The Teaching Lineage

If there’s anything I learned this summer, it’s that teaching is really, really hard. Maybe you didn’t believe your teachers when they told you they had chosen a difficult, time-consuming, and exhausting career with low pay and only occasional recognition. Maybe you thought they were pulling your leg. Having lived the teaching life for ten weeks, I can tell you for certain that they were telling the truth. Teaching is really difficult.

In Finland, the teaching profession is held in such high regard that all teachers are required to earn a master’s degree and only one out of every ten applicants successfully lands a job as a teacher. In South Korea, they call teachers “nation-builders.” In Mississippi, you’re lucky to even have a math teacher. Yes, some of my students went all of last year without a math teacher. In this teacher-starved region, when a math teacher calls it quits in September, it can mean that his or her class will go without a qualified replacement for the entire school year.

The student on the left went all of last year without a real math teacher, resulting in her first and only B+ (in math).
The student on the left went all of last year without a real math teacher, resulting in her first and only B+ (in math).

Needless to say, I have emerged from this summer with a renewed sense of gratitude for all the teachers I’ve had in my life. Teachers never hear this enough and I can never say this enough, but for all my teachers I have one simple message: thank you. You’ve taught me the fundamental skills I use every day. You’ve fostered a love of learning that adds meaning to my life. You’ve shaped and molded my development as a student and as a person. You’ve guided me through moments of personal upheaval and mentored me on the path to achieving my dreams. You’ve had faith in me when I needed it most.

As I took charge of my own classroom this summer, I started to notice something strange. I had thought, perhaps naively, that being a teacher would mean being my own man. But with each passing day, I realized that my teaching was less genesis and more synthesis, less original thinking and more returning to the ways my teachers had taught me. In other words, when it came to teaching, I was “standing upon the shoulders of giants.” In this post, I would like to share what my teachers have done well and how I tried to incorporate what they taught me into my own classroom this summer.

Elementary School

  • Miss Robertson – thank you for teaching me how to read and for sparking the love of reading I strove to share with my students.
  • Mrs. Mills – thank you for making me run my first mile and for personifying the ideal coach and fitness champion (we ran the mile with our students every Monday).
Mile Monday was one of my favorite days of the week.
Mile Monday was one of my favorite days of the week.
  • Mrs. Brittingham – thank you for designing projects that gave enough leeway for students to experience the joy of discovery and exploration.
  • Mrs. Schmid – thank you for showing that a strict, demanding teacher could be a caring and personally invested one too.
  • Mrs. Ballinger – thank you for focusing so intently on building up vocabulary (this summer, I’ve seen just how important it is).
  • Ms. Faries – thank you for demonstrating the importance of assigning challenging projects and seeing students rise to meet those individualized challenges.

Middle School

  • Ms. Mitchell – thank you for setting incredibly high expectations and logging hours before and after school to make students succeed.
  • Mr. Raymond – thank you for communicating with parents and relatives, setting a clear agenda and following through with it, and leading by example in everything you do.
  • Mme. Maltby – thank you for showing that games can connect with students in ways that day-to-day instruction cannot (a debate game just about saved my class when my students were really bored).
  • Ms. Kenzer – thank you for sharing your contagious sense of civic responsibility with your civics classes and for introducing me to a favorite quote.
I remember passing by Ms. Kenzer's door in the 7th grade hallway and internalizing this message
I was eager to share the quote that once adorned Ms. Kenzer’s classroom door on my own classroom door.
  • Ms. Beith – thank you for introducing me to the world of figurative language, a world I sought to explore with my students.
  • Mr. Lotze – thank you for the time you pulled me aside and urged me to “never do a job half-assed” (I tried to strike a similar tone when confronting students over bad habits this summer).
  • Mrs. Starr – thank you for stressing the importance of revising and for introducing me to the James Michener quote on rewriting I found myself repeating to my students as they were finalizing their debate cases.
  • Mr. Snow – thank you for livening up your PowerPoints with the occasional pop culture reference or image out of left-field just to keep everyone engaged.
Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 1.50.53 PM
I tried to spice up my PowerPoints with the occasional surprise, too.
  • Ms. Crown-Hodges – thank you for all the enthusiasm you have for public speaking and for introducing me to the practice of saying tongue twisters before speaking (my students LOVED this).
  • Mrs. McKeon – thank you for exemplifying duty, even when you just weren’t feeling it (if I managed to summon up an ounce of your sense of duty this summer, I succeeded).
  • Mrs. Smith – thank you for your willingness to learn something new and coach it when your students needed it most.
  • Mrs. Joyce – thank you for setting up video chats with interesting people to really make the subject matter come alive.
Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 10.34.32 AM
Our students got to ask Duke Univesity’s Dean Baker their questions about college, financial aid, admissions, and writing. They really connected with him and loved the class we spent with him virtually.

