Monthly Archives: July 2009


turtle 2-1This is the 2nd in a series about our partnership with the Chula Vista Nature Center at Gunpowder Point. These posts will document our progress as we move our middle school science program off campus– to a satellite classroom called the San Diego Bay!  

DSC_0050It is the first day of school and so our students return.  It is mid-summer… most school districts will not call their students back until after Labor Day.  Not El Milagro, though. We start early. So ready or not, they are are descending– in droves.  Record high enrollment and a long waiting list means business is good.

This year there are some new things, like our Full-Day Kindergarten program.   And there is an automatic back gate in the staff parking lot that allows teachers to drive up and never get out of their cars as the fence opens and closes behind them. But that’s not our best new feature.  This year we are partnering with the Chula Vista Nature Center and moving our middle school science program right into the middle of their facility.

The Nature Center sits on a reserve at the edge of the San Diego Bay, two miles from Mueller Charter School.  There are aquariums and marshes and protected reserves that surround a natural, outdoor classroom.  It will provide  our students with a rare opportunity to learn in a real-life laboratory of interconnected ecosystems… every day.  It is a reminder that we cannot get so preoccupied with standardized testing and teaching the basic skills required to score well– that we forget to create opportunities for authentic learning too.  Opportunities to think, imagine, create, explore, discover, question, use the technology, solve the riddles of the universe and learn to love learning.

box-1The Nature Center is our reminder that we are out of whatever “the box” is and our students could be the beneficiaries.  

Last Friday the whole staff met at the Nature Center for a morning of activities and learning together.  They explored the many exhibits and habitats there.  They created themes around some of the big ideas of life science like adaptation and evolution, scale and structure, systems, the magic of water, color and song, and interconnected relationships in nature.  

And we searched for balance.

Or at least a definition for it.  And we discovered that definition in the very dream of what we think the Nature Center partnership can be for kids.  If we are truly “balanced” we would do all three of these things well:

• FIRST : We would enthusiastically play the testing game and make sure our kids have the basic skills they need to excel in math and reading; that we get the big scores to keep our autonomy and independence– and our charter!  We would also work urgently to achieve all the AYP goals and to assure that that our API is pushing into the stratosphere.

sea turt-1• SECOND: Beyond basic skills, we would work just as hard to provide a more authentic, thinking curriculum that allows children to discover their natural gifts and interests.  A curriculum that features the interesting stuff that engages students every day.  Like the Nature Center and all its wind-framed beauty and ocean air;  its banks of slippery seaweed, its deep fish tanks that stink. Or the tidepools, tucked snugly up against shallow marshes that splash mud and seawater on kid’s school clothes when the tide is up. Or rare creatures on loan from their fragile ecosystems; sometimes strange life-forms that can make  kids smile when they hold them in their hands.

• FINALLY, we would help our students develop as literate, interesting, passionate, connected, people. We help them develop the habits and attitudes of successful learners: Respect. Responsibility. Commitment. Character. And other stuff too.

The Nature Center is more than a metaphor–  it is an authentic learning lab, a model for what schools must do to provide all children with a context for growing up as complete human beings.  So that is the balance that we seek school-wide: 1) the basic skills required to demonstrate mastery on standardized tests, 2) the rich thinking curriculum to engage our students with their world, and 3) an emphasis on nurturing the character traits of successful citizens and learners. 

If we achieve that, it will be a great year!


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Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, environmental studies, gifted children, innovation and change, standardized testing, teaching


violinThe musicians are coming back to New Orleans even if the business investors are not. They are everywhere. They are on the streets of the Quarter and in the clubs and bars on Frenchmans Street. Listen to them play. Feel them. Put whatever you have in their guitar cases and plastic tip buckets because, as near as I can tell, they are all we have left of New Orleans.

And as street musicians, they are all we have of whatever the soul of America ever was.

