We Don’t Know…Yet

Quiet down
And listen

The kids
Have something
To teach

A few years ago, I invited a friend of mine, who was working as a local television meteorologist, to do a weather presentation for our third graders. He talked about thunderstorms and rainbows, and even did that awesome tornado-in-a-bottle trick to teach them about a twister’s rotating winds. At the end of his presentation, he opened it up for a Q&A. Kids asked questions about his job, and more questions about tornadoes. Then he called on a student who happened to be one of the most brilliantly gifted children anyone on my team had ever taught. Using vocabulary I didn’t even know, she proceeded to ask a complex question about positively and negatively charged lightning.

Needless to say, our weatherman was stunned, the teachers shot the “this-kid-is-smarter-than-I’ll-ever-be” look at each other, and the students sat waiting to know if the expert knew the answer. After a moment of shocked silence, he was able to answer her question, but later shared with me that it made him sweat!

Now, he is an expert in this field. Adept in math, science, and technology, he was well-equipped to respond, even if he didn’t expect such a high level question from an 8 year old.

We, as educators, especially elementary educators who teach across curricular areas, are experts in our field, but I will be the first to admit that my students stump me regularly. And you don’t have to be a child genius to be able to do that to teachers. I don’t always have the answers.

Early in my teaching career, when I was asked a question, I remember scrambling to compose coherent responses, because I was the teacher. Wasn’t I supposed to know and have the answers? I have learned a lot in my journey as an educator, but one of the most valuable realizations was this:

My job as an educator is not to have all the answers. My job as an educator is not to demand that students have all the answers either. My job as an educator is to teach students that questions are worth asking, how to ask questions, and how to seek answers through critical thinking and problem solving.

The most powerfully honest words you can speak to a child who has asked a question you don’t know the answer to are “I don’t know…yet.”

Modeling what it looks like to not know yet, and then sharing how to seek knowledge and understanding is what we are ultimately hoping to teach our children in their pursuit of lifelong learning.

And sometimes, our students come to us, with a bounty of expertise and background knowledge on subjects we have barely dabbled in. If we insist on being the “sage on the stage”, only our experiences and range of knowledge is shared and blessed. But if we create student-centered environments in which learners have opportunities to be teachers, and teachers become learners, we communicate to children that they are worthy and capable of being heard and acknowledged. They see that even teachers are always in the midst of a learning process.

No one has proved that more than the brave teenagers of Parkland, Florida who have demanded “never again”. They have taught their peers, and young ones looking up, but especially adults, that they will not be defined by others’ generational marks of criticism: they are addicted to their phones, lazy, and have no attention span. Instead, they started a movement. They leveraged their social media skills to garner international attention for gun reform, organizing a nationwide walkout just a week ago to honor the victims and to make visible their voices. They changed laws. They are unrelenting. Grassroots planning, conducting interviews, giving speeches, organizing a march in the nation’s capital. Every single day since that tragedy, they have been active and vocal. They wondered what could be done to ensure this never happens again, and they have been seeking the answers since then.

No adult told them to initiate this movement. It is of their own creation. Circumstances demanded that the kids become the teachers this time, and if we are wise, we will support and sustain them, because this time, this time, the adults need to listen.

Being the expert in the room doesn’t mean we have all the answers. It means we are experts in teaching children that learning is wondering, thinking, and following their inquiries. We should be expert enough to know that it also means descending from the stage and taking a seat to listen to our next generation of wonderers, thinkers, and doers. What will they learn, accomplish, invent, change, and solve?

We don’t know…yet.


Knowledge Versus Behaviors


I have been struggling with the idea of shifting what we know about empathy into consistent actions that show empathy. After 22 years in education, I consistently observe the knowledge of what empathy means is more developed than consistently acting with empathy. My struggle is not just because I see kids “saying the right thing” but not always “doing the right thing” – it is my struggle, a teacher-in- general struggle, a parent struggle, a human struggle.

Over the course of my first year in a middle school setting, I have witnessed numerous opportunities for students to say and do the right thing. Sometimes the word and actions are very little, like a student saying thank you to another; sometimes they are big, like a group of students voluntarily helping to work with special needs students.

