Gracias por todo!

To the young couple with the daughter on the train out of Barcelona:

Thank you for everything you did for us. When we realized that the scenery looked different than we remembered, we were afraid we had gotten on the wrong train, one that was not stopping at the airport as we had hoped. The look on your faces when Julie asked you in her best (but halting) Spanish confirmed our fears.

As we sat and tried to figure out our next steps, you could have just ignored us and gone on about your day, especially as you speak English only about as well as we speak Spanish. Instead, you tried your best to help us, giving us advice about the next stop, and suggesting that we take a taxi rather than waiting for the next train going toward Barcelona. It was a good idea; it would cost us more money than the train, but at least it would give us a chance of making our flight.

At the next stop, which was apparently your stop as well, you could have just left us and gone home. Instead, you pointed us to the taxi stand, offered to call a cab for us, and finally flagged down a taxi and told the driver where we needed to go. With that help, and some hustle through the airport, we made our flight to Granada (barely), and did not have to reschedule a flight or sleep in the airport or pay for extra hotel nights, all of which I was afraid we might have to do.

I wish I knew your names and address to send you a thank you in person. Since I don’t, we’ll have to make sure that we pay it forward by helping out travelers who are confused or lost, even if we don’t know their language or have any reason to to help them other than sheer kindness.

Gracias por todo!

I Don’t Want to Write This…

… but I’m going to. I am getting courage from the people in my networks who are posting about their struggles with depression and/or anxiety. I’m remembering the oh-so-slow dawning of my own understanding that what I have is a disease, not a character flaw. And I’m hoping that by struggling through writing this, someone who is reading it might be able to skip some of the difficulties I had.

I have had bouts of depression since I was a child, more or less frequently over the years. I’ve been on medication for the condition for several years now, and have been in and out of talk therapy for more than two decades. I’ve learned coping strategies, red flags for when it’s coming on, and how to soldier on and function in public even through a full-blown episode.

I have rarely if ever discussed this with anyone other than my wife. So I am grateful for people whom I respect working to reduce the stigma of mental illnesses, and bring them out into the open. Thank you, especially, to Nick Provenzano and Joe Massa for bringing Project Semicolon to educators with #semicolonEDU.

I’ll be traveling on the 14th, so here’s my solidarity picture ahead of time:






What Are You Depressed About?

Well-Meaning Friend: “How are you doing?”

Me (summoning up a lot of courage): “I’m in a bout of depression, so I’m feeling pretty down.”

Well-Meaning Friend: “I’m sorry about that. What are you depressed about?”

Me: “I’m not depressed about anything. It’s a disease that produces chemical imbalances in my brain that affect my mood. In reality, I don’t have anything to be depressed about. I have a great life, family and friends who love me, financial security, good health, a fulfilling and rewarding career. That’s why depression is called a ‘mental illness’ and not a ‘perfectly reasonable response to terrible circumstances.'”


I approve this message:

Five Helpful Answers to Society’s Most Uncomfortable Questions

Key quote:

So, when some white kid on Facebook starts asking why there isn’t a White History Month, it’s because, in his lifetime, he’s seen that minorities and other marginalized groups have made greater gains relative to his own, without realizing they’re still not on his level. He’s only seen the part of the game in which these groups have scored the last five touchdowns, but is missing the fact that the score was 64-0 when that streak started.

The Other One

I found this on Netflix this week:

As much as Jerry Garcia was always the public face of the group, I’ve always appreciated Bob Weir’s vocals more than any others. This documentary is a great history of the band as well as a great biography. The title is perfectly appropriate, reflecting Weir as “The Other One” in relation to Garcia, but also as the title of the first track that Weir wrote for the group, released on Anthem of the Sun, and always one of my personal favorites.

Here’s a performance from 1989:

A Cobbled-Together Online Resource Database

One of our smaller file cabinet pages.
One of our smaller file cabinet pages.

When our district started our Common Core transition, we wanted to set up ways for teachers to share resources and files they found with each other. We are a Google Apps district, so my first thought was Google Sites. We set up “file cabinet” pages, gave certain teachers access rights, taught them how to use folders, etc. This worked OK for a while, but once some departments collected a LOT of resources, it quickly became unworkable and frustrating.

