One-Man Book Club: This Is Not A T-Shirt

There’s a thing I love about the local library – I’ll find books there that weren’t even on my radar. I’m a longtime non-fiction guy and love the new releases shelf. It’s pretty much guaranteed that every time I walk in I’ll find something incredible that I didn’t even know existed.

I consider myself pretty well versed in pop culture. Being around 16-year-olds 180 days a year has that effect. But I had never heard of The Hundreds. (Although it’s been a thing for the entire time I’ve been teaching). Streetwear-wise, I knew Supreme, my youngest is a shoe guy, and my boys and some of their friends are/were into Zumiez, but I’m glad the cover of This Is Not A T-Shirt caught my eye.

This Is Not A T-Shirt

Bobby Hundreds (aka Bobby Kim) tells his tale of rising from an artistic nerd, bullied in his hometown of Riverside, CA to a jet-setting, fashion-making star.

Meeting his business partner Ben Shenassafar. Attending Loyola Law School. Starting up a t-shirt business and setting up plastic folding tables on the outskirts of trade shows, trying to get noticed. The Black Tarp Trick. An intern/fanboy named Scottie. Learning about fabrics in Hong Kong. Collaborating with brands from Disney to adidas to Casio to the estate of Jackson Pollack. Nearly selling his brand to Tommy Hilfiger. Setting up elite brick-and-mortar stores in LA, Santa Monica, New York, San Francisco.

And a summer spent in Los Angeles Superior Court learning from a dying research attorney that changed the trajectory of his life forever.

The book opens with a tale of Bobby’s interaction with a fan via Twitter.

What's Wrong Dude

“Hi Derek. What’s wrong, dude?”

As soon as I read that I knew I had a teacher book on my hands.

Of course I layer all of this over teaching. Because when all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail. And when you’re a teacher, every book is a teacher book. I’m not necessarily sure there’s anything for me here in terms of lesson design or delivery. But what stood out to me was how Bobby Hundreds continuously assessed himself, challenged himself, worked to improve in his areas of interest, and actively looks to mentor other designers and entrepreneurs coming up behind him.

Kim knew from a young age he was skilled as an artist. He relates how his classmates (who typically shunned him, one of the few Asian-American kids at his school) would fall all over themselves to add him to their groups because they knew he could add a graphic punch to their displays. Eventually he grew to learn that his art would not be exhibited on canvas but instead on cotton. His advice to his readers: Figure out who you are first:

Find your thing


Finding your thing is one thing. Doing it is another. Sometimes we need a push. Bobby Kim got his push from Abe Edelman, a research attorney in the Los Angeles Superior Court, assigned to Kim as he interned during the summer after his first year at Loyola Law. On their final day of working together, Edelman showered Kim with praise.

“Bobby, In all my years of doing this, you were one of the best interns I ever had. You’re going to be a successful lawyer. You’re going to have it all – the cars, the houses, the women…”

And then, the turning point of a life, and a brand (people before things, right?):

“But you should never be a lawyer. You don’t love this. Being skilled and being passionate are two different things. Look. What do we talk about at lunch every day? Do we talk about memoranda and statutes?”

Kim had to admit, as the mentor and mentee ate tacos in the food court at the civic center daily, he would show Abe his design idea doodles, his plans for a website, marketing ideas, branding concepts.

“Your heart is with The Hundreds. Do that! I have no regrets! I was the best at what I do, and I loved every second of it. And now look at me. How will you feel if you wake up one day and you’re forty and you’re dying of cancer? Will you be able to say you lived your life doing what you were meant to do?”

Oh man. I felt that in my chest.

And it reminds me that my students have skills and talents and interests way beyond my class. Yeah, I want them to do my math and do it well, but I especially want them to be great at the things that are really, really important to them.

In the epilogue, Kim relates his philosophy of work to surfing, the way seasoned riders will patiently wait for a wave while newbies frantically paddle to chase every ripple, usually missing out. He says ups and downs are inevitable.

“The secret: knowing when and where to position yourself when the pendulum swings your way and the moment hits. You can’t control the cosmos, but you can study and get in position for its curveballs. This is an education culled from time and experience and patience – those very things that neither money nor Instagram followers nor power can buy.”

He closes with a FAQ section. This might have been my favorite part. I imagine a kid with a dream, getting a chance to pick the brain of a guy who rose from humble beginnings to run multi-million-dollar, multi-national business. And Kim is very real, and at the same time, very encouraging:

Hundreds FAQ 1

Hundreds FAQ 2

I feel a little bit like that following the lives of some of my former students on social media. We got along well enough back then for them to connect with me on FB or Twitter down the line.(I’m pretty sure Snapchat is not for me). I enjoy when they share their great joys, the challenges and rewards of parenting, their work lives, their chances to travel, and opportunities to do great things and small things in their lives.

It makes the world feel smaller and more relatable. And yeah, it never gets old.


Art Wishes It Could Imitate Life

Just your garden-variety sunset on New Buffalo Beach. Where it all started.