Sometimes I witness the perplexing situation of students being able to say the right thing, but do the wrong thing within the same class period.

About two weeks ago, I read aloud the book Nerdy Birdy by Aaron Reynolds to my classes. Nerdy Birdy is a fabulous book. It tells the story of a bird who is invited to a community of birds after he has been excluded by a group of “cool” birds. Nerdy Birdy is later disappointed when his new community excludes a bird that doesn’t fit in with their norms. Both during and after the read aloud the discussions of this book were fabulous. The seventh graders saw some of the humor in the descriptions of the birds and they explored the hypocrisy of the group of birds that welcomed Nerdy Birdy. We also talked about how these moments of inclusion/exclusion happen in the real world. They shared ideas about immigrants, cliques in schools, and the gap between the rich and the poor in our city as well as our country. They said all the right things.

After the read aloud and discussion, the students moved into an individual work time that gave me the chance to work with a small group and confer with some individuals. After about 20 minutes of this individual work time, I asked the students to find a partner to share some thinking about what they accomplished that day. We have a sharing norm, that when I say partners, it means two people in a discussion. If based on attendance, we have an odd number of students in the class, I will ‘claim’ a partner so everyone is involved in a discussion with one other person. In all of my classes that day, I witnessed several students actively avoiding others. There seemed to be a desire to not get ‘stuck’ with a partner who was not perceived as a friend. Even though they could say the right things less than 25 minutes ago, they struggled to do the right thing.

Once I gave a gentle reminder of the expectations of a partner share, everyone eventually found a partner for this two-minute chat, but there were some eye-rolls and tangible sighs before everyone had someone to listen to his/her thinking.

I feel like I put forth a great deal of effort into community building. I believe that the kids I work with could identify characters in stories who show or lack empathy and compassion. I believe that if asked, “What would you do in _______________ situation?” they would all say the right thing. However, I am still troubled when I don’t see them act in a way that shows they understand the right thing to do.

It could be easy to dismiss the ideas I just shared with the notion that my students are 12 or 13 years old and over time they will learn how to control impulses (like actively showing frustration when you are disappointed with an outcome) that could make others feel unwelcome or excluded, but I see the same problems with myself and other adults. I am definitely guilty of not consistently doing the right thing. When I reflect upon my actions, I get frustrated with myself, but I can’t seem to break the cycle. I fail to include colleagues, family members or a neighbor. I cringe when I am expected to work or be around people I have had difficulty with in the past. I struggle to entertain ideas that might challenge long-held beliefs about a variety of topics.

With role models like me, is it any wonder that students in our schools have difficulty doing the right thing? 

The statement above was not written in a state of self-loathing or as an attempt to dismiss the thoughts of anyone who knows that I definitely do not walk through my life as a teacher by yelling at kids, shaming kids, or actively show disrespect to others. That statement is an honest statement. I believe I am a work-in-progress in regards to consistently acting compassionately and with empathy. To be honest, I also believe we all are works-in-progress. However, if we want our students to grow into the future adults we hope them to be, we all need to do better.

For now, I will continue to work at being a better version of who I am. I will also continue to give chances for my students to both say and do the right thing. Maybe next year if I read Nerdy Birdy, I won’t see the eye rolls or hear the audible sighs later in the class period.

photo credit: MTSOfan Legalize Empathy via photopin (license)

Domino Effect

If you haven’t gotten your hands on Carol Ann Tomlinson’s article in Educational Leadership, November 2017 it is a must read! Her article, Citizenship at Its Core, reminds us that if we want to prepare our students to become good citizens of our world we must start in the classroom.

She writes about how complicated our world is and as teachers how we are charged with helping our students navigate heavy issues like conflict, injustice, poverty, and much more. This article reads much like a guide to how we work to create classroom communities where students can be dignified with the heavy task of learning to be a good citizen of our world.

She states…“It’s daunting work to create a classroom world that models what we hope the broader world could be.” –Carol Ann Tomlinson

I was highly encouraged by her piece. Encouraged make time to listen, respond, and make space for children to explore the issues they see in their world. Also to be more intentional about taking instructional leads from their voices.

