Reflections on Dominating 5th Grade Math Speed Drills

I love it when people comment on my blog posts. I was inspired to write this post when my friend Rose Ann commented on my last post, recalling how the two of us were always highly competitive in the elementary school spelling bees and math speed drills. I look back and wonder what I took away from those kinds of contests and drills. I certainly learned that memorization was essential to learning. I learned that speed was highly valued. I learned that I was really good at math and pretty good at spelling. (Does anybody really need to know how to spell chrysanthemum?) And I learned that either it’s right and you stay standing, or it’s wrong and you shuffle back to your seat.

Unless you have a career as a Jeopardy contestant, life is not about speed or single chances. And in the half century since I was in elementary school, there has been some change in our classrooms.

We need to keep that change going in the right direction.

There are different perspectives on what is really learned in those types of exercises. Brian Regan (see below) has been one of my favorite comedians for years. His take on spelling bees is hilarious and sad. It’s worth four minutes of your time to click here and listen. My favorite part – the kid who is asked to spell CAT and says, “Cat. K-A-T. Cat. I’m outta here.” Get the humiliation over with. There’s a place for those who wish to compete in spelling bees, geography bees, and contests that reward memorization and quick thinking. But if you are looking for the best kind of classroom learning, the kind of learning that helps you lead a successful life, it’s about struggling, failing, getting feedback, struggling more, and eventually figuring it out.

Brian Regan Doing His Thing

Miley Cyrus put this perfectly in her song, The Climb

There’s always gonna be another mountain
I’m always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be an uphill battle
Sometimes I’m gonna have to lose
Ain’t about how fast I get there
Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side
It’s the climb

Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler, two highly regarded Stanford professors (that’s Jo Boaler in the center in the picture above!), have been researching and advocating for the climb for years. Angela Duckworth discussed the same idea in her very popular work, Grit. Hard work matters. Practice matters. (Sorry, Allen Iverson and Ted Lasso.) If you struggle to get better, you actually learn more in the process.

We parents and teachers should never emphasize speed. We should be telling students and children that with effort, they can become better at math, better at reading, and better at whatever they put their minds and their efforts to. This is Dweck’s concept of growth mindset. Our intelligence and ability are not fixed. We can get better. We can get more intelligent and more skilled.

I’ve known so many outstanding high school coaches who beautifully embrace growth mindset. When players did not run a play correctly, or when they were trying to learn a new technique to make them faster or stronger, these coaches would correct the student-athlete (sometimes gently, sometimes bluntly), then have them run the play or use the technique again. And again. And again. That’s how learning happens best. You try to do something that is not at all easy to do, get feedback, get better, get feedback, and so on until you reach your maximum potential. It is beautiful to watch.

But often those same coaches, when working with students in the classroom, will teach something, give a test on it, and then move on to the next topic whether the student learned it or not. They would never accept such failure as a coach.

Real learning does not involve students recalling something from memory, which can lead to spelling something wrong then taking the walk of shame back to their desk. Real learning endeavors to teach a challenging and useful skill or concept, then to find ways to help each student, encouraging them to work and struggle along the way, until they get closer and closer to mastery. If students can learn those concepts, they can figure things out on their own later.

I’m a pretty darn good memorizer. I know that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit and 100 degrees Celsius. (I will write a blog post one day about our refusal to adopt the metric system – we make things so much harder for ourselves by rebelling against the beauty and simplicity of the metric system – but I digress.) One day, Jill was cooking and yelled out as her hand got hurt by escaping steam from a pot. Dawson and I both expressed our sympathy, then Dawson commented that it must have really hurt, as steam is hotter than boiling water. I didn’t know that fact, so naturally, I challenged my son on his statement. “So how hot is steam?” I asked. He said, “I don’t know, but it’s hotter than boiling water.” I asked how he knew that and he said, “It just makes sense. The water reaches 100 degrees Celsius, and the only reason it would change into steam would be that it has more heat than the boiling water.” I asked where he read that, and he said, “Nowhere. It just makes sense.” Being an amazing and trusting father, I immediately looked it up. And what-da-ya-know – he was right.

Memorization is nice, but it’s not the goal of learning. Understanding blows the doors off of memorization.

When students don’t get the concept at first, we need to stay with it, give them second chances, encourage their grit, and support their struggle. When a piece of writing is not what it should be, we need to teach students to grapple with the editing process and develop a never-ending desire for improvement.

It’s not about speed. It’s about embracing the challenge. Jo Boaler writes, “I work with a lot of mathematicians, and one thing I notice about them is that they are not particularly fast with numbers; in fact, some of them are rather slow. This is not a bad thing; they are slow because they think deeply and carefully about mathematics.”

So let’s embrace the climb. Let’s not give outstanding comedians like Brian Regan the fodder for jokes about bad teaching. Let’s believe that all students can get smarter. And let’s all join our students in the lifelong struggle to get better.

Mike

To get updates on when my next post comes out, please click here

Sources:

Grit, by Angela Duckworth

Mindset: A New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck

Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead, and Live Without Barriers, by Jo Boaler

Failing at Retirement – Parts One and Two

I have loved not working.

Transitioning from a 60 to 80-hour work week to a 0-hour work week was easier than I ever imagined. I have rested, lost weight and become healthier overall, organized my life, increased my time spent on hobbies I love, and avoided being such a pain that my wife wanted me to return to work. I did not miss work at all.

But I still said yes when a former superintendent colleague asked if I could come support her district for a two-month stint running Human Resources and COVID compliance. My financial advisor has been saying that it wouldn’t hurt me to work every once in a while. While she does not call me lazy, she does point out that I’m still in my earning years, and that every bit helps. Fine, Sonya. I’ll do some short-term stints.

So, I took an 8-week job working for this new district, and  . . . I loved it!