A couple of months ago, I came across a great example of a gadget called “Awesome Tables” for Google Sites. (I first saw it on the fabulous MTBoS Directory site.) Inspired by this great site and what Awesome Tables can do, I decided to try it out for a couple of projects: one, a multi-district collaboration of EdTech teachers; two, resource collections for our district’s Science and Math departments. Along the way, I combined it with a Google Form Add-On, a Google Sheets Add-On, and a small bit of custom scripting to make a pretty nice online database system.

I wanted to take advantage of the ability to search by tags, and to have multiple tags for a resource. This is a much more flexible system than using folders, where any file can be in only one folder at a time. But I wanted the system to be flexible, so users could add their own tags and didn’t have to simply choose from a pre-determined set. I solved that problem by using the FormRanger add-on for Google Forms to re-build the list of tags after each form submission.

Here’s the way this works:

1. The user submits the form with the resource or file information. The “Tag” question in the form is either a multiple-choice question (if you only want one tag per resource) or a checkbox question (if you allow more). Either way, “Other” is enabled as an option. That way, if the user doesn’t want to use an existing tag, he or she can enter a new one.

2. The sheet does its work on the form submission. If your table requires formulas to be calculated on new form submissions, you can use the CopyDown add-on. If you are only using one tag per resource, you can use the UNIQUE function in sheets to create a list of unique tags. (I put that list in a separate tab of the spreadsheet, for clarity.) If you are using multiple tags per resource, it’s a bit harder to generate the unique list of tags. That’s where I had to do a quick bit of custom scripting. I wrote a custom function called SPLITTAGS that generates that list.

3. Awesome Table displays the contents of the sheet in the Google Site page, creating filters and search bars as you desire. (The Awesome Table documentation and examples are very good and quite helpful.)

4. FormRanger rebuilds the form based on the list of unique tabs generated by the sheet. That way, the next person to open the form sees the updated list of tags for them to select.

Relationships between form, sheet, site page, and add-ons
Relationships between form, sheet, site page, and add-ons

Here are some links where you can see these files in action:

Hope this is helpful. If you have any questions on this project, I’d be glad to help as much as I can.

What Not To Do in a Lockdown

Originally published on 11/23/14

I was at the school to work with teachers. I was set up in the counseling meeting room, where a few teachers were signed up to come get help. About 10:00 in the morning, I noticed all the counselors leave and go over to the admin building. I didn’t think much about it except to note that something unplanned seemed to be going on. I heard the counseling secretary tell a student that all the counselors were unavailable and would probably be so the rest of the day. “Odd,” I thought.

A few minutes later, the secretary came in to the room where I was and looked at me thoughtfully. “I can’t say anything, but we need to close all the blinds in here,” she said. That was not a small task, as the room is all windows on one side and partly on two others. I got up on the counter and helped her close the blinds, except for the one that had fallen down and not been repaired yet. As I did, I thought to myself, “There’s only one reason in a school to close blinds quickly…” As she left, I reminded the secretary that I was not on the school’s all-staff email list, and asked her to tell me if something came through that I needed to know. She agreed and left.

About a minute later, the head counselor came to me and in a quiet voice said, “There’s been a threat to the school, and [the principal] is going to call a lockdown and then release everyone for the day. You should go so you don’t get stuck here.” I did not have to be told twice. I started to gather my stuff, but was not quick enough. The PA came on, I heard the lockdown announcement, and I knew I was there for the duration.

There were about ten students in the building, most of them waiting to see a counselor for one reason or another. They were herded into a small staff lounge; I followed them in. Also in there were a substitute teacher and a college representative who happened to be in the building at the time. The counselors, secretary, and registrar went into the building’s copy room, next to the staff lounge. We turned the lights out and made sure no one was visible from an exterior window. Then we waited.

I realized I was the only district staff member in the room with these students (though not the only adult, which was helpful). A couple other students came in one at a time; they had been just coming into the school and were quickly herded into the nearest building. The first question we all had was of course, “What happened?” The second, unspoken as yet, was “How long will we be here?” Students asked me the first question, which of course I couldn’t answer. They didn’t really need me for that, though, because in the dark room were the lights of a dozen phones, searching for answers and sending out messages to friends and family.