We were leaving the Vigil Mass at St Paul’s on Saturday afternoon, where Mrs. Dull was manning the EDGE display board at our parish’s annual Ministry Fair. She was talking with an acquaintance she’d attended a retreat with some time ago, and you know how that goes. Sisters in Christ for life, right? We were halfway across the parking lot when Cath looked up and said, “where did we park again?”

Distracted by the conversation, we were going in exactly the wrong direction. We shared a laugh and I said, “but, hey, it’s good to have an actual conversation with an actual human person sometimes, you know?”

I get reminded of impostor syndrome often. It’s an affliction that affects so many of us who spend a lot of time online. And it happens to the best of us. And then one day I saw it a very explicit way.

Bugsy Sailor’s twitter bio describes him as “Ambassador of the Upper Peninsula at @UPSupplyCo.” He’s really into being from the 906.  He’s embarked on a project this year to photograph 365 Lake Superior sunrises. If you’ve been, you know. A July sunrise can be glorious. A January sunrise can be pretty much a rumor. I’m a four-seasons-Lake-Michigan-beach-guy, so I get it. It’s beautiful all the time. Just maybe not Instagram-filtered, colors-popping, oil-on-canvas beautiful. Which is fine. It’s part of the charm. But if the sunrise p0rn of IG or Google images is all you see, who can blame you for being disappointed by reality?

I first ran into Bugsy (online) when I stumbled across his back of the envelope calculations on how long it would take to Zamboni Lake Superior, which turned into an activity in my class, which led to him replying to one of my tweets.

Which is to say, he’s real.

Mrs. Dull & I honeymooned in Northern Michigan and built in some Mackinac Island and UP time into our week. May is beautiful Up North, and we soaked it all up. We spent a day driving to the Soo Locks and hanging around Sault Ste. Marie, and I casually mentioned that the area seems to have kind of a morbid fascination with the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The scars there are kind of raw from the Great Lakes’ most famous shipwreck, even almost a half-century later. It’s like the way folks around me recall the 1955 Standard Oil refinery explosion.
On November 10 each year the Mariners Church of Detroit hosts a memorial service for all those lost on the Great Lakes through the years. This year Bugsy Sailor attended. His thread included an interesting story which I hadn’t heard before:


The poetic license claimed by the songwriter undersold the reality. Detroit must be run-down, Rust Belt, and it’s sailors’ cathedral “musty”, right? Except the reality was much different. Lightfoot found it was glorious, to the point where he changed the lyrics to his own song once he knew.
There’s a “know better, do better” connection there for me I think.

I’m pretty provincial about the Region, and Chicago, and my lake. I feel bad for kids who wake up in Kansas and see no-water for as far as the eye can see. Lake Michigan is powerful and mysterious and life-giving and destructive and beautiful. I’ve sat on various beaches in various states that border the lake pondering all of this. I know I’m not the only one – one of my HMD teacher friends has quite the photographic eye for a Porter Beach sunset. And like a lot of us, I feel a connection across the ages when I sit there. I often wonder what the first people to see the lake thought when they saw its vast blue expanse. So when I read this over breakfast this morning, I felt it in my chest:

“My soul is buried out there somewhere”. Yeah.

I don’t think I feel that way about teaching any more. But I’ll always feel that way when I sit in the sand.

And I couldn’t miss the #MementoMori in Sailor’s tweet. “Did they know it was their last sunrise?” I’m almost certainly (like 99.9% certain) closer to the date of my death than to the date of my birth. The whole point of Memento Mori is that remembering your death helps shape how you live your life.

Was the sun visible that morning?

My best days in the classroom aren’t Instagram-perfect. My worst days make me want to quit, move to Cali, go live in a shack on the beach and open a margarita stand. But one day will be my last day. I hope I don’t miss the beauty worrying about whether I saw somebody else’s idea of a perfect sunrise.

Or a perfect anything.

My youngest, pensive, at sunset on Weko Beach, Bridgman, MI.

Goodbye Yellow 107

I’m on the move again, classroom-wise.

Three times in four years, if you are keeping track. I was on a cart my first year at my current school, and the last two years I’ve made mid-year switches.

And, not just here. It’s pretty much become my brand. For a variety of big-picture reasons I was asked to make moves at my former school (yes, mid-year, even once on a work day between trimesters). It’s an occupational hazard. As a result, I travel light. Handful of stuff on the wall, mostly worried about seating arrangements for my students. I’m never gonna be an influencer with an IG-ready classroom all full of cuteness.

Reality is: I’m not special. Due to construction in my building we’ve been playing Whack-a-Mole with teachers for three years. Move a group to renovate a hallway, move them back in. Move another group, reno another hall. Rinse, repeat.

But honestly, sometimes I wonder if they’re trying to tell me something. I feel a little Mark Prior-ish sometimes.

I’m just an employee. The goal now is to go down and help that team win and try to make the AAA All-Star team. Maybe I can get invited to the Futures game or something. I’m still 26. It’s part of the business. That’s the way I look at it. There’s not much I can say. I’m a controlled player. I do what I am told.