I enjoyed meeting new people and becoming better acquainted with colleagues with whom I had only worked from afar. It is a smaller district, and smaller districts are places where there are fewer leaders, and those leaders have to wear a lot of hats. Effectively, all of the leaders have to specialize in, well, everything. And one of the things that I did not know I was missing was the socialization that jobs naturally create. I loved saying good morning to the good-natured and hard-working people in the office, having occasional side conversations, and walking onto a campus just to feel the energy it emanates. Great schools produce spectacular vibes. I think most of us can feel it (or feel its absence) when we walk around a site.

So actually, maybe I miss work a little bit.

My thanks to the outstanding leaders of El Segundo Unified; I am grateful to the teachers, the classified staff, and the administrators for welcoming me and once again proving to me that our nation’s schools do so much good with so few resources.  But I did drive more. I played less golf. I worked out a little less. Thus ended Failing Retirement – Part One.

What to do when you enjoy so much about retirement, and yet you still get energized from meaningful work in a profession you love?

When you fail once, I see no other choice but to fail again.

Some of my former teachers, were they to read this, would nod their heads and say, “Same old Matthews.”

But in Failing Retirement – Part Two, I am not taking an eight-week job assignment. This time, I have signed on for one full year, serving as the Superintendent of Schools in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District. One year is still short-term, right?!? Everyone is clear that I’m there for twelve months, and then I am out after they hire a long-term superintendent for their community. I look forward to a whole series of new challenges, while getting to know and serve the employees and community members who are working together to serve the 24,000 students in this new district.

The past year has been fantastic. I’ve learned that my wife is not totally horrified by the idea of having me around the house almost all of the time. Total win! I’ve learned that I don’t hate not working, and in fact, my life is pretty darn interesting without it. Another win!  I’ve learned to be much healthier, and I am way better off for it. I have also enjoyed developing my love of writing, sharing stories, and reflecting on them on my blog site. And our first year of empty nesting has been (don’t tell Ryan and Dawson) nothing short of awesome.  Win – win- win!

The number one question for me, beginning on Tuesday, is how do I stay healthier, stay in touch with my hobbies, and keep writing, all while totally immersing myself in a new and fascinating job that will take as much time as I can give it?

I know that, just as many people were intrigued when the wise old owl was asked how many licks in a Tootsie Pop, the suspense is killing most of you. I’ll keep you posted.

To get updates on when my next post comes out, please click here.

Stop Yelling at the Fruit!

“Enough with the fruit already!” That’s what my friend Peter yelled at me while we were golfing last week. I had just bitten into my 2nd apple of the round as I was walking down the 12th hole fairway at the beautiful Soule Park Golf Course. I looked at him with his Diet Coke in hand, and I knew he was kidding. But maybe not? He did sound really angry at that apple! But I also realized that I’m a bit of a weirdo for eating fruit as my golf snack. I’m pretty new to the fruit-eating world, and I hope it remains a key part of my nutritional life from this point forward. This week’s post, part five of five on the Blue Zones research on living longer, is all about food. The three nutritional Blue Zones lessons are Plant Slant, Hara Hachi Bu (The 80% Full Rule), and Drink Red Wine in Moderation.

I wrote earlier about my appreciation for the Noom diet. It’s not for everybody, but it helped me so much with the first two Blue Zones rules. Noom pushes fresh fruits and vegetables. Vegetables are nothing but good for us. Fruit packs a few more calories, but it’s super healthy and nothing but good. Noom calls these “green foods,” and urges users to make green foods the centerpiece of their meals and snacks. Noom also steers us away from more dense food, as well as those that are processed. That’s why I started eating apples, grapes, strawberries, and bananas every day. The Blue Zones societies in Costa Rica, Sardinia, and Okinawa have very little access to processed foods or meats. The Adventists eat no meat at all. Over the past year, I’d say that Jill and I have eaten vegetarian meals about half of the time. We eat seafood a couple nights during the week, and I’ll eat chicken or beef once a week. It’s so different from how I grew up. When I told my friend Ben about the awesome Lentil Loaf with onion gravy I had made, he asked me to surrender my Arkansas Native card. Nope. I want to keep that card and have a plant slant. After all, I do still think fried okra still counts as a green food. Quite certain in fact.

The other aspect of Noom that I appreciate is the calorie counting side. Like Weight Watchers, Noom wants you to record everything you eat on the app. Here’s what I learned. To put it scientifically, I used to eat a crap-ton of food. I would say I was choking down 2800 to 3200 calories a day, and wondering why I was exercising so much but still not losing weight. I love food – healthy food, junk food, comfort food, and desserts. I was technically overweight (205-210 on my 6’2” frame), but my height helped hide it. Then my knee doctor said, “You know, it wouldn’t hurt if you lost 15-20 pounds.” Ouch. She called me fat. The Okinawans have their Hara Hachi Bu, which translates to, eat until you are 80% full. My rule had been, eat until you are 105% full and a little uncomfortable, then add a helping of something and/or dessert to complete the meal.

Turns out that’s NOT good for you. Weird right? There are all kinds of tricks to help avoid this – use smaller plates, drink water before and during your meal, make vegetables cover the majority of the plate – but for me most of all, it’s not going back for seconds. So now, I’m consuming 2200 calories a day on average, I’ve gone down a size in my pants and shirts, and I’m fluctuating between 185 and 190. It feels good. And for the first time in decades, my New Years’ resolution was to maintain my weight, not to lose it.

