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“When you come to a fork in the road… take it.” — Yogi Berra

images-1We stand at a crossroads and I realize I’ve been here before.

If we continue to do what we are doing– to walk a curricular path that is confined to reading and math and mastering only one language — we will not die.  But many of our children will.  Just as they have during this past decade when school reform meant preparing students for standardized tests that ignore the many natural and innate ways in which kids are actually intelligent.

Or we can go back to the old road– the one we all walked through the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s when we were just kids ourselves;  where inequalities were enshrined in law and in our cultural DNA.  Remember that road?  The public school system convulsed from one legal mandate to the next trying to reflect the very Constitution we taught in social studies every day:  Brown v Bd of Education, PL94-142, Title IX, Lau v Nichols, and on. And on… until we got it (sort of) right.  In that era, there were no standards.  No expectations.  No accountability.  And little growth. Children of privilege did as well as they wanted. Children of color… not so much.  And the achievement chasm split the socioeconomic continuum like a great Grand Canyon.  There were haves.  And not.

And now there is a pathway toward the Common Core.  This is where the handwringing begins.Unknown

This is when educators fear a loss of control– as if they forgot their place in the political machinery of public education.  (Don’t you know? Public tax dollars pay for schools and salaries.  Those dollars are allocated by elected officials.  Those elected officials represent voters who demand certain actions in exchange for their votes.  Things like… schools where all children are learning what the community wants their children to learn.)

This is when the loudest voices are often from those who haven’t even read the standards, but envision a set of mind-numbing factoids that every kid will be required to swallow.  They hype their own fear.  The nationalization of learning.  The standardization of our kids.  (Wasn’t there a song about that from Pink Floyd or somebody?)

This is when educators begin to doubt their capacity to behave as they would have their students behave.

After a decade of complaints about the road we were currently on– the so-called reform road– we are beginning anew.  We are on the cusp of another full-scale transformation from basic skills and test prep academies to 21st century skills.

Never in the long (constantly changing) history of public education has there ever been a more promising opportunity to insure that every student has the skills and knowledge and values to compete and contribute in their world:  the ability to think creatively and critically, to seek relevance in daily school tasks, to readily apply new learnings to authentic problems, to communicate effectively in multiple ways and contexts and audiences.

Entrepreneurialism. Innovation. Civic Literacy. Activism. Voice.



At the crossroads, there is angst in the air.  There always is.

But when you come to that fork in the road…

*     *     *

• More from Kevin W. Riley at the official website of The Milagro Publications

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TRADING MACS FOR GLOCKS: A Twisted Vision and the New Frontier

gunsWe’re trading in our Macs. We don’t need them anymore.

Trading our laptops too. We have thwarted the nascent rise of iPads. Now. Before they become too familiar.

I mean, what good is digital literacy if some sinister shadow drops in out of the sky to shoot up the school. And we all know it happens. We all feel that sense of dread lingering, remotely familiar, like the acrid cloud of cafeteria food prepped daily for a thousand kids. We all read the headlines:

L.A. School District Buys 14 Semi-Automatic Rifles To Protect Students

Southern California Schools Get High-Powered Rifles

GOP Lawmaker Wants High Schools To Teach Kids To Shoot

Mother Writes $12,000 Check For Armed Guard At Daughter’s Elementary School

5-Year-Old Suspended For Pink Bubble Gun Threat

Duncan: You Can’t Teach Kids Scared Of Being Killed

The School Where Nearly Every Student Has Experienced Gun Violence

18 States Already Allow Guns In Schools With Few Restrictions

Utah Teacher Wants To Carry Gun Without Telling Parents, Students

Minnesota Teacher Brings Loaded Gun To School For Fear Of Newtown Shooting

Our fences cannot rise any higher and still stand against the wind. We have rows of metal detectors. Our children remove their shoes for inspection as if they were boarding an airplane. They know the drill. We scope their pockets and their backpacks. We x-ray their intent. They are each sworn daily to refrain from brandishing arms. At least in any menacing way. It is our new and collective oath of allegiance to protect one another from mutual annihilation.

