An Open Letter to Mrs. Chan

Dear Siobhan,

Happy Monday! I was thinking of you this morning when I was thinking about teaching, which is something that often happens.

When you transitioned to a new school this spring and I attempted to write you a farewell note, I struggled to find a charming, inspiring duo that I could compare our partnership to. Leslie and Anne wasn’t quite right, but the teamwork shown by Ben and Chris seemed a little more accurate. (I can’t WAIT to watch Parks & Rec with you and talk about how the episodes relate to the world of education)

That made me think about other partners who share their public conversations, like Hank and John Green (did you know Hank Green led the Lizzy Bennett Diaries series on YouTube?), or Mr. Schu and Mr. Sharp, or Steven Colbert and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Actually, let’s pause and watch what I consider to be one of the best conversations ever captured on video.

This fall, I contacted Jose Vilson and asked him if I could visit and be a fly on a wall in his classroom — I just wanted to observe and learn from him. I lost my nerve because I’m working on being less afraid of saying or doing something ignorant or insulting, but I hope to be able to be in touch with him this spring. But my desire to peep in on Jose’s class (or Evin or Kristin or Molly or Cheryl) got me missing creeping on you like a creepy creeper.

I’ve been thinking about how one of us would always pop in to the other’s room to show them something neat or ask a question or share a brilliant realization. And how even when back in the day I was convinced that I was suuuuuuper irritating to you, I’d try to strain my ears to hear what was going on across the hall in your world. That’s something I’ve really missed this year. I miss puzzling out difficult situations, regrouping and figuring out what to do better next time, and building off each others’ excitement. As I’ve been pondering Teachers Who Game and spending more time online, I’ve been thinking of how we could use this technology to help improve our educational practices for our students, our colleagues, and folks trying to understand the education system?

If, like I said, *I* really wish I could spend time as a fly on the wall in Jose’s class, mebbe making our conversations public could be interesting or helpful for not just us, but also for other friends and educators? It’d be a way to show how we “authentically” do think alouds or close reads? And it could cast some light on the processing that goes on in designing rigorous, relevant instruction?

Anyway, you know I’m really good at starting something and then dropping the ball, so I’d appreciate your insights.

ALSO. When I was on YouTube looking up the Colbert/Tyson video above, I rediscovered this, the mathiest movie trailer I’ve seen in a very long time. (I’m having Toby take us to go see it on Christmas!!!)

Also, that trailer was kind of intense so I’m going to conclude with the best Christmas movie ever made hands down.


P.S. Next time I write, I’m supes excited to talk about –> this piece <– that has consumed my brain for the past few months.

Monday’s Seattle Education Association Strike

I haven’t spoken out much on the Seattle Education Association strike because I don’t feel like I’ve had much to add to the conversation. There have been plenty of well-spoken folks on many sides of the issues, and truthfully, I’ve been somewhat fearful of being perceived as co-opting the movement if I were to speak up.

That said, I’m trying an experiment tomorrow that I’d love for you to participate in whatever way feels appropriate for you. I’ve been streaming on Twitch a few months now, and I’m going to host an educational solidarity teach-in on my stream tomorrow. I want us to use the opportunity this strike gives us to engage in meaningful, challenging conversations. (plus fun! and games!)

I always talk about teaching and education issues on my regular stream while I’m playing video games, but I was thinking of showing some of the online work I do that’s not a part of my regular contracted day as a teacher? Like how when there’s a PBS fund drive, you see snippets of the actual broadcasts? Or for my journalist peepz, like going on a teach-along? So there might be some gaming, some Photoshop work, some rubric making. I’m open to possibilities.

I’ll use the teacher contract hours I’m familiar with, so I’ll be online from 8:20AM PST until noon. At that point, I actually have a tattoo appointment that’s been in the books for a while (my Ada Lovelace portrait!!!), so I’ll regroup and reflect on how the morning went, and potentially continue until contract hours end at 3:50 PM or make a plan for subsequent days this week.

