writer/educator seeks viable life of creativity and mindfulness

Welcome to the chronicle of my quest to prove that the pursuit of passion can entail a sustainable income. Along the way, I hope you’ll enjoy my ramblings on Sudbury schooling, Zen, and the joy of writing.

If something here somehow intrigues, confuses, or bothers you, I invite you to leave a comment—though hopefully framed in such a way as to enhance, rather than hinder, fruitful dialogue. After all, one of my main goals here is to stimulate conversation and new ideas, not listen to myself talk.

“Now,” to quote Maurice Sendak, “let the wild rumpus start!”

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The Hard Way

“All right, we can do this the easy way or the hard way…”

How many of you have heard some variation of this, in real life or some movie or show? It’s something of a cliché, right? Some authority figure, maybe a detective, trying to secure the cooperation of a less powerful but recalcitrant individual, issues this not-so-thinly veiled threat. Do what I want, or I will make things difficult and unpleasant for you.

In this post, I want to discuss the relative merits of the hard way. For starters, consider the seemingly unstoppable human drive to learn things the hard way. I’ve often thought you can offer someone several detailed reasons why they won’t like the results of something they’re about to do—you could create charts and images matching the consequences against things they most definitely hate—and yet, so much of the time, the person will insist on doing it anyway.

At some point it occurred to me that if this is such a common experience, maybe there’s something deep at work here. And maybe that something is this: Continue reading

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Advanced Placement

A few years ago—when I was first getting this blog going—a student from my first teaching job asked me…

…to write a post (or several) that explain why Sudbury is better than Hickman at its best. I’m not trying to challenge Sudbury, but I’ve been wondering for ages…I’ve always thought of your European History class as (by far) the best class I ever took. And I can picture how the average Sudbury class (or module? phase? session?) would be far better than the average Hickman class (honors, AP, whatever), but what I still don’t understand is how Sudbury allows you to deliver something better than your AP Euro 1995…I think my overall question is that I picture AP Euro as a complete success and example of how traditional education should be done, and so it’s hard for me to picture that an unstructured (differently structured? maybe that’s my question) program can be so much better.

It’s a good thing this assignment didn’t come with a deadline! But seriously, her question has been stuck in my head all this time, as I too have long been fascinated by the contrast between my own schooling and first career, on the one hand, and my subsequent immersion in Sudbury schooling. Now, finally, I’ve found the time and summoned the nerve to dig into another comparison of these disparate strands of my professional life.

My first thought is that there’s actually nothing in Sudbury schooling that would prevent me from teaching an AP European History class like that one from the mid-90s—nothing, that is, except for the Sudbury requirement that classes be completely student-initiated. Yet in 19 years with Sudbury, I’ve almost never taught a  history class. I’ve taught a little history, sure, some Spanish and piano, and a lot of English (mostly creative writing) and math—but never anything resembling AP Euro. Why might that be? Continue reading


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19-Year Beginner

These past few years, I’ve been very fortunate to see my Sudbury work reaching larger audiences. In addition to a steadily increasing reach on Twitter, I’ve had the pleasure of particulating in a number of shows, such as the Conscious Consumer Network’s For the Love of Learning and L4G.tv’s Education Show. Most gratifying have been the times my colleagues at other Sudbury schools have brought me in for both presentations and longer consulting gigs.

That said, I also feel a fair amount of ambivalence when I’m regarded, especially by other Sudbury schools, as some kind of expert. Mostly this comes from a longstanding habit of self-deprecation, the good Midwestern modesty on which I  was raised. I wonder, how can I be a Sudbury expert when I’m still figuring so much of this out? Even two decades in, the scope of this work is truly daunting: Continue reading


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What I Talk About When I Talk About Self-Directed Learning (Part Two)

Last week I began a pair of posts on self-directed learning, considering first what it means and looks like, promising in Part Two to explain “why I’ve found Sudbury schooling particularly effective in supporting self-directed learning.”

But it’s a tricky thing, explaining self-directed learning. As I said previously, it “doesn’t look like learning to many people…If these kids are actually learning, then why does it look like they’re just goofing off? If this is so educational, why does it look like perpetual recess?” Because that is what I see at the Sudbury schools I know: tons of play and conversation; kids hanging out and running around; kids on screens and outside and active and resting and…well, living, basically.

So where in this is the learning, and how is it self-directed?

Let’s take the self-directed part first. Continue reading

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(Note: I wrote the following as the text for a musical piece commissioned to honor Thomas Edward Morgan of the Ars Nova Singers. In September 2016 Tom received a lifetime achievement award from the  Dairy Arts Center in Boulder, Colorado.)


All too rarely one appears, so 
blessed by love and light to 
make connections, see possibilities 
the mass of us would miss    

drawing together divergent elements,
sparking reactions, birthing beauty 
from and for us all; freely giving over 
years without being consumed, like 
the sun warming, the rain showering 
a life-giving essence, like 
the bee pollinating far beyond 
intention and activity.

We thank the artist, this alchemist 
who creates for us a richer world
where we may live more 
deeply and more true.

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What I Talk About When I Talk About Self-Directed Learning (Part One)

We all have things we’re so deeply accustomed to—phrases, habits, routines, etc. —we rarely think about them. And with good reason: without these blinders, or the time we spend on autopilot, the sheer volume of input in our raw experience would overwhelm us to the point of paralysis. However, it’s also quite useful to at least periodically step back and reconsider what we typically take for granted.

After nearly two decades of working for Sudbury schools, I’ve written and spoken about self-directed learning so much, it’s easy to forget that this term might not be as self-evident as I, most of the time, seem to assume. Advocates of self-directed learning (a group that extends well beyond the world of Sudbury schooling, for sure) use this label as a sort of shorthand for the theory of learning upon which we base our various practices, while those newer to the concept, I think, are often at something of a loss as to how exactly theory and practice connect.

