Monthly Archives: February 2009


“I always think that we all live, spiritually, by what others have given us in the significant hours of our life. These significant hours do not announce themselves as coming, but arrive unexpected. Nor do they make a great show of themselves; they pass almost unperceived. Often, indeed, their significance comes home to us first as we look back, just as the beauty of a piece of music or of a landscape often strikes us first in our recollection of it.”  –Albert Schweitzer, Memories of Childhood and Youth

palomarI run into former students in oddball places.  I met one in a hospital elevator a few years ago.  She was holding two kids in both arms and struggling to push the button to go up.  “Dr. Riley!  Remember me?”  My wife looked at me kind of funny.  “Ugh… well…ugh…”  

“You were my journalism teacher!”  

“Oh yea…  what year was that?”  

And though I am usually good with names, I couldn’t place her, or her name, or her two babies.  So I pushed the button for her as she struggled to get a hold of her life that was no doubt far more complex now than it was when we were learning how to write story  hooks.  And we went up a few floors.

We re-connect in random places.  And at random times.  

I saw a former student at the beach where he now lives since he became a professional surfer.  I met one in a 7-11… now a competitive body builder (and it shows).  One was working at a jewelry store… another at a coffee shop.  One stopped by a few year ago and dropped off a job application…  after high school and college she decided that she wanted to be a teacher too.  One was in the WTC during 9-11.  Or was it his older brother? (I remember frantically tearing the books off the shelf, searching through the yearbooks for some confirmation either way. Then there was a feature article in the Union-Tribune. Turns out it was his brother… who I remembered too.)   I have met their children and their spouses and heard about their many careers and the twisting paths in so many life journeys that I influenced… maybe… even for a split second… even to the slightest degree. Even when I didn’t realize it.

So this week I heard from Tod.  

He had been one of six students of the 8th grade graduating class of Palomar Mountain School.  After 30-some years in education, thousands of children and many different assignments and schools and districts… these are the six who I will always remember.  They were my first class.  

schoolPalomar Mountain School is a tiny, one-room school house a few hundred yards from the world’s largest telescope.  From this location, on the top of Palomar,  astronomers have been peering out into space for decades.  It is here, where it seems that God has been peering back.  The school sits back in the trees, nestled behind a ranger station on the last hairpin turn leading up to the telescope.  If you blink… you will surely miss it.

In the early years of my teaching career I was a football coach and a substitute teacher and I couldn’t land that first full-time teaching position.  So I responded to a desperate call from Palomar for a certificated teacher  who was willing to make the drive every day up the side of a mountain to teach in a tiny school where you would have the entire 6th, 7th and 8th grade class.  It didn’t pay much but there were benefits.  No traffic.  No noise.  No fast food restaurants.  No principal.  No textbooks.  No California Standards Test (and, in fact, no standards)  I was free to do whatever I thought a handful of 6th, 7th and 8th graders should do….  to teach them whatever I thought that they should learn. And I guess my instincts were right.  

Later I realized that many of the instructional strategies that I was using actually had a name and were rooted in real research. I realized that…  In this self-contained, un-graded, multi-age classroom, we were differentiating instruction through an integrated and thematic curriculum; we were, appealing to the multiple intelligences and learning styles of a culturally diverse group of children, providing a gradual release of responsibility, engaging all learners and monitoring their academic growth through the use of a multiplicity of authentic assessments.

viewBut when it is just you and 16 kids and crisp mountain air and a neighborhood so quiet you can hear the deer sneeze;  when the shadows of the world’s largest telescope is cast across your playground;  when you have no textbooks even if you wanted them (and I didn’t);  when you are at the early stages of your teaching career and you want to bring the whole world to your students and be a force for good in their lives; when you are just naive and idealistic enough to believe that you can single-handedly change the world for every child… that is a muse worth capturing.

And so I did.

Not long after Tod and his sister Patti graduated, I left Palomar Mountain School to work in a real school with textbooks and a principal.  It was an adjustment but I guess I never forgot the six kids from Palomar… or what they had taught me about teaching.  Or about the force we can be for children if we allow our life journey to benefit others.