How can you help? Well, if you’ve been one of the folks I’ve talked with over the past two weeks, chances are you’ve already helped me! I’ll add ideas to this original post as I think of them, and I’d obvi love to hear any of your thoughts as well. You can let people know we’re streaming tomorrow at (even if our Internet acts up). You can hang out in chat to make sure trolls (if any show up) are kept at bay. You can hang out on Twitter with me.

If you’re in the Seattle area, you’re invited over for coffee, tea, and conversation on the stream. I cleaned the apartment for you! If you’re a Skype person, get in touch with me (shoughton7).

You can run a search for your preferred news outlet’s views on the Seattle strike, but the SEA defines these as major unresolved issues:

Professional pay
Guaranteed student recess
Fair teacher and staff evaluations
Reasonable testing
ESA workload relief
Office professional workload relief
Student equity around discipline and the opportunity gap
The administration’s proposal to make teachers work more for free

I’m excited for some great intersectional education conversations!!!

Corn Palace of Shame

Sometimes, I wish I could shut off the equity voices in my head.

What a grotesquely privileged thing to say, right? Absolutely. But I share these guilty feelings publicly so perhaps it will help other people know it’s okay if they feel that way sometimes. As a person with privilege, I believe we can be honest with ourselves and have those fleeting moments of wishing for a simpler time, of a more straightforward paradigm, so long as in the space outside of our brains we’re acting to ensure that they don’t guide the way we operate in our lives.

That’s a pretty heavy opening for a visit to a tourist trap. I begin my entry this way because my desire seemed simple enough on the outset. I wanted to see the Corn Palace. I have for a decade, ever since Toby and I crossed the country in two days, stopping briefly overnight in Mitchell, South Dakota. Stopping so briefly that we couldn’t even experience the legendary Corn Palace.

I wanted to see that Corn Palace. I knew it’d be ultimately disappointing, sure, and that our sojourn there would be quick, but I wanted the experience.

So my parents indulged me. (Let’s be real: Dad wanted to see it too) We parked and headed toward the corn-by-number design embedded in corn around what was essentially the area’s civic center. Each year, the theme changed, and the corn murals changed to reflect that year’s theme.

This year’s theme: American Pride.

The scenes: Cowboys. Injuns. Buffalo running across the plains. A wolf howling at the moon. That last one was actually my favorite.

And I get it, this is the Wild West. That traditional image supports the local economy. South Dakota is a red state, and I imagine conversations about equity and diversity must be challenging to enter into. But the capitalized AMERICAN PRIDE seemed, to me, to have undertones. WHITE pride. STRAIGHT pride. REGULAR good-ol-American patriotic pride raising its fist among a disturbing landscape of #blacklivesmatter and #distractinglysexy and #lovewins. It could have just been me reading waaaaay too far into things, a Seattleite stripped of opportunities to shift discourse in the past few weeks that I’ve been traveling.

I guess maybe I also feel weird because Toby’s introduced me to the US’s corn horrors, courtesy of Montesano, and I just wonder what natural local bounty would be displayed at the palace if farmers had their choice, or, dare I say, if Natives had their choice.

Anyway, visit the corn palace if you want, and let me know how it makes you feel.

Footloose and fancy free

Geri had her pitch down pat. Mom asked her for a map of South Dakota, and she produced one from behind the counter, then proceeded to take us on a tour of all South Dakota has to offer. I only half listened, studying the Department of the Interior brochure I picked up.

All the sites in the National Park System have similarly designed brochures. Black stripe down the side, with the name of the monument or park in white Helvetica. (Just kidding, it’s not Helvetica, it’s actually a NPS-designed font called Frutiger) I look for those, because I know they’re not for-profit tourist traps AND I know they’ll earn me another stamp for my National Park Passport book. And there, between the flyers for Crazy Horse mountain and the Rushmore Caves, was Minuteman Missile.

