Don’t Break the Chain

Dissertation work has been going swimmingly, thanks for asking.  If we’re connected on Facebook or Twitter you are probably sick of me posting about the minutiae of my progress each day, and you’ve also seen me hashtag my Tweets #dontbreakthechain.

The idea of “don’t break the chain” comes from an article I’ve seen pop up several times over the last few years but to which I never gave much thought until now.  This 2007 article from Lifehacker outlines Jerry Seinfeld’s clever method of motivating himself to continue writing new material:

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

“Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis.

Did Seinfeld actually say this?  Who knows.  The Internet is rife with stories attributing profound ideas or sayings to celebrities that may or may not be true.  The principle behind it, however, is one that I’ve actually used before, although not deliberately, in setting and meeting goals:

  • Whenever I do my 365 Picture-A-Day projects, seeing the daily photos and dates lining up one after the other motivates me to not “break the chain”.
  • The “Archives” list in this blog’s sidebar motivates me to blog at least once per month in order to not “break the chain” of months (if you actually care to look, you’ll see I’ve only missed one month in seven years).
  • I have to lift weights three times per week in order to not “break the chain” of steady progression.

I’m now applying that principle to my dissertation work.  I returned home from vacation on 11 July 2014, so 12 July was my first day on the chain.   Since then, I have made a concerted effort to work on some aspect of my dissertation every day.  Sometimes it’s for 30-45 minutes, sometimes it’s 4 hours.  The point is, as long as I put some work in, I mark the day off.

You can use any kind of calendar, physical or digital, for this task.  I’m using a website called (of course) Don’t Break the Chain; they have a Chrome plugin that allows me to see and update my calendar right from the browser:

dontbreakthechainI’ve only been at it for about two weeks now so it remains to be seen if this will help me maintain productivity in the long run, but I can say that chipping away at this monumental task little by little every day has helped me to stave off the feelings of self-doubt and paralysis I’ve written about previously.  With deadlines fast approaching (I need to have Chapter Four done and submitted by 1 Sept if I have any hope of defending in November), I’ll use any trick and take any advantage I can get.

Nothing To It But To Do It

Between completing years of coursework and conducting the dissertation research project, I think we can all agree that earning a doctorate is hard work.  I wonder, though, if sometimes we (read: I) make it harder than it has to be.

I spent the better part of May & June collecting survey and interview data for my research, and in early July took a much-needed weeklong vacation with my wife and kids.  Unfortunately, instead of relaxing and recharging, I spent the better part of the week stressing about the dissertation work I’d need to do when I got back.  When we got home last Friday I had a stack of papers with means and p-values and standard deviations all over them waiting for me, and I found myself experiencing a paralysis very similar to what I experienced this past December.  Thankfully, I was able to snap myself out of it this evening, and after sitting down with a cup of coffee and background music courtesy of Weezer (on repeat several times), I not only organized a good chunk of the statistical data, I also made a little headway on the organization and interpretation for my Chapter Four.  It wasn’t much, but it was enough to break my funk and get me rolling again.  The looming monster I had built up in my mind over my vacation was vanquished easily enough; all I had to do was just get off my ass and start working.  It wasn’t the work itself that was difficult, it was overcoming the mental block that was intimidating me.  Then again, that’s been the story throughout much of the process.  Thinking about the work is always – ALWAYS – much worse than sitting down and actually doing it.

Sometimes we are our own worst enemies, until we decide not to be.

My Summer Reading List

In the name of work-life balance, my family makes a concerted effort to take at least one long vacation every summer.  We’re taking a cruise to Bermuda this year, so these are the books (the ed-related ones, anyway) that will be stowing away on my Kindle:

This is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, by José Vilson: Unlike Morrissey, I love it when my friends become successful.  I’m proud to say I’ve known José for years through blogging, Twitter, and later Facebook (and he even dropped in on my session at Educon 2.3 back in 2011), and I’m really looking forward to reading his newly-released book.  Although I don’t write much about it here, awareness of the impact of race and class on education (particularly in terms of inequalities) has long influenced how I approach my profession, and any discussion of education that downplays or dismisses the impact of either factor is ignorant at best and disingenuous at worst.

Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading, and What You Can Do About It, by Kelly Gallagher: I’m certain I have been guilty of committing mass acts of readicide during my eight years as a high school English teacher.  That time in my life has long since passed, but perhaps I can make amends by guiding future curricular decisions and policy.

Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary S. Stager: Making it to Stager’s Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute has been on my to-do list – but not in my budget – for years now.  I’m hoping to make it there next summer, but for now I’ll have to settle for reading about how to implement active learning and creating maker-centric environments.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire: A classic with which I am generally familiar but still haven’t read yet.  I feel like saying, “I haven’t read Pedagogy of the Oppressed” is akin to saying something like, “I’ve never seen Star Wars” or “The Beatles?  Never heard of ‘em”, so I plan to rectify that this summer. What’s on your summer reading list this year?

Summer Reading: Humble Suggestions

Summer is a lot of things to a lot of educators: a time to reflect, a time to rest and recharge, a time to seek out valuable PD opportunities, or a time to work second (and third) jobs.  For me, summer has traditionally been a time when I catch up on all the books I want to, but can’t, get to during the school year.

If you’re like me and looking to stock your nightstand or your Kindle with new stuff this summer, here are a few ed-related books I’ve read recently I think you’ll enjoy, in no particular order.  In my next post, I’ll share some books I hope to get to this coming summer.

It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, by danah boyd: I’m still in the middle of this one, but I’m really enjoying how she explores the central thesis, which seems to be that nothing is new under the sun; kids always have and always will congregate and engage in certain identity-establishing behaviors, they’re just now doing it more in the landscape of Twitter and Instagram than in malls and parks.  I’m finding myself nodding along as I read, as I’m finding her expressing concepts that I have long agreed with and tried to express (to anyone who would listen), but have failed in doing so nearly as eloquently or concisely.  An excellent treatment that really dissects the whys and hows of the “social” part of “social networking” (and an excellent model as I construct the qualitative components of my own dissertation research).

Improbable Scholars, by David L. Kirp: This book had me glued to my Kindle the entire duration of a plane ride to Antigua last summer, as well as the better part of my time there.  The story of the re-generation of the Union City (NJ) public school system is as engrossing as it is inspiring.  I could (and probably should) write an entire post just about this book, but this list enumerates the basic central concepts around Union City’s school improvement plan:

1. High-quality full-day preschool for all children starts at age three.
2. Word-soaked classrooms give youngsters a rich feel for language.
3. Immigrant kids become fluent first in their native language and then in English.
4. The curriculum is challenging, consistent from school to school, and tied together from one grade to the next.
5. Close-grained analyses of students’ test scores are used to diagnose and address problems.
6. Teachers and students get hands-on help to improve their performance.
7. The schools reach out to parents, enlisting them as partners in their children’s education.
8. The school system sets high expectations for all and maintains a culture of abrazos—caring—which generates trust.

(Kirp, 2013, p. 9)

The promo materials describe Improbable Scholars as “a playbook – not a prayerbook” for true education improvement.  While I’m generally wary of bumper sticker-level reductions of complex, nuanced issues, I find this one pretty apt.  Go read this book.  Now.  Go.


My Dyslexia, by Philip Schultz: A short read, clocking in at a little over 100 pages, My Dyslexia does what it says on the tin: Schultz describes his experience growing up with dyslexia in an era before anyone knew what dyslexia was.  Spoiler/not spoiler: Schultz grows up to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, but the emotional payoff is not in the destination, it’s in reading about Schultz’s journey, for both the heartrending as well as the heartwarming.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System and Reign of Error, by Diane Ravitch: What more can I say about these books that hasn’t been said already?  Personally, I found Death and Life to be much more informative than Reign.  Death and Life provides a good historical foundation for much of the corporate-driven education “reform”, including Ravitch’s own involvement with the development and implementation of No Child Left Behind, and provides a fantastic perspective for those of us too early in our careers to remember a time before NCLB (for the record, I started teaching in 2000, which is technically pre-NCLB, but not by much).  Reign concerns itself more with the current wave of testing hysteria, “accountability”, and reformyism.  While it didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know, I really liked how it is structured: each chapter addresses a different area, presents the reformy argument, disassembles that argument (with numerous citations for support), and presents an alternative approach (again, supported by facts and citations).  It’s an excellent reference resource, if nothing else.

