“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


How Students Care for Each Other

Busses drop our students off starting at 8:00 a.m. for breakfast, and first period begins at 8:30 a.m. I try to be in my room after 8 for my early birds who want to drop off their bag before they eat. One day last week, a student who usually isn’t early came in well before anyone else, picked a seat, and put his head down. I’m sure I said good morning, but I probably didn’t say much else. Students who come in at 8 and put their heads down usually want that last 30 minutes of sleep.


Fast forward to midway through first period. Students are working independently on a series of research questions about an ecosystem; while I teach English, our current focus is informational reading and writing through the lens of a science topic. Since it’s first period, many students are slow getting started, but a few are asking me questions or are ready for me to check off what they’ve finished. The student who arrived first today isn’t yet working, but he’s only recently rejoined the class after being gone for a long period. He will need my help getting started since he hasn’t yet learned our strategies for reading informational text.

As I move around the room, I notice that someone’s music is extra loud, louder than the instrumental music that I have playing over the classroom speakers. Of course the students aren’t supposed to have their own music playing, but I pick my battles. I make a mental note to ask him to turn down his music after I check in with one more student.

It’s at this moment that another student, a young man at the opposite corner of the classroom, hears the music and looks around to see whose it is. He gets up and walks across the room to the student with the loud music, the same student who was the first to come into my room. He asks him a question then pulls over a chair. He leans over and wraps the student in his arms. It’s only then that I realize that the music was hiding the fact that the student was sobbing.

If you’d asked me a week ago, I wouldn’t have said that the two boys were particular friends. And while I like them both a great deal, I wouldn’t have said that either was particularly sensitive or nurturing. I certainly didn’t expect one to cross the room and wrap his arms around the other.

I called a friend and colleague who is close to the student to make sure that she was in her office, and I wrote the two boys a pass. The second boy returned after a few minutes and put his head down. When I checked on the first boy in my colleague’s office, he was smiling, laughing, coloring a picture. When he asked for a restroom pass, my friend filled me in on what was going on. To say it’s a crappy situation is an understatement. It sucks.

I try to watch my students more closely. I ask them how they’re doing, and I make sure to listen to their answers. I tell them I’m glad they’re here. I tell they’re loved, they’re strong, they’re brave, they’re resilient. I tell them I’ll see them tomorrow.

And I hope, that just like the observant young man in first period, that they will continue to look out for each other.

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.


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Fill in the blanks:

If I didn’t have to ____________, then I ____________.

If my students were____________, then I ____________.

If my class size was____________, then I ____________.

If my salary was____________, then I ____________.

If I had more ____________, then I ____________.

If the parents ____________, then I _________.

If the standards ____________, then I _________.

If my room ____________, then I _________.

If my contract ____________, then I _________.

If the community ____________, then I _________.

If my colleagues ____________, then I _________.

If I had ____________, then I _________.

If the __________ teachers ____________, then I _________.

If my administrator ____________, then I _________.

If I could just remove ____________, then I _________.


Check yourself. How many of the if-then statements above we positive?  How many were negative?

Positive or negative answers to hypothetical statements don’t have much impact. But the way we frame our verbal and written language to our students, colleagues, families does have a huge impact.

I constantly am checking myself and my language. I make mistakes, but I work hard not to fall into the trap of ‘if-then’ negativity. And when I step into that trap, I feel the bite of its teeth. So I work to get out of it immediately.

Teachers Are Not Superstars

There are a few videos I have seen making the rounds the past couple months. Perhaps you’ve seen them, too:

https://www.facebook.com/attn/videos/1479756855393102/ (if Facebook is blocked for you, use this link: https://www.attn.com/stories/19281/what-if-we-treated-teachers-way-we-treat-professional-athletes)

They all center around the same idea: teachers are superstars, and wouldn’t it be interesting if they were treated the same way we treat our other “superstars” — in this case, professional athletes?

These are generally positive videos, perhaps making one think about how undervalued teachers are, or perhaps how overvalued professional athletes are. Typically, the response is one of support for teachers.

I have a less popular opinion: I don’t like them. Not at all.

It’s not because it’d be untenable, barring massive inflation, for our society to pay teachers multi-million dollar salaries. It’s not because I don’t find them humorous or thought-provoking.

Actually, I don’t like them because I have, perhaps, an even less popular opinion: teachers are not superstars.

*dives under his desk to avoid the stones being thrown*

Still here? Haven’t set your device on fire in rage? Okay, cool. Thanks.