It’s worth taking time for discernment – yes, it’s important to know if it’s time to go. But, maybe it’s not about me.

Am I making stuff up in my head? Maybe I just feel picked on.

Like the saying goes, “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me”. Just say you never met me.

But to borrow another idiom: Maybe a cigar is just a cigar. We’re moving, I’ll keep teaching, they’ll keep learning, done.

I spent some time this morning de-escalating the thoughts in my head. Part of it is the fruits of praying the Litany of Humility. It makes me de-center myself. Part of it was the prompting of the Spirit to go to confession.

The parish named for my Patroness offers Saturday morning confession, which was perfect as I had JV football on tap before going in to make my new classroom look lived-in by Monday.

And sometimes a thing just randomly shows up on a Saturday morning to bless my whole day, and it’s hard to break the joy that comes from that.

Rod Dreher and I share a kind of optimistic pessimism so I am a faithful reader of his blog. One of the things I gain from that is a knowledge that while we work towards eternal life and battle the forces in this world it’s important to stop and be very aware of the small beautiful things in this life.

It prevents overreaction to small inconveniences. It was actually a pretty cool afternoon. I bribed my youngest with lunch (his favorite hot wings and a pretty good Italian Beef) to help me out after his football game. We got to laugh together and groove to some ancient tunes.

Plus, PK 102 is gonna be a beautiful room.






It almost kinda makes me anxious for Monday. Let’s go teach.


Barbie Zipline – Valpo Edition

It started so innocently:

When the Classroom Chef  people are so far inside your head that your first thought upon such a questions is: “yes, we definitely should send dolls hurtling down a wire suspended from the top of the football bleachers”…

The teachers I follow online talk quite a bit about risk-taking – teachers stepping out of their comfort zone, doing something besides “Here, you guys, do page 282, #1-30 all. Show your work”.

It sounds great. and honestly, it’s been transformational in my classroom. But “risk” implies the possibility of failure. I’ve had activities fall flat, had them blow up in my face. But it’s been a while.

Planning well, and picking my spots, has helped me pick the right activity at the right time for my students, most of the time. I was confident enough in Barbie Zipline that I started hyping it to my students.

Me: “When you graduate, you’re gonna look back on this day and know it was the greatest math class you ever had.”

Student: “I don’t know, my math teacher last year was pretty epic.”

I’d been bookmarking John Stevens’ blog posts about his adventures in Barbie Zipline design to get the basic idea down, and recognized I’d need to make a trip to see the helpful hardware folks at Ace. Like $55 later, I was ready.


Weather-wise the day was fantastic. I’ve got my beach bag in my car so I knew I had sunscreen packed away for the oppressive late-morning/afternoon sun (always amplified by standing on metal bleachers).

Because you never know when you might have to drop everything and go to the beach. Or take six classes of high school kids outside.

Students were ready. They had planned out their zipline design by selecting a starting height and horizontal distance, pondered the concept of “safe but fun”, brought their Barbie or other figure from home, and hey, class outside on Friday? Let’s Go.


And then…

bummed Cap GIF

I struggled to get the harness right the first two classes. We experimented with several different configurations (including one where I threaded the line through the wrong side of the pulley. Dur. Did I mention I used to teach engineering?). Maybe one of ten groups got a successful trial before my plan period.

Later in the day one of my student helpers, in his haste to reel in the line, managed to create a rat’s nest of tangles that I eventually had to cut.

Hopeless. I bought a 500′ reel of landscape twine, so I had room for error. Good thing.

A couple of classes had a group of kids that proved to me I can’t let them roam on the ground while i’m 40 feet up at the top of the bleachers. I’ll remember that for next time. But we got a couple of worthwhile trials, enough to call the day a partial success. Although that’s a very rough landing for tandem Spidey/Barbie:

So what now? We had fun, yeah, but there has to be more to the activity, to tie it back to the math we had been doing (distance formula/pythagorean theorem). Back to Stevens:

Let’s say this company in Las Vegas approached you and said they wanted a 3,000 foot zipline. You can’t hand them a cute drawing and expect a contract, so based on your data, what would be a good starting and ending height? Why?

So I made a Desmos graph my students could use to set the dimensions for a 3000′ zipline and set their creative juices flowing. Open up a GDoc or GSlide. Tell me why you selected those dimensions, explain why your design is “safe but fun” and select the building in Vegas that will host your zipline. Insert your video.

Responses ranged from minimal to pedestrian to stunning. They did the math I asked them to do on paper, but even better, they used math talk to tell me about their design. Several compared the slope of their Barbie Zipline mock-up to the slope of their proposed Vegas Zipline. It was a beautiful thing.


So the Friday outside didn’t live up to the hype. They probably won’t tell their friends all about it. Several were a bit confused when I asked them to take what they learned from their “proof of concept” to write up an imaginary Vegas Zipline proposal. (“Mr. Dull, our zipline didn’t work. We didn’t learn anything”).