High School

  • Mr. Wilkes – thank you for walking the room, employing dramatic vocal dynamics to keep things interesting, and not being afraid to wake up dozing students (I may or may not have startled a few sleeping kids this summer).
  • Mr. Ulmschneider – thank you for all those rounds of edits over Google Docs (that’s how the students wrote their cases this summer – a great platform for providing feedback and revising).
  • Mr. Brown – thank you for making all my high school debate experiences happen (I would have been a much less effective teacher this summer without Maggie Walker Debate).
The Freedom Project Debate brought back lots of high school memories (photo credit: Chinmay Pandit)
The Freedom Project Debate brought back lots of high school memories (photo credit: Chinmay Pandit)
  • Ms. Parker – thank you for reinforcing the importance of reflection, the reason for this blog.
  • Sr. Jenkins – thank you for showing that a hardass teaching persona can achieve real results.
  • Dr. Spencer – thank you for challenging me to develop my moral sense in a more intentional way (and for making me think about “human potential” in place of “human capital”).
  • Mr. Waller – thank you for encouraging me to give teaching a try. I’m so glad I did.
  • Mrs. Boswell – thank you for teaching logical fallacies (words I’m sure you never thought you’d hear a student say).
Teaching logical fallacies was one of my favorite lessons.
One of my favorite PowerPoint slides from the logical fallacies lesson.
  • Mr. McGuire – thank you for selecting relevant, entertaining videos and responding quickly to emails.
  • Mr. Smith – thank you for beginning each day with a firm handshake at the door (this was an important part of our classroom culture this summer).
  • Ms. Reed – thank you for passing along stellar handouts on media bias that my students actually used (they pulled them out in the debate rounds to challenge their opponents’ sources!).
  • Ms. Burr – thank you for all the planning time you spent picking significant documents and formatting them elegantly (I hope my handouts came close to yours!).
  • Mrs. Germer – thank you for running a student-centered classroom, full of joyful learning, every single day.
  • Mrs. Williams – thank you for your advice at the beginning of this summer: bring out student voices and incorporate Fannie Lou Hamer into the classroom.
  • Mr. Drummond – thank you for your minute-to-minute planning that fostered a sense of urgency, allowing us to make the most out of class time together.
  • Mrs. Taylor – thank you for being a master of the pre-performance pep talk.
  • Mme. Brown and Mr. Sorrentino – thank you for showing that stern teachers can gradually loosen up without losing the focused classroom atmosphere their hard-driving presence initially fosters.