WAT. Sounded like Cold War stuff, and therefore seemed promising. Immediately off the freeway, so it wouldn’t add much onto our drive time.

I’m OBSESSED with stuff from the Atomic Age. I never got a chance to study the era in school (except a wee bit in Dr. Bailey’s Intellectual History courses, and some in Tess Tavormina’s Literature & Medicine class), so I’ve pieced together what I know from old magazines, ephemera, and books set in the time period. (The Green Glass Sea, Countdown, etc.)

So I asked a half dozen or so times throughout the day (we drove through Iowa and into South Dakota) if we could go, and by the evening I had a semi-promising “We’ll see” from my dad.

Funny thing about my dad. When I was little and it was his turn to tuck me into bed, I’d pepper the poor guy with science questions and horrific what-if scenarios. His age-appropriate answers and reasonable level of patience are something I keep in mind these days when I’m working with my gifted students. “Where does space end?” “What happens if an astronaut gets out of the shuttle?” “What makes a hurricane?” “What’s happening with Desert Storm?” and, my personal favorite exchange, “What happens if a tornado comes while we’re eating?” “Then we’ll eat downstairs.”

Nuclear annihilation came up, too, I’m sure, but Dad never talked much about his personal experience living through the Cold War era — I knew he was 12 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, bypassed Vietnam because he was at Michigan State, and attended police academy at a time when officers were not terribly well regarded. But Thursday night as I shared bits of Wikipedia entries on the Minuteman Missile program out loud from my fold-out bed, I acquired a few new pieces of information.

Mom said she made it through the era with some level of willful ignorance, and she reflected that maybe Desert Storm upset her because she had residual anxieties from the Cold War.

Dad remembered his parents went to a home show, like the ones they have at the Novi Expo Center, to check out bomb shelters. “Of course we know now that the nuclear winter would have rendered all that useless,” he said. Then he turned the conversation back to the facts of science, explaining that the shelters were designed with zig-zagging channels that would cause the radiation to sink to the bottom, leaving the clean air to enter the shelter.

“Sure,” I asked, “But how did you live with that constantly on your mind and part of your world?”

“The general thought was that it was better to die than be under Communistic rule.”

Oof. No wonder so many folks in his generation are totally freaked out by liberal politicians. It was a very real feeling threat to them. Reading Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control gave me an even greater sense of the urgency at the time. Because not only did Dad have to live through it, it was part of his work too.

Detroit would have been one of the primary targets, he explained, as an automotive center and production site for all sorts of wartime goodies. Someone apparently calculated that 16 and Crooks was the most likely intersection for ground zero.

You know, 16 and Crooks. Somerset Freaking Mall.

Speaking of malls, did you know they were designed to be SELF-SUFFICIENT POST-APOCALYPTIC COMMUNITY CENTERS?

I think one of the reasons I’m so drawn to the atomic age is its crazy intersection of science, politics, art, and advocacy. I’m interested in the parallels between that era and our current one. I’ve got a lot more thinking to do, but I’m so very glad Geri inadvertently alerted me to the Minuteman site.

(Today’s card was the Knight of Wands)

Shake off the blues

Nothing profound for the second day of our journey. For whatever reason, I was exhausted, missed Toby, and I felt unsettled for no good reason. I was totally comfortable in the back seat of the truck, where I can legit stretch out my legs completely, and I got in a few good naps, but I still felt ill at ease.

I forced myself to finish reading a terrrrrible book, which could have contributed to my blues, but that seems a bit silly. That saidnote: DON’T BOTHER with The Paper Magician trilogy. The premise is awesome and original, but the execution is excruciating. I feel terrible because the author seems charming, but please trust me on this.

Something that made me happy was starting a book with my parents. I originally began reading Rains All the Time by David Laskin a few months ago, but stopped when I realized my mom and dad might like to read it, so I saved it for Westward Hough. I wasn’t sure if they’d be interested in hearing me read out loud in the car, especially because Dad’s still kind of learning how to pull the 5th wheel, but they were! So I’m really glad to start reading it again, and I’m also glad they seem to be enjoying it too.

