The opposite of fear isn’t bravery. It’s understanding.

In 2015 celebrated travel writer and Public Broadcasting staple Rick Steves keynoted the Annual Conference of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) in San Diego. It turns out the man that I thought was simply a folksy, avuncular travel writer is actually a cuttingly deep thinker in matters of cultural literacy and global citizenship.

After breaking a few bones in my hand applauding his speech, I ran down to the conference bookstore and picked up a copy of his recently updated book Travel as a Political Act. In it, Steves lays out the case for the broadening of American perspective through global travel. He comes close to declaring an imperative.


Chief among his points is the fact that the collective fear we have around “the other,” which in today’s view takes on a very specific geographic/ethnic/religious context, keeps us at a distance from understanding important elements of history, economics, social justice, etc. This is the context that led him in his keynote to utter this rich idea:

The opposite of fear isn’t bravery; it’s understanding.

Staying within the context of teaching and learning, how can we apply this idea to our work, whether it be building relationships with colleagues, breaking ground on a new initiative, or executing the “last mile” of a strategic venture.

How would our perspective change if we considered resistance the product of a lack of understanding rather than cowardice or closed-mindedness?

How would this change our next interaction with a resistant faculty member?

On Creativity: Anticipation, Regret, and Remembering Grandpa Earl

Very early in 2011, shortly after hearing of my grandfather’s passing, I thought of something Sir Ken Robinson said in his GISA 2010 keynote. In talking about creativity he mentioned that even engaging in remembering is an act of creativity. In remembering we “imagine” past experiences because, obviously enough, they are no longer occurring in the present moment.

I just returned from a four-day reunion with my mom’s side of the family, the quadrennial Monroe Family Reunion.  At our last reunion in 2008, my grandfather Robert Earl Monroe encouraged us to go back to the roots that we left behind at the 1973 Grand Tetons National Park “Jenny Lake” reunion (I was -1 year old at that time);  he wanted us to go camping.  There was consternation.  The younger generations, with few exceptions, are not a camping sort.  Families with young children rightly assumed that camping would would be more inconvenient than hotel travel.  There was a good bit of grumbling about the shift in reunion ethos.  However, they loved “Uncle Earl.”  His four older brothers having been deceased for years, he was considered the pater familias.  So, he got 95% of the family to do what it didn’t want to do.  And 18 months before the reunion he died. If you knew him, you’d know that not only would he have found that hilarious, but his family quietly delighted in the irony as well.

In the end the family greatly enjoyed their time camping in beautiful Asheville, NC.  Their fears, it turned out, were unrealized.  Some folks imagined that it would be worse than it was, which is to say, they remembered an as yet unfulfilled but potentially likely version of the event.  In their mind they created a vision that was prognostic, but in the end wholly different from what actually was.  They used creativity to imagine a scenario that did not exist, and in fact would never exist since the reunion came to pass in a very enjoyable fashion.  I happen to remember that some of these family members, during the oft-maligned “talent show” at the 2000 reunion in Branson, MO, openly declared that they “weren’t creative people.”

So as I remember my grandfather I seem to be taking particular joy in imagining my visits and adventures with him and in recalling the many stories he’s told me of growing up in a world that I can scarcely imagine.  But I don’t need to imagine it; I merely need to share in his remembrance of it.

I don’t mourn Grandpa as much as I dread the notion that our adventures have come to an end. And that’s a form of creativity as well: imagining a world that will never again come to be.  Even regret is a form of creativity, says Kathryn Schulz in her TED Talk Don’t Regret Regret?  If I want to spend some time with the self-proclaimed “Earl of Curmudgeon,” I’ll have to do it by remembering him. I’ll have to imagine him.

How can those among us claim to “not have a creative bone in our body” when we spend every day remembering, regretting, and wondering?  It is true, perhaps that these people don’t have creative output to show for it.  But that’s a consequence of not sharing one’s creativity, not the wholesale lack of it.

My Adventures at “Boarding” School

You may have noticed the title of this blog is “The Golden Plunger.”  I first heard the term in a lecture given by Rob Evans, and organizational psychologist and author of The Human Side of School Change.  He spoke to our faculty about taking risks in our teaching practice.  “The Golden Plunger” is an imaginary award that a teacher would bestow upon him or herself for implementing a great idea that falls with a thud on the classroom floor (or with a swish, as the name suggests).

From time to time I flirt with failure in my teaching practice, but it happens rarely enough that I feel assured that I’m not taking as many risks as I should–I would definitely not put my name in as candidate for a Golden Plunger.  I wonder what kind or extent of failure in my teaching practice is acceptable or appropriate.  How much failure is the right amount of failure?  I hold up my aching wrists, knotted shoulders, bruised shin, and delicate backside as evidence.