I had not heard from Tod nor Patti since the day they graduated.  Until this week when Tod found me on Facebook.  He sent me a message to tell me that he had grown up, graduated from college and is now a civil engineer in North Carolina.  Just like that.  An adult lifetime, a career,  captured in a sentence.  He reminisced about those days at  Palomar Mountain School– the pop quizzes and playing over-the-line and touch rugby in the snow.  He said that, in fact, he had played rugby all through college and even later for the Raligh Vipers.  

Tod e-mailed his sister Patti and she sent me a message too.  She told me about her education, her marriage, her career.  They both sounded so happy and so complete.  And they triggered the flood of memories from those very simple times when I taught children from some place deeper even than the heart. Where I discovered the power of imagination, and ingenuity, and innovation in teaching. Where I uncovered my own eventual career passions: like student advocacy, equity, resiliency…  long before I could even define those words.  Where I realized how magic teaching can be.  And how we influence our students mightily. And they influence us.

I shared Patti and Tod’s story with my teachers at our Friday lunch meeting yesterday.  I reminded them, that no matter how frustrated, or disappointed, or discouraged they may get…  they are having a profound effect on the lives of their children. And they may not know it.  They may never know it.  Until one day when they run into a former student in the elevator or they get a note on Facebook.  

“…we all live, spiritually, by what others have given us in the significant hours of our life…”

And I reminded them of how fast it all goes by.  God’s work… in what seems to be a matter of fleeting moments.  That if you blink…


Patti turns 4o soon.  She is older than 2/3 of my teachers…who are now older than I was, when I stood there in a clearing in the forest on Palomar… listening to the awesome silence of the mountain… and catching a glimpse of the world’s largest telescope when the wind blew.  And the trees swayed.



Filed under charter schools, teaching

STIMULUS: 20 Leadership Lessons From Barack Obama

stimulus | ‘stim yul us
noun (pl. -li | -,li)

• a thing that rouses energy in something or someone; an interesting and exciting quality

pres1On this, the thirty-day anniversary of the historic Inauguration of our 44th President, this much is clear: when it comes to leadership, Barack Obama has some game! In just four weeks (about the time it took most of us to figure out where the restroom was in our new school), President Obama has named and re-named cabinet members, passed a nearly $800 billion stimulus package, flown to Denver, Phoenix and Ottawa, launched Hillary into the Far East, visited a Washington DC charter school and took Michelle to dinner on Valentine’s Day. Whether you agree with his policies or not, there is much to learn from this president’s powerhouse approach to governing.

Metaphors for leadership abound– in Fortune 500 Company CEO’s, NBA basketball coaches, and admirals who have captained naval ships. You can find their books in Borders or read about them in Fast Company. Or you can follow CNN on Twitter and study how one man, our president, has approached his first month on the job and confronted the most complex and urgent crises of our generation.

So whatever your role in schools might be, here are “20 Leadership Lessons” from the dynamic presidency of Barack Obama:

1. Keep your eyes on the prize: There is nothing like a wordle to know you are consistently ‘on message’.

2. Invite them to the barbecue: Stepping outside of the hallowed halls helps to build social networks with allies and adversaries alike. Kegger at the White House!”

obama_running_blueflys_blog_flypaper_123. Don’t wait: Hit the ground at a sprint and knock over the furniture. Launch and learn!

4. Keep your family first. Period.

5. Feed your inner gym rat: Stay fit!

6. Bipartisan “process” is secondary to doing the right thing: So do the right thing.

7. Be resilient: After the inevitable setbacks, betrayals, and disappointments… you have to bounce back stronger.

8. Don’t be a sap: “I am an eternal optimist,” said the President. “Not a sap!

9. Read stuff!


10. Don’t give up your Blackberry: Especially if it is your link to the only people who will tell you the truth.

11. Speak to the conflict: When you speak from the heart to the needs of people that didn’t vote for you, that’s real Servant Leadership.

12. Have some courage. Enough said.

13. Sneak out to dinner: (But leave your Blackberry at home.)

14. Change the culture to change the outcomes: Replace the curtains hung by your predecessor and then make up your own rules.

lincolnjpeg15. Stand tall on the shoulders of giants: Don’t wobble, they became giants for a reason.