So with this pair of posts, I’d like to engage in a little navel-gazing, first teasing out what self-directed learning means and looks like, then, in Part Two, explaining why I find Sudbury schooling such an integral and uniquely valuable means of supporting it.

Let’s begin with the notion of directing one’s own learning. Continue reading


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Least Restrictive Environment

My formal teacher training was so long ago—and so irrelevant to my subsequent career, for the most part—that I almost never think of it. Recently, however, a term from those Curriculum & Instruction days found its way to my conscious mind, where it’s accumulated new layers of meaning, perhaps a bit like a grain of sand irritating its way into a pearl.

The term is “Least Restrictive Environment,” and as my memory recalls, stretching back to the early ’90s, it pertains to the world of special education. The idea is that those students unable to function in a regular classroom should be given one as close to it as they can manage. In other words, Special Ed kids may require greater restrictions—restrictions intended as supports: fewer options or more oversight, that sort of thing—but those restrictions should be minimized, so that their classroom experience is as close to “normal” as possible.

For what it’s worth, here’s what Google put at the top of my search page just now: “In the U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), least restrictive environment (LRE) means that a student who has a disability should have the opportunity to be educated with non-disabled peers, to the greatest extent appropriate.”

So my memory seems relatively accurate: but now, after nearly twenty years’ experience with Sudbury schools, I have questions that wouldn’t have occurred to me as a beginning teacher. First and foremost, why should only people with a “disability” be provided an environment that’s the “least restrictive”? I understand that the context of these restrictions is the mainstream classroom, but really: Why should anyone’s education be any more restrictive than absolutely necessary? Continue reading

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Left to Their Own Devices

You may have seen this image, or one like it.


I wouldn’t be surprised if this sort of policy is fairly widespread and popular—among adults, that is. Yet while I understand from experience the need in conventional schools to maintain order (actually, I’d argue it’s a core value), I have to confess that this makes me more than a little uneasy.

To explain why, let me tell you a story from this past school year. I was serving on the Judicial Committee (the body that hears complaints of alleged rule violations)—not chairing, but rather as the designated staff member. (At Clearview, two students and one staff member serve on each JC.) During a break between cases, I got on my iPad. I don’t remember why, but really, it’s quite beside the point whether or not it was for a legitimate, adult/work-related reason.

The real point is that when it came time for JC to resume, the student chairing the meeting asked me to put my device away. So I did. The end.

This story is so ordinary against the backdrop of a  Sudbury school day, I almost didn’t see the post within it. Continue reading

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In or Out?

“If change is to come, then, it will have to come from the outside. It will have to come from the margins.” ~ Wendell Berry

A few months ago, I wrote a couple posts on how I got into and out of conventional teaching. Today I want to extend those thoughts and focus on a question I think all who make education our career have to consider at some point. In the words of the classic song, Should I stay or should I go?

Deciding to leave my first full-time assignment was particularly anguishing in the following respect: the guilt I felt over all the young people I’d be leaving behind. Was it really so bad, was I really so selfish, that I could justify abandoning them in order to save myself? Couldn’t I make the best of it and do however much I was able for those who, unlike me, couldn’t opt out? Why couldn’t I stay in the system and work to reform it from the inside?

I’ve mentioned plenty of times how difficult it is to talk about education—how easily triggered we all can be, perhaps even more so than with those textbook topics-to-avoid, religion and politics. As conflict-averse as I am by nature, it’s especially tough for me to say what I really think when it comes to how young people are permitted to go about the business of learning. This post is no different, in that I have a number of friends and former students working in conventional schools. How can I speak my truth without insulting theirs?

For my truth is that conventional schooling, public and private alike, is inexcusably restrictive and inherently limiting (when not obviously harmful). Rooted in a deep distrust both of students and teachers, it assumes people won’t work hard enough or achieve the best results without accountability, by which is meant a system of rewards and punishments, carrots and sticks. This is authoritarian, factory schooling, where students aren’t allowed to learn—nor teachers allowed to teach—as they know best, but instead are pitted against each other, weighed down by curricula and other standardized nonsense.

In sum, the system works against people wanting and working to do good. It’s the system that’s to blame, not the people. And yet no amount of fair-mindedness can rid us of the following question: Continue reading


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What Does This Teacher Make? Me, Frustrated.

In its various versions, it’s enjoyed more than a million views. I understand its popularity. What I want to explain today is why it frustrates me so very deeply.

I’m talking about Taylor Mali’s poem/performance piece, “What Teachers Make”, a powerful, clever, and moving riff on the disconnect between what teachers are paid and the difference they make. The context is a dinner party at which Mali responds to a fellow guest’s questions, “What’s a kid going to learn from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher?” and “You’re a teacher, Taylor. Be honest. What do you make?”

Taking “be honest” at face value, Mali proceeds to rip his interlocutor a new one. Here are a few choice nuggets:

I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor
and an A-­ feel like a slap in the face.

I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall
in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups.
No, you may not ask a question.
Why won’t I let you go to the bathroom?
Because you’re bored.
And you don’t really have to go to the bathroom, do you?

I make parents see their children for who they are
and what they can be.

I make them apologize and mean it.

Teachers make a goddamn difference! Now what about you?

I have to admit, even as I type this, I’m a little flustered. Okay, really flustered. But not simply angry: rather, I’m saddened, and kind of triggered, by this piece. You see, I have a decent idea where this guy is coming from, having taught in conventional schools at the beginning of my career. Twenty years ago, I likely would’ve thought this was the most brilliant, eloquent defense of the profession I’d ever heard.

Because it’s true: teachers willingly place themselves in stressful environments; they paint big targets on their backs. And why? Continue reading


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