We are America’s most innovative school. We are widely renown as the first in any line of early adopters. First to be wired. First to go viral. First to poke holes in the internet firewall. We used to camp out for iPhones but we can’t afford dual priorities: upgrade learning technology or arm to the teeth?

So we invest in the latter. Once secure in our conviction that Macs were superior to IBM’s, we now know what we know: Apple expenditures are so pre-Newtown.


So we have glocked up. Every kid. Every teacher.

We ripped out the fitness stations that lined our running track and installed target shooting pods. They are creative. Colorful. They lend themselves to seamless integration of the so-called 21’st Century Skills– to which we have now unilaterally added: “Mastery of Firepower.”

Our students may be prone to childhood obesity and Type II diabetes, but they can freakin’ shoot. And besides, are you going to be the one to tell them they are fat?

Our “Gun Free Zone” is the registration counter, where in exchange for enrolling here you get your guns for free. (Ammunition clips are provided at no cost– however, any modifications are subject to the discretion of individual families.) Frankly, I worry about that policy. In the name of equity, is it fair that some families can afford state-of-the-art ammo packs while others can not? Are we perpetuating another national divide of “haves” and “have more pop”?

teacherOf course, without trained teachers, what good is an entire student body strapped to their sidearms?

So on minimum days we target and crouch and shoot and load and afterwards debrief. There’s a lot of peer coaching. A lot of self reflection and goal setting. We feel morally obligated to out-shoot the kids.  And so we do.

As of late, we are frequently invited to present break-out sessions at state and national conferences: “Shooting Straight:  How Schools Can Target the Real Common Core Priorities.” And: “The New Literacy Standards: How Guns at School Somehow Sharpen Everyone’s Listening and Speaking Skills.”

We’ve done keynotes. Workshops. Webinars. TED-talks. Book signings.

This year we intend to run a booth when ASCD merges with the NRA at the the national gun show in Las Vegas.

And while our academic metrics have virtually imploded, our kids and our staff generally feel good about themselves. We feel like pioneers of the old west. Revolutionaries. And we feel safer in the bargain. Sort of.

Now that we have a baseline established, we can afford to debate whether glocks are enough. We are nothing if not professionally diligent. We are an ever-visionary and forward thinking lot:

“What if Sunnyside arms their kids with higher caliber weapons?”

“How do we keep up with the inevitable modifications and weaponry upgrades– say…Glocks 2.0.?”

“If we hire a sniper coach, where should we place him or her on the salary scale? And would she have to be credentialed?”

“What happens when we discover that we’ve been  left behind in the arms race?”

Taken together the questions are chilling. Where’s the leadership?

So I sidle into my office and remove my firearms as I sit at my desk to Google updates on best practices. I reach for my laptop when I am reminded– that we traded our technology for glocks.  It’s gone.


More  from Kevin W. Riley…

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The Human Rights Campaign has been profoundly influential in encouraging public schools to develop policies that protect students from any forms of discrimination or bullying– especially LGBT students.  San Diego Unified School District, for example, has developed a model, Board-adopted, anti-discrimination policy that assures children a safe learning environment, regardless of their “actual or perceived” sex, gender, or ethnic group identification.

Adopting policies that prohibit discrimination in our schools is essential for children and staff.  But the real work is in creating safe, inclusive, loving environments that are often the one safe haven in a community.  Like El Milagro.

In “Fighting for Ms. Rios,” Aiden introduces us to Matty in the Fourth Journal: Virtuosos.

Matty was an athlete. Matty was a fierce competitor. Matty played little league. Matty played kickball. Matty wore a Baltimore Ravens football jersey. Number fifty-two. Matty always had a short-cropped haircut and was tall and thin. Matty pounded Augie behind the backstop for trying to cut to the front of the kickball line. Matty cussed and spit and told crude jokes and talked with a full mouth.

