Never Given Up

Never Given Up

Today is my mom’s birthday.  Even though she passed away 27 years ago, I still miss her. It is a rare day that a memory doesn’t come to me, or I wish that I could ask her about something.

With an election year upon us, I am reminded of her political interests and how passionate she was about fairness, freedom and integrity.  These values were “hard-baked” into our upbringing, and every conversation we overheard about politics or politicians was ultimately about them. Oh to be a kid in our house during Watergate.

Her absence was deeply felt during the recent House impeachment hearings, and as I watched I imagined her sitting with me, taking notes and writing out the questions she would then dash off in a letter to someone on the committee. Mom took participation to its best level!

Of course things have changed, and I wonder if my parents’ generation would recognize the political or social landscape of today. Most of the electoral choices they made were formed without the 24 hour news cycle, “newstainment” and social media and many of the major fault lines that divide the political parties of today, like abortion, had not yet fractured.

Don’t stop reading, because I’m not headed where you think I am.

I’m bringing up the abortion debate and its increasing prevalence in politics today, because it inevitably churns up the subject of adoption.

It seems that everyone knows a story of someone who was “given up” for adoption by their birth parent or parents, or knows of a parent who “gave up” a baby. Giving up is often accompanied by the assumption that the reason was simply because the baby was unwanted. Yeah, people actually say that. Just Google the word adoption and see how often “give up” shows up in the search headlines. And not to put too fine a point on it, more than once, along remote stretches of highway in certain parts of the country, I’ve seen billboards with pictures of babies captioned, “Don’t give in to abortion, give up to adoption.” Give in and give up. Have you ever seen language more clearly define a lose-lose scenario? To be fair, people on both sides of the Roe-v-Wade divide use this language. And both sides should stop.

Adoption is an ultimate expression of love. It is another way to build a family – not the last choice in a no-win scenario. As with our actions, the words we use define what we think and value. When you talk about adoption, you’re talking about a human being; not an object or habit you’re trying to eliminate like vowing to give up carbs or getting rid of clutter.

My own adoption was never a secret. I always knew I was adopted, and the way my mom talked about it, I thought Adopted was a life status – just one small station below Princess. Membership in my family came from the greatest gift that could ever be given and I will be eternally grateful to the mother who gave it, and the mother who received it.

I have never felt like a throw-away, or unwanted, even when people talk about my birth and those of other adopted children, in those terms.

I wouldn’t say that I was insulated from the hurtful assumptions and heartless language that suggested I wasn’t a gift, but a cast-off. In second grade I reached my artistic zenith with a Halloween pumpkin art project that was a masterpiece of macabre. Unlike the other kids’ pumpkin creations, with perfectly curved smiles, even teeth and an overall cheerfulness that looked just like the teacher’s example, my pumpkin was much more “inspired.” Imagine a smashed and lopsided head with a mouthful of rotting, jagged teeth (hey – my dad was a dentist) protruding aggressively from a mouth shaped like a howl. It was genius. It was also not displayed with the rest of the class’s pumpkins during parent-teacher night. When my mom asked why I did not complete a pumpkin, the teacher replied that she had consulted the Principal and was given permission to withhold it from the display. My pumpkin was then retrieved from her big wooden desk and handed to my mother along with the words, “I understand she was adopted.”

My mom saved that pumpkin and we got a lot of laughs about it over the years – probably because I continued to dance to music only I could hear. The pumpkin though, was a pivotal memory, as it prompted one of my first talks with my mom about this sometimes cruel world and how to navigate it.  As an educator now myself, it’s one of my life experiences that I actually hold close, as it is a visceral reminder to constantly examine the limits of my experience and avoid wrongly judging or interpreting a student’s self-expression.

The great pumpkin incident was not the last time I would be confronted with ignorant comments about my birth, and although it was a long time ago, I still frequently hear and see “throw-away” language.

I’m certain that some readers will now assume that I’m going to rail on about politically correct language. Nope. I’m also not trying to make you feel like a villain if you’ve said or thought about adoption in this way.

I do want to pay the tremendous gift that I received forward, and I’m asking for your help.