There is that haunting Washington Post social experiment called “Pearls Before Breakfast”. Perhaps you read it. Or not. Perhaps you were on your way to work in your busy life as a school leader and you were just too stressed to stop and listen.

1,097 commuters raced past the street musician in L’Enfant Plaza in Washington DC one January morning, on their way to their beltway jobs as policy analysts and consultants and government workers. They heard him. But they didn’t listen. They kept their heads down and avoided eye contact. They stayed clear of his violin case for fear they would be shamed into fishing for a few loose quarters. Some had their IPods on so they could drown him out. Others had cell phones– the perfect ploy for the frenetic train patron already enwrapped in the day’s e-mail and text messages.

And that was their loss.

j bellHe was no vagabond fiddler begging for a cup of coffee. He was Joshua Bell, one of the world’s most renowned classical musicians, playing some of the most elegant music ever created on a $3.5 million Stradivarius that was hand-crafted in 1713. On this particular morning, Joshua Bell managed $32 in tips from a handful of passer-bys who took the time to listen. It was “Chaconne”, written by Johann Sebastian Bach and just a few days before, Joshua Bell had played it in the Boston Symphony Hall to a capacity audience who each paid a minimum $100 a ticket to hear the performance.

Last week Paul McCartney played a free concert on a rooftop in New York City and he had a very different reception.

Perhaps the commuters were just a little more familiar with Paul McCartney than they were with Johann Sebastian Bach. Perhaps they had allowed a little more time in their morning routine so they could afford a few extra minutes to stop and listen. Perhaps something in the loud bass and amplified foot pedals spoke to the soul of New Yorkers in a way that a violin– however sweet or eerie — could not speak to Washington DC bureaucrats in a hurry to make their first morning meeting.

Or is it the context? Or the fear of strangers in a train station? Or a general distrust of street performers? Or the fear of being scammed? Or worse?

Or are we in too big a hurry? Or does the music matter? Or do the arts matter? Or does Washington or New Orleans or New York City matter?

The Washington Post formulated a question for their action research: “In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, does beauty transcend?” They hypothesized that it would and that Joshua Bell would draw too big a crowd and pretty soon there would be anarchy. There wasn’t. He played and  no one noticed. Well, almost no one.

In his beautifully written summary of the experiment in L’Enfant Plaza, staff writer Gene Weingarten writes: “There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money,from the vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.”

Our students report back for school next week. They will pass by in search of sweet music that genuinely stirs them. I for one, will not abide the adults that rush them past when they only want one glimpse of that brilliant virtuoso that seems to give life a fleeting instant of meaning; or they pop their IPod headphones out to listen to a song whose name they cannot pronounce.

vio and bow

(Simultaneously Posted on Leadertalk)


Filed under Uncategorized

JOURNALING CHAOS 7: “It’s in The Salsa”



The “I Ching” teaches that “Before there can be great brilliance… there must be chaos.”

This is PART 7 in a series of blog posts that document our research, strategic thinking, observations and debates as we take on one of the last vestiges of the industrial revolution: the practice in schools of organizing kids into grade levels according to their chronological age.

el patio dayThe history of El Patio Restaurant is written in its walls.  It is as old as California.  Father Serra may have stopped here for handmade beef tamales on his journey north to build California’s first missions.  His ghost is still in the corner, plugging the jukebox with strange coins and listening to classic ’60s low rider anthems and tejano ballads.

El Patio is where the Wizard and I go for lunch when we want to incubate ideas. Perhaps it is the layers of aging hot sauce on the floors and splashed partly up the side walls. Perhaps it is in the jalapenos.  Or the jukebox inspiration under Father Serra’s watchful eye. But for some reason, at El Patio, the creativity flows.

So yesterday we had lunch and caught up on our latest thinking in how we might organize a school without grade levels and what effect it would have on overall student achievement and what new metrics would be useful in monitoring the change.

Our ideas on a school without grade levels came in a series of “What ifs…”

ideasWhat if we don’t include  KINDERGARTEN or FIRST GRADE in the ungraded program, but since they feed into it, we don’t allow students to advance without first demonstrating grade level proficiency?