After a tiring day of doing nothing, we arrived at the really fantastic Des Moines West KOA. I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the campgrounds we’ve stayed at thus far, knock on wood. Jill was excited about the sunbeams.


The Internet’s subcultures never fail to amaze me. Apparently the scrapbooking community has a related crazy planner community, because posting planner layouts is a thing, and whenever I post my layouts, I get 3849637247892 likes. Slight hyperbole.

I mean, let’s be honest, my lettering is pretty cute, but I’m surprised at the interest. One of my old layouts was featured on the Passion Planner instagram, and it got more than 200 likes in 15 minutes, which is insane to me.

Not much else to report. Tuna salad for dinner, which of course made me extremely happy.

(Wednesday’s card was the Queen of Wands)

“Concentrating on what is important”

I’ve been in the habit of drawing a tarot card every day for the past month or so. (Stick with me, fair readers, before you decide to judge.) I find it centers me in the morning while I’m sipping my coffee, and it guides me in setting my intention for the day. I don’t think there’s magic involved, other than the usual magical weirdness of how life works, but I’m always amused at correlations. Like the last Monday of school, I drew the wheel of fortune, then went downstairs and discovered my tire was flat.

I see it as being similar to setting an intention for the day during morning yoga, or having a daily bible verse or inspirational quote to guide you. Ever since reading Karen Cushman’s Katherine Called Birdie in fifth grade, I became interested in learning more about the saints’ feast days. (I first learned about my confirmation saint, Juliana, in Cushman’s book) I see a lot of really lovely parallels between the cult of the saints and the tarot, and I don’t think it’s blasphemous of me to say so. It feels a little bit like having an Advent calendar all year round, and who doesn’t love Advent calendars?

I mention this because sometimes, if I’m particularly busy or wanting to play a game with myself, I don’t look up the widely recognized meanings until later in the day to see how things wound up connecting. Yesterday, the first day of Westward Hough, I drew the 8 of cups. I looked up (one interpretation of) the meaning this morning. I seriously can’t make this ish up.

Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 6.09.47 AM

Pretty neat, right? Tarot cards, to me, provide archetypes on the hero’s journey, so I believe you can draw any card on any day and find relevance in whatever you get. (Which is why I’m never surprised or amazed or all hopped up on majick when a card seems to “match.”) But I do think it was a pretty lovely card to draw for the first day of our trip.

Today, as we head into Iowa, I have lots of thoughts about Hildegard Von Bingen’s PHYSICA, so we’ll see if I can make those coherent at all. And speaking of the Tarot, look at this AMAZING design the talented tattoo apprentice Lana Zellner (Eight Coins) created for meeee when we pass through Missoula next week:

(Three of cups symbolism here.)

#WestwardHough departs tomorrow!

Preparing for a road trip across the country is hecka different from preparing for a trip by plane.

Let me back up.

Preparing for a road trip with my parents is hecka different from preparing for a trip with any of my other usual traveling companions.

My parents are self-sufficient folks. I think they act more like children of the Depression instead of Baby Boomers. I imagine that comes partly from growing up in poverty and mostly from being fiercely independent. It’s relevant that I mention this because this mindset means we could probably go off the grid for several months and be pretty comfortable. So if you don’t hear from me for several months, rest assured we’re just fine.

When I originally proposed #WestwardHough, one of my mom’s first responses was, “Make sure you pack a pair of flip flops. Not a good pair though, you know how campground bathrooms can be.” It’s not that she’s obsessive or anything like that, but being prepared is just always on her mind.

Prepared and, as I said, self-sufficient. I imagine we will not be eating out on this road trip. Although Toby and I usually subsist on Starbucks, fast food, and gas station snacks when we travel, I definitely put some canned pumpkin in the camper this afternoon. I think this means my mother is going to make pumpkin pie. While traveling across the country. For fun.

