A Short Walk

I have the incredible good fortune to live in the same neighborhood as my friend and #AmWriting podcast co-host KJ Dell'Antonia. When people ask how far we live from each other, I tell them I can walk up the street, across a meadow, and through some woods, and be in her front yard in under twenty minutes.

In just a few months, my weekly journey to KJ's house will change, as I am moving with my family to western Vermont, about two hours away. 

I will miss my short walk to KJ's, so this week, I recorded it for posterity and for you.




Illinois Overhauls Education for Children in Juvenile Detention


Six years ago, before she arrived on the job, Superintendent Sophia Jones-Redmond’s district, Illinois #428, was failing on all counts. The schools were plagued by violence, abysmal graduation rates, inadequate teaching, and was failing to provide special education services or mental health counseling to its students. Her district isn’t large; the six schools she manages educated a total of 390 kids in 2016. Ninety-six percent of her students are male, 78 percent are black or Hispanic, and 100 percent have been convicted of a felony.

Like many other U.S. school districts, #428 needed to change. Unlike other districts, however, #428 had no choice.

School district #428 is comprised of Illinois’ six juvenile detention facilities, and in 2012, the ACLU sued the district on behalf of 1,000 juveniles for what Jones-Redmond (who was not then on staff) acknowledges was, “…atrocious behavior. We were not educating kids, we were confining kids up and beyond thirty days in a cell. […] There were kids were not attending school for three straight weeks. They were kicking it. You know who else was kicking it? The staff.”

As a result of the suit, the federal government ordered Illinois to comply with consent decrees and overhaul just about every aspect of education in Illinois’ juvenile detention facilities.

“Everything about IDJJ got flipped up, and it was amazing” said Jones-Redmond during the panel, “Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline” at the 2018 SXSWEDU conference in Austin.

The consent decree outlined five guiding principles to shape reform in district #428: appropriate class size, the goal of rehabilitation, plans for reintegration, a safe and respectful environment, and strict reporting requirements to promote transparency and accountability.

The first thing Illinois did was divert all non-violent offenders out of juvenile detention facilities and into community-based programs. This immediately reduced the incarcerated population by half, but left the felons—the most violent, disruptive, and troubled youth—in the classroom.

Once the general detention population was reduced, #428 had to hire teachers and lower its student-teacher ratio in the classroom. Jones-Redmond described the process during her panel session:

In the past we would have upwards of twenty youth to one teacher. Everybody, just come in and you know, sit down, and you all can just play cards; just be quiet. Well, the consent decree said no, you will have to have maximum, one teacher for every ten children in the general education environment and if the youth has a special education need, you will have to provide one teacher to every six kids.

Next, district #428 implemented a blended learning model in which students are able work individually, at their own level and pace, under the guidance and supervision of teachers but with the additional support of virtual classrooms and instructional videos.

The students in Jones-Redmond’s district needed more than just curriculum and effective teaching strategies in order to succeed, however. Sixty percent of youth in the district receive individual mental health services, and all juveniles have access to substance abuse treatment, psychiatric services, medical interventions, group therapy sessions and family therapy.

Educators received training in trauma-informed teaching, every school in the district hired a counselor, a special needs coordinator, and a licensed, on-call substitute teacher.

Thanks to the consent decree’s reporting requirement, it’s possible to see the progress school district #428 has made in the past couple of years. Despite cutting the juvenile population from 697 to 390 through the misdemeanor diversion program, the district increased the number of diplomas they awarded by 15 percent. In 2016, the six schools in the district #428 awarded 40 eighth grade diplomas, 143 high school diplomas, and 68 General Equivalency Degrees (GEDs).

Jones-Redmond says these degrees are about a lot more than curriculum or graduation rates. “We are in the business of saving lives. That’s what we do.”

As she concluded her overview of the data on school district #428’s successes, Jones-Redmond recounted the story of a boy who was so angry that he was being forced to go to school, he contacted the ombudsman. ‘Nobody is going to make me go to school,’ he stated in his formal complaint. Rather than punish this kid for refusing to attend, Jones-Redmond decided to travel the five hours from her office to the juvenile detention facility in order to meet with him.

We wrassled for 45 minutes and came to an agreement that he was going to go to school, and he was going to give it a try. But what I did was build a relationship at that moment with him. […] What if I gave up, and said you know what, you don’t have to go to school, just keep playing cards and watching Judge Judy and the news shows. But you know what? We don’t give up.

