today there was a shooting at a school

[UPDATE 28MAY2022:

1. I took the picture above. My daughter Tara is holding the cello while friend/mentor/professional cellist Laura Ritchie makes music real for Tara’s classmates. It was a beautiful moment. Now we all have to live with the possibility that a moment just like this can be destroyed in a sudden hail of gunfire.

2. Every Tuesday I email a newsletter with a hodgepodge of ideas, resources, and a link to my weekly blog post. Last week, when we all were confronted with the news from Texas, it didn’t feel right to send out the newsletter, or even a message about why I wasn’t sending it. Late that evening I sat down to write. Early the next morning I posted my thoughts here. Wherever you are in the world, whatever your feelings about schools, people, or guns, I hope this – and whatever else comes next in our lives – somehow brings us closer together.]


Today there was a shooting at a school.

At least 19 children and two teachers are dead.

We all saw it coming. The last mass murder was just a few days ago. The next one will be too soon. Maybe in your neighborhood store. At your neighborhood school. Or movie theater. Or house of worship.

23 years ago, Columbine shocked a generation. 23 years later, we know how the story goes. Law enforcement responds. Politicians warn against politics. Constitutional rights. Social media. Flags at half-mast. Mental illness. Moments of silence. Thoughts and prayers.

Meanwhile, the images keep coming. Photographs of smiling faces that will never say another word. Distraught parents begging for answers that will never come.

And what of the survivors, the classmates and siblings who saw what they saw, who know what they know, and who will now endure both the horrifying memories and well-meaning adults who try to make it all better? In a couple decades the alumni of this trauma will have children of their own. Some of those children may turn out OK. Others will be raised by scars that never heal, and the cycle will continue.

What of the teachers, who sat through the safety trainings and the live shooter drills to work for so little money and even less regard, only to die in a work environment where the vision statement says, “safe campus”?

Over the next few days countless people will make emotional appeals and cite statistics. Some of us will feel heard. Most won’t. Many will continue to call for change because we will continue to need it.

But right now, in the very moment that you read this sentence, the next shooter is shopping.

Maybe we can take a little solace in the idea that just a couple decades ago, this was all unthinkable. There was a time. So maybe, just maybe, if we stop yelling at each other for just a moment, we can reclaim a shared sense of reality. Something we can agree on. Maybe that agreement – something as basic as the idea that our babies and their teachers shouldn’t go to school to die bleeding in a hail of bullets – can be a start, an air bubble of sanity that will give us just enough room and time to figure out a way to survive this culture that somehow sped off the pier of civility and democracy and began to sink in a lake of cynicism, hatred, and violence.

Maybe this could be the last time anyone could ever write a first and last sentence so deeply horrible that I beg you to read it again and take it all the way in, to really sit with it and ask yourself if you – if any of us – deserve to live in a world where it is even possible to write this as nonfiction:

Today there was a shooting at a school.

Learning language from an expert

It’s important to learn from the experts.

My fourth grade teacher once gave us an essay assignment. His ended his instructions by telling us to write, “in your own words.”

His phrasing threw me off. I remember thinking something along the lines of, Yeah, right. How about you select words that more precisely convey what you mean? Because if you really mean that I can actually choose my own words, you’re going to have to learn a whole new language.

It would be another few years before my best friend would discover his dad’s copy of George Carlin’s A Place for My Stuff, which caused us to howl and double over laughing but also got us thinking about language and logic.* But I was beginning to understand that our imprecise use of language causes all sorts of problems in advertising, politics, relationships, and everyday interactions.

The books I read about dystopian futures have all shared a theme: bad language. Not the words per se, but the (sometimes intentional) misuse of words to obfuscate meaning instead of making it clear.

Learning from the experts

Most of our nation’s teachers earn their credentials and enter the profession through an academic program. Teaching is their first job. Which means that they are  not established experts in any other arena.

I believe learners need information from experts in their fields.

My students have learned about books and writing with author Cory Doctorow. We’ve learned about the Internet with Howard Rheingold, who Forbes Magazine called a “digital elder,” and  Bryan Alexander, a leading authority on the use of technology in liberal arts education.  We’ve learned about music and performance with 2011 Guitar Center Drum-Off Champion J.P. Bouvet (who is made of awesome), U2 keyboardist Terry Lawless (notes and video here), and cellist/music professor Laura Ritchie. We’ve talked politics with Pennylvania State Senator Daylin Leach.

Learning language

Nowhere in learning is expertise more important than helping each other understand the language we use.

Sadly, at this point there is no bandwidth that can help us connect with the most insightful linguist of my lifetime. I know: other people call him a comedian.  They might even sniff and start in on Chomsky or Pinker. Or David Foster Wallace.  But to me, *George Carlin was the GOAT at teaching us about using words and considering whether they really mean what we intend.

Carlin encouraged us to consider our words by placing them in the context of our intentions: “There are no bad words. Bad thoughts, bad intentions… and words.”