El Milagro will open a Full-Day Kindergarten for the first time this year.  The timing is awesome.  When we launch the ungraded system,  students will enter school with a full year to make up for having not gone to pre-school, or not learned their letters, or having never read with their parents, or not knowing their name. But while neither Kindergarten nor First Grade would be part of the “ungraded” program, we will expect students to be proficient before they leave either grade. 

ideasWhat if we eliminate Second Grade, Third Grade, Fourth Grade, and Fifth Grade?

Students are currently assigned to these grade levels on the basis of two parameters:


1) Their chronological age, and  

2) The grade level they completed last June.

These grade level grouping decisions are  not based on achievement or mastery (which is what the California Education Code requires!).  They are based solely on students’ age and time spent sitting in a seat.  


ideas...What if  these four grade levels (2-5) morphed into one UNGRADED PROGRAM (that admittedly needs a catchier name!)?

• We could eliminate the traditional, 10-month, September-to-June school calendar;

• Group students by chronological age for science, social studies, PE, the arts and home room;

• Re-group students for language arts and math based on their MAPS assessment scores (we call them RIT scores);

• Identify, early in the school year, which level of the California Standards Test  each student is preparing to take  (the Grade 2, 3, 4 or 5 version)– based on the level that they last demonstrated proficiency on; and

• Offer students the opportunity to move through the four levels at their own pace.

ideasWhat if…students progress to each new level solely on the basis of merit and demonstrated proficiency– just like what happens in Tae Kwon Do… and just like what happens in college.  No free pass.

Such are the brainstorms of El Patio where every idea generates new questions and more “What ifs”.  That’s what is fueling the creativity.  By the time we were rolling on ideas for 6th grade we were on our third glass of ice tea… arms flailing, spitting tortilla chips, interrupting each other mid-idea. We wondered:

ideasWhat if we change the structure for 6th grade?

6TH GRADE would definitely be the moment of truth for this whole scheme.  There will be only two ways that a student can exit our UNGRADED program and enter our 6TH GRADE :


1.  They can  “Test In”, by demonstrating mastery of the 5th grade CST, or

2.  They can “Age In” because  if we don’t move them along they are going to turn 93 before they ever get out of Mueller Charter School.

Student who are moved into the 6th grade program solely on the basis of age (and not proficiency) will be provided an intensive program from the strongest teachers we have.  These classrooms will be self-contained and will require students’ full participation in afterschool tutoring, intersessions, and independent skill development in the computer lab.

Students who “test in” to 6th grade,will participate in a departmentalized program patterned after our 7th and 8th grade Leadership Academy.

And our 7th and 8th grade students, because they are selected for our Leadership Academy on the basis of their willingness to work hard, will continue in a departmentalized, accelerated program that is designed to prepare them for advanced placement courses in high school.


Lunch was over and before we headed back to school, the Wizard and I agreed on one final and point that will make or break the success of this systemic change. We must still balance the demand for accountability on tests with the obligation we have to our students to inspire a love of learning an thinking and creating and discovering their full range of gifts.

The ungraded elementary program will enable us to focus on basic skill development and mastering grade level competencies. But  that is not where the real teaching and learning lies.  The chronological age groupings will offer students opportunities to work across age groups, academic disciplines, and performance outcomes to fully develop as learners.

That is balance… and our best thinking from El Patio, where the salsa marinates in an ancient recipe and an old mariachi on the jukebox wails: “Que si…”.  

What if.



Filed under California charter schools, charter schools, El Milagro, innovation and change, Un-graded schools


tour djpegAfter the 10th stage of the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong sits in third place.  Amazing.  What an athlete.  The Tour de France has to be one of the most grueling events in competitive athletics and he continues to put himself in a position to win in that legendary bicycle Race to the Top

Now that has a ring to it: “The race to the top.” And evidently President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan think so too.  In fact, they have set aside BILLIONS of federal dollars as part of a stimulus package to encourage states to “race to the top” in school reform.