Unfortunately, most states do. According to Dr. Lynette Tannis of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education who spoke on the same SXSWEDU panel as Jones-Redmond, only 8 percent of states maintain a program for incarcerated youth that’s comparable to the programs in the state’s community schools, and kids with special needs tend to fare even worse. When researchers asked these kids about their classroom experiences, only 46 percent reported they were receiving the services detailed in their Individualized Educational Programs, or IEPs.

The boy Jones-Redmond met with, who agreed to give school a try, went on to become the keynote speaker at his graduation. As she told the story of this boy and the time she spent with him, Jones-Redmond smiled with obvious pride in his accomplishments.

Change is possible, Redmond-Jones insists, even for the most challenging students in the most underperforming districts.

Educating and advocating for these kids can be a hard sell, but she’s all in. “We have youth that have shot and killed people, but you know what? They are still our kids, and they deserve an opportunity.”


Minimum Highway, Maximum Donuts


Long time no blog. Oh, and long time no videos. Sorry about that. I'm on the road a lot right now, but I promise to get to the new one, "How Do I Get My Kid to Shower," up this week. I kid you not, I get this question on a regular basis. 

I just got back from Seattle, where I spoke at Microsoft and a couple of schools. Hurricane Toby messed with my return flight despite the fact that a Toby is less of a fearsome storm and more of a nice guy you send your good friend on a blind date with. 

Thanks to Toby, we (I was with Finn, my 14yo) were stuck in the Pacific Northwest for an extra three days, so I rented a car and we embarked upon an adventure.

We'd visited and eaten all the Seattle stuff, including hot, house-made donut holes at Lola, so we changed the GPS settings in the car to "minimum highway, maximum donut," and got out of town. First destination, Mt. Rainier. Finn's science teacher, Mr. P, suggested we make the trip. They are studying plate tectonics in school, so we set out to get up close and personal. 

Mt. Rainier
: Stratovolcano
Elevation: 14,411 ft.
Tectonic Plate: Subduction of the Juan de Fuca plate and North American plate
Glaciers: 26
Donuts: None

Sure, I knew about the active volcano part, but what I did not know, is that Mt. Rainier is one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. It's so dangerous, it's on the "Decade Volcano" list, one of ten volcanoes so appallingly, imminently dangerous they merit close study and monitoring. 

It did not erupt while we were there, but it was close. Thanks for the tip, Mr. P. 

On to Portland (back roads, Voodoo Doughnut). We painted Portland red (read: we went to Powell's Books, ate dinner with our friend Asha, and went to bed early), then headed west, through Tillamook State Forest (one of the wettest places in the U.S.), then puttered around the Oregon coast. If we saw a sign for it or noted a little interesting cove on the map, we went.

Recommendation for good marionberry cobbler? We sought it out (it was delicious).

Octopus Tree? You'd better believe it. 

Eventually, we made our way up the 101 to Astoria and its sea lion-strewn docks. Astoria may hate the annual occupation by sea lions, but we loved it. I know they probably have super fishy breath, but I don't care. 

On our final day, we went over the huge bridge at the mouth of the Columbia River, and wound our way through coastal Washington toward Tacoma (Rt. 101, Legendary Donuts) and the airport.

Along the way, I received a couple of bleep-worthy tweets from high school students. I was confused, as I have not written anything about increasing homework loads or supporting year-round school recently. After the swearing, however, came the pictures. 


While Finn refuses to believe it, the hashtag confirms it. I'm a meme.

I asked one of the kids lobbing tweets at me what was up, and he informed me that one of my articles appeared on the SAT as the writing prompt.

Teenage Jess hates adult Jess right now, but adult Jess thinks this is one of the coolest things that's ever happened to her. 

I get to be home for an entire week while my college kid is on break. I'm thrilled, and the animals seemed kind of excited to see me, too. 

L-R, Lucie, Walter, and Gunther.

L-R, Lucie, Walter, and Gunther.

Watch for new videos (here's the link to the Gift of Failure FAQ playlist at YouTube) and check out my schedule below  to see if I will be in your town soon!

March 28BeBold, Bedford, NH (topic: preventing childhood addiction)
April 3Silver Creek Middle School, Rockville, MD
April 4Sheridan School, Washington, D.C.
April 5Congressional School, Falls Church, VA
April 18-19Canyon Ranch, Tucson, AZ (private)
April 24Harding Township Schools, New Vernon, NJ
April 28National Association of Junior Auxiliary Annual Education Conference, Mobile, AL
May 1Huntington Middle School, San Marino, CA
May 2-4Mom2.0, Pasadena, CA (registration required)
May 9Frameworks of Tampa Bay, Tampa, FL (private)
July 1-3Canyon Ranch, Lenox, MA (private)
July 11College of Southern Idaho, Twin Falls, ID
September 27Crofton House School, Vancouver, Canada
October 23The River Center, Peterborough, NH

Episode 3: Should I Let My Kid Quit?