But I learned enough to make some changes for next year. And the write-ups were worth the frustration. We did real math, wrapped up in an activity. There was enough reward to justify the risk.

Also, this kind of encounter with your assistant superintendent and your director of secondary curriculum never hurts:

If you’ve been thinking about making the leap: go for it. It’ll be messy. But it’ll be worth it.


Changing Lanes

That coach he’s talking about is a superintendent of a nearby district now. Back in the day he was a three-sport star, a third-generation standout at his school, a college quarterback with SoCal good looks. During the early days of my broadcast career I called a no-hitter of his, countless touchdown passes and three-point baskets.

Now he’s a football dad, watching his son taking the snaps at his alma mater.

It happens to the best of us. Father Time is undefeated.

This past school year featured two Northwest Indiana teams winning IHSAA basketball state titles, Marquette Catholic is the 1A girls champ and Andrean won the boys 2A final. That made for a super-enjoyable broadcast year, one of my favorites since I started doing this in 1989. Unprompted, I remember thinking after the 2A regional final last year “if this is the last game I ever call on the air, I went out doing some of my best work.”

Step away like MJ? So be it.

So I kind of quietly made a decision over the summer.

It’s time to hang up the microphone.

My youngest son is a sophomore this year, participating in football & wrestling. He’ll never be a star, never see his name in the paper or a sportswriter’s tweet, but he’s made a commitment, put in his time in workouts throughout the year. If he can do that, I can be there every time he puts on a uniform.

That would have been impossible to do on Fridays and made for some overscheduled Saturdays.

So now I’m just-a-dad. Mrs. Dull checked in on me Thursday evening after dinner: “You know last year at this time you’d be doing game prep. Are you OK?”

She knows me very well. I always prided myself on my prep work. Not Doc Emrick-level, but I was ready. Many a Thursday night I rolled into bed at 1 am after putting the finishing touches on the package of game notes & two-deeps & scripted pre-games for my broadcast.

But: Yes. I am most definitely OK.

It is right and good. I’m exactly where I belong.

There was a time when Cubs radio play-by-play man was my dream job. The one I’d have given 10 years off the end of my life for.

But I have different dreams now.

That’s my oldest son (the Army private) and his new bride, by the way. They got married on Monday and Mrs. Dull flew them home for an open house this weekend. If I was calling prep football I’d have missed that too.

Not on your life.


Four years ago I followed through on a commitment to begin blogging as a way to reflect on my practice. I’m not really even sure that blogs are a thing anymore, but I’ve got a handful that I read on the regular (Blogroll is over there to the right).

My online PLN is blogging their way thru August in the #MTBoS Blaugust2019 challenge. Check out the complete list here. While you are there, sign up to join in the fun. Not sure what to write about? Here’s some prompts. I’m waiting to read, learn, and grow with my Teacher Twitter people.

Who’s Teaching Who?

There are teachers out there who have been working hard the last few weeks to develop a theme for their classroom this year, whether it be overt in the decorations and bulletin boards, or more subtle, a “guiding principle” for their teaching and learning.

This is good. It’s helpful to have a well-thought-out guide for “how we do things around here”.

Sometimes the “theme” is public and visual; sometimes private, held close to the vest by the teacher for motivation, or for a mental reset during the lowest moments of the year.

One year early in my career, as I prepared to teach kids who were repeating Algebra I, I settled on Buzz Lightyear triumphantly pointing a finger at Woody and boasting “Can!” after he (sort of) flew around Andy’s room as my guiding principle. I wanted my students to know I believed in them whether or not anybody outside of our district did.

Buzz Can Fly

It seemed a perfect motivation for kids who struggled in math, maybe had their doubts about whether they even wanted to be “good at school”. I related my plan to my next-door teaching neighbor, a gamer/sci-fi/animation geek who went about 6-6. He looked at me and said, “You know Buzz was delusional, right? He really couldn’t fly?”


Yeah, the whole thing does fall apart right there, huh?

Buzzkill comment

As I write I sit on the cusp of a new school year. In less than 24 hours I’ll meet a senior homeroom (graduation is May 31st you guys!), then 155 brand-new math students. Well, not all brand-new. I have a handful of holdovers from my freshman classes a year ago. Plus my son (and some of his knucklehead football buds) will be in my 7th hour Math 10 class. Ora pro me.

Friday was our freshman orientation. I had forgotten that included new-to-the-district kids too. So as I was prepping for the freshman activities fair, four kids wandered into my classroom, looking as lost as most of the 15-year-olds who wander the halls on this last day of summer freedom.

We do all our welcoming on the first day in my classes, and given just five minutes with each class of freshmen on orientation day all you can really do is ask a few questions:

  • “Do you know where you’re going next class?
  • “Do you know what lunch you have?”
  • “Do you know your locker number yet?”

So that took like 30 seconds, now what? Despite being a teacher I’m kind of an introvert by nature and small talk is not my strong suit. But I have a trump card: ask questions about the other person. Let them carry the conversation. Then listen. It’s a philosophy that’s helped me avoid a lot of awkward silences thru the years.