I recently attended a large holiday cultural event and what a great evening it was. There were guests of all ages, exploring the cultural richness of our community. Students in their teen years are my favorites and I was delighted to see so many of them taking part. One young man was wearing a hoodie that caught my attention and I made my way through the crowd to talk with him about it. It had a Superman logo and the caption: “Strong, Resilient, Adopted.” He said he wore a lot of what he called “message hoodies” but the Superman image was chosen for the evening because it described “where he came from.”

That this young man could so proudly and positively share his adoption story, with a humble hoodie as a conversation starter no less, was a very powerful thing.

I will not minimize the impact of adoption on birth parents, adoptive families and adopted children themselves; a life-changing dichotomy of pain and joy. Yet in the adoption journey, we have an amazing window into the meaning of self-less love, and the best angels of our nature.

While the adoption of infants (birth to age 2) has declined there were still around 18,000 adoptions last year. In addition, a staggering 100,000 children in foster care are awaiting adoption.

Change does not happen by words alone, but using positive adoption language and educating others to do the same is a powerful place to start.

Today is my mom’s birthday. Happy Birthday mom, from the daughter who was not given up, but lifted up.

Grit Ruined My Saturday

Grit Ruined My Saturday

Saturday night and I headed out to one of my favorite joints for beer and pizza. Carb nirvana after a long day filled with all of the things that stack up and make a day off not so off.  

So there I am, jobs well done, with my tall one, and a nice thick book and all is right with the world. Until a kid walks by my table in a tee shirt with the words, “Got Grit?” shouting out above his school logo.  

I could blame my reaction on heavy carb consumption, but the pizza hadn’t been served yet. No, my idyllic beer and pizza afternoon was ruined by that dangerous tee shirt, and how ubiquitous and misused the grit narrative has become. I’m so tired of the grit solution as a simple answer for the complex challenges that so many young people and their teachers face in the classroom each day.

What’s wrong with it, you ask?   

Let’s start with what Grit is. In this instance, not a bird digestive or a Southern breakfast icon. The Character Lab, founded by the queen of Grit, Angela Duckworth, defines it as  “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”

I’m in no way against persevering or long-term goals. I founded a non-profit that helps young people develop their life-goals and get the tools they need to achieve them. What some might define as gritty behaviors like revising an essay several times or slogging through to the end of a tough text a little at a time, are routinely things we help students do.

My issue with grit is that it puts all of the responsibility on the student who must demonstrate a very specific type of determination – on demand – without necessarily having the skills, conditions, or support to do so.

Hungry, exhausted students can’t concentrate. Reading assigned chapters of Moby Dick is understandably unimportant to a student who is the primary caregiver for younger siblings or a key breadwinner in his/her family. The consequences of frequent moves and school changes, excessive absences because of parental instability, or undeveloped reading ability are not the result of low grit. Not having the money to buy supplies for a take-home project or to put together an entry for the science fair has nothing to do with grittiness.

The troubling thing about grit mania is that too often, it facilitates the notion that those very real barriers are, conveniently, the fault of the student. They chose not to work hard, they chose not to persist. They just weren’t gritty enough. Which is ironic because for many kids in tough situations, they’ve already overcome tremendous obstacles- just to get as far as they are.

The problem with grit isn’t the idea that sustained effort through difficulty improves one’s chances for success. I totally agree. The problem is that grit is oversimplified and used completely outside the context of the barriers that must be breached to persist. As straightforward as we want it to seem, the complexity of success can’t be summed up in a tee-shirt. Realizing one’s potential is a complex recipe and many ecological factors—such as race, class, or family income affect access to the opportunities that Duckworth’s own grit manifesto says are crucial to getting it. Without acknowledging the conditions in which one is trying to succeed, or providing the tools to own one’s learning, grit becomes just one more thing that a kid can fail at. Grit has become an easy place to lay blame for their struggles; and absolve any responsibility for those who failed them.

If I could get myself on the grit train, it would be to explore grit in the context of systems rather than individual students. How do schools systems and communities show “perseverance and passion” in achieving their purpose? In my view, school districts that are destigmatizing free lunch or committing sufficient resources to train, support (and competitively pay) teachers to be persistent in their efforts to engage every student in their classroom are demonstrating grit. Communities that are investing in public/private partnerships that wrap services around students and their families are showing grit. 

But as it relates to individual student achievement and predicting student success, I would like to see grit returned to its alternate definitions and embracing the complexity and very personal nature of how students succeed. Perhaps I can sum it up in a tee-shirt? “Grit: For birds and breakfast only.”