Three weeks in, and this video thing is really fun. Not only am knocking down your fantastic reader questions left and right, I'm getting tons of new ones.

Oh, wait. This was supposed to reduce my reader questions. Ah, well. Keep 'em coming. I love it. 

Episode 1, "How to Parent and Teacher Perfectionist Kids" is really about helping kids value the learning more than the grade, the process more than the product. 

Episode 2, "How to Motivate Kids Who Coast" is about more than giving our kids a kick in the pants so they live up to their potential. It's about modeling intellectual and emotional bravery so our kids will believe us when we tell them that we really do care more about their learning than their grades. 

Episode 3, fresh off the digital presses, is "Should I Let My Kid Quit?" I talk about those music lessons and swimming practices and basketball games your kids claim they don't want to do anymore. Should we allow kids to quit even when they (and you) have years and years invested?  

I hope you find the information helpful, and thanks for watching! If you have a question, feel free to submit it via the form here

Follow Through

I wanted to teach at Rowland Hall/St. Mark's School from the first day we moved to Salt Lake City for my husband Tim's medical residency at the University of Utah. I sent my resume to the main office along with a letter to every person in a position to hire me at the school, and waited, very impatiently, to hear back. Once a week or so, I'd drive by the school and picture myself walking in through the front doors, books in my arms, a bag of lesson plans slung over my shoulder. On the way home from the store, I'd look at Tim with That Look on my face, and he'd say, "You want to drive by the school again?" He gets me. When I'm focused on a goal, I don't just write it down or dream about it, I visualize it, making the goal real for myself until it becomes real for everyone else or I set my sights on something else. 

Yeah, I'm a handful. I described Tim as a "goddamn miracle of a person" to an old friend yesterday, and it's in these moments, when I'm in peak manifestation mode that he earns his marital stripes. 

I was hired at RHSM 48 hours before the first day of school to teach British Literature, and became full-time later on that year when another teacher took maternity leave. I could not have hoped for a more fulfilling and idyllic first couple of years as a teacher. 

I knew Caroline Gleich was special from the moment she walked into my classroom. She was dreadlocked, makeup-free, and supremely Caroline in a culture that tends toward conformity and a meticulous, "just so" aesthetic. Caroline isn't "just" anything. She's always been bigger than her small form, a force of nature in her ability to manifest her particular, often endearingly peculiar, vision of the world. 

After graduation, she became a professional athlete and sports model. She wanted to spend her life outdoors, skiing, mountaineering and paddling, so she created a financially viable way to live that life. Today, she travels around the world doing her Caroline Thing while professional photographers follow behind, snapping away in an attempt to capture her magic on film.  

The camera loves Caroline, and very little of Caroline gets lost in translation. She glows, even when reduced to two dimensions on a magazine cover, and her Instagram feed is a testament to that glow. She has over 130k followers, most of whom admire and envy her adventures living a life of adventure and wonder. 

One follower, however, has decided that Caroline is too pretty and too female to deserve the life she's worked so hard to achieve, and has stalked her for the past few years, berating, dismissing, and threatening her.  

Caroline, predictably, will have none of it. 

Besides, she's too busy to be distracted by the haters. You see, a few years ago, Caroline decided to ski every line described in the book The Chuting Gallery, author Andrew McLean's collection of the most difficult, inaccessible chutes and couloirs in the Wasatch mountains. As the threats, taunts, and bile, continued, Caroline grew stronger, more sure in her own power and less afraid of his threats.  She just kept putting one foot in front of the other, one chute at a time, leaving the fear and doubt and dismissive trolls behind her.  

It's been fifteen years since I taught Caroline, but we've kept in touch. I wrote about her in The Gift of Failure sports chapter, and then, last week, REI released Follow Through, a documentary short about Caroline's quest to ski The Chuting Gallery lines in the Wasatch Mountains. I thought the kids in my inpatient drug and alcohol rehab classroom would admire her pluck, and the topic of personal goals might make for an interesting writing prompt. 

Most of the kids in my class have been berated, dismissed, and threatened repeatedly by the trolls in their lives. They are familiar with the exhausting weight of low expectations, and hardly anyone thinks to ask them about their life goals. I was going to ask them to write about their goals, then ask them to write down the specific steps they would have to take to achieve them.