  • Dean Baker – thank you for video conferencing with us and getting our 8th graders (a) inspired to go to college and (b) more prepared to meet the challenges they’ll face along the way.
  • Dr. Eric Mlyn – thank you for getting me to think more deeply about the purposes of higher education and for sparking meaningful discussions on the problems and promise of civic engagement and service work.
At Sunflower, service means creating spaces for students to learn and grow, all the while drawing inspiration from the language and leadership of the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Professor Tony Brown – thank you for recommending TFA founder Wendy Kopp’s memoir, excellent reading before this summer.
  • Drs. Riggsbee and Malone – thank you for sitting down with me before this summer to share teaching strategies (they sure helped).
  • Dr. Feaver – thank you for showing the importance of breaking bread with students outside the classroom and for allowing me to ask guest speakers about their favorite speeches (which our students loved this summer).
  • Dr. Balcells – thank you for asking the kind of killer CFUs I tried to emulate this summer.

Freedom Project

  • Vaish – thank you for fostering an outstanding work environment where I felt valued and motivated every day as a member of a great team.
  • Kate – thank you for sharing, day by day, exactly what the LEAD principles look like and what the Freedom Project is all about.
The LEAD Principles serve as a cohesive philosophy permeating every inch of the Freedom Project.
  • Sabrina – thank you for always having one ear to the wall when I was teaching and always being ready to lend a helping hand.
  • Andrew – thank you for spot-on feedback, especially in the first week when I needed it most.
  • Andy – thank you for challenging me to keep thinking about the big picture, the big issues in Mississippi and the entire country.

Life Teachers

  • Lauren Gilbert – thank you for showing how consequential (and fun) a long-term mentor relationship can be.
  • Marc Johnson – thank you for always asking about “takeaways” (my students now know they’re the first thing I ask them to share after a reading).
  • Bob Gibson – thank you for showing how successful training of the mind and voice in debate translates into success in the world.
  • Delegate Farrell – thank you for showing that dedicated public service can coexist with a hearty laugh and broad smile.
  • Charles Staples – thank you for showing that a little well-timed profanity every once and a while can really go a long way.
  • Susan and James Edwards – thank you for all the faith you’ve had in me this summer and for sharing your teaching experiences over the years.
  • Griffin Unger – thank you for providing loads of individualized advice before I started this summer.
  • Mehul Mehta, Jacob Rosenberg, and Joanna Kuang – thank you for conversations over the past year-and-a-half (yes, starting at Finalist Weekend 2014) that persuaded me to aim for the Freedom Project this summer.
  • Vicki Stocking – thank you for excellent intuition in my Community Summer placement, responding to late-night texts, and never failing to understand me.
  • Tom Allin – thank you for being such a great booster of your home state (I’m so glad I’ve become acquainted with Mississippi).
  • Logan Ferrell – thank you for being such a great debate teacher and role model in high school (I found myself channeling those early mornings at the whiteboard this summer).
  • Mr. Rogers – thank you for recognizing that all the world’s a stage, and all the teachers merely players (also for letting me work on my teaching chops in your classroom this past year).
  • Mom and Dad – thank you for being my first teachers and for sharing your love of learning with me from my first days.

With the kids


Profiles in Teaching


From left: Chinmay, Rachel, Maya, Chandler, Mary Alice, Jenny Kate, Matthew, Buka

Two weeks have passed since I left the Delta, and I can’t stop thinking about the incredible people I met there. In previous blog posts, you’ve encountered stories of our students, but you’ve never been told much about their teachers. Now that I find myself missing these coworkers-turned-friends, allow me to share something new: profiles in teaching. Meet the 2015 teachers of the Sunflower County Freedom Project.

Buka Okoye

Hometown: Clinton, MS
College: University of Mississippi
Taught: 8th grade reading
Why I like him: Buka doesn’t shy away from discussing the big issues. He cares deeply about the State of Mississippi and the state of Mississippi. I loved to hear his hearty laugh and to witness the level of the sportsmanship he put into every lunchtime basketball game.
My favorite thing he said this summer: “Personality isn’t crucial.”
In 25 years, I can see him as: an outspoken, vote-whipping leader of the Senate of Mississippi.
Thank you for: the wide-ranging late-night conversations I will always remember.

