Remembering Leslie Lamar Parker, my former student

To spotlight some of the thousands of lives lost to COVID-19, CBS This Morning has a segment called ‘Lives to Remember’. This morning, the show featured my former student, Leslie Lamar Parker, who succumbed to COVID-19 complications in May. (Leslie’s sister Shika videoed the segment, and it can be seen on her Facebook page.) I’ve been in touch with Leslie’s dear wife Whitney since Leslie’s passing, and she asked me to write this in Leslie’s memory. This is posted with her permission.

Thank you, Whitney, for asking me to do this. I’ll always be crazy about Leslie, and it was truly a pleasure to hang out with his memory. Wishing you and your lovely family peace and strength.

NOTE: I am posting this on my blog to honor the memory of this young man I am so very fond of, and to mark for myself just how, when I got mired in all the inconveniences of our current situation (e.g., providing distance learning at work, mask-wearing, closed businesses, etc.), I may have taken my eye off COVID-19’s real ball. Leslie’s passing reminded me of what I should put first, and why. The dangers are severe, and very, very close.

To put it another way, any political positions you pull out of this are not my intent and are fully on you. This piece is about Leslie Lamar Parker, who I am so very glad I got to work with and know. I’ll never forget him.

From the first time he walked into my high school English classroom, he was just…well, big

Big in physical stature, sure (he was several inches taller than I, which few teenagers are), but more so in sheer presence. He entered the room slowly and easily, and his classmates clustered around him. They quieted themselves when he spoke, and they exploded with laughter over everything he said. 

I’d been teaching nearly ten years by that point, so it was certainly nothing new for me to see students clowning or showing off on the first day. Such students were just in hurries to establish their desired place in the class’s culture. It’s understandable, really. (And, full confession: aside from the rare students who ended up taking their class-clown roles too far, I ended up adoring the heck out of my day-one clowny kids.)  

The remarkably big young man here, though, didn’t seem to be working any role or positioning himself. He interacted sincerely with the classmates who were so obviously drawn to him, and he showed big appreciation for them in return. He made his classmates laugh not so he could get their adoration, but so he could laugh along with them.

Simply being himself, he was effortlessly big. And, like all big things, he had considerable gravity. 

Mere moments after that initial observation, I also learned of my impressive new student’s big courage, consideration, and class, all in a single interaction. 

When I was calling roll and got to his name, “Leslie Parker?”

He responded, “Here.” 

I made eye contact with him and thanked him as I do with all my students on the first days. Before I could get on to the next name, though, he added, “Hey Mr. Kalenze! My cousin had you for a teacher!”

“Oh yeah? Who was that, Leslie?”

His reply stopped me short. It was the name of a student who had been expelled from the school district a few years prior, stemming from an incident that had occurred in my classroom. My new, remarkably big and highly gravitational student, in other words, had a preconceived notion of me, and it wasn’t a good one. Great. Just great. 

I looked up from my roll sheet at Leslie—whose big eyes were locked on mine in a gaze I recognized as one of challenge (his eyes were certainly not laughing, as they had been just five minutes earlier)—and replied, “Really? Wow! Say hi to him for me, okay?” 

Before returning to the roll, though, I kept my eyes on his a bit longer and gave him a subtle nod. He gave a quick “up nod” with his chin in acknowledgement, then looked away.   

With that single exchange, Leslie discreetly let me know that I was on notice with him, but that he was giving me a chance. In kind, I discreetly let him know that I saw him and understood. Whatever feelings he might have had against me, he had a keen sense for how this moment was not the best one to work them out in—and I appreciated his awareness and respect beyond what I am able to express.

In all, Leslie Lamar Parker’s first-day impression on me was a profound one. I’ve never forgotten it. I can’t say any high schooler ever impressed me as much in their first class period with me as Leslie Parker did that day. He was just big like that.

* * *

Thanks to Leslie’s big openness and big grace, he quickly emerged as that section’s biggest asset. He fully engaged his big intellect, big wit, big heart, big curiosity, and big perspective to my class’s literature, discussions, and activities—and with all that gravity of his, he took many “satellite students” right with him. When the year wrapped, I was truly sad to see him leave.

Fortunately, however, Leslie and I stayed in touch after our time as teacher-student. In 2011, Leslie’s big consideration spurred him to reach out through a LinkedIn message that read, simply, “MR. BATMAN!” (NOTE: When he was in my class, he nicknamed me “Mr. Batman” because he thought I looked like Michael Keaton. He even left an absolutely perfect—and, of course, very big—Batman symbol in my yearbook in 2007, the year of his graduation. I never saw the resemblance, but I’ll always treasure the nickname.) As we messaged back and forth, he let me know that his first child had just been born, and that he’d recently taken an IT job at Howard University. When I asked how he’d ended up in D.C., he said he just “wanted to venture out since I went to school in Minnesota.” It was a joy to watch him making such big decisions and moves. I was thrilled for him.

From there, we messaged each other a few times a year to stay caught up. He updated me through his move back to Minnesota and through his work in the district where we first met. He asked process questions about the books I was writing. We talked about his own dreams of being published, and I passed along a few pieces of advice. We discussed role models and the example he was hoping to set for some relatives of his, and on and on. 