The counselors came in occasionally to check on us; one of the first times, the head counselor told everyone that there had been a shooting threat against the school on social media; I believe she said it was on Yik-Yak. (If she didn’t say that, one of the kids quickly figured it out or heard it from a friend.) They were able to find the threat, read other students’ responses and messages, even download police scanner apps and listen to the broadcasts. (This was particularly unhelpful; at no point did they hear anything that even sounded like what was going on at their school.) Counselors came in with a sign-up sheet to get a list of everyone in the room. After 15 or 20 minutes, we decided that the room was concealed enough that we could turn on the lights.

Some students read, either books that they had with them or on their phones. Some did homework. Some played cards. Some watched YouTube videos. At one point, they decided to share what food they had, putting it out on the table for everyone to enjoy. I answered questions as best as I could; I had not gone through drills on this particular campus, but I was familiar with best practices for lockdowns. I tried to keep the mood light, but answered questions truthfully.

Here’s what we did NOT do: We did not panic. We didn’t set up trip wires. We didn’t barricade the door and huddle in paranoia. We did not set up obstacles, or sit by the side of the door waiting for an intruder who was just about to burst into the room. We did not improvise any weapons, paint our faces, chant around a makeshift fire, or slaughter any pigs.

I did silently think about what I would do in the unbelievably remote circumstance that I heard gunfire or saw a shooter. Having decided on a plan, I then turned my attention to other things. I did not (and still do not) take five minutes every morning to plan what I will do in the event of an active shooter. One student did mention that during lockdowns (and drills, presumably) one of his teachers sits next to the door with a baseball bat, ready to attack anyone coming in. I said nothing, but felt sorry for that teacher.

Before long, more pressing concerns arose: many of the kids had to use the bathroom. Since there were none in that building, we got permission from the police and administration to escort small groups of students across the quad to the student restrooms. The counselors did most of this work; I did lead one group of boys, but was not needed for other runs. Several times I offered my help to the counselors if they needed anything, but I realized that I was most valuable where I was, largely responsible for a group of students. No one needed another teacher wandering around campus getting in the way while trying to be helpful; the best thing I could do would be to keep these students calm and out of the way.

The time of the threatened attack came and went without incident. The students in my room speculated on why someone would (a) threaten a shooting and then (b) declare it on social media. This led to a very interesting conversation about pranks and their consequences; as well as despair, mental illness, cries for attention, and cries for help. I opined that I hoped this was merely the prank of a student who didn’t realize the serious consequences, rather than someone who was in such a dark place as to seriously contemplate such an act, whether or not they had the means to carry it out. (This appears to be the case, as of this writing.)

As the afternoon dragged on, it became apparent that any threat, whether or not it was real in the first place, was not going to materialize. Word started to come from administration about releasing students in phases, by administrators going room-to-room. Until that time, however, there were still students all over campus who needed to be escorted to the restrooms. The counselors went out to the different classroom buildings to be those escorts, while I waited with the students and other adults in the counseling building. At this point we did not feel the need to stay away from windows, so many of us moved into the more comfortable common seating area.

As the counselors came back, they began to share stories of what they found in classrooms. Several teachers had barricaded their doors; others had allowed students to pee into a trashcan in a back office. One counselor told of going to Mr. Baseball Bat’s room, opening the door as she was instructed to, and being forcibly pulled into the room by the teacher. I suppose she was lucky he didn’t just beat the shit out of her and ask questions later. He then didn’t want to let her leave, deciding on his own that it was too dangerous for her out on campus, despite her instructions and responsibilities, the police on campus, and the other counselors performing the same duties. This is where our district’s “active shooter” training led: to paranoid and fearful teachers who are MORE likely than the original threat to cause harm to someone.

A little while later, we were released from the counseling building. We had been there just about three hours. Everyone had been great, making sure that the students were safe and taken care of. It was certainly not how we had expected to spend our day, but we didn’t have control of that. What we did have control of was how we reacted, and in that aspect I’m proud of everyone in that building. I am very concerned, however, about teachers who think that they need to be ready to fight off intruders by themselves at the drop of a hat, regardless of anyone else around them. Our district has gone down a wrong road with the recent “active shooter” training, and has actually increased the likelihood of someone getting hurt, not by a shooter, but by knee-jerk reactions to unreasonable fear.

Active Shooters

Originally published on 10/12/14

So we had an “Active Shooter” training at my office on Friday. The idea was to make sure we know what to do if and when someone starts shooting up one of our schools. The entire district office was in attendance. Many of these people never go to school sites; others are there on a regular basis. The presentation was delivered by a San Diego County Sheriff’s Deputy.