16. Appreciate the ghosts. (If I lived in the White House I would walk around at night and listen to the spirits whisper.) Our schools have a history too.

17. Surround yourself with the best people you can find: Build your own team of rivals.

18. You belong in the room: So when you feel like you are over your head, it is good to remember that you were hired for a reason.

19. Communicate… communicate… communicate: Make it your gift.

And finally, whether you are an urban school district superintendent, the assistant principal of a small elementary school, or the most powerful leader of the free world, one month on the job–

20. Remember that HOPE is what brought you here.


(Cross-posted at Leadertalk, a blogging community for school leaders hosted by Education Week.)


Filed under President Obama, resiliency, spiritual intelligence



blackberryTwitter the whales.  That’s what you do when they are left out of the curriculum. At least that is what connected parents are doing.

A recent Washington Post article described how tech-savvy parents across the country are forcing school boards and superintendents and principals to knuckle under to their avalanche of Twitters, texts, e-mails and blogs demanding their local flavor of change.  I read about it on Dangerously Irrelevant (one of my sources of professional reflection) and found the gleeful comments of fellow readers surprising.  As if school leaders don’t have enough of a mountain to climb now they have to brace for a Twitter campaign to deliver the community’s “no confidence” vote. The anonymous nature of these tools creates some real ethical challenges for school leaders pushing hard on organizational change. (How do most people respond to unsigned complaint letters?)  

The blog drew favorable comments from parents and university educators who seemed to regard this development as a final tipping point in finally straightening out those screwed up public schools.  I thought it was interesting for different reasons:  perhaps tech-savvy parents can now hold universities accountable too.

For better or worse our universities have long served as the R&D branch of public education. Published scholars in our post-secondary schools of education emerge as the industry experts. K-12 educators  worship at the altars of countless consultants and college professors and attribute the weight of the Gospel to their words.  And that would be ok if it wasn’t for the fact that when it actually comes to teaching and learning…  the very last place to go to find the expert practitioners of effective pedagogy would be a college classroom!

images1-2For example: this week I was asking Kira about her Marine Biology class. Although her college is 5 miles from the Pacific Ocean, they will not once visit the tidepools or watch the annual migration of the gray whales or stop by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography or even go to Sea World.  She has one class in a “lecture hall” where 150 students passively take notes from a “professor” inculcating his world view with the help of last year’s powerpoint.  Not very enlightened.  I wonder who I can Twitter about that.

Then Keenan has a class at San Diego State that requires students to go on-line for many of the lessons. It is very economical in that it saves everybody from having to show up for class… but adds to students’ stress (and expense) as they attempt to navigate the idiosyncrasies of another professor’s poorly designed website.  And what do they get when they finally break past the bonds of clumsy technology:  a talking-head video of– you guessed it– last year’s powerpoint.  Or text they could have just Googled.

sdsujpegAren’t these university professors–these giants of the trade–  reading their colleague’s stuff.  Marzano? Bloom?  Gardner? Freire? Cooperative learning? Gradual Release? Are you kidding me? Why aren’t they teaching each other?

An unfair generalization?  No doubt.  Of course there are extraordinary teachers in the university system and some schools have a lot more of them than others.  But if we are going to paint public education with such a broad brush at the K-12 level, it applies all the more in our universities in whom we trust the preparation of future teachers and leaders.  

The tail is wagging the dog. Americans intent on promoting school reform would do well to shift their gaze from the university system to the real experts in teaching and learning:  those high performing elementary school educators who engender extraordinary academic results in spite of challenging environmental factors, in spite of an upside down school system, in spite of the perception that public schools need to be “reformed”, and in spite of the continued reverence for bad teaching that is too often modeled by university-based “experts” that they turn to for answers.  The real experts, it seems, reside in places like El Milagro.


Maybe engaging all these parents and community-members who are technologically connected and bent on improving instruction in their children’s schools is not a bad idea. If it works at the local high school, surely it will work at the university too.

