but nothing to a posting fruition.   Funny part about that fact that many who know me are aware of is that most everything I post is a one draft composition.   While this one draft approach is 100% opposed to how I taught 8th graders to write, I stand by my process as sharing some pure thoughts.  Which makes this post all the more liberating. 

What is the point of all this expository disclaiming to start a post?

The answer is simple.  I am happy. I am loving my new environs, my new colleagues, my new challenges, my new friends.  Most importantly, I love the experience my children are having at my school.

While I am incredibly busy, I love the challenge.

So what were the posts that I started? One was about being both daddy and admin at school, a dual role I love but to which I am attentive, especially for the teachers who teach my children ( I support them in an unwavering way as I would like my colleagues to support me when I teach their children). In it, I talk about how I arrange a signal code with my kids to share our family affection in away that does not disrupt class or make classmates feel like my relationship and advocacy for them is different because I am a daddy. A tug on the ear, a simple wink, or even a wiggle of the nose.  My kids know I am talking to them, while rest think I am being a little silly.  This secret code seems to work.  

The other post was a bit hypocritical. It was started about a week ago and inspired by Jon Harper.  It was about stopping, reflecting,  taking the time, and committing to sharing.  Quite frankly, I failed in this one.  I didn’t finish the blog, and while I take time to reflect, relax and recharge, I hadn’t done so in a sharing way for almost a month.

It is not the end of the world that I have been late in posting a blog for a month. I spent my time learning, sharing, nurturing, growing and commuting.  Except for that last piece, I think I am fine with taking the tardy. 

The Intangibles Of Digital Leadership

I have always been a believer that the only requisite quality of a leader is that people follow.   As I thought this morning specifically about digital leadership, my reflection compelled me to include a few other intangibles: humility, empathy, bedside manner, courage, and resourcefulness.  

All of us have been novice with new tools at one point or another. While there are savants among us who naturally ascend to masterful savvy in moments, those are undoubtedly outliers in the digital world.   Further, those outliers are rarely digital leaders as they struggle to grasp the importance of humility in the process of leading others for whom the process is far more challenging.  The ability to show humility through an empathetic process is integral to strong digital leadership.  Being able to connect with someone in a way that drums up discomfort from previous struggles and manifests authentic humility ultimately nurtures the essential relationship between the digital leader and those he/she leads. 

Further, the necessary patience and often a disarming self-deprecating sense of humor go a long way in helping our subjects find Maslowian comfort in developing both skill and comfort with digital tools.

Many a brilliant mind has been unsuccessful in a field due to an inability to connect with others due to a poor bedside manner.  The aforementioned humility and empathy, combined with the ability to communicate and connect, represent the intangible quality of bedside manner. 

From the connected relationship developed by these intangibles, a digital leader must display an unwavering courage in moving forward in pursuit of best practices that will serve his/her people’s process.  Once again, archetypal humility and resilience endear a leader to his/her people when courage leads to moments that require iterations.  I would be remiss and completely “Un-jeff” if I didn’t reiterate the importance of having and modeling a Dweckian growth mindset in the process.

Finally, resourcefulness is of utmost importance in digital leadership.  The ability to show verve, persistence,  creativity and once again a resilient humility in learning a new digital process represents the highest of skill sets for a digital leader. 

The digital experience is so personal and individual. While we often think of leadership as rallying a group in a direction, the digital leader does so by attending to each individual’s needs along the way. Much like the excellent teacher does. Certainly not a coincidence that the best digital leaders are likewise iconic teachers.

As with all leadership, knowing your people, knowing your stuff, and knowing yourself are integral.   The ability to combine these qualities in our daily engagement with our people, and make mindful decisions with how to support the growth of our people doesn’t require doctoral level mastery of digital skills, but it does require these intangibles.