Our contacts weren’t weekly or even monthly, but I will always cherish my continuing relationship wih Leslie Parker. The big young man I knew years ago was growing into a just a big man, and he made time to check in with me as he did. To me, it will always feel like a big gift.

* * *

On 11 May 2020, Leslie Lamar Parker lost a two-week battle with Covid-19. He was 31 years old.

It’s hard to know even what to write after that sentence, probably because even now, more than two months out, I still can’t believe the words in that sentence are true.

I do know, however, how grateful I was to receive a few more words from Leslie a few weeks after his passing. These came from, who fulfilled Leslie’s long-time dream of being published when they ran an essay of his called “I won’t remember how unforgiving Covid-19 was to people like me. Instead, I’ll remember Sunday dinner” on 27 May. 

I won’t say much about the essay here, but I will offer that it gives a brief glance into the myriad bigness of Leslie’s spirit. Reading it, you should get senses of just how observant, funny, intelligent, gracious, gentle, strong, wise, and generous Lesle Parker was. It sure gave me a lift to experience all that one more time, and I know that it lifted others around the world as well: after sending the tweet below, I heard from people all over the world about how they were reading Leslie and reflecting because of his ideas. Better still, teachers in my social network were sharing Leslie’s ideas with their students. (Click image below to view original tweet and read replies.)llptweet

Thank you, Leslie, for coming into my classroom that day so many years ago, and just for being so darn big. Your gravity positively affected many, many people, and you will live in my heart and my thoughts forever.


Hello, Ed Cases. Wherever you may be, I wish you peace and strength in these uncertain, troubling, and truly historic days.

I’m writing to announce that the researchED US event scheduled for 24 October in Philadelphia is being postponed.

Though the program was already (and quite impressively, I must say) rounding out as the pandemic hit the US a few months ago, we recently decided that it’d be unwise to proceed. There’s simply too much still unsettled regarding travel, congregation, and other guidelines to do so.

Thanks to all the speakers who so graciously committed their time, to our venue (St Joseph’s Prep), and to the Prep’s wonderful Dave Fortin. Your generosity and flexibility are greatly appreciated.

FINALLY: I’m using use the blog to make this announcement, as I would like to share a few points of interest that can be hard to fit onto tweets. I promise not to keep you long, as I know everyone has many other matters to be tending. If you have questions about any of the points below, please reach me through the blog, email, Twitter, etc.

  1. We have every intent to have another US event as soon as we can. I would love to give a timeline, but it’s simply impossible until some things play themselves out. Please stay tuned, and watch the Twitter handle (@researchED_US). My hope is that spring of 2021 will be workable.
  2. If you’re interested in the types of content available at researchED conferences, you may want to check out researchEDHome (follow on Twitter at @researchEDHome). It’s a series of FREE VIDEO SEMINARS available on YouTube, presented by folks who are familiar presences at researchED conferences around the world. I did one myself and I’ve been tuning into them as I can, and I can say with no hesitation: if there’s better free video-based PD out there, I have no idea what it would be. (RESOURCES: researchEDHome YouTube channel, researchEDHome schedule.)
  3. Building off the success of other canceled rED events in the UK that offered virtual substitutes (and, of course, researchEDHome), we’re giving some thought to a virtual researchED conference to stand in place of the Philly event. A few committed speakers have already expressed that they’d be willing to submit video sessions, so it sure seems like something we could engineer. Again: stay tuned, and feel free to lend suggestions if you have them. We’ll announce whatever we know as it takes more shape.
  4. Please know that, in this unexpected interim between events, I and others are working on strengthening researchED US at its more strategic, organizational levels. We may have to sit down for a while, but I assure you we won’t sit still.

Thank you so much for reading this far, and for your interest in researchED US. We’re of course heartbroken about having to make this announcement, but all of us have many other important matters to focus on right now.

We’ll be back soon. Stay safe.


The Marathon and the Swimming Pool Revisited: #rEDHome Talk Deck, 5.21.20

I had a great time speaking as part of the researchEDHome series this morning. A youtube link of the presentation should be up shortly. My presentation deck is enclosed below, with references on the last slide. Be in touch if you have any questions.

P.S. – If you’re not already following the rEDHome series, you may want to. It’s some of the best ed learning out there, and it’s FREE. Not sure where else you can see free sessions by the likes of Dan Willingham, Daisy Christodoulou, Dylan Wiliam, Jo Facer, Dianne & James Murphy, Paul Kirschner, Tom Sherrington, and so many others. (See the rEDHome Program and rEDHome youtube channel if interested.)

Download PPT Deck: rEDHome_May2020_EK

THE COVID-19 ED CASE CHRONICLES, PART 3B: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Evidence-Free Zone

This post continues from Part 3A, We Have Entered the Evidence-Free Zone.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Evidence-Free Zone

As frustrating as it can be at times to not know what the right things are (see my previous post), I have to admit that I am enjoying the challenges of our new Evidence-Free Zone.

And no, it’s not lost on Mr. ‘Evidence-Uber-Alles’ here how weird that sounds. Hear me out, though.