You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, by Vivian Gussin Paley: Paley was a kindergarten teacher who noticed that the most harmful acts committed by her students were not ones of physical violence, but social exclusion.  In response, she instituted a new rule in her classroom: “you can’t say you can’t play”.  In the book, Paley shares her thought process as well as discussions with her students about this rule, both her current kindergarteners and her former students in the older elementary grades.  Unlike Improbable Scholars, it’s not a cut-and-dry “we did this and it worked!” story; rather, it focuses on the conversations around the rule: why we exclude, how it impacts others as well as ourselves, and if – not when – we as a society can, will, or even should end the practice.  More food for thought than a how-to manual, but a valuable read nonetheless, even – or perhaps especially – if you disagree with Paley and her rule.

What books have you read lately that you feel are must-reads for educators?  What would you add to this list?

Summer Unconferences

Update: This post originally focused on only three unconferences; I was alerted to two more in the area and so updated the post accordingly.

If you’re in the general vicinity of New Jersey and Pennsylvania this summer, please keep your busy social calendar open enough to attend at least one of these summer unconferences happening in the region:

Techstock is the first official crack at the unconference format for the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the largest public employees’ union in the state.  The overarching theme of this unconference is technology integration, so BYOD (bring your own device) to Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in Galloway, NJ on Wednesday, July 16, 2014 and join 250 educators from around the state in constructing your own learning experience.  Registration fee is $35, refundable through June 27.  Read more about Techstock and register here; follow NJEA on Twitter at @NJEA.

Edcamp Leadership 2014 is the third such unconference event designed specifically for educational leaders.  Of course, this includes supervisors, principals, superintendents, and directors, but as we know, job titles do not necessarily leaders make; teachers, parents, and students can all be leaders.  After stints at NJPSA and Kean University in previous years, Edcamp Leadership 2014 will be at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education in Philadelphia, PA on Monday, August 4, 2014.  Registration is FREE, as it is for all Edcamps.  Read more about Edcamp Leadership and register here; follow Edcamp Leadership on Twitter at @edcampldr.

Edcamp STEAM takes the unconference format and focuses on science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics.  Edcamp STEAM will be at Linwood Middle School in North Brunswick, NJ on Tuesday, August 5, 2014.  Registration is FREE.  Read more about Edcamp STEAM and register here; follow Edcamp STEAM on Twitter at @EdcampSTEAM.

Padcamp is a technology unconference with a very specific focus on the use of tablets and mobile devices in K-12 education.  Padcamp takes place at Galloway Township Middle School in Galloway, NJ on Thursday, August 7, 2014.  Registration is FREE.  Read more about Padcamp and register here; follow Padcamp on Twitter at @padcamp.

TeachMeetNJ sounds like it will be very similar to Techstock in both form and function, with technology as the overarching theme.  TeachMeetNJ will also take place at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in Galloway, NJ on Monday, August 18, 2014.  I’ve never attended a TeachMeet before, but it seems to me a bit more pre-planned than an Edcamp; while Edcamp participants determine their schedule on the day, it seems you need to sign up to present at TeachMeetNJ in advance.  Registration is FREE.  Read more about TeachMeetNJ and register here; follow TeachMeetNJ on Twitter at @TeachMeetNJ.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I am a (soon-to-be former) professional development consultant for the NJEA, as well as a past organizer for Edcamp Leadership (2012 and 2013 editions).

Whether you attend an unconference, an Edcamp, or a TeachMeet (or all three), I highly recommend you go to at least one (barring unforeseen circumstances, I’ll be at Techstock and Edcamp Leadership).  Whether you lead a session or not, all five events promise to be highly participatory, and it’s as true for us as it is for our students – these types of events tend to be far more valuable for our thinking and learning than the traditional “sit & git” model.

Hope to see you this summer!