“Where did you go to school last year?”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

One girl came from Indy, one was a move-in from the south suburbs, two kids from schools out in the county.

So one kid coming from an enormous racially mixed high school (literally twice as big as my school, which is itself one of the 30 largest in the state), one kid crossing a state line from the Chicago area to the cows and the corn, and two kids whose whole schools are barely bigger than my class rosters.

They’re already gonna feel like they don’t belong when they get here on Monday.  Best thing I could do Friday was take my five minutes and just listen to their stories. Make sure that on Monday they’ve got somebody they’ve already met, who remembers them. It’s the least I can do.

I’m clearly not the first guy to go into a year with a clear plan to build relationships, or to plan to build relationships with the kids who feel like they don’t belong.

But if the things I heard and read and thought about and wrote about this summer mean anything at all, this is where it has to start. On Day One, with every kid, but especially with the kids who come to me feeling like “other”.

Royko One More Time

I’m gonna miss summer. I’m gonna miss reading in the sun with a cold drink and a bowl of fruit at my side. I’m gonna miss sleeping in, and afternoon naps. I’m gonna miss sitting around the fire with friends. I’m gonna miss sunsets on the beach, and concerts in the park, and a million other things.

But it’s time. It’s time to go back. It’s time to meet kids and learn about them and serve them. It’s time to teach. And I’m ready, thanks to some kids I met unexpectedly on a Friday afternoon.

Go For Launch


Four years ago I followed through on a commitment to begin blogging as a way to reflect on my practice. I’m not really even sure that blogs are a thing anymore, but I’ve got a handful that I read on the regular (Blogroll is over there to the right).

My online PLN is blogging their way thru August in the #MTBoS Blaugust2019 challenge. Check out the complete list here. While you are there, sign up to join in the fun. Not sure what to write about? Here’s some prompts. I’m waiting to read, learn, and grow with my Teacher Twitter people.

Look Good, Play Good, Dance Good

He’s not getting quite the attention of his fellow second-generation big-league phenom Vladimir Guerrero Jr., but 20-year-old Fernando Tatis Jr. is drawing notice for his electric style.

Javy Baez, Tim Anderson, these guys are injecting life into a game widely seen by younger generations as slow, stodgy, out-dated, irrelevant. Instead, these guys have decided it’s time to Let The Kids Play.

They’re making it fun to watch baseball.

Javy Baez Youre Out GIF

I’ve been a little apprehensive about the coming school year. Alternately ignoring the calendar and the countdown, and stressing over getting ready to teach a new prep with new materials. Then I read the latest blog post from Allyson Apsey, a school principal in Michigan I first encountered when she suggested making a New Year’s Playlist instead of a New Year’s Resolution.

She relates a story of a sightseeing trip she made while on the West Coast for a conference, riding the famous tram up San Jacinto Mountain.

They had a bit of a tense ride on the way up with the tram equivalent of nervous flyers screaming and holding on for dear life. A very professional operator tried to reassure all the riders as they made the long, bumpy trip. The way down tho?

Our tensions were relieved somewhat as soon as we saw the big smile on the face of our driver. He welcomed us aboard, told us to fill in all the space because it would be a full tram, and reassured us that there was room for everyone if we work together. Before the ride even started, the 60s music was playing again. But this time he told us that it would be a sing-along. We barely noticed that we were moving down the hill and rotating as we all belted out the chorus of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline”. Good times never felt so good.

Just before we came to the first tower transfer station, our driver told us to be ready for some rocking and rolling, and then led us in a fun woo hoo as we swayed back and forth. He had another park employee standing next to him and she was singing her heart out and had a smile a mile wide the entire ride. Looking at them, the rest of the fear about the tram and the rocking just melted away. Before we knew it, we were back at the base of the mountain and we were disappointed that the ride was over.

Who would you rather ride with? The second operator, right? His name is Gil Moreno, and not only is he going to make sure you successfully and safely reach your destination, he’s going to anticipate the rough spots and smooth them over for you.

Kinda sounds like the teacher I want to be. The teacher I want my kids to have. The groove I want in my classroom.

Yes. Be like Gil.

Play your music, watch for the ones who need hand-holding, call out the rough spots and bust through them together. Serve their needs.

After I read the blog post I sat back and thought about the student who was so into one activity we did this year she bought a Lake Superior Ice Crew hoodie which she wore to school like once a week the rest of the year. The student who emailed me activity ideas two days after the school year was over, hoping I might roll them out for my students this year. The girls in my Algebra Lab class who asked if I could be their teacher again this year for geometry (surprise!). The former student who is a nursing student at the university in my town and a nurses aide at the hospital where I had my surgery this summer (also, surprise!). The kids who suggested I update my Friday playlist, the students who suggested I grow a beard, the kids who wouldn’t enter my classroom without their daily high-five, the student who hand-made an invitation for me to see her work in the Honors Art Show, the student who caught my eye across the fieldhouse during graduation lineup and said “I did it Mr. Dull!“, and I sat and thought…

Javy Slide GIF

If I can’t be a young, handsome, healthy All-Star stud with Cut4 and SportsCenter posting my highlights every night, teaching is about the best job there is. The kids make it fun.