In late February, Aliza sent me a tweet to check out the kid section in the New York Times. Little did I know the domino effect the tweet would cause. At the end of the kid section there was a page of opinion lines that sparked emotional conversations that lasted for days and left a trail of passionate learning artifacts that looks like this:

IMG_0017These statements led to this…


Which prompted students to create this…

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That sparked the idea to make this…

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And excited others to think about this…

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Which made others want to develop this…

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My students have been busy creating public service announcements, writing speeches, making signs for our school, and trying to plan field trips to places they can go and make a difference. As Carol Ann Tomlinson reminds us that, creating citizens starts in our classrooms, as a classroom teacher I see everyday how passionate these young citizens are about what happens around them.  This group of second graders, much like most children around them, want to save the world NOW as in TODAY! Exciting times.

The Power of a Smile

We recently had a speaker to our school who was talking about bullying.  As a staff, we were asked to have a follow-up discussion with our students.  I wanted to help my students take preventative action and pulled a few picture books to help us discuss kindness.  We enjoyed each story and I planned to collect our own ideas, Ways We Can Be Kind.


The collection process was filled with good ideas.  They have honest and intentional thinking for showing kindness.  Then the magic happened.  A student shared the idea; give smiles.  I probably commented on how that is a simple thing we can all do.  We were currently doing a morning greeting at our morning meeting where we greet each other nonverbally with a handshake and smile; encouraging eye contact.  The student sharing reminded us about our morning greeting and said, The Power of a Smile.  All of my senses perked up.  I rambled for a bit with the students about her thinking and commented that these words sounded like a book.  I instantly began thinking and wondering what each student would say about the power of a smile.

The students got very excited about making a book.  They were literally begging me to make this into a book.  We discussed the phrase; The Power of a Smile.  We made our first draft.  I looked them over and thought the ideas were okay but I thought they could be bigger and better in a simple way.  The next day we did our morning greeting.  I wanted my students to experience a smile, many smiles and then before revising their writing.  Most of them chose to completely rewrite their ideas.

I consulted my art teacher with our idea to publish a book and that I wanted to look into really publishing it outside of our classroom and she pounced on helping with the art work.  I love to paint and I love to create with my students but her enthusiasm was hard to turn down.  She believed in our project; The Power of a Smile.

Today I can share our some of our text because our illustrations are in process.  I hope next month I can share the visuals and let you know our publishing plans.

-When my mom smiles at me, she encourages me at doing something.

-I think the power of a smile is when someone is feeling lonely.  You go over and smile at them and say do you want to play?

-You take aboard the smile train!  You take a smile and the engine starts to go and the train feels warm!

-I felt like a sign of happiness hit my heart.

-A smile makes me feel better even if  I’m having a good day.

-When somebody gives me a smile, it makes the clouds blow away and makes me fly.

-A smile is super strong.  A smile can make your day.  You should give a smile every day.

-A smile is not just a smile.  A smile can make everybody feel better.  The power of a smile can make everybody’s day better even better than normal.  If you see somebody crying first smile then have a little talk.

-When somebody smiles at me, I know my day is going to be awesome!

-A smile makes me feel like a super hero and like I have kindness magic powers.  It makes me feel like I am welcomed in the world.


I hope you have a moment today where you can give a smile and feel like a super hero.


The Feels

The * Feels /thə feelz/  n. shorthand for the word “feelings” that is used to describe an intense emotional response about something that has deeply affected the speaker.  (source: knowyourmeme.com)

The past week in my classroom has been hitting me right in the feels. I’m so blessed to have a job passion that allows me to get this intense emotional responses every so often. These past five days have been a roller coaster of emotion in Room 27. Here is why…

Feels #1 – March Book Madness

After months of build-up, Tony and I are launching the voting rounds for the March Book Madness book tournament. For the next four weeks, schools all over the US (and some in Asia) will be reading, discussing and voting for books in our brackets trying to determine the TOP book for “Compelling Characters.”

The response to this year’s MBM is unprecedented. Tony and I receive tweets daily from teachers and librarians showing us how much MBM is inspiring the love of books and reading in their schools. Nothing brings me more joy than to see photos of kids examining and pointing at the bulletin board in their classroom with the MBM bracket. I’ve seen Flipgrids, Padlets and iMovies with students sharing their love of a particular book and persuading their peers to pick it to advance to the next round.