Chandler Phillips

Hometown: Lawrenceville, GA
College: Duke University
Taught: 7th and 9th grade rhetoric
Why I like her: Chandler’s emotional IQ is off the charts. She built heartfelt relationships with students this summer, investing enough time with them to really get to know them as people. More than this, she has deep faith: in God and in people. She never gave up on a single student this summer, and fought hard for each of them to enjoy opportunities through the Freedom Project.
My favorite thing she said this summer: “The things that are happening here are happening everywhere.”
In 25 years, I can see her as: a nationally recognized poet, activist, and civil rights leader.
Thank you for: adding a new name to my list of heroes (Ella Baker).

Chinmay Pandit

Hometown: Fort Collins, Colorado
College: Duke University
Taught: 7th grade math
Why I like him: Chinmay is creative. He would write these incredible word problems (“Mr. Pandit LOVES chicken wings…”) that resonated with students’ actual experiences and connected with content from the reading and rhetoric classes. He made math fun, a feat many (myself included) could never hope to accomplish.
My favorite thing he said this summer: “Happy Birthday, Matt!” (at precisely 12:00am on my birthday)
In 25 years, I can see him as: a wildly successful venture capitalist and philanthropist.
Thank you for: bringing out my silly side as a teacher, roommate, and friend.

Jenny Kate Smith
Jenny Kate

Hometown: Tupelo, MS
College: University of Mississippi
Taught: 9th grade math
Why I like her: Jenny Kate is genuine. I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve met who are as kind or considerate as she is. Jenny Kate had this way of connecting with some of the quietest students and making them feel valued and loved. On top of all this, she’s smart as can be and knows how to manage her classroom with ease and a smile.
My favorite thing she said this summer: “They’re showing classic middle school mean girl behavior.”
In 25 years, I can see her as: the beloved elementary school teacher who makes even the most difficult students’ hearts melt.
Thank you for: giving the best hugs at all the right times.

Mary Alice Koon

Mary Alice
Hometown: Cleveland, OH
College: Pomona College
Taught: 8th grade math
Why I like her: Mary Alice is understanding. Maybe it’s the camp counselor in her, maybe it’s just in her nature, but she is practiced in the challenging task of putting herself in someone else’s shoes. She never accepts behavior at face value. Instead, she tries to figure out the root cause.
My favorite thing she said this summer: “I take away a lot of hope from the Freedom Project, because here I see kids working really hard… I love the spark in their eyes when they get something for the first time or when they raise their hand because they know the answer.”
In 25 years, I can see her as: editor of The Oxford American.
Thank you for: always being up for another adventure.

Maya Durvasula

Hometown: Albuquerque, NM
College: Duke University
Taught: 7th grade reading
Why I like her: Maya is driven. In her second week of teaching, Maya instituted daily quizzes, demanding that her 7th graders would complete what many college students neglect: the reading. Students who failed the quizzes had to serve a “Reading Lunch,” where they would complete 50 minutes of silent reading instead of playing outside with their friends. Maya also showed her drive in her own reading habits, devouring books and articles about the Delta long before we arrived there.
My favorite thing she said this summer: “It’s so valuable to be able to put faces to all of the things I might look at from a mostly academic perspective all of the time.”
In 25 years, I can see her as: the next Jeff Sachs.
Thank you for: keeping me sane (with your advice) and stimulated (with a steady stream of ideas and articles).

Rachel Hettleman

Hometown: Baltimore, MD
College: New York University
Taught: 9th grade reading
Why I like her: Rachel just seems to have public service in her blood. Her grandfather was active in the civil rights movement and her mother serves in the Maryland state legislature. Rachel took a gap year to work in New York’s schools with City Year, and in a nonchalant sort of way, she always looks for a new way to serve: painting a College Wall for the Freedom Project, cleaning up spaces, and making vocabulary lists to help students learn better. She’s such a giving person.
My favorite thing she said this summer: “Good morning, Mr. King!” (her greeting, without fail, every single morning this summer).
In 25 years, I can see her as: Chief Design Officer of a teaching supply company (her posters are that good).
Thank you for: unflagging faith in me as a teacher, unbelievable fun with me as a friend.

