Gratitude, Generosity, and the Kindness of Strangers


In many ways, Palo Alto and the rest of the South Bay in Central California remind me of October in Chicago.  The fall leaves reach their peak, colors sing from through the veins of fading leaves, and the entire community lights up just as the horizon does during a sunset.  The world feels bright but relaxed, chilled but full of life.  And I noticed this today as my children walked down the street, trotting along in their windbreakers and pea coats, from the steps of our school to the entry way of Bell’s Book Store.

Little did I know that this cozy autumn kindness would come to life within the warm walls of Bell’s, run by a generous woman and her kind husband.  And even less did I know that they’d teach my students a lesson they’ll likely remember forever. A lesson about gratitude, about generosity, and about the unexpected kindness of strangers.

The amazing thing about being part of a community-based school is that these sorts of trips are common place.  Almost every day, whether it’s while the kids are walking to the park or are walking through the community to learn about the place where they live, our students are out in the community, truly being immersed in the world that lives outside of the four walls of our school.

As a part of this vision to create a community-based school, I planned an activity with my students that started just a few weeks ago.  We traveled to the same book store, ready to begin our task of purchasing books for our classroom, my kids wild with excitement, humbled by the fact that they would be the ones choosing the books.  I gave them a budget of $200.00 and asked them to generate lists that not only they found interesting, but also ones others might read and from which they would become better readers.

They generated said list, and afterwards, we began our problem-solving task. Sure, they had picked the books out, but while picking books out, they neglected to determine whether or not the books were actually within our budget.  This catapulted us into 2 weeks of lessons on multi-digit addition, money values, estimation, rounding, and an otherwise real-world understanding of how people use math on a daily basis.

Over the course of these weeks, not only did the children realize just how little they actually knew about money, but I learned just how little they knew about applying math to real-world situations.  The idea of adding the numbers together and calculating the discrepancy from the budget did not occur to most of them, despite many of their skills in addition and subtraction of whole numbers.

bellsThis afternoon, though, when we returned to Bell’s, our charge to actually find our chosen books (No, not all of them made the cut.) came to life as we brought them to the register to pay for them.  And while I thought the lesson was going to end here, I was pleasantly surprised and humbled when it didn’t.  In fact, they learned an even bigger lesson.  And personally, this lesson will stick with me much more than anything else we had learned over the past few weeks.

“Paul,” my co-teacher, David, said to me, “they said we could take three extra books with us. No charge.”

I raised an eyebrow, unsure if he was being serious.  “Really?” I replied.

“Yea!” he said, in front of the kids.  The students’ eyes lit up, thrilled to have not only two full bags of books, but three free selections, too!

I approached the register. “My co-teacher told me you offered to let us take three of the books?” I queried to the man behind the counter.

“Yes, of course,” he smiled kindly at me.

“That’s so generous,” I replied.  “You really don’t have to do that.”

His wife walked up behind him, mirroring his smile, genuine happiness shooting from her eyes into mine.

“You know,” she said, in so many words, “we have a lot of kids come in here, but yours have been so great from the beginning. They were so passionate.  And it was really inspiring.”

My heart filled up just a little bit more with gratitude, my eyes moist with fresh tears.  I shook their hands firmly, gratitude passing from my palms into theirs.

“Thank you so much,” I replied, “and Happy Thanksgiving.”

I walked outside, somewhat in disbelief of their generosity, a quality I was unsure existed in this form anymore.  Sure we’d bought a bunch of books, but in no way did our business necessitate that level of kindness.  My students, waiting with my co-teacher, greeted me right outside the doors along with a burst of crisp autumn air.

“You know, boys and girls,” I said to them. “the man and the woman inside just told me that they have a lot of kids come into their store to buy books.  But they don’t always do what they did for us.  They gave us books because we were kind, we were respectful, and because they knew we loved reading. Doesn’t that make you feel great?”

“It really fills my bucket,” one of my students noted, referring to Carol McCloud’s book, “Have you Filled a Bucket Today?

“Mine, too,” I replied, walking back to school, reveling in gratitude.

Too often in schools, we teach children to fear the community.  We teach them to constantly be wary, to constantly be on the lookout for strangers and dangers. And while these lessons are important to teach, we don’t teach enough about the kindness of those that fill our communities and the greater world around us.  But my kids learned that today.

And I am so grateful.

Seeds of Inspiration: The Difference Between Interest-Based and High-Interest Curriculum


“He copied me!” my student bellowed from across the writing workshop table.

“I wouldn’t call it copying,” I say back.  “It sounds like he just really liked your idea.  Lots of people create things that other people started first.  It’s called being inspired. It sounds like you’re really inspiring, and he was just really inspired by you.”

That usually shuts ’em up pretty quick.

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Through the Eyes of a Child: Building Our Community

grocery store

One of my students’ pictures from our community walk.

When starting a project with small children, it’s hard not to develop a strong vision for how you want the project to end up.  In fact, many experts in curriculum design tell you to do this very thing: to develop a strong vision for the end-product.  This vision helps provide structure, allows the educator to design the unit backwards from the vision, and provides a concrete deliverable for the children, too.

More often that not, however, our vision for the project becomes absolute.  We imagine what we want the final product to be, and while our intentions are good, we end up micro-managing, focused only on perfecting our vision of what the final product, and neglecting to take into account the visions that our students had.

“I really want us to focus on what the kids notice for this project,” one of my teammates said recently while planning our current class project, “and not what we want them to notice.”

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Controversy in the Classroom: Why We Shouldn’t Teach Our Kids That Columbus Was a Bad Guy


It’s hard to believe, but it was almost two years ago now that my colleague and I tried to teach our kids about same-sex marriage.  It was in the wake of a state-wide ruling that same-sex marriage would, in fact, be legal in Illinois.  I, being a gay man, and my teammate, an ally, were thrilled for this progress, and immediately wanted to share it with the kids.

But I was wary, I’ll admit, and not because I didn’t personally think it was the right thing to do, but because I knew the public school system all too well.  I knew its bureaucracy, its culture of fear, and its inability to withstand social trends, especially in the Midwest.  I was worried that I’d be pegged as an agenda-pusher, as one of those gays that was trying to make everyone else gay, as one of those teachers going to whatever lengths to be accepted just as I was.

“The classroom is not the place for personal agendas,” I was told while being reprimanded one day.

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Why Writing is One of the Most Social-Emotional Subjects


My classroom was bustling.  Pencils scratched against fresh notebooks, crayons stained rainbows of colors on papers with each rub, and excited chatter bubbled as my students talked about their writing, themselves, and anything else they could think of.  It’s one of the things I’ve come to love about teaching kindergarten and first grade.  The kids are generally excited about pretty much everything.  There’s little I ask them to do that they won’t get excited about, as long as they can see themselves in it. And so, this student-centered, personal approach to writing workshop has really worked for me for the most part.

But I had one little guy the other day that it wasn’t quite working for.
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