This week, while on Spring Break, I made my first attempt at snowboarding.  My wife and I just returned from a week in South Lake Tahoe where I, a self-assessed intermediate-level skier, impressed myself with hours and hours of adroit, high-speed, tight-turning runs at Heavenly Ski Resort.  I indulged in wide open sweepers and tight twisties.  I even took a few detours through the wooded portions for a bit of backcountry skiing (like slalom, but with immovable, potentially fatal obstacles).  I came down the slopes, punched my boots out of my bindings, and patted myself on the back, feeling like the coolest cat on Earth.

Today, however, I feel like an arthritic octogenarian (no offense to octogenarians–I’m sure some snowboard way better than I).  The day after Heavenly, we met up with a cousin who lives in the Bay area and has snowboarded for years.  Julie and I both did the responsible thing and took a 2.5 hour lesson from the pros.  I was amazed at how foreign it is to have your feet strapped to a board while sliding down a hill.  As I usually do, I listened intently to our instructor, mimicked his moves and tried to implement his yogic body contortions.  After the lesson I spent the day isolating the moves on the bunny slope–first the perpendicular slide, then the oscillating slide, then the heel-side stop, then the toe-side stop, etc, etc.  After a while I got impatient and just started playing.  Success intermingled with failure throughout the day, and my joints were paying the price.  But one thing I can say about the day was that I was taking risks, searching for the friction point between experience and experimentation, between comfort and loss of control.

During my time skiing at Tahoe, I didn’t really “grow” much because with the exception of skiing in Powderbowl Woods (the part with trees and rocks and such), I didn’t really do anything that I hadn’t done before.  I didn’t test my limits.  And as a result, although I felt good about myself, I didn’t improve my skills as a skier.  My day of snowboarding, however, was truly a growth experience.  I began the day with 0% knowledge of snowboarding, and although I spent more time on my backside than I did on my feet, I learned a bit about my own body’s center of gravity, and a lot about a completely foreign skill that, as it turns out, is a whole lot of fun when you’re able to spend more than 60 seconds upright.  Most importantly, I noticed a pattern.  During periods of time when I would fall at rapid intervals (every 10 seconds), I was focused on not falling.  I was getting frustrated and kept thinking about that moment AFTER I lost equilibrium.  The periods when falls were less frequent, I used prior failures to inform my future movements, gestures, and postures.  In the moments when I chose to learn from my mistakes, they became less frequent.

I wonder how often in my own teaching I choose to learn from my mistakes?  And what opportunities have I lost when I neglected to do so?

A continuing conversation

I don’t have reliable internet access where I am (which is to say that the hotel has two networked computers, but I would have to stand in the line with a dozen teenagers in order to use it), so what I say in this post may be repetitive.  I’m writing it on my laptop, and at some point I will save it to a jump drive, plod downstairs, and stand in line.  So if I repeat something from a previous post, please excuse.

First, an update.  For the last few weeks, my fellow co-facilitator and I have been picking apart the Junior High FL teaching matrix, trying to configure it in such a way that FL teachers can receive a one-class transition (or reduction, if you will) but class sizes don’t get too high.  Our department chair is very cautious to bring class sizes far above 15.  What has ensued have been a number of wonderful conversations in which three constituencies (the principal, the department chair, and the teachers) are trying to answer the same question: will this improve student learning?  It’s great to be in a conversation in which people aren’t shielding egos, protecting turf, or seeking to preserve the status quo.  Instead, we are trying to provide job-embedded professional growth for teachers while honoring the school’s commitment to giving individual attention to students through the promise of low class sizes.  Unfortunately, mathematics place both those elements on the opposite side of the playing field.  Whatever the product of the discussion (implementing the PLC or deferring for a year), I am encouraged by the healthy conversations going back and forth.

So, I continue to read DuFour’s book.  I’d love to say that I’m being enlightened, but everything that he’s saying is such common sense.  It’s just good to see it in print, in such a thoughtful, well-reasoned monologue, and to see it connected to other insights.

The Factotum’s Factotal

From the home office in Kensington, Maryland:

The Monroetorhome Monarch, the Soujourning Sovereign, the Ranchette’s Registrar reports the following fascinating and fiddling figures of most petty and picayune persuasion:

Total mileage: 8,168
Average mpg: 8.66
Occupant days in motorhome: 105
Cost per person, per day: $59.90

So, if we were to take as our model the good people of Packwood, Iowa, the Monroetorhome 2008 Cross-country Excursion rates a score of 8341.56 degrees of awesomeness. If you don’t understand the Packwood reference, scroll down, click on the link labeled “July”, take off your shoes, get something substantial to eat, and start reading.

To quote Earl in the entirety of his speech at the 2002 Branson Reunion, “It’s been a pleasure.”

Signing off.