At this point in the race, however,  we don’t have many details.  For example, no one seems to know what the rules are for the race or where exactly  the “top” is.  There definitely is a “Race to the Top Fund” that is a component of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that Congress approved in February, but there are no guidelines to tell you when you win or when you lose or even when you can climb off  your freakin bicycle and have a cold gatorade.

arnejpegPundits seem to think there are some clues in Duncan-speeches that suggest that the states on the inside track in this epic Race to the Top  are those who 1) are committed to improving low performing schools; 2) states that are lifting caps on charter schools; 3) states that are big on improving teacher quality; 4) states that are moving their data systems into the 21st century, and 5) states that are on board with the whole “national academic standards” drive.

Given that description, states that are in the back of the pack about a small French village away from the leader group, include: 

• Alaska, Missouri, South Carolina, and Texas—because they don’t want to play the national standards game.  

• Indiana and Maine because they  are considered “unfriendly” to charter schools.  Shame on them.

• California, New York, and Wisconsin who are all guilty of constructing “firewalls” between student and teacher data.

• Illinois because, in general,  their school system (even under the leadership of Arne Duncan) just suck.

The current leaders… that is, those who are vying with Lance Armstrong for the yellow jersey include:  Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, and Louisiana. (Nearly 70% of the schools that re-opened in New Orleans after Katrina are charter schools!)

up hillSo I wonder…  as the facts and the details of the Race for the Top Fund come to light, what kind of pressures will individual states bring to bear on their schools?  California is facing a $26.5 billion deficit and while the federal money won’t bridge that gap, it would certainly encourage re-investment into the system.  It would suggest we are headed down (or up) some positive path and maybe that we have a half a clue of how to catch up with the race leaders and sprint to the finish.  

I wonder if Arne Duncan is prepared for the kind of innovation that the lure of $5 billion can buy.

Billions of dollars on the table.  Bragging rights.  A poorly fitting yellow jersey that nevertheless looks pretty nice on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  New standards and expectations. 

I suspect that high stakes testing is about to get higher stakes.


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Filed under California budget, California charter schools, charter schools, President Obama, public education, school reform, standardized testing



I just looked at the calendar on my IPhone and it says I am supposed to go back to work on Monday.  So be it.  I haven’t really left my work anyway… I have been messing with stuff for the past month:  developing our new program at the Chula Vista Nature Center, researching elements of our plan to eliminate grade levels, writing about how we  raise resilient kids, brainstorming strategies to focus our teaching.  Blogging.

money bagsjpegMeanwhile, I noticed that the state of California still doesn’t have a budget agreement and that there is now a $26.3 billion deficit!  The system is broke and it doesn’t appear that we are even structured to fix it

I noticed that the U.S. Department of Education now has $5 billion in special funding set aside to promote  the development of new innovative practices and I wonder if they are really ready for the innovations we have in mind!

I notice that Arne Duncan and President Obama are tweaking the NEA, the national teacher’s union, about the need for merit pay and opening up more charter schools– and that now they are both on the union “list”.

I notice that the NEA has been adamantly opposed to more charter schools… but they would like to unionize the ones that exist and steal their very best ideas! (By the way… the NEA is more than welcome to replicate our best practices!!!)

I notice that there is still some forward momentum around the effort to create one set of national curriculum standards and simultaneously wonder if that is really what is missing.

I notice that there has been no revision to NCLB and that we are still rolling up all our eggs in a very inadequate assessment basket called the California Standards Test.  And since we are not likely to have hit all of our AYP targets for the first time, and since we chose not to spend valuable learning time teaching our students how to take the test... we will have to be prepared to defend our teaching practices and explain why our kids didn’t score at a level that NCLB demands.   And, of course, we will have to demonstrate — to somebody– that we have a coherent plan for whatever ails us.  And the people we will have to answer to are the ones that can’t seem to do their own job… which is to manage the state’s budget and provide for the needs of children!      