The final Blue Zones rule is to drink red wine in moderation. They cite research on lower rates of heart disease, and cite several Blue Zones societies that do this. Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy red wine. I am in pursuit of $15 bottles that are nice to drink with dinner. I belong to two wine clubs and it’s nice to occasionally open a special bottle to celebrate something or someone. The key to understanding this rule is that (1) it’s all about moderation, as Blue Zones does advise that going beyond moderation will be dangerous to your health, and (2) it’s optional. Of the nine rules I’ve reviewed, this is the one I’m not pushing hard at all. I know many people whose personal beliefs steer them away from alcohol, and I know too many people who have had their lives almost destroyed by drinking. Not to mention, it’s a lot of dense and sugary calories. A few people very close to me have recently committed to not drinking. I have loved watching them turn their lives around, look and feel healthier, and develop a new appreciation for all that this world has to offer. To go back to the last post, they belong to their AA group and it provides incredible support. So I am not pushing this recommendation, and if you are questioning whether your use of alcohol is hurting your life, listen very carefully to your inner compass.

So that’s it. The end of a five-part series. I’m not sure where I’m headed next, but I’m ready to continue this journey. I’ve enjoyed the process and I appreciate all of your feedback along the way.

Final tip: Chilled Envy Apples – they are the best. I think I’ll bite into one right now. Take that, Peter!

To get updates on when my next post comes out, please click here.

My new thinner self with my super-fit friend Brooks after doing pretty darn well in a cornhole tournament

Post #1: Is Retirement the Life for Me? (Blue Zones Rule: Move Naturally Throughout the Day)

Post #2: Is Retirement the Life for Me? (Part 2) (Blue Zones Rule: Know Your Sense of Purpose)

Post #3: In Search of Downshifting, or How to Be More Like My Dogs (Blue Zones Rule: Downshift)

Post #4: Family, Friends, and Community (Blue Zones Rules: Loved Ones First, Right Tribe, and Belong)

Post #5: Stop Yelling at the Fruit! (Blue Zones Rules Plant Slant, Hara Hachi Bu (The 80% Full Rule), and Drink Red Wine in Moderation)

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

Sean

Gravity feels a little more forceful today. Back in my high school physics class, Father Fred taught us that gravity pulls us down at a rate of 9.8 meters per second squared. Today feels like a double-digit day. It’s harder to do just about everything. You see, today would have been my son Sean’s 29th birthday.

Damn.

Many of you reading don’t know this side of me. Answering the “tell me about your kids” question is always a quandary. How deep do I want to go into this answer? It’s easy to talk about Ryan and Dawson. They are wonderful, interesting, funny, and inspiring. I consider them to be my closest friends, and I love them fiercely. But I don’t have two children. I have three.

Sean Michael Matthews was just four years old when he died in a drowning accident on July 31, 1997. This year will be the 25th anniversary of that miserable day. I won’t go into the details, but just know that the feeling of guilt remains, and the heartache is a million times worse.

Many of you reading this knew and loved Sean. Many of you wrapped your arms around Sean’s mom Kelley, Sean’s brother Ryan, and me after his death, helping us all more than you know. It seemed like half of Malibu attended Sean’s memorial service, held in Malibu’s Bluff’s Park – and I barely remember it. Gravity was in triple digits in those days. The pain was searing and truly relentless. All I know is that the love and support helped. I did not read all of the sympathy cards until months after they arrived. And even then, I could only do it for a few minutes at a time. But they were wonderful, and they provided comfort. Thank you. Those acts of kindness made a lasting impact on me. Of all the human attributes I appreciate, kindness ranks at the very top. It’s something I try to include throughout my day, because I know how much it helped me.

Months after Sean died, Kelley convinced me to join her in attending a support group for grieving parents called Compassionate Friends. I knew that it would not be helpful, because no one else could possibly have experienced anything that rivaled our heartache. But I went anyway, bad attitude and all. It was quite the welcoming group, and as I listened, I realized that I was incredibly wrong. Terrible things happen to people all too often. Heartbreak and anguish are everywhere. You just have to take a moment to listen and notice. The mantra at Compassionate Friends is, “You are not alone.” They helped me to get out of the comparison business. All of this suffering is real, and there’s no benefit or reality to trying to figure out whose pain is worse. I have known a few people whose loved ones died after leading long and full lives, enabling them to be much more accepting of their deaths.  But far more common are those who die before they are supposed to, leaving their loved ones to live with the torment of missing them. I’m sorry for all of us. But we are not alone. Others have prevailed, and found strength and purpose in their lives despite their losses, and for whatever reason, knowing that helps me.

The heartache will never be gone. If someone asks me how often it impacts me, 25 years later, I will smile and say, “It’s only every day.” But it is worse some days. Like today.

I remember speaking with a father who had lost his son in a senseless shooting at least 20 years before our conversation. I asked him what the pain felt like so many years later. He said that it was still there every day, “but it is softer most of the time.” A few years ago, Kelley posted a picture of a sculpture on Facebook that took my breath away. The hole in our grieving hearts never fills, and we will never be whole again.

Love is the greatest risk of all. There are no guarantees beyond today. While I was Superintendent in Manhattan Beach, one of our most beloved teachers at Manhattan Beach Middle School was one of the people tragically killed at the Route 91 Music Festival in Las Vegas. Her name was Sandy Casey, and she taught some of our most impacted students. She had a saying: “Today is a good day for a good day.” In the wake of our loss, we remembered those words, and if you look around, you can see that saying written in cursive on doors throughout the school district. Sandy continues to teach us to find ways to make the most of each day. I love it. As Brad Paisley sings, “Bring on tomorrow, I’ve got today.”

In those first few years after Sean’s death, I wondered about how the rest of my life would be. Would it ever feel normal again? Well, the answer is no. I miss his laughter, his spirit, his loving nature . . . I just miss him so much. But what still is surprising to me is that the answer is also that I am continually amazed at how beautiful and wonderful life is. In spite of everything. I am beyond grateful for the love, humor, meaning, and beauty in my life. And in spite of gravity pulling me down with more force today, I’ll do my best to remember that it’s still a good day for a good day.

To get updates on when my next post comes out, please click here.