I found the entire presentation to be infuriating. By the end, I was sick to my stomach with rage. It was completely inappropriate and counter-productive to have this law-enforcement officer present to educators. All it did was inflame and frighten our district office employees while perpetuating some pernicious and dangerous ideas about law-enforcement. In this post, I want to point out the problems with this presentation, work through some of my own thoughts, share some of the slides and images used, and finally make a couple of suggestions of how we can effectively help teachers and staff.

The Setup

Here are the first two slides from the presentation. (The slides were shared with us after the meeting by our district office.)

First Slide
Second Slide

Pretty much gives the lie to the officer’s often-repeated disclaimer that “I’m not here to scare you.” Who’s at risk? EVERYONE!!! Where will (not “could” or “might”) a shooter strike? ANYWHERE!!!

Here’s the fourth slide:

Fourth Slide

I absolutely love the final bullet point here. If there’s a shooter at your school, it’s your choice if you live or die. If you get shot and killed, you should have done something else. I guess those kids at Sandy Hook just didn’t want to live badly enough.

Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs

Then we come to the “best” part of this whole shitshow.

(In the file shared with us, this slide has no image. In the presentation, there was a photograph of a flock of sheep with a dog sitting next to the flock.)

The officer presenting this to us tried to deny that the characterization of most people as sheep was not meant to be derogatory. This is clearly bullshit, as he repeatedly asked us at later points, “Do you want to be a sheep or a sheepdog?” He emphasized that the “sheepdogs” in this analogy are law enforcement, military, and teachers who protect their students.

Where to start with the utter stupidity of this metaphor? Wolves don’t feed on sheep without mercy, they feed until they’re not hungry. They’re not evil monsters who kill for inexplicable reasons and must be eradicated. They’re part of the food chain. They’re eating.

Furthermore, wolves and sheep and dogs are different species. Are criminals, victims, and law enforcement different species? I would suggest that many law-enforcement and other tough-on-crime types think that’s true. But all that kind of thinking does is make it impossible for you to understand why the wolf is killing sheep, or why the criminal is committing crimes, and therefore makes it impossible for you to effectively prevent or respond to the events.

This idea that there are “sheep” and “wolves” and “sheepdogs” is not only stupid but pernicious. If you have the mindset that there are “wolves” out there who are simply bad people with the desire to destroy and kill, then you think about your job very differently than if you realize that all people have strengths and weaknesses and may act unpredictably in stressful situations. It’s an “us vs. them” mentality, a “thin blue line” philosophy, and at bottom it is a “fixed” mindset: “Some people are just bad.” And it is 180 degrees opposite from what I and any other dedicated educator MUST believe about all students. We have to believe that all students (and all people) come with strengths to be leveraged and weaknesses to be improved. If you’re an educator and you don’t believe that, find another fucking career. If you’re a law enforcement officer and you don’t believe that, you’re part of the fucking problem.

Taken to its extreme, this “thin blue line” mindset leads to the over-militarization of civilian police forces that we have seen so much this summer in places like Ferguson, Missouri. Law enforcement personnel are supposed “to serve and protect” all citizens, not just the “sheep”. Furthermore, setting yourself up as “sheepdogs”, or protectors of the sheep, sets you apart from the “sheep”. Aren’t the people who work in law enforcement part of the public who are being protected? Or are they separate, above the mere “sheep”? The inclusion of this image in the presentation says volumes about how this officer sees himself:

This kind of attitude has no place in either education or in law-enforcement.

Run, Hide, or Fight?

The next part of the presentation was to set up the choices that we have when confronted with an active shooter: run, hide, or fight. There were actually some useful kernels of information embedded in the flood of shit here. For example, don’t skip calling 911 just because you think others already have; every caller contributes different information, and the dispatchers can paste all that together to get a better total picture of the situation. Also, the officer made a useful distinction between “cover” and “concealment” when hiding from a shooter.

And then we get to “Fight”:

Notice that “Fight!” is (not necessarily) the last resort. “I’m not here to tell you you have to fight,” the officer repeatedly lied to us.

This slide was followed by an eight-minute video of an Israeli expert teaching a class of (what looked like) college students how to take down an armed intruder who bursts into their classroom. They learn how to move furniture to impede firing lines, how to hide at the side of the door, how to take out intruders by tackling them at the knees, and other paramilitary tactics. And my reaction while watching this was “Are you fucking serious?!?”