The Great Debaters

Ms. H

They had prepared for weeks. They were more than motivated to participate in the debate in Jackson – they were driven to succeed at it. They had pored over articles, written cases, rebutted and crossfired, assembled summaries and delivered final focuses, practiced and judged for their peers.  They were ready when Saturday rolled around.

On Friday afternoon, we set aside a few hours for inspiration. The lights dimmed, we sat down for a screening of The Great Debaters, one of my all-time favorite movies. The Denzel Washington movie tells the story of a handful of black debaters from Wiley College in Texas who, under the guidance of coach Melvin Tolson, go on to challenge and ultimately prevail over Harvard’s debate team.

Watching the Great Debaters

For my students in Sunflower County, the film’s focus on education, segregation, and discrimination hit home. For them, the color line is more than what DuBois’s problem of the 20th century – it is a 21st century reality. The median strip that runs in front of the Freedom Project, the same median we use as our lunchtime soccer field, still separates the white and black households in the Town of Sunflower. Growing up in a community that can seem mired in the past, the students had reason to cheer at the line: “the time for justice, the time for freedom, and the time for equality is always, is always right now!”

The next day, on the road to Jackson, our students returned to one of their favorite quotes from the movie, a call-and-response between coach and students.

Our students spent four weeks preparing for Public Forum debate, in which two teams of two partners each square off over some issue of contemporary significance. They use facts, research, statistics, and authoritative sources to persuade a judge to vote for their side – either PRO or CON. The topic for our Freedom Project debate was an actual nationwide Public Forum topic from a few years ago: “Resolved: The costs of a college education outweigh the benefits.” Yes, these students, who all aspire to attend college themselves, had to prepare to argue for both sides of the issue.

Now that I’ve had a few days to reflect, the debate feels like a flurry of activity punctuated by periods of intense listening. I’m going to share a few impressions from the big day.

Growth emerged as one of the key themes of the day, and one student in particular stands out for all the ways he grew. In class, Mr. N can be frustrating and disruptive. He has a good heart and an inquisitive mind, but he spends too much time trying to be cool. When I push him to use his time wisely or to stop talking with his friends, he usually replies: “C’mon man, chill out!”

In the week leading up to the debate, however, Mr. N carried himself with increasing diligence. On the ride to the tournament, Mr. N asked me to help him polish his cases and prepare a few questions for the crossfire (Public Forum’s word for a back-and-forth cross examination period). I was ecstatic. We spent the entire two-hour ride working together.

Mr. N and I confer

In the rounds, Mr. N first appeared reserved – his hands in his pockets, his voice at a low volume, his posture betraying a lack of confidence – but as the day went on, I could see his confidence growing. His speeches became longer and louder, his focus more apparent, his note-taking more furious.

In the championship round, after Mr. N’s team had been eliminated, we sat together in the audience. While the debaters were using their prep time to write their next speeches, Mr. N would whisper in my ear: “Mr. King – those guys just did what I did in the last round…using personal evidence…they should know better!” I have never seen him so invested in his own learning (and so dedicated to his peers’ success too).

Mr. N and his partner prepare a rebuttal
Mr. N and his partner prepare a rebuttal

In one round, Mr. N was asked what he meant by the American Dream. He replied: “It is the American Dream that everyone should become someone in their life.” I hope he lives into his own definition of the dream.

The debate had its comic moments too. Mr. H was making a point about how a college degree signals one’s ability to work hard when he said:

It’s like this. My stepdad owns a store. When he’s hiring, is he going to pick an American or an Asian? He’s going to pick the Asian! Why is he going to pick the Asian? Because Asians work really hard.