Notes

The sculpture above is called Melancolie and is created by Albert György. It can be found in Geneva in a small park on the promenade along the shore of Lake Geneva. Read more about the piece and artist here –> https://totallybuffalo.com/a-sculpture-that-creates-intens…/

Is Retirement the Life for Me? (Part 2)

First of all, thank to all of you who read and commented on my last post via Facebook, Twitter, and the Blog Site. I love the conversation and I appreciate the wisdom even more. This is Post #2 of Evaluating my Quasi-Retired Life using Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones research. As a reminder, the nine Blue Zones recommendations for a longer, healthier, and happier life are:

  1. Move naturally throughout the day
  2. Know your sense of purpose
  3. Downshift every day to relieve stress
  4. 80% Rule: stop eating when you are 80% full
  5. Plant Slant: Make beans, whole grains, veggies, and fruit the center of your diet
  6. Red Wine in Moderation: Enjoy wine and alcohol moderately with friends and/or food
  7. Belong: Be part of a faith-based community or organization
  8. Loved Ones First: Have close friends and strong family connections
  9. Right Tribe: Cultivate close friends and strong social networks

Just a little recap on #1 – Move Naturally, which I addressed in my last post. My friend Ben reminded me that part of moving can be pushing yourself to extremes. Ben retired the same time I did, and has just put out a new podcast series called Fear of Retirement.  In the second episode, Ben goes into his version of movement, which is super intense and maybe not for everyone. He reminds me that it’s always good to have BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals). I agree with this – so, while I’m getting more steps in by walking and golfing, I’m also working on some BHAGs. For me, one of them is swimming in my sixties as fast as I swam in high school – or maybe just fast enough to beat a former student who is challenging me to a 50-yard sprint. (Whenever you’re ready, Brad.) For Ben, it was benching over 300 pounds (mission accomplished). It’s a great listen, and I bring it up just because there are so many ways to move, and we can all find our way to meet this goal. And not to brag about being semi-famous, but Ben gave me a shoutout in the 2nd episode. While not mentioning my name, he referred to me as a “psycho.” Thanks, Ben. I love you too.

Let’s move on to Blue Zone recommendation #2 – Know Your Sense of Purpose. After identifying the six longest living societies in the world and describing how they live their lives, Buettner writes that two of these societies, Okinawans and Costa Rica’s Nicoyans, have cultures in which individuals know “why I wake up in the morning” (Okinawans call it ikigai and Nicoyans refer to their plan de vida.) Let’s face it, we need to have some sense of purpose that we look forward to when we start each day. I love that, because one of my many annoying habits over the course of my life is that on top of being a poor sleeper (side note, this has not gotten better since leaving work), when I wake up in the morning, I am AWAKE and I am ready to go. There is no grogginess, and I am ready to carpe that diem.

As I think back, purpose was easy to come by in my life before this retirement phase. I was fortunate during my 30 years of raising children in our home and my 38-year career in education to have a life that was filled with a massive sense of purpose. Between all that it involved in parenting beginning in 1990, and providing our youth with a high-quality education starting back in 1984, I jumped out of bed every morning knowing that I was making a difference. Yes, every day held its challenges and triumphs, interspersed with many great moments, but I always knew that what I was doing was important, and potentially life-changing.

But, there is a danger in that too. I have watched people retire and come back looking ten years younger and smiling bigger than ever. They have cultivated more reasons for getting out of bed than just work. They have hobbies, passions, friendships, and many other reasons to look forward to each day. On the other hand, I have seen people whose whole sense of purpose was linked to their job. They might have been outstanding at work, but they did not fare well in retirement. So my strong advice is to find a sense of purpose outside of your professional world.

Dan Buettner writes that purpose can come when you can find flow on most days of your life. I love the research on flow. I wrote about it in a post back in April of 2020. If you have moments throughout your day where you experience flow, when you are so immersed in whatever you are doing that time ceases to have meaning, that alone is worth waking up for. Some of my best flow-producing activities are problem-solving, teaching, swimming, golf, playing music, and yes, even my morning ritual of making the kitchen look perfect for the day. It’s amazing how many times this concept keeps popping up into my life. Flow does make life worth living, and according to the research, it gives us improved odds for living longer and better.

And before I go any further, this is not a “check all of the boxes” list. That’s crazy and unrealistic. This is a “there are so many different reasons people have for waking up with purpose, what’s yours?” list.

Other reasons for waking up each day include knowing that you are making a difference. My friend and blogger mentor Chris Erskine is finding purpose being a grandfather. Learning something new provides outstanding, interesting, and brain-building motivation for life. And as my friend Pam wrote in the comments of my last blog post, it’s never too late to learn how to live better. Engaging in new and complex activities requires immersion and can also lead to flow. Even gratitude for what you have provides more purpose than any of us actually realize. (Note – this paragraph could have been dramatically expanded, but most of my blogs are too long already, so just know there’s a lot that could be delved into for each the bolded topics.)

As my friend Dawnalyn pointed out after reading my last blog, a lot of this comes back to Stillman’s research on how to survive…. or even thrive during the quarantine phase of the pandemic.

This is a good time for me to ponder this critical question of having a strong sense of purpose in retirement, as I am taking a pause from all of this retirement bliss and working for two months helping out a local school district. More on that in a future post, but for now, I am asking myself whether immersing in more flow-inducing activities and the increased opportunities for thinking, writing, and learning are sufficient to replace the overwhelming sense of purpose I had while working in public education. So far, the answer is strongly affirmative, but there are many ballots still to count, and I’m not making any projections yet.

My next blog post will be on flow’s less purposeful yet equally important counterpart – downshifting.

Thanks for reading!