Simply, I’m accepting the Evidence-Free Zone for what it is, and approaching the whole deal—and urging my school teammates to approach the whole deal—the same way I approach so much of my work in education already: by getting all formative. I’m not sure what’s missing or needed, so I generate evidence before choosing my actions.

So okay, I guess it may be more accurate to say that it’s not the Evidence-Free Zone itself I’ve learned to love, but rather the challenges of (1) making the Evidence-Free Zone…well, less evidence-free, and then (2) attacking issues according to the evidence I’ve harvested.

Either way, I can definitely say I have found the process quite gratifying thus far: to go forth with some class decision, humbly admitting all along that I have zero idea how it will turn out (but full confidence in why it’s designed as it is), and then analyzing the heck out of all the output so I can keep improving. (And I have to add: Parents and students—the ones I work with, anyway—don’t seem to hold it against me when I sincerely remind them I’m learning right along with them here. In what I’ve seen to date, in fact, it actually earns ‘trust points’.)

SOMEWHAT RELATED ASIDE REGARDING FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT PROCESSES: I’ve always preferred the term informative assessment, actually, as whole goal of the assessment is to inform my & my kids’ subsequent moves. I wonder if this slight adjustment might do away with some of the mysticism and misunderstanding that so often follows formative assessment around. Hmm…food for thought.

A couple weeks ago, for instance, I knew I had to give a test to one of my classes: I had to know reliably what they knew in order to move ahead, I didn’t want to pitch all the work they’d done already, and all the rest. I tweaked my test for an online administration, released the link, and crossed my fingers. It’s now back and safe and graded, and it taught me a lot about how my kids take tests in the disastance environment. (And yes, it assured me that testing wasn’t an expectation to throw out altogether. The kids’ average percentage was around a 81%, and their answer-distribution suggested that cheating was really not an issue. Finally, of the three kids who earned A’s, two participated my pre-exam extra-credit opportunity to write and take retrieval quizzes. Interesting.)

Also, and from a school-wide improvement perspective: after the first week of my school’s initial distance-learning plan, we heard widely from students and parents that they could really use a one-stop resource for organizing all their kids’ responsibilities. I asked my PLC if they thought we should/could provide such a thing, perhaps using a crude ‘Class Master’ process. They agreed it was worthwhile, so I built a sheet that looks like this…


…and communicated process expectations and directions across the team. We spent a couple days working out bugs, and then made families aware of the resource through our central notifications. Now, as has been our custom so far, we will see if folks find it helpful or not. If we learn that they don’t, we’ll adjust yet again. We’re all learning here, and all doing the best we can. 

A Chance to Be Bottom-Up

The coronavirus pandemic seems to be bringing into stark relief (again) how important it is for schools to have strong processes for improving from within, addressing the needs their specific students have. (And I’m not just saying so because it’s what my most recent book is about, I swear.)

In this moment, after all, globally idealized versions of what kids need right now, or general statements of ‘distance learning happens best when…’, really should not be taken seriously. They may sound good, but they are based on nothing. Good ideas are out there and are worth keeping ears up for, of course, but schools’ realities simply differ too much from one to the next. Perhaps more than ever before, now is definitely not the time to graft intuitively pleasing ideas widely across contexts with little consideration for those contexts’ realities. For they won’t just fail, frankly. They may cause more angst for staff, students, and their families than any of those folks can spare right now. 

On that note, my recommendations during this disastance learning experiment don’t and won’t have much to do with choosing a resource over another, establishing student routines that go ‘a-b-c’, or anything similar. Items such as those are too far in your own weeds. Advising on them, really, would presumptuous bordering on disrespectful. I know that my school is focusing right now on connecting better to our kids (see beginning of previous post) and making academic expectations as rigorous, but manageable, as we can (see above enhancements). It’s what we’ve identified we need to put first right now, but I’m not saying it should be Job One for you. That’d be awful top-down of me, and…well, I’d prefer to not be that. 🙂 

Hang in there, everyone. We’ve got quite a way to go in this whole Evidence-Free Zone, so be in touch any time if you want to bounce ideas around. Let’s make each other better.



The COVID-19 Ed Case Chronicles, Part 3A: We Have Entered the Evidence-Free Zone

Hello, Ed Cases. I hope y’all are holding up out there. Things are weird here (duh), but I’m feeling confident that I and my school are maintaining a productive attitude, learning tons every day, and continuing to make improvements on the distance-schooling environment we had to create so suddenly.

We’ve even managed to work some nice outreach into all the assorted instructional strategery. We did a virtual Spirit Week, for instance (see the school’s Facebook page for photos), and this staff ‘greeting card’:

QUICK NOTE to colleagues who may be reading this: I can’t thank you enough for bringing pieces like these to life. For someone like me, who probably doesn’t worry over schooling’s human touches as much as I should, you are providing a powerful reminder of what our priorities should be in this strange and stressful time. Additionally, you’re doing wonders for my motivation through all the adversity. I’ll put it this way: if upper-school science teacher Mr. Chris McBride, with all he is currently managing (he’s a second-year pro, and he has five prepsFIVE!), can make our school do its thing a bit better for kids and families by pulling together something like the greeting card above, all of his own volition, I damn well can do more right now too. So again: thanks, all.