Mr. H digs a hole for himself
Mr. H digs a hole for himself

Needless to say, we had to have a discussion with Mr. H about stereotypes…

Also, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge my mom. She flew all the way from Richmond to Jackson just to see her son’s debate team in action. Although I would never let her sit in on my debate rounds in high school, in a sense she got to see me debate this weekend. I hope she heard my love of debate echo in my students’ voices.

Photo credit: Sydney McAuliffe
Walking with mom in Mississippi (Photo credit: Sydney McAuliffe)

For those of you wondering about the fate of Ms. R and Ms. C from the last post, I have good news for you. Both attended the debate. Each placed in the top third of debaters based on their “speaker points” score – a ranking of their eloquence and reasoning.

Ms. C and her partner broke to the championship round. As the round concluded, Ms. C presented her Final Focus – a closing speech in which she made a final appeal to the judge that the benefits of a college education outweigh the costs – which she began by asserting:

Strong individuals do not let anything stand in between themselves and their success . . . If you want something, you strive and work hard to get it, no matter how many challenges are . . . along the road. There is no such thing as too much education – building your knowledge one step ahead is always a good and positive thing to do.

Ms. C gives her Final Focus
Ms. C gives her Final Focus

I couldn’t have been more proud of her. Ms. C dominated during crossfires and made use of every second at her disposal. She didn’t stop with a compelling Final Focus, though. After the debate, she wrote me the following message:

Mr. King,

I can 100% say I was going to bail out of the debate. I was stressed agitated, annoyed nearly all of the above yet we pulled through. The talks that we had only made me confused but I think it was your first experience to encourage me. I always say, “I’m a pro at imperfections and I’m best friends with my doubt” yet I went against my thought and even won 3rd place! Thanks for your support!

Gratitude means a lot to me, but impact means more. Even if Ms. C had never thanked me, her outstanding Final Focus would have been thank you enough. Moments like that, added up over the course of the day, give me reason to count that Saturday among the happiest days of my life.

I’ll close with a quote from one of my students after the debate: “I feel like I can debate the great debaters now.”

After a round

When Teaching Breaks Your Heart



A wave of hopelessness washes over me as I click the email. The subject line – “The Apology Letter” – sounds ominous. I wonder why one of my students is apologizing to me.

Last Saturday night, Miss R, one of my 8th grade rhetoric students, wrote: “I am so sorry Mr. King. I am so sorry because, I am a failure to my partner (Mr. ——). I let us down big time. I guess I’m not really a debater, so I’m sorry.”

I was crestfallen. Times like these are when teaching breaks your heart. Miss R is one of my hardest-working students, the kind of student whose curiosity and strong work ethic carry her forward. She’s the first to raise her hand in class, wriggling in her seat, jostling to be the first student I call. Her grandmother owns the modest country store across the street, a cheerful place where canned peaches and hard candy adorn the spare shelves. Every two months, Miss R travels to a children’s hospital in Little Rock, where her sister receives treatment for cancer. She may not have the fastest mile time, but she always takes two steps forward and no steps back. Miss R lives to please her teachers and is ashamed at the prospect of disappointing us.

I took a minute to process the late-night email, then decided it was too early to let Miss R give up on herself. I called the only number I had, which turned out to be her grandmother’s. Luckily, her grandmother answered and passed on Miss R’s home number. I dialed again and this time Miss R picked up. On her end of the line, I heard muffled screams. Miss R moved into another room and the sounds grew quieter. Only today did Miss R reveal that it was her sister screaming in background. Childhood cancer must be suffering incarnate.

Our conversation drifted from talk of weekends to talking of the next weekend – the looming debate this Saturday in Jackson. Miss R’s voice trilled with anxiety. She reiterated her concerns – the doubt in her preparation, the dissatisfaction with her own writing, the sense that she simply didn’t have the ability to debate – and I listened. Then I offered my rebuttal. “Miss R,” I said, “you are not a failure.” I don’t remember what I else I said, but I managed to beg, borrow, and steal a concession from her – Miss R would send me pictures of her case, I’d type it up for her, and we’d make a plan of action in the coming week. As of today, she and her partner are Jackson-bound. I only hope a strong showing this weekend will give her some ammunition in the fight against the inner demons of self-doubt.