The importance of articulating goals in words can't be underestimated; one study found that when we write our goals down, we are 42 percent more likely to achieve them. Sure, it was a small study, but other studies have shown that writing down fears can ease anxiety and increase performance. Yet others posit that hope can often be the X factor that allows kids to change their present and manifest a better future. Hope. Goals. Dreams. Call this aspirational, visionary mumbo-jumbo what you will, when a child feels he or she has the power to change her life, she's less likely to feel helpless, depressed, and afraid, and much more likely to achieve her goals. 

And so, with Caroline's help, my students took that first uphill step toward their dreams. After we watched Caroline check off the final Chuting Gallery line on her list, each student wrote a few pages about his or her one big goal. They wrote about the details of that dream, what a day living within that dream life would look, sound, taste, and smell like. 

So many kids live in a world of "no," of limits and proscribed futures and pressure to conform to their parents' narrow and exclusive vision of happiness and success. Many of the students I teach at the rehab don't have a plan for their future beyond their next drunk, let alone a plan for escaping a future of group homes and prison. They self-medicate the pain of their hopelessness with booze and smoke and pills. Above all, they are scared, and can't imagine anyone else doubts their place in the world the way they do. 

But then, there's Caroline, her skis balanced on a narrow ledge of rock and ice at the top of the chute she fears most of all, where her half-brother Martin died under an avalanche. Her breath comes in gasps of exhilaration and fear as she pokes at the snow just below her with a pole, testing its structure and integrity. Her breaths grow louder, she reassures herself "This is fun," and she drops into the unknown.

Caroline's helmet cam captures one hesitant, uncertain turn, then two, before she surrenders--to her fear, the slope, and the unpredictable will of the snow in the mountains she loves. The jagged rush of her breath slows to match the graceful arc of her turns through the powder.

The goals my students write about are fairly pedestrian as compared to Caroline's alpine adventures around the world. One yearns for a family of her own, another describes a trade job he's dreamed about for years. They describe these futures, hesitantly at first, hardly daring to hope, then fall into their rhythm as a rush of words and images begin to fill the page. 

Thank you, Caroline, for showing my students how to dream bigger than they've ever dared. Thank you for teaching them to have faith in themselves as they dare to make that first, frightening turn into the future. 

Wiped Out

This piece first ran in our local paper, the Valley News, on Finn's first day of school at Lyme Elementary. Yesterday was Finn's first day of eighth grade, his final first day at our little village school, so here's my love letter to his school, our town, and its traditions.

As a parent and a teacher, September has always represented the promise inherent in handfuls of freshly sharpened pencils and new beginnings. I adore the first day of school, I can’t wait for the arrival of my tanned, happy students, and oh - that first day of class, when anything is possible.

But this year holds special promise for me, as Finnegan, my youngest child, will step up on to the big yellow #2 bus and ride off into his new life as a student at Lyme Elementary School. It’s been a long time coming. I wrote about this day in a letter to my parents years ago, after attending Lyme Elementary School’s holiday concert. Ben, my older son, was in third grade, and therefore officially part of the night’s performance, but four-year-old Finnegan stole the show and set the stage for his future as a part of the Lyme community.

Dear Mom and Dad,

We attended the holiday concert at the Lyme Elementary School last night. Benjamin stood on the risers, dutifully mouthing holiday songs with the rest of the third graders. Meanwhile, down on the gymnasium floor, Finnegan was engaged in his own little performance. He was manically twirling to a beat of his own, tongue lolling, arms all akimbo, all in pursuit of a glance, a smile, any flicker of interest from the object of his affection, the golden-haired Ellie from his preschool class.

I’d like to say I enjoyed both performances equally, but poor Benjamin’s holiday songs were all but ignored by everyone within twenty feet of Finnegan’s preschool mating ritual. It went on for twenty minutes or so. There were elaborate pauses, dramatic exhalations, jazz hands, and then, finally, mercifully, Ellie giggled. Finn froze, awaiting his prize. Ellie whispered to her mother, and a triumphant Finnegan was invited to sit with her on her mother’s lap for the remainder of the concert. He practically glowed with pride. People in the stands around us exhaled with relief, smiled, and whispered quiet congratulations for our son’s hard-won victory.

Nothing, not even the middle school band’s memorable rendition of the Surfari’s “Wipe Out,” could surpass Finn’s moment of transcendent joy in that crowded gymnasium.

However, my favorite event to grace this room, the moment I look forward to every year, is the Lyme Elementary School First Day Assembly.