Remember: This is the Evidence-Free Zone

More than just a heartwarming way to kick off this post, however, the above updates and bursts of gratitude lead toward a few ideas that need heavy emphasis right now.

First, to everyone connected to a school’s closure or a school’s conversion-to-virtual—and yes, I mean every central office admin, every school leader, every teacher, every student, every parent, every policy expert, everyone: Please keep in mind that no precedents, proof, or playbooks exist for what we’re attempting to pull off here. I mean, flipping the switch and activating best practices in distance learning may sound nice and all, but let’s be frank: (1) widely transferable best practices in distance learning haven’t ever really surfaced anywhere, and (2) what we’re doing right now isn’t pure distance learning anyway—rather, it’s ‘forced, comprehensive distance learning within a disaster-pandemic context’, and that’s pretty f-ing different. Really, what we’re attempting to make work should be called disastance learning. (That’s right: ‘disaster’ + ‘distance’ = ‘disastance’. I’m going with it.)

Quite literally, we are now in the Evidence-Free Zone—another dimension, a wondrous land of imagination, and so forth. (Wait, check that: we know pretty definitely what I mentioned above, that piece about the distance-learning band-aid not having much sound evidence to recommend it. So whew, we’ve got that…um, going for us…?)

In the Evidence-Free Zone, Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

So please, Ed Cases, to start the coming group of posts: as you fire up your laptop Monday and are flooded with notes about how many tasks you should assign, how many video lessons you should record, how you should be continuing to build relationships, and all the rest, please keep in mind that our current disastance-learning experiment is happening in the Evidence-Free Zone. Anyone who tells you what kids need right now is really only operating from their own ideas about what kids need right now.

A moment like this one has never happened before, after all, which means that absolutely no one is qualified to say exactly what all kids and families need from their schools right now. And, judging from how much tension is being added to already-frazzled homes, how many kids are being missed altogether, how vaunted conferencing technologies aren’t fully ready for the instructional realm, and numerous other early stumbles, it appears that some of the self-appointed experts have wildly miscalculated. (Imagine that.)

Until my next post, then, do what you can to keep the main thing the main thing. (You may want to start by tuning out anyone you hear speaking with certainty in our Evidence-Free Zone. It may help cut the noise down up there, after all.) Focus on how you can best serve your students’ continued academic and personal growth. Stay true to your school’s instructional mission, monitor the expectations you assign to make sure they are meaningful and manageable, and be willing to adapt. We’re all learning here, and that’s okay.

And for goodness’s sake: make sure you’re making some time for yourself.

See Part 3B, ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Evidence-Free Zone’, for (in)formative attitudes and approaches I and my school are adopting, recommendations I’m making (and not making), etc. 

THE COVID-19 ED CASE CHRONICLES #2: Tips for Testing at a Distance

When my state announced that schools would have to make teaching and learning operations available virtually, my ninth- and tenth-grade ELA classes were both nearing the ends of multi-week units. 

While I wasn’t thrilled about the directive (or, very obviously, the crisis that prompted it), its timing actually works out pretty well for me and where my classes are currently. After all: in the coronormal’s immediate term, I won’t have to fret much about how to simultaneously get my sea legs in the online-instructional waters and effectively teach rigorous new content. The hard parts of my units-in-progress (like installing background knowledge, working through unit texts, designing practice and analysis exercises, keeping up with grading, etc.) are effectively done.  

Assessing the learning that happened or didn’t happen over the wholes of those units, though, is another deal entirely. I’ve assessed throughout the units to inform my planning and my support, of course, but, due to the nature of the content we’d been working with, I was really counting on the ‘so-what’ of some kind of capping examination. It is, after all, the best way to know how much of all that unit content has made it firmly into students’ long-term memories. (And as I have more applied, analytical exercises coming up next, I really didn’t want to move on without a bit more certainty.)

The distance-learning relationship changes all this, of course. Indeed, without being able to provide a true testing environment, I had to wonder if the tests I’d originally envisioned were even worth giving.

After some thought, however, I decided that the answer is absolutely yes: even within the new realities of distance learning, going through with the tests is the right thing to do. Some additional guides and procedures will have to be established first (and yes, I’m just going to have to let a few things go), but I can make this work—I think, in fact, that I can use this situation to help kids actually improve their exam-preparation habits.

In Light of the Circumstances, Lighten the Heck Up

To begin, as in my overarching approach to all my distance-teaching, I’m starting with my state of mind. Specifically, I’m keeping in mind the utter weirdness of the current situation. 

I’m not talking about lowering expectations, as I’m never about that. On some things, though, I have to keep the circumstances in mind and just lighten the heck up. I have to get over myself. I have to accept that perfectly replicating my physical classroom’s conditions—especially on a matter like test security—is simply not possible, and then plan accordingly.

To put it another way: with all the income being lost, ways of life being rearranged, and people fearing for the health and safety of their loved ones, I probably shouldn’t work myself into a lather when one of my students thumbs through his copy of Antigone so he can select ‘Teiresias’ over ‘Eteocles’ for a point on my test. (And folks out there just powering through and going ‘next-level’, please, please check yourself. All of this is an emergency-response, remember.)   