Tony and I text regularly about how we can’t believe how this small idea we hatched during a twitter chat in 2014 could give thousands of young readers such excitement and joy about books.

Feels #2 – Refugee

Last Friday, we finished reading Refugee by Alan Gratz for our read aloud. (If you have not read this book, you must, after reading this post of course, go straight to your local independent bookstore or reserve this book from your library.) This particular read aloud with my fifth graders has been like no other. Not only did I have students begging to miss recess to keep reading another chapter, I had students getting copies from the library so they could start reading it again during their free time. But, the suspense and action-packed plot was only part of what made this book truly magical.

Refugee is not just a book. It’s an experience. An experience that allowed me to connect to my students’ lives unlike any other book has. I teach in a school that is almost 30% English language learners and 25-30 students have refugee status. One of them is in my class. He is old enough to remember his journey, yet comfortable enough to pull me aside and tell me that this book made him sad.

Throughout the book, I would show videos about refugees from Nazi Germany in 1940, Cuba in 1994 and Syria in 2015 to provide context to the characters. I will never forget hearing students say “That’s not fair!” or “Why are they doing that?” as they watched Hungarian border patrol aggressively deny entrance to a group of refugees. Forever etched in my mind is the image of three girls huddled together, arm in arm, as we read the author’s note. I’ll always remember watching Mason wipe away a single tear from his cheek as we listened to the final chapter. And perhaps he will always remember watching Mr. Jones wipe away a single tear at the same time.

This book is powerful. Students have talked about it every day since finishing it.

Feels #3 – Letters of Thanks

Each planning period, I walk to my staff mailbox and look to see what annoying professional development pamphlet I’m going to recycle that day. But, this week, I didn’t get any. Instead, I received three envelopes all addressed to me in “not-adult” handwriting. I opened each envelope to find handwritten thank you cards from former students. I took them back to my classroom and began to read. Here are a few samples of their words that are the epitome of right in the feels.

“Thank you for making school fun and making me glad to actually come to school.”
“In your class, school became a happier place that I used to think about it.”
“Thank you for teaching me things that I can pass on to other people to help them too.”
“Thank you for kickstarting my confidence. I’m taking high school math classes in 8th grade.”
“You have made me see what is worth seeing.”
“Thank you so much for boosting my confidence to keep going and never give up.”
“After your class, I feel like I see the value of education.”


IMG_0848My intention is sharing these is not to be self-congratulatory. Rather, it is to show how their thank-yous are not directed towards the assessments, daily lessons or academic standards we provide for our students. Instead, their appreciation is rooted in how our classroom community made them feel.

Most teachers get into this profession to make a difference in the lives of children. It is often a thankless job, and we don’t always get the recognition from our students or the community. Yet, our jobs as teachers is unlike any other job.

We get to see the excitement on our students’ faces first hand when they finally solve that math problem.



We get to experience a great book with our students every day.

We get to provide safe spaces for our students to ask, wonder and notice.

We get to kick start a child’s confidence.

We get to see learning take place first hand!

What makes our job so special is that we actually get to feel the feels.

Did you allow yourself to feel the feels this week? I invite you to share the source of your feels in the comments section.

“There’s no room for you here…you can’t play”

I’ve always been intrigued by play. I knew going back into the classroom this year, after being out in a coaching role, that there was going to be space for play throughout the day in our second grade classroom. Our classroom community was built on the principles of play. Play is how we learn, how we think, how we connect.

Throughout this year I have learned a lot about my students by watching them play. I would argue that they have learned more about each other from their play. But just recently their play has started to feel different.

I first noticed a change during indoor recess where I heard a student say, “There’s no room for you here…you can’t play.” Nothing anyone who works with children hasn’t heard before but this idea of “no room” and “you can’t play” started to spread. Not only was it continuing to show up at recess but also during the other parts of our day.  Questions like, “Can I be your partner?”  and “Hey, can I join?” went ignored or even rejected at times. This was new. New behavior that I hadn’t noticed happening before.