So I turned a corner a little bit on this rainy Thursday morning. I might be a little more ready to go back to school. And I committed to be more like Gil. More like Fernando Jr. More like TA7. More like Javy.

And be honest, after I pondered the moments of a year gone by, more like me.


One-Man Book Club: (It’s Great To) Suck At Something



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I must have read Jim Bouton‘s memoir Ball Four 50 times. In a sea of memorable quotes, one anecdote about an off-the-wall teammate came back to mind this week.

Steve Hovley was dancing to a tune on the radio and somebody yelled, “Hove, dancing is just not your thing.”
“Do you mind if I decide what my thing is?” Hovley said.

That seems reasonable to me. As I get older, and admittedly, worse at a lot of things (like seeing, and remembering), I find myself getting a lot less judge-y. Unless you are a bad driver. Then I will judge you mercilessly.

So then, it seems as if there are things it’s OK to suck at? As long as you enjoy yourself, and aren’t putting someone else at risk? Karen Rinaldi strikes that note in (It’s Great To) Suck At Something. The subtitle (“The Unexpected Joy Of Wiping Out And What It Can Teach Us About Patience, Resilience, And The Stuff That Really Matters”) is pretty epic and hints that this is more than a travelogue of a middle-aged woman humblebragging about surfing from her second home in Costa Rica.

In fact, as Rinaldi points out, the chance to suck at something is a universal rite of passage and we’re robbing our kids of opportunities for accomplishment down the line when we hover and don’t allow them to stumble and fall from time to time in school:

Number 18
In a snippet from John Feinstein’s 2014 book Where Nobody Knows Your Name, Triple-A umpire Mark Lollo learns he’s about to have to find a new career.

It’s probably important to point out that you don’t want to suck at your actual job. As Rinaldi writes:

“when you make a mistake at work, it matters. Oh, you may have a humane boss and a positive HR department, but every time you f*ck up, you have one less opportunity to f*ck up again. The laws of scarcity apply here.”

The book has its origins in staying with an avocation (playing guitar, writing poetry, surfing), that you are bad at (but enjoy) and are never going to be good at. But that doesn’t mean that the concepts Rinaldi leans on can’t be applied at work. Here are three:

  • “It’s Not About Being Cool, It’s About Not Caring What’s Cool”

I am, without a doubt, the least cool person I know. Rinaldi traces the origins of our cultural fascination with “cool” (citing Joel Dinerstein) and notes that the pursuit of “cool” actually keeps us from ourselves. Rinaldi published six books written by the late chef Anthony Bourdain, and gives him the last word on “cool”:

Bourdain on “cool” (1)


Like every other teacher ever, somewhere along the line I was advised to not let my kids see me smile until December. No thanks. Teaching is way too much fun, and my kids have so much to offer if only I open up enough to care about them, to hide behind a mask. Let it roll. They’ve seen me at my best moments, and at my worst. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  • Vulnerability, Gratitude, and Resilience Are Related

Rinaldi relates her battle with breast cancer, and eventually introduces the Latin root of the word “vulnerable”: vulnerare, “to wound”. She says the treatments forced her to consider the concept of vulnerability in a way most folks don’t:

“A wound in our body isn’t just a site of destruction. A wound is a site of healing, building, rebounding. At a cellular level, every little laceration or bump is being tended to by bucket brigades of material repairers. The violent action that left the wound is in the past. Every moment that passes is a moment closer to wholeness.”

Then, after months of working through her chemo treatments, Rinaldi laid on her couch and thought “this is what it feels like to die.” Her body was pummeled. And she says she found herself counting blessings.

“I became hyper-aware of the infinite circumstances worse than my own and self-pity vanished. In its place came an appreciation for my good fortune to have the care I needed, and the comfort, love, and support from friends and family – no matter the end result. Gratitude became the unexpected benefit of the extreme vulnerability I felt. Once my heart opened up to how vulnerable I was, a path cleared and gratitude was quick to enter. An open heart takes inventory. It’s also what you do when you’re on an adventure.”

Vulnerability led to gratitude, which led to resilience. She had a baseline understanding of the concept from her years of sucking at surfing – that there is always another wave on the horizon. She leaned on Andrew Zolli’s book Resilience, and internalized the concept when she noted how her New Jersey oceanfront community came together to help each other in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

Which leads back to cool.


  • The Blessed Church Of The Open Sky

Rinaldi is a lapsed Catholic. Her oldest son is an atheist. Worship in her Costa Rican jungle village happens on the beach, the preacher decked out in “board shorts, an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt, and flip-flops”. Not my kind of liturgy, obviously. But as she puts it:

“After my terrible-no-good-very-bad-year, I found myself more humbly worshipful when I went down to Costa Rica, or any time I could get near the water. Gratitude played a part, of course, but I was also starting to touch on something beyond psychology. Something metaphysical.”