IMG_3762As a matter of fact, I notice that the further away you get from actual classrooms where children and teacher live every day, the more delusional leadership becomes– like dancing in front of funhouse mirrors.  

So… much has changed since we sent our students tumbling into a very brief summer recess back in June.  And yet nothing has changed at all.  Real change and innovation still has to come from within the walls of the school.  And that is why I already set my alarm for Monday morning.


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Filed under California budget, California charter schools, charter schools, El Milagro, innovation and change, resiliency, school reform, standardized testing, teaching





Sunday morning.  In the half light of dawn I awoke to screetching tires and a muffled thunk and an anxious silence that should have been filled by my car alarm.

Newspaper Guy takes the corner at the end of our street on two car wheels and races by our house with the urgency of a man on a singular paper routemission.  On most days he has a partner who leans out the window and fires the morning paper across the lawn and into our driveway, slicing of a row of agapanthus at the bud.  Newspaper Guy is not a 14 year-old kid with a paper route.  He is a full grown adult who drives a Cooper and delivers his morning news with a cold disaffection for how it is to be consumed.

We are the last house he delivers to so when he finally lets the San Diego Union-Tribune fly toward our driveway, it’s for all he’s worth.  Today the thick Sunday paper hit my Armada square in the tailgate at full velocity (plus additional “english” generated by  the forward lean of a speeding Cooper).  

It should have set the car alarm off but it didn’t.  If you hit my car hard enough with softball it will go off.  Hit it with the morning newspaper it won’t.  And I think I know why.   Here’s my theory:  there isn’t enough weight in the daily paper to do any damage; there isn’t enough substance. It’s air.  You can throw it in the rose bushes if you want to.  Throw it against the hummingbird feeder. Throw it right through the freakin’ window for all I care.  Nothing breaks. 

At my house, none of us actually read the morning paper anymore.  But we subscribe to it… for three totally practical reason:  first, it comes with a rubber band wrapped around it and those are always handy devices for binding stuff. Second, it comes inside a plastic bag which I use when I clean up after our dogs. And third… it is an effective way to stoke a fire in our fire pit (though, quite honestly,  I am gradually moving more to the Duraflame firestarters.  Less ash.)

The morning paper definitely has some utility but what is not so good for is news. Not anymore.


Just two weeks ago, for example, I followed the development of the Iranian uprising– from the very beginning– on Twitter.  [It was dramatic to follow events unfolding in real time.  Many of the contributors to the Twitter stream were front-line participants in a moment of history.  It was a day and a half before the story really picked up in the SD Union Tribune. Was there some fiction in the Tweets? spin? hyperbole? false reporting? sensationalism?  Of course. But no more so than one might find in the editorial section of any local newspaper!]

And I haven’t replaced the morning newspaper with Twitter alone.

To follow President Obama’s daily challenges or to sample a cross-section of American culture I read the  Huffington Post.

To follow the very latest events in K-12 public education, especially with charter schools,  I subscribe to Education Week on-line and read from my laptop.

If I missed an event like an epic, come-from-behind win by the Padres… I download the replay of the most significant plays on You Tube. The rest of the scores I get from,  with the depth and details of teams I am most interested in.

If I want to read opinions from regular, everyday folks I read their blogs.

If I want some good, honest feedback and recommendations about books I might want to read, I browse through reviews written on Amazon.

If we want to publish “accurate” information about an event at my school,  we don’t call reporters and wait for them to come cover the good things we are doing anymore.  We just place the story on our school’s Facebook page.

If we want to include additional photographs of that same school event, we publish them on Flickr.

If I want tomorrow’s weather, or the local movie listings, or the stock market trends I find them all instantly on my I

If I want to read today’s edition of a credible newspaper that is simultaneously being read by people, literally, from around the world–  I download the NY Times onto my Kindle.