Mike

Note: The picture at the top of the post is of the mighty Kings River in Central California at sunrise. Between getting up early and loving to cook, one of my jobs at a four-day river floating/camping/game-playing trip that we took every year with 100 of our closest friends was to wake up each morning to cook breakfast for everybody. I always took a pause at the river before I headed up to the outdoor kitchen to make the coffee and start working through frying 40 pounds of bacon. As I said, waking up has always been easy for me, and witnessing beauty like this makes it even better.

To get updates on when my next post comes out, please click here!

Is Retirement the Life for Me?

If you started singing the theme song from Green Acres when you saw that title, you may (1) way too impacted by afternoon tv in the 1970s, and (2) also be considering this question.

August 31 was my last official day at work in my job as a school superintendent. For almost eight months, I have had no official job. Like I wrote a while back, the last time I had this kind of free time was back when I dropped out of college to be a street musician. But even then, I “had to” go to work in the evenings to make enough money to eat and pay rent. (Also, as the picture above proves, my street musician life provided me with critical skills for my teaching and high school principal jobs – like performing for Sixties Week.) Still, it was a lot of free time, and it was an outstanding period in my life. Now, for just the second time in my life, I have that kind of free time again.

I am devoting this blog post to reflecting on and evaluating my level of happiness with my newly-found free time in this new phase of my life.

A big motivator behind my decision to retire was to do what was best for a long and healthy life with my friends and loved ones. While I loved my job as a school superintendent, it could be crazy at times. A big part of my job was to get yelled at. That yelling could come from angry residents, dissatisfied union leaders, or any number of constituents. And though it was not constant, it was increasing in frequency. Public schools are bearing the brunt of the same anger that is plaguing (and harming) national politics. When I encountered that yelling, my job was to imitate Kevin Bacon in Animal House, responding with the equivalent of “Thank you sir, may I have another,” and to do so with a smile. I did that quite well for a long time, but it took its toll.

But there were other reasons. I commuted 41 miles each way for eleven years. My work week, including commute time, ranged from 65 to 80 hours a week. I was away from home at least two evenings every week, and often up to four. (High school principals are out even more!) My weight had gone up a little, and for the first time in my life, my doctor had some concerns about what the stress was doing to me. And, eleven years is a long time to be in one job. I was also a successful high school principal for eleven years, and at the end of both of those tenures, I just felt it was time to go, even though I loved the job.

All of that being said, I loved my job as superintendent. I worked with a fantastic board, and benefitted from their wisdom, care for students and employees, and humor. My colleagues were an amazing team of leaders with whom I was proud to work side by side. I was inspired by the employees and students that I served, and I was overwhelmed by the generosity and support of the vast majority of parents and community leaders. In spite of being ready to leave, it was hard to leave all of those positives.

So, it’s time for me to reflect on how it’s going, and whether or not it feels right and whether what I’m doing now is going to help me achieve my goals of happiness and a long life with friends and loved ones.

The bottom line: Not working has been awesome. I am busy, Jill is happy with the changes she’s seen, and I know I’m healthier. My newly-found free time, just like it did back in my street musician days, truly helps me to center myself and find balance.

My only concern is that I do miss the human interaction. When I worked, I was rarely by myself. As I often said about my job, I made a living running or being in meetings. I was always talking with people, and most of the time, I loved it. Now, there is down time and quiet time. There’s a lot of good in that, and yet, I am still thinking about how to achieve that balance of the right amount of human interaction.

In order to further investigate whether this new lifestyle of mine is going to help me live longer, I will break it down using the Blue Zones research of Dan Buettner. Blue Zones looks at the lifestyles of communities where people live longer, healthier, and happier lives than other areas of the world. Based on their research, Buettner makes nine recommendations for all of us to strive for in our lives:

  1. Move naturally throughout the day
  2. Know your sense of purpose
  3. Downshift every day to relieve stress
  4. 80% Rule: stop eating when you are 80% full
  5. Plant Slant: Make beans, whole grains, veggies, and fruit the center of your diet
  6. Red Wine in Moderation: Enjoy wine and alcohol moderately with friends and/or food
  7. Belong: Be part of a faith-based community or organization
  8. Loved Ones First: Have close friends and strong family connections
  9. Right Tribe: Cultivate close friends and strong social networks

It’s good stuff, right? Very commonsensical, and not at all extreme or crazy. Over the next few months, I’ll break this down into two or three blog posts that discuss how I’m doing in each of those areas, and how it compared to when I was working full time. For this post, I’ll just hit the first one – move naturally throughout the day.

Blue Zones Lesson #1: Move Naturally Throughout the Day: GIANT CHANGE! And all of it good. I’m driving (and sitting) way less. I’m walking a golf course twice a week. I’m walking in my own neighborhood. I’m moving around the house. Whenever I’m home at lunch while Jill is working, I’m busy in the kitchen making her lunch. My steps per day on weekdays have gone from 4,000 to a range of 9,000 to 20,000. When you meet for a living, you sit and sit and sit. It’s a killer. Between walking around the house, swimming several times a week, playing golf, and Pelotoning/biking, I’m moving so much more than I have in a long, long time, and it feels right. So I’m 1/1 in the Blue Zones research so far.

For those of you who say you hate me when I discuss how good this has been, one of the questions I am asking myself is whether I could have done a better job of this while I was working. I’ll address that in these future posts. There’s more to come, and I look forward to this process.

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Critical Race Theory – A Superintendent and History Teacher’s Perspective

Critical Race Theory. It’s something I had never heard of until September of last year. And then, I began getting very angry emails and people started coming to board meetings to demand that we stop teaching it. The questions were very much like ones featured in the first-ever school board meeting parody on Saturday Night Live, where a concerned citizen stands up and says, “Hi. I’m so mad I’m literally shaking right now. Forget COVID. The real threat is Critical Race Theory being taught in our schools. My question is, what is it? And why am I mad about it?” 