Use Test Design to Keep Conditions Rigorous (…and myself sane)

I can, though, ratchet the challenge level high, get a good bead on what my students have learned, and keep my own workload manageable through my test design. Below are some principles I’m abiding by, and strategies I’m enacting, to do so.

Use the available tools As my students regularly use Google’s interface and because I’m conducting most classroom business through Google Classroom, I’ll be collecting student output with a Google Form. This will make grading a bit more manageable, as I have worked the form’s settings to log correct answers. Plus, I’ll get handy spreadsheets of results across the class to inform future instruction. (If you’d rather not use Google, several online survey tools are available freely. For a quick list of a few, see here. I’ve used a few of these myself—and while it’s never been for instructional purposes, I don’t see why they couldn’t be rigged to do a serviceable job. Happy browsing.)

“Open-note test” doesn’t have to equal “easy” – Okay, so I’ve let a few things go and accepted that students will use their notes (and one another) to work on the tests I administer. Still, “open-note test” doesn’t have to equal “easy”. Here are a few things I’m doing in hopes that students will prepare diligently for, not just coast into, test day.

  • Defining the time of the test window. The Google Form students are expected to complete for their exam will open at a certain time, and no answers will be accepted after a certain time. (Incidentally, I’m providing 90 minutes. This is considerably longer than usual, but it uniformly provides enough time for all—and honors my IEP students with additional-time accommodations.)
  • Making “open-notes” a trap. Within the 90-minute time window, I’m making the concept of open-note test a bit of a trap through point-distribution. On one test, which is worth 100 points total, I’ve made sure the majority of the points (55, that is) come through the test’s extended essay and short answer (2-3 sentences) sections. That makes less than half of the test multiple-choice, or notes-reference-able. And from there it’s just math: If each question takes 1-2 minutes of looking in notes to find answers, students will have used their entire allotted time (90 minutes, remember) on less than half of the overall test.
  • Communicating the above rationale clearly. I see this as a good way to teach some lessons about habits of preparation and attention (which I do regularly), so I plan to start the week with some explicit reminders of the above points. I’ll put these out on my Google Classroom stream, definitely in writing and perhaps via video.  

Teach, Structure, and Incentivize Retrieval Practice

Finally, I’m using the run-up to these tests as a way to get students preparing through content retrieval, as, of course, retrieving information from our memories is one of the most proven ways to make information permanent in our memories. 

To replace the myriad ways I typically have students retrieve crucial content in my classroom, I’m taking steps like these:

  • Exposing students to the underlying science of retrieval practice with accessible videos like this one, from my friends the Learning Scientists.
  • Via extra credit rewards, encouraging students to prepare through retrieval practice. In my case, I’m offering extra credit to students who write quizzes using their class materials, as well as to students who take the quizzes written by their classmates. 

* * *

All that said, though, I have to be honest: I have no idea how it will all go. None of us do, really, as highly successful virtual teaching and learning is still much more aspiration than reality for our enterprise.

And as such is true, I’ll stick to my basic classroom principles—and, of course, a genuine acknowledgement of our unique circumstances—and do my best translating them to the new normal. It’s the best any of us can do.

The COVID-19 Ed Case Chronicles #1: ‘Aw-Shit Time’ and Attitude

Bob Sullivan, the head coach of my college football team a zillion years ago (and one of the most important people in my life), had a long list of attitudes and qualities he wished to cultivate in his players. These attitudes and qualities were borrowed from his experiences as a coach and from variously successful coaches, leaders, and even pop culture, and, fully assembled, they made up what he called his Psychology of Winning.

And the Psychology was no mere ornament. It was foundational to our team culture — so crucial, in fact, that Coach Sully kicked off every season by explicitly teaching it to the entire team. (Yes, even before any film study or X- and O-heavy chalk talks.) And from that point forward, Coach Sully would use Psychology-based slogans to trigger the states of mind he wanted players to assume in specific, adverse situations.

While each of these slogans has its own backstory and rationale (the Psychology of Winning lecture was over two hours long, and came with several pages of notes), I won’t go into them. Here, though, is a peek at how he applied it:

  • Situation: Offense has the ball, fourth and goal from the one-yard line with under a minute to play, and previous two run attempts have been stuffed for no gain.
    • Coach Sully, in the timeout huddle, calling the same play a third time: ‘This is it. On this play, we all need to reach a quarter-inch higher.’
  • Situation: DT repeatedly unable to defeat the opposing guard’s trap block.
    • Coach Sully, to the frustrated player: ‘Stop trying to do it. Just do it!‘ [Yep. Straight Yoda. Mentioned that he borrowed widely for these insights, did I not? Heh heh heh.]
  • Situation: Offense gets the ball on their own 17 with one minute and 34 seconds remaining, one timeout, and down by five points.
    • Coach Sully, to the offense before they take the field: ‘Don’t be too careful, offense! GOYA!‘ (GOYA=’Get Off Your Ass’ or if you want it, go get it)

I’ve gone back to Sully’s Psychology of Winning countless times over my career in education, and I’ve seen it have some pretty amazing effects on students and athletes alike. (It registers with schools’ adults, too, for that matter.) In fact, I’ve had former students quote Psychology lines back to me years removed from my time with them, saying that the principles helped keep them steady as they worked their way through some adversity or another.