For Halloween Matty dressed up as a professional baseball player. A catcher with eye black and all the gear and the shin guards and a cup. (Madeline’s Costume)

Aiden has been playing with Matty since the beginning of the school year, but it is not until the Halloween Carnival– when the kids take a bathroom break and go into separate facilities– that he discovers she is really a girl.  The other kids knew all along.  Perhaps they have known her since kindergarten.  Perhaps they paid attention when their teachers lined up the boys and the girls separately.  Perhaps in elementary school  it just doesn’t start to matter yet.

“Matty is a girl, you dumbass!” said Charlie Flowers. He stopped adjusting the crimson pirate bandana that bordered his crimson head. He paused and looked at me to see if I was serious. “She’s supposed to go into the girls’ restroom.”

Matty is a character based on several students we have served at Mueller Charter School.  Even in pre-adolescent years, some children identify more with children of the opposite gender– and at that age– it is often difficult to tell them apart.  Matty dressed like a boy, wore her hair like a boy, talked like a boy and behaved like a boy.  Enough to confuse Aiden, who seems to blush a little, shrug his shoulders, and move on:  “In any case, it just didn’t seem to matter much at the Halloween Carnival where, at least for one night, we were all hiding behind one disguise or another.”

We have seen children so insistent on behaving like a child of the opposite gender that they refuse to use the school restrooms.  So we just make quiet arrangements for them to use the nurse’s restroom whenever they need to.

Aiden comments on the sensitivity and compassion of the teachers at El Milagro and we can easily imagine that the staff there has adopted policies similar to those inspired by the Human Rights Campaign.  It is as if he knows, even at the age of ten, that  policies don’t change attitudes and that what really matters is how children are actually treated every day.

As we walked around the carnival, I watched all of the adults interact with Matty like she was any other kid. They all knew. Her former kindergarten teacher even called her by her real name: Madeline. “You look like a pro tonight, Madeline! You look stunning!” Matty smiled.

I had a new respect for Matty and for my school. I felt proud of who we were at El Milagro—a place where kids could be who they needed to be for however long it takes to work it all out.


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MORE STORIES from “Fighting For Ms. Rios:

BookCoverImageIn December, Fighting For Ms. Rios was released in both paperback and Kindle formats.  It is a fictional collection of journals written by a gifted fourth grade student named Aiden, about his school, his friends, and his inspiring first-year teacher– Ms. Rios.  I have resurrected my blog to break down some of Aiden’s many stories and themes… all observations about our schools from a child’s point of view.

Christmas lives.  In spite of the best efforts of the ACLU or whoever else is as busy as one of Santa’s disgruntled little elves trying to dismantle Christmas and remove it from all mention in public schools– it is still mentioned. Frequently. And celebrated.

Aiden is in awe at his teacher’s gift for telling stories, especially when it comes to weaving in cultural traditions. In “Storyteller” he writes:

“In December she told stories about Christmas and Kwanza and Hanukkah and didn’t make it sound like she was just trying to provide equal time to be politically correct.”

That’s the thing with Christmas.  We aren’t supposed to talk about it in our schools because we don’t want tax payer dollars expended to propagandize any one faith. No Christmas carols, Christmas trees, Christmas Santa Clause scenes, or Christmas Tannebaum art projects.  It’s one of those holidays that we are supposed to whisper about as an odd tribute to all the people that don’t actually celebrate Christmas.  As if children aren’t aware of the imminent arrival of their favorite day of the year.

But for Ms. Rios, even the arrival of Christmas presents itself as a teachable moment: there is more to December than  racing to the shopping malls to contribute to stimulate the economy.

“The whole world worships God,” she said at the end of the last story of the Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa season. “Each to his or her own. This is all of humankind’s most spiritual time of year—maybe because it’s so close to the beginning of the new year. Maybe because it’s symbolic of our deep, deep desire to live in peace. Maybe because it represents the origins of our collective religions or the source of our individual faith. But it is universally a time for family. And food. And prayer. And light. And forgiveness.”