First of all, those of you who read my blog know that I love their use of the word “literally.” But secondly, it’s a perfect parody, because I’m a former history teacher and school district superintendent, and until I started receiving these emails and listening to these public comments, I too had no idea what Critical Race Theory (CRT) was.

In many board meetings around the nation, mostly in more affluent school districts, this scenario has repeated itself. In speaking with many other superintendents and board members from around the country, not a single one of us, prior to all of this, ever had even a single conversation about CRT, much less about whether or not we should be teaching CRT. So why are we all being yelled at about something we are not doing and until last fall, knew nothing about?

Two trends that have occurred in the last two years help us to understand. First, the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020 galvanized anti-racism forces around the country. In addition, Asian and Pacific Islander hate incidents increased around the nation, in response to both overt and tacit commentary from national leaders condoning anti-Asian actions, making those anti-racism forces even more comprehensive. In my former district, students, former students, and adults in our community were looking for ways to make our schools better for all students – looking for ways to make schools as free from racism and discrimination as possible.

I have great faith in our youth. I have observed and interacted with thousands of students, and I have watched my own children and how they get along with their peers. I truly believe we have never seen a more open-minded generation of young adults. More than ever, they are fully accepting of persons of all races, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities, and more. I think that a big reason for this is that their desire for a discrimination-free America, though renewed, is not new. Brown vs. Board of Education, Title IX, and Special Education laws have been major forces in improving equality in American education. And it’s important to remember that when those changes started having an impact on equality of opportunity in America, then, like now, there was serious backlash. This has never been about everyone being equal – this is about everyone having true equality of opportunity for an excellent education. Our efforts have continued. When I first started teaching in the mid-1980s, we were talking about how to embrace all cultures through multicultural education. And we’ve come a long way since then.

But in spite of that progress, there are still acts of hate that continue to occur in our schools and in our communities. There are racial slurs, anti-Semitic comments, hateful graffiti, and more. I don’t know of any educational leaders who, when confronted by incidents of hate, will accept or ignore those incidents and just say, “Kids will be kids.” That’s why districts like Manhattan Beach and others took an even harder look at what they can proactively do to make schools as hate-free as possible. In Manhattan Beach, this movement kicked into high gear in 2015 when someone firebombed the front door of one of the few black families living in the city. The community rallied around the Clinton family, gathering together for a powerful candlelight vigil to support them. Malissia Clinton’s powerful TED talk on how she was raised, the firebombing, and the aftermath should tell you all you need to know about why this work needs to continue. You can call the firebombing an isolated incident perpetrated by an outlier, but when you start hearing about the common experiences of so many people of color – our students, co-workers, colleagues, and friends – it’s different. I can’t tell you how much it hurt when, at a Board meeting while I was superintendent, I heard from some of our recent graduates about widespread discrimination they experienced while they were in MBUSD. We can and should build better and more inclusive schools.

Enter Christopher Rufo. Wikipedia describes Rufo as an “American Conservative Activist.” He appeared on the Tucker Carlson show in September of 2020 and made the case that Critical Race Theory was an existential threat against our nation. He gave evidence of government trainings on racial sensitivity that were aimed at understanding concepts such as white privilege and systemic racism, and he called on the President of the United States to immediately take action against this threat. Three days later, at the President’s request, Rufo flew to New York to meet on the topic. The President quickly issued memos and even an executive order banning the use of Critical Race Theory in our government. That’s precisely when the emails started, and the board meeting chaos began shortly after.

I’ve received messages stating that by addressing the issues of racism in our community, we are (1) calling our entire community racist, (2) pushing for a Marxist agenda, (3) shaming white students, and (4) being anti-American. All four of those accusations are blatantly false. This is what is happening in districts around the nation, and now states are getting involved. At least seven states have already passed laws making it illegal to teach Critical Race Theory, and 13 more have bills in process. Here’s the problem – I’m a history teacher, and I still have no idea what it means to “not teach critical race theory.”

The least effective history teachers see history as memorizing names, dates, places, and facts. But highly effective history teachers teach students to view the past from different perspectives, to analyze events in terms of who benefited or who suffered from the decisions and actions, and to draw conclusions about why events happened and how they shaped who we are as a nation today. These new laws make teachers question whether or not they can do that. In one Texas school district, teachers were told that if they were going to teach controversial issues, like racism or even the Holocaust, they should present multiple perspectives. A district administrator said, “If you have a book on the Holocaust, [make sure] that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.” The district has since then apologized, but come on people! This is what bad laws do.

Like the Holocaust, there are plenty of events in American history which do not, in my opinion, deserve a different perspective. But they do deserve serious inquiry and investigation to see how they occurred, the impact they had, and what we can learn from them. Here’s just a few of them.

  • Slavery
  • The Japanese Internment
  • The My Lai Massacre
  • The rise, resurgences, and continued existence of the KKK
  • The Sand Creek Massacre
  • The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
  • The racist restrictions on immigration in the 1920s
  • The racist Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision and all the Jim Crow laws that were commonplace throughout the South well into the 2nd half of the 20th century.

It’s OK to teach, and not in the least bit anti-American to say, that America has made tragic mistakes in our past. And it is untruthful to teach students that racism no longer exists in our country or in our community. Our students know better. Our students want to learn from multiple perspectives and read from a diverse group of writers, not just white and male perspectives. We should all know that even though our nation is one of the greatest nations ever for providing equality of opportunity, that opportunity is not as universal as we might think.

And by the way, what is Critical Race Theory? I have researched it, because I wanted to understand, and here is what I gather. CRT is an academic premise postulating that, in examining laws in our country, it is helpful to use the lens of racism to better understand how those laws came to be, as well as what impact they had.  To me, it’s similar to techniques of my history teachers in college, who asked us to examine historical events using an economic lens, a political power lens (by far the most common), a social lens, or a technological lens. Adding the lens of racism might also be helpful. And who makes the decision on what the right answer is? The student. The grade is not based on what a student’s conclusion is, rather it is based on how well a student defends their position.