‘Football is life,’ indeed.

Sully & me at his 80th birthday celebration, April 2017

‘Aw Shit’ Time

With all that prelude in mind, I’ll explain one item from Coach Sully’s Psychology of Winning in a bit more detail: the idea of ‘Aw Shit’ Time.

In short, ‘Aw Shit’ Time signifies the inevitable times in football games/seasons when some sudden unfortunate change* — a turnover, a score by the opposition, an injury, etc. — makes someone on the sideline reflexively exclaim, ‘Aw shit!’

Coach Sullivan urged us to pay special attention to our attitudes in ‘Aw Shit’ Time, first because adversity is inevitable in anything competitive, and next because adversities, if not taken on willingly and boldly, have a tendency to pile up. He told us it was okay to be angry or even a little scared (to get the ‘Aw shit!’ off our chests, in other words), but that we had to quickly bring our eyes back up: to focus, put our helmets on, sprint onto the field, and attack the adversity. Make the play. Be a hero. (You picking up that whole relish challenges piece, by the way? Yeah, Sully was pretty much doing growth mindset years before Carol Dweck was Carol Dweck.)

At bottom, Coach emphasized that people who responded to ‘Aw Shit’ Time with head-hanging, blaming, or hesitancy would have a tough time overcoming adverse circumstances of any kind.

COVID-19 and Education: Serious ‘Aw Shit’ Time

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with all this. For yes, the COVID-19 outbreak is a sudden unfortunate change that has most of the world saying ‘Aw, shit’.

And I won’t lie: from the point the news started coming in that large adjustments would be made (and my oldest daughter’s beloved college sent her home, my youngest daughter’s long-anticipated trip to Spain with the school band was called off, a researchED conference I was to speak at in Sweden was postponed, I was informed my instruction would be delivered via ‘distance learning’, etc., etc.), I did not respond as Coach Sullivan had taught me to nearly 30 years ago. At school I kept my head down and worked on re-figuring all my plans, offering little insight or leadership to my fellow team members. And away from school, well…let’s just say that quite a few Will Ferrell movies got watched. Basically, I let myself get stuck in ‘Aw shit’.

Around Thursday or Friday of last week, though, I found myself putting my helmet on.

Talking to friends all over education, I realized that while the discussion we’ve been working so hard at for the past few years (and that is picking up some nice steam, I must say) may have to pause a bit, other valuable opportunities for discussion and learning are opening up. None of us know how to do this well (hell, even people who work at this 24/7/365 don’t), so we can use the networks we’ve built and strengthened to hold each other up. It’s not the situation we wanted to be in, maybe, but we can still make a game-saving play. And, dear ed cases, doing so ourselves may be more important than we think: lots of ed-sharks are starting to circle out there, viewing this moment as a profitable opportunity.

Choosing My Attitude

For the foreseeable future, then, I’ll be using this space to talk about the current distance-learning moment: things I’m doing with my students and in my building that seem to be working (and not working), ways I’m attempting to translate my usual classroom principles to the distance-learning context, reactions and recommendations based on developments in the field, and so on.

And hey: As you make your own way through this, whether you’re a teacher, administrator, support person, parent, or whatever, please consider blogging about your experiences or at least connecting with other ed cases on Twitter/Facebook/etc. We’re the ones doing the stuff, folks, and learning important lessons as we go. Time for us to make the plays, and to be the experts. If you’re not sure blogging’s for you, check out these three great blogs I’ve seen already. They’re by evidence-committed educators managing the current situation, and they may spark some ideas about matters you’d like to take on yourself.

Finally and most importantly, I’m committing to doing the best job I can for my kids and my school, even if I haven’t quite figured out what day it is yet. (I’m pretty proud, even, of my distance-learning plan. Watch this space for updates about whether that early pride is a foolish one.)

My helmet’s on. Let’s go make a play.


* If you are interested in using the concept of ‘Aw Shit’ Time in your work but would rather not curse, consider using ‘sudden unfortunate change time’ or its acronym, ‘SUC Time’. It gets a similar message across, I’d say. 🙂

researchED and Equity: Eradicating Educational Evidence Deserts

In the past few days, a recent Tom Rademacher piece in Education Post has kicked up a lot dust over on Twitter. The piece implied that researchED is not committed to educationaly equity — insinuating, essentially, that the researchED community is ‘selling the dangerous message that it’s OK to stop trying with all this equity stuff.’