Back to School Isn’t Great for Everybody

Back to School Isn’t Great for Everybody

It’s back to school season and my teaching friends are posting photos of their classroom decorations on Pinterest and asking for lesson plan recommendations. Parent friends are Instagramming photos of last minute vacations and their kids with their shiny new shoes and bright, overflowing backpacks. I too, have fallen under the spell of special edition crayon packs and the possibilities of a nifty new binder.


Yet, in the midst of all this excitement, I am thinking of some other kids; students whose families are struggling with poverty, who are going back to school without – without a carefree summer break behind them, without school supplies, without proper clothing, without lunch money. Twenty-one percent of children in the U.S. living below the poverty line, making this an all-too-common back-to-school experience in schools across the country.  


We know that the chronic stresses of poverty can change a child’s brain; inhibiting ability to manage behavior, language development and memory, among other challenges. And while addressing these issues can be complex, there are so many things we can do to help a young person face a new school year – starting with not shaming them.  


That first trip through the lunch line that singles out free lunch students from their peers. Public “unboxing” of school supplies in the classroom. Or one of my most hated first day activities ever: “Draw a picture/tell us what you did on your summer vacation,” Followed closely with the Family Tree activity assigned under the guise of getting to know your students.


Social class, race, gender, family make-up and other social differences dramatically influence how a child perceives school. When handled poorly by teachers and schools, these differences may leave a negative and indelible mark on their memories of school, not to mention their engagement with learning.


Just brainstorming here, inviting you to create a kinder, gentler back to school this year and helping kids focus on learning instead of the shame and stress of being poor and different.

Outfitting kids for success

Encourage your school and/or teacher to adopt a “shared” supply policy so each student has equal access to what they need to complete assignments and activities. And, collect supplies in such a way that won’t embarrass students who don’t have them. Secondly, most schools have their supply lists posted in popular stores such as Target and Walmart. If you are able, grab a list and outfit a student for the year, or add a few items to donate to a local classroom.

Learning at home.

We could debate the value of homework all day, but most schools are still dishing it out. Homework assumes quite a lot about a child’s home life – starting with the child having a home. Beyond that, we assume that they have a place where they can do their homework, an adult able and available to help and, the means to purchase homework and project materials.

 I’m a huge advocate for outfitting a “project closet” where students can source materials they don’t have at home and to provide the tools they need for projects, or the school science or history fairs. In my classroom, I had grab and go bags of supplies that any student could use when needed. No check out/check in system, just a note inside saying to return the bag so it could be refilled. Sometimes my students were helping their siblings, too and I kept them stocked and available with donations from local non profits and stores. And don’t forget high school students. A stack of planners to supply students who don’t have one would be as a good as gold in any high school.  

Great minds start with full tummies.

Thank you President Truman for the National School Lunch Program; hunger is bad for learning! Yet, as they are implemented today, school breakfast and lunch programs single children out by requiring them to come to school early or, by providing only the very basic foodstuffs the program will allow, while more affluent children receive “fun” meal extras like cookies or nachos. These cues are easily read, and everyone knows who is “poor enough” to get free lunch, often prompting those in the program to skip meals all together. Recently, the news has highlighted stories of schools calling out students publically (or refusing meals at all) because their parents cannot pay their portion of the reduced fee or, they are not enrolled. This is disgraceful.

 Some school districts are extending free lunch to all students. Everyone getting free meals means no one is singled out for their socioeconomic status, and goes a long way to help destigmatize poverty at school. That’s a big move and one not all districts can afford. What else can you do?

 Educate yourself on your school’s policies and procedures and speak out for practices that protect each child’s privacy and dignity. Encourage your local food bank to start backpack programs that provide take home foodstuffs right at school so students can have nutritious meals at home, too. Or, you might just grab a gift card to a local grocery or superstore to gift to a teacher to supply his/her snack drawer for a student who is obviously hungry and distracted.

One of the most effective ways we have to reduce poverty is through education. This year, as we relive memories of joyful school days of years past, let’s work together to ensure we are giving all children the chance to reach their full potential today. As the bright new crayons and shiny backpacks hit the shelves, let’s act on our impulse to get engaged. It can be as easy as purchasing a box of crayons or as big as running for the school board. Maybe your book club or church group could adopt a classroom or pursue one of the ideas here? The key to strong communities is to get involved, and as a wise colleague once told me, no effort on behalf of a child is ever wasted.