It was apparent that we had to stop and address it. Vivian Gussin Paley, who in my mind, is the expert in children’s play wrote a book called, You Can’t Say You Can’t Play. In this book she writes about this rule in her classroom and her students experiences with it. I decided to take a move from her practice and introduce this statement to my class, You Can’t Say You Can’t Play.

Before I showed them the poster with the saying I asked them a series of questions to help me understand what was happening better. It looked like this…

I’m going to ask you all some questions that will help me think. I want you to close your eyes and lower your head. I’m going to begin asking questions now and please just keep your heads down and be as honest as you can.

Raise your hand if you have felt left out in this classroom.

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Raise your hand if someone has told you that you couldn’t play in this classroom.

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Raise your hand if your feelings have been hurt because someone in here wouldn’t play with you.

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Raise your hand if you have told someone they couldn’t play.

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Raise your hand if you have left someone out.

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Once we were finished I put the number of hands raised next to the statements and then showed them the poster.

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The conversation that followed was powerful and eye-opening. My students have worked hard on being kind, safe, respectful, and brave throughout this year but there was a hiccup and they realized that they had to figure it out.  At the end the students wanted to sign the poster and keep it up as a reminder. But for me, my reminder, wasn’t the poster. The reminders are the questions I can’t get out of my mind as witnessed those tiny hands raising again and again.

Questions like:

Who raised their hand every time?

Who didn’t raise their hand because they were scared too?

Who am I missing?

What am I missing?

Who feels like they have power?

Who could might feel powerless?

These pictures are also a constant reminder that each and every day I have to do better. I have to do better at continuing to build the inclusive community we all want. I have to do better because now I know better.

“By kindergarten…a structure begins to be revealed and soon will be carved in stone. Certain children will have the right to limit the social experiences of their classmates. Henceforth a ruling class will notify others of their acceptability, and the outsiders learn to anticipate the sting of rejection…spreading like a weed from grade to grade.”

Vivian Gussin Paley

You Can’t Say You Can’t Play


12:00 a.m. Phone Calls

12:00 a.m. phone calls are never fun.

First ring:  Foggy, confused.  What is that noise?  Am I dreaming?  Phone lit up.

Second ring:  Focus eyes.  Screen is too bright.  12:01 a.m.  A call from Saginaw Township Community Schools.  What?  Did I over sleep?  No, it says 12:01 a.m.  That’s too early.  Sudden panic!

Third ring:  Leap out of bed, fumble with the phone, accidentally pull the charger out of the wall.  Adrenaline is pumping.  What is going on?

Hit green accept button just before the fourth ring.

This is a message from Saginaw Township Community Schools.  All STCS schools are closed tomorrow, Monday February 26th, due to a threat circulating on Social Media. This will give the Saginaw Township Police Department and school administration time to investigate. As always, the safety of our students and staff is our first priority.

All Child Care is closed

Staff need not report.”

I had to immediately go to my email to read the text from the phone call.  My brain is still a little cloudy and I can’t process what I just heard.  I still question if I’m dreaming.

Snow days, cold days, freezing rain days, and foggy days still give me butterflies even as a 39-year old adult.  The butterflies are still there at 12:03 a.m. but the feeling is completely different.  Sadness, fear, frustration, and anger.  

I open the Facebook app on my phone and start scrolling.  Parents are getting the calls at the same time.  Several posts, similar sentiments:

“This is getting ridiculous.”

“This is out of hand.  I don’t even have words for this.  Frustrating.”

“School is canceled tomorrow because of a threat on social media.  I am grateful that our school takes it seriously, but this is getting crazy.”

I shake my wife and tell her about the message.  She sits straight up just as confused.  Suddenly my son stumbles into my bedroom.  Hair sticking up, Michigan t-shirt and pajama pants, barely awake, but startled by the strange phone call.  He heard my wife and I talking about school being canceled. “We don’t have school tomorrow?” he innocently asks.  “I checked, we don’t even have any snow.”  I can almost feel my heart break just a bit.  Deep breath.  Swallow the frog clinging to my throat.  Quick cough.

“We will talk about it in the morning, buddy.  Just go back to sleep.”  What do you say to a 9-year old and a 5-year old?  How do you explain a gun threat day?  How is this even happening?  How did we get here?