In this clip, Carlin analyzes our idioms – specifically, at the 6:05 mark, the wisdom of putting things “in your own words.”


(Much of this was previously published on Dr. Preston’s English Literature 2013-2014)

the fifth fitness

Sunday night the sky was different.

The moon was full and then it wasn’t. It got smaller and smaller, right before our eyes. Yours, mine, and everyone else’s – in that moment, everyone on the planet (who could see and chose to look) shared the experience.

Our planet moved into the path of the sun’s light on the moon like a giant shadow puppet. As the sky darkened, the shadow turned the moon red – a “blood moon.”

The result looked like an Isaac Asimov cover.

Astronomical Empathy

I’ve known all about eclipses since I was eight. I won my elementary school’s science fair as a third grader with an exhibit that demonstrated eclipse effects using a blackened cardboard box, a few styrofoam balls impaled on paper clips, and a flashlight on a switch.

Forty-four years later I was still excited to drop everything and stare up at the night sky.

As I did, I found myself wondering how ancient people might have felt as they looked up at the super flower blood moon.

No wonder we developed science and told ourselves all sorts of wild stories in the meantime.

The Fifth Fitness

Four out of the five fitnesses of Open-Source Learning are fairly straightforward. It’s hard to argue with the need to develop our mental, physical, civic, or technological capacities.

But introducing the fifth fitness – spiritual fitness – can be tricky. People often confuse spirituality with religion. Open-Source Learning doesn’t specifically address religion, but it does acknowledge our very basic human need to connect with something bigger than ourselves. Throughout the pandemic and the era of social media we have shared concerns about isolation and loneliness, but there have been precious few remedies for restoring our spiritual fitness.

Religion is one way people explore spirituality, but it’s not the only way. Play or rooting for team sports and volunteering gives us a sense of belonging in community. Live music gives us a shared sense of energy and emotion. And we gain valuable perspective about our tiny, fleeting place in reality when we stand in awe of an ocean, or a mountain…

or a big, red moon in a vast, ever-changing night sky.



to scratch or not to scratch

I begin Open-Source Learning Academy meetings with mindfulness. I started the practice when I taught in the classroom, and I’ve used it online ever since.

At the beginning of each new term, learners explore research about how mindfulness can support comprehension, concentration, and memory. Then we experiment. I set a timer for 60 seconds. We sit quietly and listen to our breath.

Then we share our experience. Every time, almost everyone reports positive effects, which they describe with words like: lighter, calmer, more relaxed, mellow, focused, etc.

Each time we do this experiment I am reminded of two things:

  1. Most of us do not learn mindfulness in school. My teachers frequently told me to pay attention, but they never told me how.
  2. In just one minute, without spending money or doing anything dramatic, you can change your entire state of mind.

About a year ago someone asked if we could double amount of time, so our MOM (previously Minute, now Moment of Mindfulness) is now two minutes.

The Itch

About ten seconds into a recent MOM I got an itch. I started thinking about the itch and I got preoccupied.

How perfect: I can model choosing whether to stay with a thought or watch it float away like a leaf on a stream.

Dammit. This is really itchy.

To scratch, or not to scratch?

How annoying.

Maybe I should scratch and get back to being a role model. Why not? OK I’m going to scratch.

But… wait. Maybe I should sit with the itch. Delay gratification. You know, embrace the itch.

Is this discipline? Focus? Am I being present with the sensation in my body in the moment? Am I becoming the person who will tell the story of the scratch indulged, or the itch denied?

Is this what Shakespeare meant for us to understand? Was Hamlet actually describing his future, imagining himself as a person who would always carry the memory of the choice he was about to make?

I will always be the man who scratched, or lived with the itch…

Ohmygod. This is my job? My career? What am I doing with my life?

The conversation in my head is now existential. It’s just an itch! This is ridiculous.

Is it? Is it any more ridiculous than worrying about the bureaucratic thing I have to do next, or the bill I have to pay later?

Alright fine I’ll just go ahead and – huh.

The itch is gone.

And our time is up.

Please Contact Me for more on practicing mindfulness with learning communities.



Make me

Teachers teach what they teach the way they teach because that’s how they’re trained. Teachers are hired to fulfill a specific job description, and they’re routinely threatened with dismissal and abuse if they deviate from the script.

So why do parents and politicians so often complain and attempt to change what teachers do and say?

A better question to ask is, Why can’t we all remember that what we do is only partly a function of free will, and mostly the result of what we think will get us the results we want?

School and Story

School is where we learn to separate science (what actually happens in the world around us) from story (what we say happens in the world around us). Disintegration isn’t healthy – imagination is awesome, but telling ourselves stories that contradict factually verifiable reality isn’t good for relationships, democracy, or our own health.

As Albert Camus put it, “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth.” When we’re trying to describe or account for phenomena we can’t experience or verify with our senses, we often turn to stories and metaphors. Concrete evidence in the natural world leads straight to philosophical, abstract thought. Some of humanity’s most accomplished scientists have been the most passionate advocates for mysticism, imagination, and play.