Aiden’s own references to Christmas are sprinkled throughout his journals- not as prayers– but as vivid metaphors:

It reminded me of Christmas and how time seems to move so slowly in anticipation of the big day, but then when the day actually gets here, it seems to speed past in a blur. (From– Beware of Bilbo)

 Just before Mrs. Holstrum interrupted her conversation with two other teachers, I heard Ms. Rios talking about her class and her students and “light bulbs that go on and off like Christmas trees.” (From– Minimum Days)

• Every child’s eyes were as big as Christmas morning. I looked around and thought, “My goodness…this is gonna be an interesting year.” And I was right. (From– Labradors)

• One day Ms. Rios said that “being a teacher is like coming out to the living room on Christmas morning and having thirty-two gifts to unwrap.” (From– Storyteller)

There is much to unwrap in Fighting for Ms. Rios.  Aiden is unconstrained by political posturing.  For him, Christmas lives.


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Steve Jobs died today and I have been reading the tributes and eulogies pouring in from the very devices that he created.  I realized something as I read about him.  He lived.  He envisioned a future in which the form and function of technology could be so de-mystified that anyone could access mankind’s most promising tools.  Steven Jobs created computers that fit in our back pockets and phones that can tell us our location or divine the stock market dive or provide real-time weather updates in Jakarta or Jersey City.

The most compelling tribute came in his own words– his speech to the graduates of Stanford University in 20o5:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. … Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

He lived 6 more years and saw the evolution of the IPad and smarter smart phones and lots of other stuff.

Maybe in our schools we should quit debating the wisdom of using the tools and toys that Steven Jobs created and just appreciate how influential they are in ours students’ lives.  It is how they learn.  It is how they communicate.  And in fact, if it were not for Apple’s visionary instinct to link technology to public education way back in the early 1980’s, we would not have been nearly as successful in bridging the academic chasm that separates students along socio-economic lines.

History books will soon place Steve Jobs along side of the world’s greatest inventors:  Edison and Franklin and Ford and Da Vinci.  His genius made our jobs as educators easier- yet, somehow,  more urgent.

“Stay hungry,” he said.  “Stay foolish.” Then he left as if our next great genius is sitting in a classroom somewhere in America.  And of course she is.

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Now I am conflicted.

Usually when some CEO from a dysfunctional industry shares his or her insights on how I can better do my job as an educator, it is easy to dismiss.  Is serving in Congress really all the experience you need to become an authority on educating children?  Or is running a computer start-up sufficient enough to make one an expert in the nuances of pedagogy?  Or is joining the Rotary Club?  Or having your own kids?  Or coaching a little league team?  Or managing a fast food outlet? Is not being an educator  really all it takes to know what ails the public education system?  Really?

I think educating another human being is far more complex a process than dentistry… but when it comes to root canals I’m more than willing to defer to my dentist, Dr. Disraeli.  I have a healthy regard for his expertise.

And yet, for whatever reason, EVERYBODY is an expert on what is wrong with our schools and what we should do to fix them. So I really was conflicted on Sunday morning when I read an editorial by James Comstock, a retired Army Major General who is the latest non-expert expert to weigh in on how screwed up our schools are.  His is a little different take.  He wrote:

“A report by the nonprofit Mission: Readiness estimates that 75% of young Americans are not able to join the military and one of the leading reasons is a failure in our education system.”

The Major General cites the current high school drop out rates, the high percentage of physically unfit kids, and the incidence of juvenile crime as deal breakers for individuals who might otherwise want to join the all-volunteer armed forces.  And they are.  These are the trends that every community must address through a combined effort of public policy, law enforcement, health care, social services, fitness, recreation and business. And yes, education services—from Pre-K to the university.