I wish I could follow my own advice, but that’s not happening as my mind is racing and running through a gauntlet of emotions.  After ten minutes of tossing and turning, I head to the living room.  I try to distract myself by reading Elly Swartz’s new book, Smart Cookie, but find myself going back to my phone every few pages.  School shootings and school security have been on my brain almost nonstop since February 14th.  I have read countless blog posts (see Tony’s post and Aliza’s post on this blog), engaged in Facebook/Twitter discussions (some insightful and some completely asinine), listened to ideas from politicians and community members.  I have wept for the students at Stoneman Douglas and lost sleep wondering how this can happen again and again in our country.  The phone call hits me like a Ronda Rousey punch to the gut.  This is happening in our city, our community, our schools.

I don’t want the focus of this post to be on the debate on gun control or mental health.  There have been plenty of great articles published on both topics.  I do want to focus in on the increasing number of threats that are being made and shared on social media.  First, here is how I asked talking to both my sons.  For the kindergartener, I simply told him we are taking a day off to make sure everything in the school is safe.  He doesn’t need to know anything more than that.  It was a bit more complicated for the 4th grader.  He has heard bits and pieces from the news about the school shooting in Florida.  I told him that someone at the high school threatened to hurt some of the other students at school.  The person that made the threat was probably joking, but whenever there is a threat at schools it is taken very seriously and the police investigate it.  It happened late at night which means they didn’t have enough time to properly investigate so they canceled school to give the police more time.  The person that made the threat is going to be in big trouble with the police, even if it was just a joke.  It is never OK to joke about hurting other students.  If you ever hear any threats at school, make sure you let a teacher know.  I ended by assuring him that school was a very safe place.  I imagine the conversation would be different if my sons were middle or high school students.

I appreciate that I work in a district that puts school safety at the top of the priority list.  It was undoubtedly the right decision to cancel school.  Safety of the students always comes first.  This threat, like so many other recent copycat threats, turned out to be uncredible.  After an investigation by the police and FBI, it was determined that the message was copied and pasted and had likely been shared all over the country.  I have heard similar threats all around the country that turn out to be “jokes” or hoaxes. However, I don’t find anything funny about it.  I hope the police charge both the students and the parents to the full extent that the law allows when threats like this are made.  We have to send a clear and strong message that this type of “joke” will not be tolerated.  It’s offensive to the communities that have gone through real tragedies and increases the anxiety and fear in our students.  

As parents, we need to be responsible for our children.  Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter all require users to be at least 13 years of age as part of their terms of use.  Furthermore, just because your child is old enough to meet the terms of use for social media, doesn’t mean they should have unsupervised access.  Parents, we need to do a better job monitoring what our kids are doing online.  Smartphones, tablets, and Chromebooks can be great tools for learning, but they can also be tools for isolation, bullying, and threatening behavior.  Parents need to be held responsible for these tools.  We should all have our children’s passwords and let them know that we can ask to check them any time we want.  This isn’t a violation of privacy or trust, it is being a responsible parent.  I have talked to several families that take their kid’s phone at night.  I think that’s a responsible start.  Some other families have shared how they use apps like Kidslox to monitor and limit access.  As parents, we have to be responsible for knowing what is going on in our children’s lives.

As schools, we have to do more to build relationships with students.  I know the academic demands are greater than ever, but everything we do starts with a solid foundation of a relationship.  We need to check in with students frequently and make sure we have resources to help them when needed.  In almost every threat situation, there are signs that a child needed help.  We also need to spend time talking to our students about the seriousness of making threats.  They need to know these “jokes” are going to be investigated and will result in life-changing consequences.  

I want to thank and recognize the students in these schools where threats are happening.  They are doing exactly what we are teaching them to do: if you see or hear something unusual, report it to staff or the police.  When it comes to school safety, it is better to be safe and report something than let it go.  This is something we can fix.  As citizens, community members, schools, staff, and students – it is time to say enough.  Stop the violence.  Stop the threats.  Stop the hate.  This needs to stop now.  America, we are better than this!  

As I was finishing this post, my cell phone rang.  It was my wife.  She said her school was on lockdown because shots were just fired at Central Michigan University.  Central Michigan University is just a couple of miles from her school.  It turns out 1:00 p.m. phone calls are just as terrifying.