Students, tanned and shining with excitement, race about in front of the school while parents clutch coffee, visibly relieved by the arrival of new the school year. The whole town mills about, swapping stories and catching up. At exactly 8:10, Principal Jeff Valence ceremoniously rings the old school bell and students congregate near their new teachers, each holding up signs decorated with numbers indicating their respective grade. Older students fall into groups easily, while the younger ones stick to their parent’s legs and nervously search about for familiar faces. Then, starting with the kindergarten, each class processes down the sidewalk and through the school’s front doors. Most years, the kindergarteners make it into the school under their own power, but every once in a while, the line of tiny children is punctuated by a mom or dad, clutching their weepy child to a moist shoulder.

This procession moves in to the gym, where Jeff introduces the teachers and offers up words of inspiration to the students and parents. He might even introduce a kindergartener’s love-tattered stuffed animal to the crowd in order to set a particularly insecure child at ease. Finally, he steps back from the podium and orchestrates the moment we have all been waiting for. We all know it’s coming, we’ve seen it many times, but it’s always the best part of the year. All of the new eighth graders stand at the front of the gym with the kindergarteners in a line in front of them. The eighth graders, who just moments ago seemed so young and vulnerable, morph into hulking, capable giants alongside the tiny kindergarteners.

And then, solemnly and sincerely, each eighth grader pledges to mentor and guide the kindergartners as they make their way through this first school year. This exchange has taken place for so long that the parents of the oldest children can remember when their towering giants were the weeping babies. What’s most striking is the seriousness with which this pledge is undertaken by the teenagers. It’s tempting to think of this moment as playacting, a sentimental drama cooked up by the school for the benefit of the parents, but it’s not. It’s a real moment, a real vow. The big kids really do look out for the little ones, and it shapes the relationships and day-to-day workings of the school.

I am in awe of this moment, and I can’t wait for Finnegan to be a part of it.

Years later, Ellie’s love for Finn has long since faded, but he is about to enter that gymnasium once again, where so many wonderful things will happen to him. School concerts, middle school dances, town meetings. He will play dodge ball, dance his first slow dance, and someday, vote in that room. As I send Finnegan off on his first day of school, I am so very grateful. For it is that gymnasium, those teachers, and the people of Lyme, who will bear witness to all my son’s future stumbles and soft landings.

And Now For Something Completely Different

This is going to be quick, as I have a monster deadline for a newspaper today, and another for my agent by the end of next week. 

I could not let the summer wind down without recommending some of my favorite professional development books of the year. From what I can see on Twitter, most teachers are reading some fine choices, and there will be lots of people teaching like pirates, becoming the math teacher they wish they'd had, teaching with mathematical mindsets, and thinking with an innovator's mindset, and that's great. I heartily recommend all of these books (I linked to all of them and you should totally buy them. Dave Burgess, Tracy ZagerJo Boaler, and George Couros are fantastic authors, teachers, and people). 

I went in a different direction this summer, and spent time reading professional development books that challenged me in different ways. I wanted to stretch myself, to get a little pissed off, feel defensive and have to work through it, and come out the other side a better teacher. To that end, here are my favorite professional development books of the year, with summaries and links below:

First, and in no particular order, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique W. Morris. A fantastic, important read, and a great place to start your professional development. The Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality recently released the report "Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls' Childhood," and these are BOTH worth your time. Read them together to understand what's happening to black girls in our culture generally, and in our classrooms specifically. 

My drug rehab students are a disobedient lot, so I'm always looking for ways to view that behavior as ANYTHING but a challenge to me and my teaching. Ira Chaleff's Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You're Told to Do Is Wrong helped. A lot. I really enjoyed it, and it's a quick read. Plus, I'm frustrated with what's going on in politics, and it helped me feel better about my own thoughts on that front, too. 

Kristen Green's Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, A Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle is one of my favorite books of the past five years AND a brilliant look at education and race relations in America. Love, love, love this book. Not just for PD. 

Eric Jensen's Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind (and Teaching with Poverty in Mind) are both great resources for teachers looking to expand their toolkit to include poor kids. Tons of background on what poverty does to kids on a cognitive, physical, and emotional level, and how that affects their learning, and what we, as their teachers, can do to help them learn. Great stuff. 

And Still We Rise: The Trials and Triumphs of Twelve Gifted Inner-City Students by Miles Corwin made me think, kept me captivated for 400 pages, and I cried. More than once. A fantastic book about smart kids in really difficult circumstances.

Yes, I know. These summaries are getting shorter, but PEOPLE, I AM ON A DEADLINE. 

Finally, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, by Annette Lareau is simply a classic. It should be on the professional development bookshelf in every school. It's not new, but it's essential reading. It's not easy, it's dense, but it's a great read, so put on your reading glasses (isn't it time to admit they are not optional? Just me? Huh.) and get ready to learn something. 

Happy reading! Seriously, I have to get to work.