First of all, we are a grades 7-12 district. You want us to teach 12-year-olds to take down an armed intruder? Fuck you. I have been in lockdowns before (nothing serious, thankfully), and the single most pressing thing a teacher has to do is to keep kids calm.

Secondly, the underlying assumption of Mr. Paramilitary-Training-Dude is that “Bad guys are around every corner.” According to the video (and the officer presenting to us), you have to be aware at EVERY MINUTE that someone could be coming to kill you. He encouraged us to always(!) be aware of potential exit routes, who is around you, who is coming and going, so that you are ALWAYS ready to… to what, I’m not sure. Turn into fucking Rambo, I guess. Seriously, the officer encouraged us to take five minutes every morning to think about what we would do in an emergency and to plan out our strategies. All that would do is turn teachers into raving paranoiacs. (Oh, I suppose it might also scare them shitless and therefore predispose them to vote for tough-on-crime politicians who would cut social spending and give more money to law enforcement. Huh. What a coincidence.)

What Are The Odds?

The rest of the presentation was about law-enforcement response to active shooter situations, and again had a couple of reminders that did not make me want to throw up. It was actually useful to hear a little about police strategies and how we could best stay out of the way. By this time, however, my head was about to explode, and I got to thinking about how this officer was presenting this to us like it could happen any day. And yes, it could. But what are the odds? So I started looking up statistics with quick Google searches on my phone. Here’s what I found:

One in about 8 million. Hmmm. How does that compare to other types of risks?

One in 700,000. When are we going to institute “active lightning” training, since the odds of our students getting hit by lightning are more than ten times greater than being shot at school?

Additionally, who would be doing the shooting? It is far more likely that any “active shooter” on one of our school campuses would be a student at that school who has reached a breaking point, rather than a random stranger. It follows then, that we would be better off providing resources to support students’ mental and emotional health and to identify students in despair, to prevent a tragic occurrence before it happens.

How Could This Have Presented Better?

This officer kept saying things like “I don’t want to scare you,” and “I’m not here to scare you.” I call bullshit. That was exactly the point of the presentation – to scare us.

I also call bullshit on the disclaimer that “I’m not here to tell you that you have to fight an intruder,” and “You have to choose for yourself what to do.” These were lies, exposed by this officer’s other (passive-aggressive) statements that “You can choose to be a sheep or a sheepdog,” or “You can be a sheep and lay down to die, or you can fight back.” This officer (and by extension our district personnel who invited and sponsored him) was clearly advocating that we attempt to teach 12-year-olds paramilitary tactics to take down the intruders who are always lurking around the corner, waiting to invade.

As I mentioned above, there were a few nuggets of useful information. I contend that the useful information could have been presented to school staff members in about 15 minutes, without the scare tactics and bullshit social theorizing and law-enforcement puffery. But that would have to be done by an educator, not by a sheriff’s deputy. Furthermore, that could and should be done in the context of a schoolwide comprehensive emergency plan, including what to do in case of fire, earthquake, or other unexpected situations. To have an hour-long presentation by a sheriff’s deputy who thinks he’s John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Rambo rolled into one was simply inappropriate, counter-productive, and offensive.


Just OK?

Me: “Hi!”

Well-meaning Colleague: “How are you?”

Me: “OK”

Well-meaning Colleague: “Just OK?”

Me (in my head): “No, not just OK. I’ve had a severe bout of depression for the last several days, and I’m just barely holding things together in public until I can get back home and collapse. My natural state is not wonderful happy perky goodness all the time, it’s neutral. Sometimes I have good days, and when people ask me how I’m doing, I tell them. Sometimes I have neutral days: nothing terrible has happened, but nothing great, either. So when someone asks, I say ‘fine’ or ‘OK’. And sometimes I have terrible days, when I just want to curl up in a ball and go away, when my brain is fighting me over every thought and every action and telling me how miserable everything is. On those days, when someone asks how I am, I assume they don’t really want to know, so I stifle it and say ‘OK’ or ‘fine’ and try to quickly change the topic. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe those people really do want to know, and I should just blurt out about the dark place I’m in and how I feel completely worthless and how I can see nothing but misery, hopelessness, and frustration in the future no matter what I do. Maybe that’s what I should say. Is that what you want to hear?”

Me (out loud): “Yep, everything’s fine.”