And it WILL be fun! Thoughtful preparation leads to habits, which means we have a bazillion little traditions that I’ve come to expect when camping. Granted, I haven’t been camping with them in 15 years, since we were at Interlochen State Park when they dropped me off for camp in 2000. But I’ve already seen the Jet-Puffed marshmallows and Honey Maid graham crackers. I know there will be tuna salad and chili and cookies. The rugs are the same ones we had in front of our Coleman popup when we went to Disney World in 1988, when we went up to Maine a few years later, and every time they drove to Traverse City the summers I attended Interlochen.

The towels and potholders in the kitchen are the ones we used on the boat (our badass Tartan 28 called “Sirocco”). There’s a Copacabana ashtray sitting on the counter, even though I know Dad will be relegated to smoking at the picnic table.

It’s the first time for any of us to be traveling with technology more advanced than a weather radio, though. I’m hoping to update here with our adventures, but you can also find us at #WestwardHough on Instagram and Twitter. And my mom is definitely worth a follow on Twitter; she’s @sailingwife. :D

A few thoughts, with a week to go.

Friends have been asking how it feels to know I’ll have the summer and next school year to work on personal and mathy projects.

Beyond the obvious excitement, my primary feeling is concern for my colleagues. Teaching in any school, but particularly in a failing, high poverty school, is intellectually and emotionally draining.

Learning with children is deeply rewarding work, but it requires a level of resilience I don’t know I could maintain if a year off wasn’t possible. I’m concerned for the long-term health of educators who work within this broken system. I’m saddened at the instruction and leadership our students and teachers miss out on when qualified educators move to different schools or different professions to be healthier or to grow professionally.

Because that’s why teachers are leaving education. We’re advocating for the health and respect we deserve, and often these elements are missing from our most struggling schools. When these schools hemorrhage the talent they’ve managed to cultivate, they’re then back to square one or worse off than they began, with the added baggage that educators who remain may feel abandoned.

I’ve struggled with a deep sense of loss when my colleagues have left Wildwood in past years. At the risk of seeming self-important, I fear I’m contributing to this problem by spending a year away from my community. And that’s why I’ve been clear, sometimes even aggressive, about my assertions that I’ll return to my Wildcat family next fall.

I hope you’ll stay in touch with me during this adventure.

Learning, apprenticeship, study.

I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s time to make things Internet-official. I’m stepping out of the classroom next year and taking a leave of absence. I’m excited beyond expression, but I’m also scared. Scared that maybe I’ll never come back or that I’ll realize I was doing things wrong the whole time. Scared that I’ll be away from inspiring educators and remarkable kids who keep me going. Scared that I won’t take full advantage of this opportunity.

Who am I when I’m not a teacher? Am I really going to stop being a teacher when I’m out of the classroom? How can I best improve myself and equip myself to return to a vocation of teaching and learning?

I’m fortunate that the district approved my leave (after sending me a very official piece of certified mail that looked SO SERIOUS that Toby texted me asking if I was in trouble). I’m fortunate for the Internet so that I won’t be isolated in this year away. I’m fortunate for the support of remarkable friends who help me become a better person. I’m fortunate for administrators who advocate for the best interests of my students and for the mental health of educators.

Although I’ve been pretty open about my struggles with depression and mania, mental health isn’t the core of why I’m leaving, although I think it does explain why I feel so thoroughly drained and ready for reflection. Teachers leave the profession because they’re burnt out. I hope I’ve caught myself before going over the burnout cliff, and that I will return to my classroom a more thoughtful and proficient educator.

This week is spring break. I’m working with Toby to craft some sort of framework or schedule so I don’t just sink into a fog of ennui in my bed and never emerge. As first-world-problem as it seems, breaks and vacations are really difficult for me, and it often takes a few weeks into the summer before I stop feeling like my skin is crawling. Routines and schedules help my students, and they help me too. One of my tasks is to write something every day. So here’s my work for today.

Learning, apprenticeship, and study. Those are today’s intentions.