Another female student approached me this week, also concerned about the debate on Saturday. This student, Miss C, is a perfectionist. Her homework is exquisite. She’s not the first to raise her hand in class, but when I cold-call her, she almost always supplies a correct answer. Last week, when we were practicing rebuttals, she outperformed the rest of the class (I told her as much, but she thought I wasn’t being straight with her). Miss C’s partner has had shoddy attendance and didn’t write her case, leaving Miss C doubting whether she even could attend the debate on Saturday. Add to this Miss C’s concerns over her level of preparation, and general anxiety when it comes to competing with louder students, and she her mind was already made up by the time she approached me – come Hell or high water, she was not going to Jackson. It took an intervention from our Program Director to buy some time and work out a new partner arrangement for Miss C. Even now, there’s no joy in rhetoric class for Miss C. She thinks I’m setting her up for failure.

There’s a common thread that runs through the stories of Miss R and Miss C: both are bright, hardworking female students who feel profoundly challenged by debate. Both fear failure and can’t stand disappointing their teachers or peers. I wonder why my male students, who on average are far less serious about debate than Miss R and Miss C, don’t share the same insecurities. As it turns out, psychology has the answer: “bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.” Now it all makes sense.

No matter how much I emphasize that debate is a “mental workout,” that practicing debate is akin to exercising a muscle, and that strength and confidence grow with practice, some of my female students interpret their mistakes and uncertainties as evidence of a lack of ability, not just as normal, natural stages in the development of first-time debaters.

I can’t help but feel that I have contributed to Miss R and Miss C’s insecurities. I operate under the assumption that practice makes perfect, an assumption many female students doubt. My class is intense. We do fast-paced lessons and lots of timed practice. I’m a demanding teacher. I assign challenging homework every night, including writing to persuade, putting evidence in their own words, and evaluating nonfiction sources from think tank reports to magazine articles. I bet it feels tough. I demand excellence, and especially for students like Miss R and Miss C, the prospect of disappointing me can be devastating. The same high expectations that have pushed my students to achieve so much in so little time have also pushed at least these two students – probably more – to new levels of stress.

There’s only one way to read this data – I’ve got to change something. It’s not time to overcorrect; these experiences are not so much a reason to change course entirely as an opportunity to trim the sails and head for calmer seas. In the next 36 hours, I’m going to do everything in my power to soothe nerves, answer last-minute questions, and inject added doses of motivation and inspiration. Most of all, I need to strike up one-on-one conversations with every student. It’s time to listen with the patient ear of the debate coach I wish to be.

A world of light and shadow

The Doctor's House

In this post, you’ll find my favorite photos from a photographic excursion I took this morning with friend and fellow photographer Alexandra Hehlen (check out her beautiful blogazine, the Candid Correspondent, here). 

Decaying places possess a certain romance.

On the grounds of Dockery Farms, a plantation just outside Cleveland, Mississippi, there stands a small house in the throes of decay. Once, it served as the doctor’s house, but today the doctor is most certainly not in. Two doors are missing, plants have sprouted in the kitchen sink, and graffiti portraits haunt the walls. Even so, the doctor’s house and its environs beckon with beauty. Welcome to this world of light and shadow.

Window Bathroom WindowIMG_5372Lucky YouKitchen SinkVenus de MiloTiresGraveyard Armchair

Setting Goals

Future Goals

Our students are an inspiring lot. Last Friday, they brought in their goals for five different categories: Fitness, Future, Growth, Relationships, and Rhetoric (the subject I’m teaching). These goals speak for themselves.