But not having enough enlisted recruits to slake the military’s thirst for perpetual war is not what keeps me awake at night.

It’s not that I’m unpatriotic or that I don’t appreciate the military service of my father and my two older brothers and the millions of other American veterans.  I am.  That’s why I am conflicted.  I want our students to be academically qualified for West Point (or USC)– not necessarily to enlist in the army.  So I did some research about who really does join the armed forces.  I was pleasantly surprised.  I learned that:

• Members of the all-volunteer military are significantly more likely to come from high-income neighborhoods than from low-income neighborhoods.

• Only 11 percent of enlisted recruits in 2007 came from the poorest one-fifth (quintile) of neighborhoods, while 25 per­cent came from the wealthiest quintile.

• American soldiers are more educated than their peers. A little more than 1 percent of enlisted personnel lack a high school degree, compared to 21 percent of men 18–24 years old, and 95 percent of officer accessions have at least a bachelor’s degree.

• Contrary to conventional wisdom, minorities are not overrepresented in military service. • Enlisted troops are somewhat more likely to be white or black than their non-military peers.

• Whites are proportionately represented in the officer corps, and blacks are overrepresented, but their rate of overrepresentation has declined each year from 2004 to 2007.

Evidently the military is actually meeting its recruiting quotas with quality folks who are drawn—no doubt—from the public school system.  We must be doing something right if it is our alumni who are fighting the general’s war. If you ask me the purpose of public education is in the United States today— or what legacy I might one day leave behind in my leadership of public schools— I honestly would not list feeding the military pipeline as one of my accomplishments. I am not striving to close the achievement gap as a patriotic gesture.

“America’s military strength depends on its young people,” says the Major General.    “Encouraging physical fitness in schools and providing children with the quality education they deserve will help insure our national security for years to come.”

It turns out Major General Comstock isn’t the only high-ranking officer who wants schools to do better in the interest of maintaining our military supremecy.  Former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Generals Shalikashvili and Shelton stated that “investing in our children through early education is a plain common sense issue critical to our National Security.”


But I’d like to believe– however naïve it may sound– that the more advanced and effective our educational system becomes, the more equitable the opportunities we provide for our students, the more just our society, the more civil and fair and moral our nation… the less we would have need for a military at all.

I still sit in awe of the extraordinary courage displayed by Patrick Tillman when he abandoned a multi-million dollar NFL contract to join the Major General’s army for a soldier’s salary. Brilliant.  Beautiful.  Athletic.  Young.  Patriotic.  The very, very best of America’s youth.  Killed by friendly fire and then buried in bureaucratic lies.

I wonder what would the army would do if our public schools produced more children of the quality of Patrick Tillman.  Until that is resolved, maybe we strive to prepare children to change the world in their own way, to be all they can be, and manage our own conflicting feelings about patriotism, and the “failures of the public school system”, and the supposed dearth of soldiers qualified to execute a war.

Simultaneously posted on Leadertalk

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I was asked by Scott McCloud to be a guest blogger on his site called “Dangerously Irrelevant”.  He invited several veteran administrator/bloggers to respond to this question:

“What do administrators expect of their teachers?”

You can find my post at Dangerously Irrelevant.  Or just read it here!

When Scott first invited me to contribute a post in response to “What Does Every Administrator Need from Teachers” I immediately thought about the “Seven Gifts of El Milagro” that I wrote about a few years ago. At Mueller Charter School (aka. “El Milagro”) there just seem to be some common attributes shared by our most effective teachers. In the long grind of the school year and the relentless escalation of demands imposed by No Child Left Behind, I have come to expect these seven attributes from all of our teachers: commitment, talent, innovation, collaboration, intrinsic motivation, resiliency, and compassion.

The first of the Seven Gifts is the Gift of Commitment; an ability and willingness to focus like a red laser on the battle at hand. A belief in the cause. We look for warriors, and not just in the poetic sense of the term. True warriors are relentless in their pursuit of the mission. Even in the face of personal loss and harm, they give of themselves. No excuses. No compromise.