Give God an inch, He’ll take a mile. Every time. Which is good.

I know what she means about water. Any Lake Michigan beach is my happy place, and it’s not hard to feel small compared to this vast Great Lake. Humble, even.

La Pieta, St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. Our Lady of Sorrows, ora pro nobis. Photo cred: me.

I took that photo while chaperoning my youngest son on a junior choir trip to Rome at Christmas break of 2016. Moments later I stood before the tomb of St. John Paul II, and then made my way to the Eucharistic Adoration chapel next door where assembled worshippers prayed the Divine Praises in Latin. It was a profoundly moving experience. That’s something else I now have in common with the author. Rinaldi tells how she and her oldest son visited Rome, where she stood before Michelangelo’s Pietá, and had… an experience.

“I was imbued with the overwhelming intensity of the mother-child bond. I felt at one with Mary – in her pain and suffering, but also in her love for her son – in a way that all the liturgical practice and dogma of my youth could never have aroused. I surrendered to it and was overcome with a feeling of serenity and what felt like pure love piercing my heart.”

Rinaldi ponders this moment, the humility, the art, the “oceanic feeling”, and wonders if perhaps her encounter with cancer and the “uncertainty that comes with age” made her more open to belief. I’m not her, so I can’t say. But she tried to dial it in during a conversation with Serene Jones of Union Seminary. Jones told her:

“Belief is ultimately about love. Love makes you open to the world. It’s about radical openness and belief. Without belief, there is no love.”

“Radical openness” sounds like a good thing to practice. Especially as a teacher.

Leveraging her connections as an author/editor/publisher, Rinaldi writes a meticulously cited book chronicling her journey of sucking at surfing, and parenting. She knows some really smart people, and spends a lot of time picking their brains, trying to figure out what it all means.

What she found out is: it’s beautiful.

Ritual And Meaning, Beauty And Pain.

Being unexceptional at something I love doing. I can dig that. Shaka, brah.

Shaka Wave GIF


(NB: Not really school-related. Take it for what it’s worth.)

Current Mood

Kids steal things at school. Stuff that has no value to them, that they have no possible use for.

Why? Because they can. Because it inconveniences other people. Because it’s a way to strike back at people and institutions they don’t feel valued by.

I get it.

This past school year anyone with any kind of authority (in school or out) exercised it over me, often in the most petty way possible. By the time I left the building on May 31 I was sick and damn tired of being everybody’s punching bag.

I felt a little like Ken in A Fish Called Wanda:

Nobody likes feeling bullied. The imbalance of power generates a lot of feelings, most of them socially unacceptable. But I’m mature, and a professional, and a Catholic. Revenge is not an idea we promote on my planet.

So mostly this summer, I’ve been walking a lot, and reading in the sun, and praying, and doing a lot of not-school-related stuff as a cure.

  1. Daily Mass is Awesome.
  2. Rosary ladies are an avenue of grace into the world.
  3. There should be more of that, for real. As K-Lo says, they carry the world’s load as they wield their rosaries.

A person who has worked at my youngest son’s grade school pretty much the entire time he went to school there is in the cancer fight right now. It’s not my story to tell, so no details. My parish has rallied around the family, as church groups do, providing meals and keeping company. But then, one of the family’s friends organized a Rosary for her tonight. And, wow.

There were like 100 people in the chapel at our church. The outgoing school principal, who retired at the end of the just-completed year, and just about every teacher at the school, past and present, and dozens of families who have been connected in one way or another all came out.

The power of group prayer, baby. It was intense, and beautiful. The spouse addressed us tonight before we started. Tough guy, blue-collar guy. He could barely keep from choking up. Meals are awesome. But when you see a community that has your back, all in one place, that is strong stuff.

So, it turns out I have power after all. Just not the “revenge” kind. And I get to decide: do I want to use it for good, or for evil.

All I know is, on the drive home, as Mrs. Dull & I waited for a freight train to pass, we looked at each other and could not get over how awesome an evening this was. And that we should do it again, soon. Like, “who else can we pray for now? Let’s Go!”.

Use that power, people. Go lift somebody up. It’s literally good for the soul.

Cord Rosary
A handmade cord rosary I packed in Number One Son’s bag before he shipped out to basic training last summer. Photo cred: me.

Winds Of Change – Camp #eVillageNWI 2019

Camp eVillage Logo

Back in May, in the midst of working on my presentation for a couple of IDOE Summer of e-Learning Conferences, I shot my district’s Director of Secondary Curriculum (also my former DC who sat in on my interviews) an email with the work in progress. I asked him to take a look and see what I was missing. He gave me some great advice about modeling exactly and explicitly what a Three-Act Math task looks like in the classroom, and he also stated that I should include a nod to the “why” of Three-Act – what’s the research behind it?

So I made sure to include a link and quote up front from Graham Fletcher‘s 2016 NCTM journal article “Modeling With Mathematics Through Three-Act Tasks“.

Who knew I was completely on-trend?