CRT is not an existential threat against the United States. And it certainly is not something infiltrating our schools. But our schools are not and should not be ignoring incidents of racism and discrimination that are continuing to happen. No one will argue that discrimination is far less of a problem in our schools now than it was a century ago. But to say it no longer exists is putting your head in the sand. Teachers and school boards enter their positions to make life for their students, all students, better. Many of them are taking steps to do just that. Without lowering rigorous standards for achievement, educators are learning how to better address these issues in their classrooms.

Finally, to those who think that the anti-racism efforts are going too far, I urge you to follow the advice of Steven Covey, and seek first to understand, then be understood. Schools are trying to help our students to think for themselves, and a curriculum that reflects diversity and diverse ideas is essential to that effort. We educators are not aiming to make any student feel shame about who they are. In fact, wasn’t it just a few years ago that many were criticizing schools’ efforts to build students’ self-esteem? We want all students to emerge from our schools prepared for their future, confident about themselves, and caring about all others. And in spite of all of our progress, we have miles to go before we sleep.

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Taking My Youngest to College

That was it. Dawson gave each of us a long and hard hug, picked up the last bit of dorm room essentials from our double Target run, turned around, and walked off to his dorm in the Colorado School of Mines. Oredigger Camp – his three-day orientation – starts tomorrow. He is fired up and ready for this new phase of his life.  And we’ll see him again in November when we come back for parents’ weekend.

Jill and I are truly excited for Dawson, but right now, sitting in our room in the Golden Hotel, we are also both so sad. Sniffling and journaling, there is no talking. Kind of pathetic – I know. But we both knew taking this time would help us.

It’s been an amazing journey – 18 years, 9 months, and 9 days, since his birth in the hospital. I still hear about that day. Jill’s water broke around four in the morning, about two weeks before her due date, and she called the doctor who said we should go to the hospital right away. I told Jill I just needed to go to work for about an hour, as I was leading a large professional development session that day and needed to give some notes to those who would now be leading it. She did not like it, but she acquiesced. Not the best call, I know. It was a quick delivery, but a little more painful because of my delay. Mark that as exhibit ZZZ in the case of Mike being an imperfect husband and father. Why does that list keep growing?

Where was I? Oh yes, it’s been 18 years, 9 months, and 9 days – and I’ve loved all of it. Dawson has been a source of joy and inspiration in our home. He has been a remarkably easy-going kid, and as he progressed through high school, he began asking us to relax boundaries we had set for him.  I don’t remember ever saying no – he earned our trust all along the way. Watching Dawson grow and become the man that he is has also been incredibly special. He is known as a super smart science student, a talented gamer and programmer, someone with a wacky sense of humor, a quiet leader, and most of all, a remarkably kind human being. I like to think I helped with some of those attributes, but in reality, he is filled with so much from his mother.

Dawson and I had quite the journey to Colorado. We took four days to drive over 1,500 miles via the Grand Canyon and Santa Fe. And of our 23 hours of driving, I think Dawson sat behind the wheel for 18 of them. He wishes he could have driven all of those miles and hours.

Packing up the rental car and posing in front of a smoky Grand Canyon

Jill let us have our time together, then she flew into Denver yesterday. We picked her up and together, we all drove to Dawson’s new home in Golden, Colorado. After a family dinner, Dawson left us to join thirty or so other freshman who had arranged a Meet-up via Discord, a social media app too obscure for most adults. I still haven’t figured out Facebook! He got back to our hotel room long after Jill and I had gone to sleep. It was a great start to his college career.

Today was move-in day. We are so impressed with the Colorado School of Mines. They had volunteers out the kazoo greeting students, carting their room contents into the dorms, smiling, and confirming our belief that Mines is the perfect college for our aspiring computer scientist son. Jill thankfully took over as we helped Dawson set up his room. We unpacked everything, figured out where it all seemed to work best, and determined what else we needed. It’s a good thing Jill was there. If it had been just me, I would have given Dawson a thumbs up after we moved the boxes and duffle bags into his room and said, “You got this!” With Jill leading the effort, his traditional, ordinary, and very non-air-conditioned room ended up looking pretty darn good. The tables, crates, chair, and containers from the Lakewood Super Target fit perfectly, and Dawson’s dorm was nicer than any college room I ever lived in. I told my son that guys can be pretty darn worthless when it comes to making things look like home. And even though he was ready to jump into this without our help, Dawson admitted that once again, he’s better off because of his mom’s help.

Dawson putting together his computer, and Jill making his dorm room into a home

And now he’s settled at Mines, and we fly back to Malibu tomorrow – just the two of us. A week ago, I was ready for this moment. Then, as my youngest son and I drove through the deserts and mountains on our way here, I was reminded of how much I would miss everything about living with Dawson. We laughed at Mike and Tom Eat Snacks, an inane podcast that truly representsour kind of humor. We listened to a lot of pop punk music, much of which I knew, but I did not know until our trip that Dawson knew the words to so many of the songs! We talked about important topics, and about silly ones. It was all sublime. I found myself getting more emotional as we neared Golden. And even writing this, I can barely see through my tears.

I know our relationship, and our friendship, will only grow. That’s what I have experienced with my now-30-year-old son Ryan. But I will miss the daily interactions and joy that dominated this portion of my life with Dawson. I miss it already, and it’s been about an hour.

On to hour number two. Wish me luck.

There he goes . . .

Ladybugs and Dogs( Reflections of School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 (#9, April 25, 2020)

It may have been the most thoughtless senior prank I ever experienced.