Now, don’t get me wrong… I’m not a techie or a gadget snob. I’m not even particularly computer savvy.  I just want the information I want.  And the morning newspaper has been replaced as a conduit for information, by tools that are faster, more portable, more accessible… more accurate. Five years ago most of these tools didn’t exist so I would go out of the house in the morning and pick up the paper and read it cover to cover.  If it was late or soaking wet from the sprinklers I would be pissed.   Now I don’t count on the newspaper as a source of reliable and real time information anymore so I don’t really care if it is late or wet or missing the sports page or written in Italian.   

Ironically, I pay for my annual newspaper subscription on-line, so it is kinda hard to cancel.  Out of sight out of mind.  Besides, I can’t bring myself to totally discontinue the service.  Even if I don’t read it.  I know it’s there on the driveway.  I know that the ink and the thin newsprint and the smell of the presses and the photos and the banner headlines are all good for something.   The morning newspaper is like an art project.  A slice of Americana. Nostalgia.  A link more to the past than to the current events that are so symmetrically displayed in shaded boxes and neat columns of formulaic print.

And it still does things my IPhone and Kindle and laptop can’t do:

newspaper hatFor example, we can still use it to line the parakeet cage or paint bookshelves on the garage floor.  We can use it to make paper mache Kachina dancers. We can recycle it. We can lay it down in the garden and fight off the weeds. We can make origami hats with it.  We can use it to pack up our glasses and dishes and move away. 

Newspaper publishers realize (I think) that their industry has not kept pace with the demands of consumers:  

The New York Times has had to sell part of its recently constructed headquarters, the Boston Globe is said to be worth barely 20 million dollars, the Rocky Mountain News has closed, the San Francisco Chronicle  could be next. The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, have all filed for bankruptcy protection.  

The San Diego Union-Tribune, like other newspapers all across the country, has experience massive job losses and drastic cost cutting measures.  Meanwhile, universities report high interest in their Journalism Departments and Facebook welcomes 700,000 new users every day!

The morning paper hasn’t kept up with the news.

The conventional publishing industry sorts and packages the news and charges consumers for it as if it were a rare commodity– and that is not a game that is working anymore.  Like the auto industry and the railroads before it, the newspaper publishers now run their presses on borrowed time.  They are an anachronism in the age of technology;  a sacred cow gently grazing from room to room in a house of cards.  


cow news


Filed under technology in schools



In the summer heat the cicadas sing in harmony, their collective voices rise and fall… rise and fall.  As if the Bayou breathes. And of course it does.  And they are matched in the distance by the pounding of hammers that rise and fall. Rise and fall.  Six houses in a clearing… and one small story in the resurrection of New Orleans.  DSC_0156

This past week, Anne and I lent our voices to the cicadas and our arms to the six houses. The habitats.

Habitat for Humanity is an amazing organization on so many different levels:  but especially the mission.  And the people. 

We continue to find models and metaphors for leadership in the strangest of places and this time in New Orleans we found Terry Cooney.  He was sent from New Jersey to New Orleans by the Red Cross 18 hours before Katrina came to shore.  He fought his way into a hurricane… upstream,  against the long lines of citizens fleeing their doomed city.  Then he fought against the storm itself, staying on his feet when the buildings shook.  floodThen he fought against the rising waters and pulled bodies from the canal.  Then he fought against the bureaucracy and incompetence of state and federal organizations to create food lines for people who had otherwise been abandoned. childjpegThen he fought against a police force in chaos– marauding officers that looted the Red Cross food supplies so they could stock their own hunting lodges.  Then he fought against the mounting anarchy– that moment in a crisis when good people bet the strength of their own resiliency against whatever force is trying to assure their destruction.

Then he fought against the corruption that rendered Katrina “catastrophic”.