I didn’t much like the piece, of course, as it was over-generalized, over-dramatized, misplaced, and shallow. I’m rather used to that, though, so not a big deal. And, fairly, Rademacher walked back some of his essay in his follow-up conversations on Twitter, saying that he didn’t have all of researchED in mind, only some specific people he calls the ‘Fordham Crew’. See here: evidencedesertsTRTweet

**Before moving on, though, a couple specific quibbles:

  1. The language of the original piece sure sounds like he still means everyone rED-related. If he doesn’t actually mean to say that and has publicly said so, it sure would be nice if he changed or retracted it. I won’t demand it or hold my breath, of course.
  2. I know some members of the ‘Fordham Crew’ pretty well by now, and I have to say I don’t think Rademacher’s reading them accurately. Before assuring readers the ‘Fordham Crew’ are all just extrapolations of a caricature like James Lindsay, Rademacher may want to look further into their work. At the very least, he should show more evidence — because, y’know, he provides none — about how the ‘Crew’ he has in mind ‘eras[es] the work of people of color’. It’s pretty irresponsible, I’d say, to not prop such a heavy charge up with at least a few specific examples.

While I could go on responding to Rademacher’s piece, I’m less interested in the essay itself than I am with the conversation it started. I think it’s very important for the growing researchED US network to wrestle with, and I am very pleased Rademacher’s piece made our little grassroots thing go off and really start wrestling.

NOTE: I apologize that I had to pull back from participating in the conversation as it built up in real time. I have all kinds of plates spinning currently, is all (i.e., a new book I’ve been neglecting to promote, multiple rED events in recent months, piles of work at school, Thanksgiving plans with my parents, a bunch of personal-life stuff…well, that I’d rather not go into here, etc., etc.), and I’ve come to know when it’s a dumb idea to take my eyes off those plates for a few hours so I can huff and puff over a Twitter exchange. Wait: Does that show of social-media self-restraint count as a 21st-century skill?!

And, frankly, it’s an important time to say a few things about where researchED stands (or would like to stand, anyway) within education’s ongoing work to equitably prepare all kids.

On those notes, I’m going to build around a 26 November tweet from my friend Jasmine Lane, as I felt it hit on a crucial point. I’m paraphrasing, but in her tweet Jasmine suggested that, as much as researchED believes itself to be committed to issues of educational equity, critics like Rademacher don’t see researchED as such because researchED doesn’t choose to attack educational equity issues in the same ways Rademacher does. To put it another way: in Rademacher’s view, doing ‘The Work’ (his term) means something very specific. And if researchED isn’t doing that, it’s not actually about educational equity. Her tweet is here:


I appreciate Jasmine bringing it up this way, and I think she’s absolutely right. And if I might, I’d like to expand on it more explicitly. Maybe it’ll shed some light on how I think researchED sees itself (or how we would like to see ourselves, anyway) within education’s ongoing and urgent equity discussion.

To start this expansion, I’ll start with a textbook example of inequity, the food desert.

If you’re not familiar with the term, the Food Empowerment Project defines a food desert as a ‘geographic area where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient travelling distance.’

In food deserts (which occur most commonly in low-income areas where few residents own cars), ‘People’s choices about what to eat are severely limited by the options available to them and what they can afford — and many food deserts contain an overabundance of fast food chains selling cheap “meat” and dairy-based foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt.’

Over long terms, the consequences of constrained access to healthy foods is a main reason that ethnic minority and low-income populations suffer from from statistically higher rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other diet-related conditions than the general population.

Looking more deeply into food deserts and what all’s going on in them, however, researchers have found more challenging layers than sheer geographic proximity. More specifically, this 2018 study suggested that populations living within food deserts tend to be less-educated about what healthful options would be, and accordingly shop for less-healthy foods. In other words: attracting a supermarket to the area and improving the access to healthful options does not alone eradicate the inequity of food deserts.

Again, food deserts’ existence can be seen as a textbook inequity: when healthful food options are further away from folks in lower-income areas, when those options cost more than empty-calorie options do, and when people’s awareness of healthy eating differ according to income level, the ultimate (and shameful) result is that lower-income folks will have worse nutritional habits than higher-income folks over the long terms, and they will in turn experience long-term health issues like obesity and diabetes in much greater proportion.

This all relates closely to researchED’s mission, in that researchED sees the existence of educational evidence deserts — educational settings where practical and operational actions have little evidence to support their selection — as producing greatly inequitable outcomes. And just like the nutritional experts, epidemiologists, and activists working to eradicate the health-related inequities of food deserts, researchED seeks to eradicate,  through professional development and networking ed professionals, learning inequities that result when prioritized practices aren’t soundly informed by what research can tell us about things like how people learn, which instructional practices have produced effective learning elsewhere, and instructional aspirations are just plain hokum. In fact, and to borrow from Tom Rademacher’s piece, researchED is expressly ‘about inequities, about recognizing and working to undo them.’

Look over even one researchED program (let’s take the one from Philadelphia just a couple weeks ago, for example), and it should be fairly plain to see that a wide range of ‘healthful evidence options’ are presented at researchED conferences to help bring some fruit to these inequitable evidence deserts: evidence about why black teachers leave the teaching profession (and what leaders can do) by Dr. Ashley Griffin and Dr. R. Davis Dixon, cognitive-scientific evidence about the importance of background knowledge to all other learning (by Natalie Wexler and David Didau), evidence from classrooms about how cognitive-scientific research can inform teachers’ practice and move student learning (by Patrice Bain and John Mohl), and on and on. And, of course, setting the tone for the day, the keynote address by Baltimore Public Schools CEO, Dr. Sonja Santelises — a system leader who is working to achieve educational equity in her district by bringing evidence-based practices into what she recognized as an educational evidence desert. (NOTE: Dr. Santelises even frames it similarly, but borrows from historic housing policies — namely redlining — to illustrate. If you don’t know about what she’s doing with BCPS’s curriculum work toward equity, you should get to know it. We’ll have video of her rED Philly talk up soon, but you can see a short youtube introduction to her approach and thinking here.)