As a former high school principal, I don’t love senior pranks. Usually, very little thought goes into them, and they end up being destructive, damaging, or time consuming. Occasionally though — and I mean very occasionally —  a group of seniors pulls off a truly clever idea that is not at all destructive, damaging, or time consuming. A few years ago, seniors brought their pets to school. It brought a lot of smiles to campus, and some students declared it the best day ever. My mistake was not saying it was a one-time only event, which I had to say when the next year’s students tried to do the same thing. Clever one year, and inconvenient after that. I know that with my cat allergies, I would not like Bring Your Cat to School Day. But we all know the cats wouldn’t like it either.

During my time as a high school principal, the second-best senior prank was when some students, with inside help, moved my entire office, desk, chairs, bookshelves, everything, into the quad. I “had to” work outside the whole day, holding meetings in the bright sun, and making a spectacle of it all.

But the best prank was when a group of seniors spent months deconstructing a Volkswagen Beetle and then one night rebuilt and secured it around the flagpole in the quad. When I came to work, students and employees were admiring a VW Bug in Malibu High School colors with the campus flagpole rising through the middle of it. It was awesome, and I let it stay there for a week. And when I asked the students to take it down and leave the quad in perfect condition, they did just that. Spectacular.

Back to the thoughtless prank. Some seniors at Santa Monica High School had released about 200,000 ladybugs on campus. I’m not sure that was the number, but that was the rumor. It was a lot. Ladybugs blanketed several hallways and just didn’t know what to do. I’m sure there were rose bushes all around town that would have loved them, and local aphids should have been fearful, but instead the ladybugs were just clogging up the hallways, getting stepped on by people trying to leave the building, and eventually being removed by custodians. It was a needless loss of life for some beautiful and extremely useful creatures, and I hated it. In the course of helping to deal with the prank, I mentioned to one of the office assistants that my then-five-year-old son loved ladybugs, and he would have hated to see this. As I was leaving, the assistant gave me an emptied plastic liter bottle, punched with air holes, containing about 50 ladybugs to give to Dawson. Her unsolicited act of kindness gave me the only smile I had that afternoon, and I am still grateful.

When I came home, Dawson came outside to greet me and I gave him the bottle-o-bugs. He looked at it with big eyes, then looked at me and said these now famous words: “Thanks, Dad. I finally have a pet.

Oh boy.

Dawson had been bugging us for a while for a dog, but he’s such an easy-going kid, that he figured lady bugs must be the next best thing. I turned to Jill and said, “It’s time to get a dog.”

That weekend we went to the local animal shelter and spotted a Pekingese that someone had dropped off at the pound’s front gate. We saw her as she was being taken out of her cage for the first time and walked around. There’s a Kenny Chesney song about his adopted dog, where he sings, “Lying there like a lost string of pearls.”  It’s a perfect line for a beautiful abandoned dog. Dawson and Jill fell in love, I quickly gave up any hope of looking the least bit masculine as I walked this white fluff ball through the neighborhood, and Penelope (Penny) was ours. That was October 18, 2008.

Last Saturday, exactly 11 and one half years later, our Penny died of old age in our arms.

Those of you who have lost beloved pets know that in these deaths you lose a family member and a friend. It hurts.

But it was a great run.

There’s a touching book called The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein. The movie is OK, but the book is special. It features the relationship between the main character, Denny, and his dog Enzo. Their close friendship is almost human in nature, and the dog understands emotions, illness, auto racing, and the meaning of the universe. I don’t think Penny understood any of those things, but she was still a wonderful dog. More from Enzo later.

Pets have been a great source of companionship during this COVID-19 era. There are plenty of Facebook posts about dogs tired of walks and belly rubs, of happy dogs, or dogs imploring their humans to go back to work. I Zoom regularly with two colleagues, one of whom has a dog always begging to get picked up so he can co-Zoom from her lap, and another who has a cat who lurks behind her, ready to attack, like Cato in the Pink Panther movies.  Our pets and companions, intelligent, loving, or diabolically crazy, make our lives so much more full, which is particularly reassuring while we are spending so much time at home with plenty to worry about.

YoungPenny

We adopted Penny when she was four or five, when Dawson was also four or five. They grew up together. She slept at the foot of Dawson’s bed, they played together in their younger years, and when they were older, you could usually find her lying on a soft pillow next to Dawson as he sat at the computer. She didn’t need much: a little food, occasionally with some cheese mixed in, clean water, access to the back yard, and short bursts of companionship. She spent most of her time just looking for a soft place to sit, close to us, but not too close. We called her a cat-dog. She liked us, but didn’t need us, except when she did. We loved her in spite of or because of all of that.

OldPenny

“Dogs’ lives are too short. Their only fault really.” I found that quote from Agnes Turnbull, and I couldn’t agree more.

I have never spent more time at home than in the past few weeks. Never. One of the gifts of that time was getting to spend so much time with Penny in what turned out to be her final weeks with us. All of us being with her at 3 a.m. when she breathed her last breath was powerful and emotional. She knew she was loved, and though I was not ready, I believe she was.

Back to our dog philosopher hero Enzo, who philosophized, as only dogs can do, “To live every day as if it had been stolen from death, that is how I would like to live. To feel the joy of life, … to separate oneself from the burden, the angst, the anguish that we all encounter every day. To say I am alive, I am wonderful, I am. I am. That is something to aspire to.

I am convinced that many of us, when it comes to the pursuit of happiness, are our own worst enemies. We humans overthink things, and the more leisure time we have, the more we overthink our lives. We should learn from our dogs.

One last quote from Enzo the wise sage/dog: “That which is around me does not affect my mood; my mood affects that which is around me.”

We are living in the midst a very challenging time. If we can take the time to step back from our challenges, feel the joy of life, and seek to improve the moods of those around us, that’s good stuff.

Thank you, Penny, for making our moods better every day of your 12 years with us.

May all of your animal friends, dogs, cats, horses, and even ladybugs, past, present, and future, ease your burdens and bring smiles to your faces throughout your lives.

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