While it would be nice to place a classic and complete teacher in every classroom, we have to settle for talented and inspiring and academically curious idealists. Our teachers have to have a strong, foundation in literacy and mathematical reasoning. They have to have that content knowledge.

But math and language arts content is not enough. Nor is science, social studies, physical education, and the visual and performing arts content. In between, who will make Yo-Yo Ma as real as Beyoncé? Who will inspire children to take a second microscopic look at a cricket’s wing and marvel at the intricate similarities that exist among living things? Who will explain how the same people who gave us Babylon, now give us Hamas? Who will teach children to sing with whatever voice God gave them…if not their teacher?

At El Milagro, our teachers must first be talented human beings if they are going to be talented teachers. And talent is formed from each individual’s unique amalgam of interest and curiosity, their personalities, their life experiences, their natural gifts. And, of course, their ability to translate their excitement and love for learning to others.

The grand metaphors of life do not escape the creative observer. Life, in and of itself, may very well be the metaphor. In the meantime, however, there are those whose minds can bend and accept ambiguity and change and chaos and the long rough ride. There is a flexibility in their mental constructs. They solve problems with a sense of humor. They are confident in their own efficacy.

We used to say that we were looking for people who were capable of “thinking outside the box” until thinking outside the box became its own confining metaphor. So now we are just looking for gifted innovators…people with imaginations, playful spirits, and an ability to create El Milagro from Mueller Charter School. We are looking for Picasso or George Lucas. We are looking for Andy Warhol to find something useful to do with a can of soup besides open it with a rusted kitchen tool. We are looking for Christo to drape Central Park in orange banners and photograph the tourists as they run through them—catching and consuming them as if they were snowflakes melting in their mouths for the first time.

We are not the passengers. We are the crew. We row together or die in irons. There is no option for reclusive entrepreneurs concocting innovations in the broom closet. We share. We talk. We brainstorm and ask lots of questions that begin with “What if…” Our teachers communicate about their students’ progress on a regular basis. They collaborate with anyone who wants to play. And they all want to play.

We are looking for teachers who have the rare ability to find inspiration in their own magic; teachers who are driven only by a compulsion to serve. Indeed, if people are intrinsically driven to achieve greatness on behalf of others, and to be a part of a passionate force of change, there is simply no more powerful source of motivation. If we are truly committed to the success of every child…then nothing can motivate us but their success! Nothing. Not money, not fear of sanctions, nor a manager’s praise.

Our teachers have to be resilient. That’s why we seek warriors who will not take “No” for an answer. Our teachers will not be denied. They fall and they rise up. They fall and they rise up. Their resilience is as much a part of El Milagro as anything else we do. We can’t promise much. But we can promise you will stumble and swear and agonize over the challenges: the mobility, the poverty, the ambiguity. The never-ending meetings and demands when you are sick and tired and buried and when you just want to hide out in your classroom and catch your breath.

And just when you arrive at your breaking point, in that moment when you discover that you cannot succeed at El Milagro unless you are resilient…you rise yet again. Bouncing back. Modeling persistence. While children all around you notice that the mysterious strength that they are drawing from their teacher somehow carries them—and they discover in themselves the strength to overcome anything.

In “A Love Poem for My Students”, Ms. Michel, one of my first grade teachers wrote of her compassion for her students.  In part, it says:

I live to learn how to teach
my young people how to reach
the stars.

By far—
they are the most blessed gift given to me.

Ms. Michel has many gifts as a teacher. But the ones that her students derive the most benefit from are her commitment… talent… innovation… collaboration… intrinsic motivation… resiliency… and compassion. The Seven Gifts.

She reminds me of the verse I once read from Exodus: “You are blessed. You are a blessing to others. You are a blessing to the world.” I suppose, in the end, that that is what I ask of teachers every day: to bring the seven gifts and be a blessing to the world.

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