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March 26, 2021

A New School Year And Our Greatest Fear

It’s not (just) the sleeping in, the family getaways, and the long, unhurried meals with friends that make me love summer. It’s that I get the time to think.

Folks who work outside classrooms underestimate the immediacy and urgency of teaching. The daily press to prepare and adjust lessons, the ongoing grind of grading and giving feedback. The weeds are tall and thick when one is in the midst of the school year.

Then comes summer. I can step back and rethink my practice. I can consider, with sufficient bandwidth, what I really want students to get out of the next 180 days, during which I get to support and lead them.

And it’s in the context of summer that I pull out this quote from D.L. Moody to influence my thinking: “Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at something that doesn’t really matter.” If you haven’t before, I encourage you to stop reading right here, and consider what that means to you.

What Really Matters

When I ask myself what really matters, my answer blows me right by test scores or growth measured by someone else’s rubric. What really matters isn’t how many books my students have read, but that their desire to read has grown. What really matters isn’t only their improvement on a rubric, but how they’ve found and fed their own voice as a writer and speaker. What really matters isn’t a grade, it’s that they’ve deeply explored who they are, what they think about real issues in the real world, and that they’ve had the chance to see how their ideas hold up and are reshaped by those of others.

It really matters that they think for themselves, have a healthy dose of “Why is it this way? It shouldn’t be…” and the mindset and inquiry skills to act on that. It really matters that they enjoy learning. It really matters that they feel hopeful about their future, because they believe in their capacity to influence it.

Relevance. Inquiry. Community. Growth.

To that end, this summer I’m actively culling learning experiences that offer opportunities for students to identify something relevant to their lives that matters to them, to learn about it, and use their voice (in its various modalities) to share that with others.

Letters To The Next President 2.0


This is why I’m so excited that “Letters to the Next President 2.0” will be one of our first projects this year. A collaboration hosted by National Writing Project and KQED, the project is an effort to develop and amplify the voices of students to define the issues that matter to them as the next generation of voters. I love this project for a few reasons.

First, it’s personal. Not only do students have choices, but they can make a choice based on what deeply resonates as relevant to their life and future. Any time students can work on something they authentically care about, it’s a huge win.

Second, it’s open-ended. Students can compose a traditional letter, but they can also create a video, deliver a spoken word, create an image, or combine modalities to best make the case for the importance of their issue.

Third, it’s safely public. The project’s site is also a massive publishing platform. My students’ ideas will be published and read by other youth, and in combination with others, highlight the great diversity of thought and ideas across our country. While writing for an authentic audience, students can publish and share their ideas without concern for any disparaging comments that might show up in other spaces.

At a time when — whatever your political convictions — the “greatest fear” for some is one possible result of the 2016 presidential election, the ultimate fear may be a continued, significant disengagement from civic life for America’s youth. My hope is that while I grow their skills as readers and writers, this project and others will grow their belief that they truly have something to say about the society they’ll inherit. And that their voice and actions matter.


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