I’m far from the first to note the evolution of Ed Tech themes. When I first stumbled upon some of the teachers leading the way in integrating tech in the classroom, the trend was tools – how many can we use, what’s new, what’s first, what’s cool.

Gradually the focus has changed to pedagogy – how can we use technology to support teaching and learning? And every session I attended this week that featured tools led with research justifying the lesson design.

It was notable. And, obviously, good. The tech should serve the teaching, not the other way around.

These ladies are leading the way in pushing math teaching forward in Indiana. Which is pretty damn cool.

The second thing that jumped out at me on Thursday dawned slowly. I spent my first two breakouts in math sessions, one with Denis Sheeran and another led by Emily Bruning and Robin Conti of the Indiana Department of Education.

Sheeran presented on the 1:1 math classroom, using the tools we give our students for something other than $250 pencils or e-worksheets.  His session featured sites like Which One Doesn’t Belong, Would You Rather, Open Middle, Desmos Activity Builder, and hyperdocs.

Things that have been staples of the #MTBoS ever since I’ve been on twitter.

The #eVillage conference is smaller and more rural than my “home” SOEL conference in Hammond. Out of 300 attendees, let’s make a wild guess and say 15% were high school math teachers. That’s 45 of us, who were probably all at at least one of those two Thursday morning sessions. And I saw a lot of knowing nods when Sheeran asked if we were familiar with these tools. In the Middle Of Nowhere, IN.

Cornfield GIF

The MTBoS has gone mainstream. Which is good. Selfishly, I didn’t feel like such a misfit being in a room with My People. But more importantly, this classroom culture change has taken hold with the rank-and-file in the classroom, far beyond the twitter-famous math teachers I’ve been stanning for so long.

But everything blew up in my mind in the next session, where IDOE reps gave us a status update on the state’s Math Framework.

They led with a Which One Doesn’t Belong, but with a hook. All the numbers came from The New Teacher Project‘s The Opportunity Myth report.

That was kind of eye-opening. Less than half of our students feel a sense of pride about school during the day and basically about one out of every six days on average we are engaging our students with something other than Stand and Deliver & here’s a worksheet.

Not even once a week!

It made me want to keep track in my own classroom next year. But give the IDOE credit. They are trying to turn the battleship around. And I met a bunch of good teachers this week who will be pulling on the steering wheel.

It started with a series of statewide IDOE workshops. My DC attended one last school year and told me when she came back had she known what the content was she’d have taken me along.

It was all #MTBoS/#iteachmath stuff. The stuff I’ve been doing for years. They’ve updated the state website to align various activities with each standard. All Three-Act and NCTM Illuminations and Desmos stuff.

For Me GIF

And I sat there and thought, OK, here we go. Everything that had been considered “fringe” math teaching practices, accessible to only a few well-connected or really brilliant teachers, is now normative. This is the baseline.

The future is gonna be so awesome you guys.

I hope I’m there to see it.

Sometimes I wonder if all the side work, all the googling and twittering and connecting is worth it. I mean seriously, I could stand and deliver and worksheet and quiz myself senseless, and everyone would be happy.

But then, you find your people and you don’t feel so alone.

No Rain Bee GIF

I got a book recommendation from the Queen Of Camp eVillage last school year. 

So, she pretty much nailed that one right on the head. I worked #ZamboniLakeSuperior into my preso, which turned out to be kind of prescient. I was able to connect it back to Sheeran’s keynote, so attendees at my session could get a real-life sense of what it looks like.

I’m working my way through Sheeran’s book Instant Relevance.

Sheehan Dedication
I got an autographed copy, you guys.

Three Ways. That’s a Ton Of Snow. The Logo Game. So much of what Sheeran wrote about, I’ve done, in some way, shape or form. Not because I’m so brilliant to think it up myself, but because I’ve been connected with folks online who have taught me to seek out connections outside of class and bring them into class so my students can connect our math back outside our walls.

Does that make sense? If you follow me, congratulations. I’m not sure I follow myself sometimes. But bear with me.

I know for sure I need to keep reading, keep tweeting, keep sharing, keep going to conferences, keep learning. Keep bringing what I learn to my building and my department. Some of my colleagues are down with it, some aren’t. Some folks have their own thing they are trying to share with me. I should pay attention to that too.

Honestly, I spent a little time Thursday basking in a sense of smug “told you guys” satisfaction. But I also felt even more like I’m fighting a bit of an uphill battle.

“So, tell me, do you believe in a zone, or a man-to-man defense?”

You’ve been in that meeting, too, huh?

I don’t know if my style is gonna win any state championships. But I do know it is the best way to teach for kids. Which in the end is really what we’re here for, right?

I’ve always kind of dug the way the leaves on the trees turn their backs when a storm is coming. The outflow of a storm brings winds and a temperature drop that is unmistakable. You don’t need to be a Ph.D. in physics to tell when change in the weather is coming.

Just gotta pay attention to the wind.

And then maybe bring in the patio chairs, because the stuff is about to start flying.