Happy Back to School!



Movie Night

Movie Night

Nothing says, “kick back and relax” like a movie night.  Laughter, suspense, a good scare or satisfying cry…movies meet you where you are and make it all better. There is something indulgent about turning down the lights (at my house it’s so I can’t see that I need to dust) popping up a big batch of buttered popcorn and joining another world for a couple of hours.

I love movies and sometimes when I’m down, the best way up is an evening with one of my favorite, inspiring characters. Are they movie teachers? Sometimes.

For many educators, teacher movies represent all of the reasons we can’t get any respect; why the public has so much trouble understanding the complexities and challenges of our profession. When I Google “teacher movies,” the results could easily be a textbook example of “what is a stereotype.” There are the total horror shows (think Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher or Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter) and the savior-saints as portrayed in Freedom Writers or Dangerous Minds.  Some bullies turn up as well, such as the crass Mr. Woodcock, or the more refined, but no less hurtful Professor Crawford in Finding Forrester. Many kids count the aptly named Miss Trunchbull from Matilda as their worst nightmare. I endured one or two bully teachers in middle school, and they ruined any hope at all of my liking, or feeling confident with, maths. Forever. I hate bully teachers. But the worst of all may be the losers; the teachers portrayed as incompetent and clueless. Lazy, mediocre individuals who could only be employable as teachers, as in “those who can’t, teach.”

Movie teachers are often one-dimensional. They are not portrayed completely in realistic context, an individual teacher can single-handedly banish generational poverty or institutionalized racism and, you never see them writing their lesson plans.

For all of the damage they might cause, the movies do offer inspiring educator role models – without diminishing the integrity of serious, professional practitioners. And for all the consternation I felt, there were some scenes in Bad Teacher that honestly made me belly laugh.

Yep. I think tonight might be movie night. Which teacher would you like to spend the evening with?  Here are a few of my favorites:

Miss Riley in October Sky

Mr. White in McFarland USA

Mr. Rago in Renaissance Man

Mr. Cameron in Spare Parts

Principal Jacobs in Mr. Holland’s Opus.

I almost forgot Ridgemont High’s Mr. Hand. He’s a favorite. When he shows up at Jeff Spicoli’s house? The best!

Out with the bath water

Out with the bath water

 It’s time to throw out the baby.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had to deal with students coming to my workshops and events toting crying plastic dolls all geared out with bottles, blankies and a car seat.  Just as we’re tucking into a really great discussion, the artificial tot starts to scream, the eye rolling, groaning, and laughing commence, and everything screeches to a halt while the terrorizing toy is attended to.

You know the program, right?

Teen girls (Yep – just girls) are assigned one of these faux newborns for a short period of time – typically a week. The battery operated bundle of joy uses wireless programming to track and report on the care it receives from its teen parent;  diaper changes, feeding, mishandling actions, (which we can assume to mean ignoring, shaking or dropping ) and time in a car seat etc.

The theory is that given this short inconvenience (one that the teen knows will end in a few days) a young lady will abstain from sexual activity. Lesson learned. Teen pregnancy problem solved.  It could be called “Annoyed Sexless.”

The interesting twist to this theory is that there is almost no evidence that this approach works.  In fact it might make the problem worse.  In a 2016 study, girls who went through the baby reality program were 51% more likely to become pregnant teens than their peers who didn’t go through the program. This held true even when the researchers made allowances for factors like socioeconomic status.

Not the magic doll you were looking for?

There is no question that helping teens transition into a productive, healthy adulthood is a daunting challenge. Adolescents get more sexually transmitted diseases than any other age group, they get in trouble with the law more than any other age group; and when they drive cars, they drive faster than any other age. But if we’re really going to improve outcomes for the generation that will manage our Social Security and care for us in our old age, we’ve got to do better than these synthetic polymer newborns.

What works?


  • Education that encourages both abstinence and contraceptive use.  And no, educating a teen about sex does not lead to promiscuity. According to Johns Hopkins University researchers, “Young women who have had sex education appear less likely than those who have not to become pregnant. “
  • Service learning and other approaches that engage young people constructively in their communities and schools.  Why? It builds empathy; the ability to think about how one’s actions can impact others – and a key attribute in good decision-making.
  • Accessible services like health care, academic assistance, sex education, performing arts and individual sports programs, and employment assistance.
  • Relationships – with pro-social peers, and with adults who care about them.
  • And my favorite:  Inspiring kids to find their passion and run toward their interests rather than scare tactics designed to get them to run away from taking control of their own futures.