It makes perfect sense that Hans Christian Andersen, who wrote some of our best-known fairy tales like the “The Little Mermaid” and “The Ugly Duckling,” was good friends with Hans Christian Ørsted, who discovered that electric currents create magnetic fields.

Ørsted also invented two of my favorite words: Gedankenexperiment and Gedankenversuch. They mean the same thing: “thought experiment.”

Thought Experiment

My daughter spent her first few years of speech asking questions that began with the phrase, “What if.”

What if the world was made of sushi?*

What if rocks had eyes?*

What if everyone were honest, all the time?*

(*Yes, she really did ask each of these, and hundreds more.)

What if.

So here is our thought experiment for the day: What if everyone who showed up to yell at a school board meeting actually got their way?

Just imagine every student, parent, and grandstanding state legislator effectively controlling everything teachers do and say. Then would we have peace and happiness throughout the land?

Let’s start right here: I am a teacher. What would you have me do?


This thought experiment is brought to you by my sneaking suspicion that teacher speech and conduct is not the issue. Our society is deeply divided, fearful, and unhappy. People need an outlet for their energy.

School as it stands today is a function of what people thought was important yesterday.

Somebody wants something. That’s why school is also an ongoing tug of war about what teachers can and can’t say, what curriculum should be taught, what behaviors should be tolerated or punished, and so on.

Remember, whatever I do is a function of your priorities. You make me. You complete me. I am a mere reflection of your values and priorities.

So…? What do you want?

What is important to us today? Algebra? Critical thinking? Entrepreneurship? Coding?

The answers to these questions will determine what school will look like tomorrow.


I am a firm believer in the Ubuntu idea that, “I am because we are.” Every teacher – and parent, or employer/employee, entrepreneur, creative, EVERYONE – acts and produces outcomes in connection.

To the Ayn Rand fans in the room: In real life, Howard Roark is an angry, mewling little tool. Think Dilbert. No one creates alone. Everyone – EVERYONE (that’s CAPS twice in two paragraphs) – is interdependent. You’re going to sit in a room by yourself and write The Great American Novel? Terrific! Just don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re also going to manufacture the pens, pencils, paper, or electronics for it. Or that you were born with every idea for the story, or the innate talent to bring it to life. You’re going to value your worth at $45B on paper and buy free speech? Go right ahead. Just remember that your success is the result of our gambling habits.

Famous individual genius creators from Hunter S. Thompson to Bob Dylan to George Lucas all borrowed inspiration, content, and work processes from many, many sources. Today we all stand on their shoulders when we “innovate.” Rand’s/Roark’s argument that the creative, passionate individual is immune to the influence of others is a steaming pile of nonsense that appeals only to those who stopped maturing in high school.

[Fun fact: Rand’s real-life boyfriend broke up with her, apologized for promoting her closed philosophical system of Objectivism, and later became known as “the father of the self-esteem movement.”]

My belief in the value of informing and influencing each other is why I started Open-Source Learning:


Beware: The Caring Bully

It must be pointed out that openness and influence is a two-way street. Do you want people to listen to you? I want people to listen to you too. Every once in a while, I want people to listen to me too. Just look at all the things we have in common!

Some people get super intense about demanding our attention, and they forget to protect others’ need to be heard as well.

This may be because:

  • When you were a kid people didn’t listen to you
  • No one is listening to you now
  • Your professional identity and/or self-esteem is wrapped up in your perception of whether or not people are listening to you

Whatever the reasons, the bullies are among us, even in the caring professions. Two of the scariest roles in movie history feature nurses:

Teachers Gonna Teach

Now the thought experiment is harder. Who’s the authority? Who’s the bully?

When we’re kids, we may deal with bullies on the yard, but (with few exceptions) the teacher is the biggest dawg in the room. Many adults feel dread when they return to a campus, especially if they have to go to the principal’s office.

It’s time to stop fearing the spider. We’re bigger than that. You have an idea about what your kid’s teacher should do? Great! Think your kid’s teacher made a mistake? Awesome! Step right up and contribute – assuming you’re not pandering for votes or being cruel just to make someone feel badly, come on into the kitchen and roll up your sleeves. You’re welcome in my classroom (virtual or elsewhere) anytime.

School will continue to be a thing and teachers will continue to teach. My hope is that, with your help, school and teaching can evolve to address the needs of today’s students, instead of staying rooted in the 19th century. Open-Source Learning exists in part because I still have a hard time believing every American student doesn’t learn about the internet, over 50 years after it was invented and came to dominate every aspect of our lives.

So bring everything you have to the conversation about learning. Or, if you’re not willing, take Utah Phillips’ advice in the immortal story of the moose turd pie . To paraphrase: “MY GOD, THAT’S [SCHOOL] TURD PIE! It’s good though.”

Please feel free to Contact Me so we can continue the conversation. I promise it will leave a better taste in your mouth.