Fitness Goal
I’d imagine the serpentine diet could become rather unhealthy
Fitness Goal
From our resident scholar-athlete
This student has a firm deadline – the year of her high school graduation


Future Goal
An early start is essential (goal from a rising 9th grader)
Future Goal
Thurgood Marshall has history nipping at his heels
A student after my own heart
Athletic career and fallback career!
Future Goal
At least the sticky note was Duke Blue 😥


Growth Goal
This little goal of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
Yes, a mythology lover!
Growth Goal
Oui, bien sûr! ¡Fantástico!
Growth Goal
Blessed are the meek
This will be one f—ing successful student


A worthy goal indeed
Relationship Goal
What a great leader sets as her goal
Relationship Goal
There’s no deadline for making family the most wonderful thing in your life
Relationship Goal
This one makes my heart sing


Rhetoric Goal
Music to a rhetoric teacher’s ears
Rhetoric Goal
A lesson we all have to learn and re-learn!
Growth Goal
“Speeches that Changed the World” is in our class library – one of my favorite anthologies
Rhetoric Goal
Someone mastered the S and T (for Specific and Time-bound) in SMART Goals
Rhetoric Goal
Headlines the next day: “Engaging speaker grabs audience, refuses to let it go”
Rhetoric Goal
And may your words sound like thunder
Rhetoric Goal
Chandler’s mission
Rhetoric Goal
Our friends in Washington could learn from this child!

Good Mojo

Chandler and I making a "Classroom Citizenship" poster. This activity sparked discussion over our values for the Rhetoric class we're co-teaching and contributed to the good mojo of our classroom.
Chandler and I created a “Classroom Citizenship” poster togther. This activity sparked discussion over our values for the rhetoric class we’re co-teaching and helped to set clear expectations for our students, contributing to the overall good mojo of our classroom.

It’s all in the mojo.

The most effective teams all have some “x factor,” some “secret sauce” in common: good mojo. I define “good mojo” as an organization’s resilience (the ability to respond constructively to unforeseen circumstances) coupled with the capacity to build small gains into a larger positive feedback loop.

Good mojo results from intentionality. It flows from a strong, growth-oriented team/company/organization culture. Organizations that communicate clear objectives, provide robust support and ongoing training, foster feedback-seeking interpersonal relationships, and carve out time to reflect all generate good mojo.

This is all very abstract, so I’m going to use today’s events at the Sunflower County Freedom Project as a parable of good mojo.

When I walked into my classroom this morning, I had only slept for 9 of the preceding 48 hours. Even with the first-week adrenaline and early-morning caffeine priming my instructional pump, I felt tired. My 8th grade students trudged into the classroom and moved lethargically as they started their first task. I thought to myself, “I’m going to act energetic for the first five minutes and see how it goes.” That thought was a variation on an old trick my father once taught me. To conquer stage fright, just pretend for the first ten seconds of your performance that you aren’t totally terrified or tired or unprepared. After those first ten seconds, you’ve engaged your audience and the nerves begin to calm.

In those first five minutes, I strove to follow the advice of more experienced teachers: create a sense of urgency. We are at our most productive when there is a sense of a tangible, achievable goal with a realistic but challenging time limit. Although we did have some lagging moments during the class, I could definitely feel the room shift to focus and efficiency when we did hit maximum urgency.

Wouldn’t it be great if every sleep-inducing, time-wasting meeting you attend were infused with urgency? Managers and CEOs could take a leaf out of the teacher’s book here.

Other good mojo moments today:

  • Receiving feedback from supervisors
  • Giving feedback to students
  • Reflecting on how students are doing (identifying who needs more support and who needs more rigor)
  • Sharing “glows” and “grows” (positive and constructive self-feedback)
  • Being surprised with our favorite snacks during the weekly meeting

Good mojo is palpable. You ought to be able to feel it at the end of a long day, even if that day’s beginning was subpar at best.