In time the flood waters receded and the city was left in ruins.  But Terry Cooney stayed.  He could have returned to New Jersey, but he decided to do what he could to help in the long, long process of salvaging one of our nation’s most sacred treasures.  Eventually, that meant working with Habitat For Humanity and the many volunteers that come from across the country to help rebuild a community– one house at a time.  

This was our second opportunity to build for Habitat.  Last April we worked in Musician’s Village with a team of Anne’s co-workers from Intuit. After two full days of work, we managed to hang only the facia on the front and side of one house. That’s it.  But volunteers do what they can do and having never hung a facia, or worked on a roof, or swung a hammer clinging to the top level of an extension ladder– that was the contribution we could make.

This time we arrived on a site already buzzing with multiple teams of volunteers and Americorps workers and high school kids earning their way in this world by building houses and good karma.  And this time the six houses were on the other side of the river on the West Bank.  They were in a more advanced phase of construction and so our role was to hang the siding.    

DSC_0114Habitat for Humanity provides some basic tools and building materials for their volunteers.  And they provide a site foreman like Terry Cooney who has to take a very diverse group of people with different work ethics and skills and physical fitness and preparation and experience and lead them to some level of productivity.  He has had all kinds of volunteers from celebrities to church groups to not-so-motivated teenagers to company CEO’s and corporate superstars that haven’t done a day of physical labor in 20 years– if ever.  

Somehow, even with all the disparate daily tasks and oddball day laborers, Terry Cooney gets his houses built.  And they are strong enough to withstand hurricanes. 


Fortunately for  the mission of Habitat for Humanity and all their volunteers– fortunately for the City of New Orleans– Terry Cooney possesses a few skills that prepare him for the job.  And not just construction skills. Those of us who study organizations and group dynamics noticed his style of leadership.  

Here is the Terry Cooney Way:

• Keep the mission crystal clear for every volunteer; 

• Make sure that every volunteer has a healthy regard for site safety;

• Quickly assess the volunteers to determine if there are any experienced builders and who has skills with power tools and who hates climbing up ladders– then turn them lose on whatever stage of the project they can do;

• Provide enough basic instruction to get groups started on their projects for the day;

• Encourage and support every effort– but don’t do their work for them;  

• Never ask people to do anything that would compromise their safety or the safety of others;

• Never ask anything of your volunteers that you wouldn’t do yourself;

• When it is steaming hot outside and the morning hours drag on, tell ’em about “the giraffe that walks into the bar”;

• Demonstrate a genuine appreciation for every individual’s contribution, no matter how large or small; 

• Honor their service.

DSC_0127On Tuesday morning one of the high school groups was packing up to leave.  They were exhausted.  They gathered for their  group meeting along side the circular saw and waited for Terry to release them.  Then a sudden piercing hum rose well above the cicadas and construction sounds.  And around the corner came their leader, with bagpipes wailing the Marine Corps Hymn.  All other sound and activity momentarily ceased.  

And when he played the last note, Terry  rested his bagpipes under his arm and gave the workers a send-off speech fit for William Wallace:

DSC_0132“You should be proud of your work here,” he told them.  “I know your parents would be very proud of you too.  On behalf of the Habitat for Humanity organization and the people of New Orleans, I want to thank you for your service. You made a difference here.  I want to play another song that is dedicated to each and every one of you.”

And then he played “Amazing Grace” in tribute to a group of kids that would have likely found lots of better things to do this summer than swinging hammers in 98% temperatures and 90% humidity!  

I think when a city floods a lot of stuff gets shifted around and some gets left behind and some gets washed away altogether.  Sometimes the waters bring reconciliation and sometimes they bring the likes of Terry Cooney.

There is healing in this stifling heat. Each nail, each river of sweat, each silent tear shed for one man’s Amazing Grace, each hammer swing– a labor of love.  

In that instant of stillness after the bagpipe drones go silent, we hear the eerie cicada rhythm resume again.  Back at work… they serenade the habitats.  It is as if,  like Terry Cooney, their song is never done.


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Filed under resiliency, teaching