True, these may not fit ‘The Work’ of educational equity as defined by Tom Rademacher. All of these examples, however, work toward more equitable outcomes for kids by filling gaps in the various educational evidence deserts most education professionals are stuck in — places where research-unhealthy options like 1:1 iPad initiatives and training on growth-mindset interventions (read: two interventions that have shaky evidence, at best, to support them) are much more likely to be enacted and prioritized than a research-verified strategy like knowledge-rich curricula. And, much like the low-income family with no car in a poorer part of town having to arrange a trip to the nearest supermarket, they’d have to go through a helluva lot to find these healthful options on their own. (To wit: see researchED Philly’s panel of English teachers — Lindsay Kemeny, Margaret Goldberg, and the aforementioned Jasmine Lane, all moderated by APM’s Emily Hanford — sharing stories of how they’d been taught to teach reading and what they each had to do to turn their practices around. Once again, this video should be up soon.)

As a network of education professionals, researchED of course still has a long way to go on this score — and I can promise, as the U.S. organizer, that we are working on it. For individuals who disagree with researchED’s priorities to suggest that researchED as a whole is laughing off or not fighting for equitable educational outcomes, however, is simply off-base.

My presentation deck from #rEDPhil19

As my head’s still spinning a bit from last weekend’s researchED US event in Philadelphia (and, of course, as I had to jump back into school this morning), I haven’t had time to prep a recap/reflection post. I will before the week’s out, I promise. If you’d like to get a peek at what others thought of the day before then, check out the #rEDPhil19 hashtag on Twitter. It’s rather lively, and we’re rather proud of that.

…and by all means: if you were there yourself, please feel free to write & post your own! It’s one of the best ways we can spread the word about researchED, after all. If you don’t have a blog, feel free to do anyway and send to me. I’ll post it here. (And think about starting a blog. Seriously.)

While I get on that day-reflection, here is my talk’s presentation deck. In it you’ll see a bit about my new book, What the Academy Taught Us: its intended arguments, why I wrote it the way I did, etc., etc. Be in touch if you have questions!


Scenes from the ‘What the Academy Taught Us’ book launch (and the most memorable week ever)

Well, Ed Cases, I don’t think I can say I’ve had a Saturday-to-Saturday stretch anything like the one I had last week.

Going back two weeks ago (to 19 October), I was in Santiago, Chile, speaking at the first-ever researchED Chile. It was a typically great rED event, and I was able to spend good time with friends like Tom Bennett, Pedro de Bruyckere, David Didau, Ben Riley, and Martin Robinson–and make new ones, like Aptus’s Rodrigo Lopez and 1 World Schools’ Sunita Arora. Here’s a tweet someone sent out during my first talk (I spoke twice): rEDChile

During our time there, though, we had a bit of a scare–some protests boiled over into riots, and we found ourselves right in the middle of a tense national state of emergency. When driving through the heart of Santiago the previous Friday, as a matter of fact, we got a bit of a hint of what was to come. I took this pic of riot-geared police out the bus window, actually, in what must have been mere minutes/hours before things became violent. 20191018_152653

After the Saturday curfew, we made it to the airport Sunday to get our flights out. Fires like this one were being set closer to the airport santiagoairport, and scores of flights were canceled, but I was able to make it back toward the U.S. late Monday afternoon–and into MSP late Tuesday afternoon. Was back teaching by Wednesday. Whew.

I worked on adjusting for the next three days, then had a most special night on Saturday, 26 October: the launch party for my new book, What the Academy Taught Us. Held at Minneapolis’s fine La Dona Cerveceria (which is owned by Osseo Senior High grad–and one of my former football players–Sergio Manancero), it was like a most-treasured episode of “This is Your Education Life”. Several former students were in attendance, as were many of my one-time teaching colleagues from Osseo Senior High (and the Sophomore Academy, of the book’s titles). Here are some pics…


The Sophomore Academy Team, L to R: Gerry Zelenak, Kelly Skare-Klecker, Eric Kalenze, Eric Ruska, Jackie Trzynka


Sophomore Academy teachers, plus alumni, L to R: Andrew Tran, Kelly Skare-Klecker, Gerry Zelenak, Faith Mann, Eric Kalenze, Miranda Thune, Eric Ruska, Kendall Cross

The whole thing was even kicked off by our principal (and my mentor), Dr. Bob Perdaems: 20191026_183835I was able to launch with my parents and brother, my good friend and editor Lars Ostrom, plus dear friends from Minneapolis Public Schools, researchED, FIT Academy, and many many others. Some were even nice enough to tweet about it! 🙂

The interesting week didn’t stop there, though, as a bunch of my co-launching friends got me out to a karaoke bar. (But no, I didn’t do it. No way.)

Thanks, everyone, for such a special week. I’ll never forget it.