So let’s Twitter the school’s president and get Kira an audience with the great gray whales.


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Filed under California charter schools, El Milagro, public education, Uncategorized


trolleyjpegWhen the bright red San Diego Trolley pulls into the San Ysidro station at 4:30 on a weekday afternoon, it opens its doors to thousands of people coming or going into the early dusk.  This is the Tijuana border crossing.  The busiest international port in the world.  Mexico’s day laborers silently shuffle across the footbridge to the caracol.  Their heads bowed.  Their eyes, darting nervously.  No matter how many times they have made this crossing in the past five or twenty or fifty years, this is no time for complacency. 

carsJust moments ago they were in America.  They were tending the landscape or working in fields or changing hotel linens or cooking in restaurants or cleaning homes.  Service, labor, business. They are cogs in the wheel of an ailing international economy.  As they cross into their homeland, they are no doubt welcomed by the unmistakable aroma of Mexican gas, street corner taco stands and open fires.  There are miles of choking cars and buses and taxis.  And there are too few police.  

It is no comfort to the border crossers that two more police officers turned up dead this morning. They had been bound, gagged, tortured, and executed. And even more chilling, they had been warned by the drug cartels in a brazen threat broadcast over their own police radios to the beat of narcocorridos.  Tijuana is a war zone.  Tijuana is out of control.  

And if it is no place for adult citizens who have made the silent journey to their jobs in America every day for decades, it is certainly no place for Jorge.

Just an hour ago he was leaving Mueller Charter School– El Milagro—  by way of our back gate. When the three-fifteen bell dismisses a thousand kids into the afternoon, there is an explosion  of energy.  There is running and boys chasing each other into the grass. Parents line their cars up all the way to Broadway to pick up their children.  And the parents will wait because God knows they don’t want them walking home alone.  Too dangerous.


But Jorge carves his way through the playful chaos.  Quietly.  Silently.  As if to mirror the faceless adults who have been his anonymous companions on his daily commute.  He walks down the back driveway of the long apartment complex.  Passed the trailer park.  Across H Street and into the Trolley station.  Every fifteen minutes another trolley stops and he looks for the Blue Line running south to San Ysidro.

Jorge may be Mueller Charter School’s most resilient child.  And we are filled with resilient children.  We grow resiliency.  We study it and foster it and promote it and we have teachers and counselors who are authorities on it.  We are frequent conference presenters on resiliency.  Ryan is focussing on “resiliency in immigrant children” as a potential doctoral dissertation.  I am writing a book about it.

But nothing prepared us for seeing the very personification of resiliency in the dark eyes of Jorge. We had him on our radar screen.  We had discussed him a few weeks earlier at our quarterly Resiliency Monitoring session with his classroom teacher.  We categorized him as a “Quadrant 1”. In our system, that means Jorge is facing dire life crises.  He is in immediate need of urgent care. gunmanjpegHe is in our version of ICU.  There had recently endured unspeakable family tragedies including the decapitation of relatives in the border war.  

But now America’ imploding economy was closing in on him even more.  He and his mom had recently been evicted and they had to return to living quarters somewhere in the squalor of Tijuana. She couldn’t ask for help because she was afraid that Jorge would be disenrolled if we discovered they were living back in Tijuana.  California law is clear.  Not even charter schools can serve children living across the border in Mexico.

So every day, Jorge climbed the trolley and made the trip to Tijuana alone.  He struggles in math. He struggles in reading and writing.  He struggles with English.  But he never misses school.  He finds a way to get here, even if he has to step over bodies piling up on the border to do so.

And that is resiliency.  Jorge is 8 years old.  His story brought tears to our eyes when we talked about him in our staff meeting on Friday.  

We will be able to get his mom relocated and help them with housing and other basic needs. Our efforts will not be reflected in our API because Jorge will tank on that test.   But we owe him for what he has taught us about ourselves.   About how children, even as young as eight, are willing to rise above adversity for this opportunity to learn.  Jorge is a child worth fighting for.  Regardless of his standardized test score, he is one of our most gifted children.  It is called the spiritual intelligence.


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Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, resiliency, spiritual intelligence