P.S.  Way back in the day, my fellow seniors and I were required to take a class called “Adult Living” that included a low-tech version of this charade. By carrying around an uncooked egg and returning it unscathed, we would miraculously be inspired to abstinence.  Of course by then we had already been experimenting with “adult living,” and it’s quite a leap from the dozen back-up eggs it took to get an “A” to having knowledge sufficient to being healthy and safe.  After almost forty years isn’t it about time for something that really works?

Do It Anyway

Do It Anyway

There is nothing quite like helping another human being succeed. Being witness to a hopeful young person walking through a previously closed door, and grasping the opportunities found beyond that threshold, is life-changing. How lucky I’ve been to earn my living by helping make that happen. Yet this morning, I’m not finding the courage to do it.

It is common knowledge that rich students have many advantages in the college process, and that merit or capability is sometimes passed over in favor of applicants with other qualifiers such as being a legacy, belonging to a powerful, connected family or, having parents with the means to promise some sort of financial commitment to the school in exchange for a positive result.

As entitled as all that sounds, the latest scandal has somehow managed to “level up” the lengths to which the elite will go to ensure they remain that way.  Faking a disability, buying test scores, doctoring records and lying about co-curricular achievements are all easily accomplished….with the right amount of cash.

Which returns me to my dilemma. What am I to say today to my mentees; students of color, recent citizens, from modest financial means, the first in their families to strive for college? How can I motivate them to compete in a high stakes game for which they possess only half the equipment needed to play, in a contest where not every player must follow the rules?  I have decided to tell them to run forward and do it anyway.

To the amazing young people who have entrusted me with their future:

Your road to a college degree will be infinitely harder than that of your richer peers. Finding the money to pay for tuition, books, and fees, and still put a roof over your head, will be a constant worry. But there are ways, and means, to get there. Dig in, use all the resources available to you and put together the funds you need.

Even though your family couldn’t afford competitive club sports and you haven’t had the opportunity to travel the world (or even to another state) you can still be a compelling and well-rounded applicant. Build yourself up.  Volunteer, join groups that interest you, read (a lot) and surround yourself with people who are interesting and think in ways that are new to you.  It is true that who you know is important, but even though you haven’t inherited an A-list network, you can go out and build one of your own.

Plan to succeed. Be the best student you are capable of. Take challenging courses, hone your writing and problem-solving skills and squeeze every advantage you can from the free public education you are being provided.  Being a great student, a great thinker, and a life-long learner – is evergreen. No matter the college or career you choose.

Despite the struggles that you have experienced (and the uphill climb you still have), the fact that you are thriving shows tremendous resilience. The inequities of poverty and race are crushingly real, and I don’t mean to suggest that you just put a positive spin on it. But through these experiences, you have developed perseverance and positive habits of mind that you can turn into a tremendous advantage – at college and in the workplace.  

Will you go to Harvard? Maybe, but most likely not. Still, know this: the elite colleges are not the only way to success. Warren Buffett (University of Nebraska) Vice President Joe Biden (University of Delaware) and Oprah (Tennessee State University) all attended state public universities.  It’s all about how hard you work and leverage what is offered to you.

Take your shot and get rich. Probably not Forbes List rich, but rich in a career you love and are great at; rich enough to live bigger than payday to payday. Travel, pursue a hobby you’ve always wanted to dive into, raise a family, and join in as a valuable part of your community.

As this latest scandal unfolds, it might feel like one more slap in the face; one more reminder of what you don’t have. But remember, the biggest losses will be felt not by you, but by the schools that won’t get to take the next steps with you. Stanford, Georgetown, and Yale are all poorer for missing their shot at nurturing your passion, persistence, resourcefulness, and the sheer guts it took to get where you are.

Your journey to and through college will be infinitely harder than that of your peers. I’m sorry that this is the reality you face. Work hard anyway. Because on an August day in the not-to-distant future, you will stride confidently onto campus knowing that no one purchased it for you. You earned it.  

Because you did it anyway.