Let’s think about “superstars” for a second. Who comes to mind? For me, I think of a few groups:

  • Musicians
  • Athletes
  • Movie/TV stars
  • Authors

If we limit it to those who receive incomes in the millions, that group becomes a select few musicians, a select few authors, and a decent group of athletes and movie/TV stars. Picture someone who fits that bill of a multi-million dollar-earning superstar. Have one? Here’s mine:


Serena Williams


Let’s think about what Serena Williams does, as a superstar:

  • Performs regularly, on the court, in front of thousands
  • Is an icon for a community to look to for hope
  • Is a role model for youth around the world

You know what? Those last two? I can totally get down with using those for teachers. But let’s think about what she doesn’t do, as a superstar:

  • Connect with each of her fans individually and helps them find value in themselves
  • Tirelessly work to support a community that tends to criticize her every move
  • Spend hours each day working to improve the lives of others
  • Do some of the most important work in the world regardless of pay, treatment, or status

However, each of those things are integral aspects of teaching. We know that relationships and community are crucial to teaching that is going to reach all students. For that to happen, our students have to be our partners in learning, not our fans.

We know that teachers work until they are drop-dead tired to make their communities better, safer places. And yet they are still yelled at by the masses, told what they need instead of asked what they need (check out #ArmMeWith when you get a chance). But teachers do this work anyway.

We know that teachers, every single day, work to make things better for their students. And sometimes, these students are thankful. Often, these students display no emotional response to this work. Sometimes, in the worst cases, these students kill them. But teachers do this work anyway.

Show me a superstar who does this. Show me a superstar who would give up the fans, the fame, glory, money, and accolades to become someone constantly questioned and blamed, but would continue to do the work day in and day out for the better part of their lives. All while knowing they could die just by showing up to work that day. In fact, on some level, that they are expected to die if it comes down to them or those in their care.

I’ll wait.

So when I see suggestions that we fawn over teachers as if they are superstars, I totally understand. They do some of the most important work in the world. They are worth fawning over. But not just one or two teachers who are promoted to “rockstar” status. Not just a few whom we can shower with millions of dollars. Not just the ones that some outside group decides are worthy of the title “superstar.”

Every single teacher. Every one. Every teacher does amazing work and should be celebrated. That’s not fan culture. That’s not rockstar culture. That’s not superstar culture.

Because teachers are not superstars. They’re something more.

Not One More

I am your child’s teacher.

I do not need

your thoughts and prayers

speeches about school shootings that do not once mention guns

a government that makes it easier for mentally ill individuals to purchase guns

congresspeople who place lobbyists’ wishes above those of their constituents

gun laws that ban assault weapons lapsing

another day of setting curriculum aside to address my students’ fears and questions

hashtag activism

to see one more child posting or tweeting about their slain classmates and family

to be told that today is not the day to talk about this

to look around my classroom, deciding which pieces of furniture make the best barricades and self-defense weapons

to train children how not to die at school

the solution to be that American teachers should now be armed.

We never have enough money to stock school libraries, retain full-time guidance counselors, buy supplies for art teachers, and update technology, but somehow we’re flush with the finances to buy every teacher in America a gun? I teach math, and that doesn’t add up.

I am your child’s teacher.

You want to arm me?

Arm me with books.
Arm me with winter coats.
Arm me with healthy lunches.
Arm me with a social-emotional curriculum.
Arm me with full-time support staff.
Arm me with time.

Because my arms were meant to
Hug children
Carry books
Paint watercolors
Create writing
Turn pages
Capture thinking
Open doors

They were not meant to
pull children into hiding
make bookshelves into barricades
soundlessly signal for silence
shield students from bullets

But, because
I am your child’s teacher
I would.

I am your child’s teacher.

And I am now required to
Life and death…because I want to teach kids.

I am your child’s teacher.

I need you.

I need you to care enough about children to hold accountable those who refuse to act and who ignore the fact that we are the only economically advanced country where this happens REGULARLY.

Because thoughts and prayers do not stop bullets.

Because I’m tired of going to work every day wondering if today will be the day I’ll need to shelter my children in silence to survive.

Because schools should be the safest places in our communities.

Because every time this happens, shoulders are shrugged, and complicit helplessness thrives and asks us to accept this as normal.

This is not normal.

Take your thoughts and prayers and turn them into votes and action.

Thoughts and prayers vocalize our pain.
Votes and action catalyze our change.

Not one more school.
Not one more child.
Not one more.


This post adapts and expands upon an original post I shared on my personal social media accounts the day after the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in which 17 people, most of them children, were killed.


The Courage to Teach


When I heard the news from the Parkland School Shooting last Wednesday afternoon, I was numb. I didn’t have much time to process due to the busyness of my schedule that day, I just felt an overwhelming sadness for the community that is and surrounds Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. My wife, son and I had plans to go out to eat for Valentine’s Day after we all met at a doctor’s office to get an update on my son’s broken finger. As I rushed through my afternoon and early evening, I pushed down the sadness and anger because I wanted to just be with my family and appreciate the time we could spend together.

Finally reading the news about Parkland later that night horrified me. I put my phone down and ignored social media completely for a few days. I assumed Parkland dominated my feeds because about 90% of my online connections are teachers or news agencies. I needed time to think without the constant barrage of tweets, facebook posts, images, and articles.

When I felt I was ready to emerge from my cocoon of avoidance, one of the first things I saw was the video from a rally where a survivor passionately called for us to act. Emma Gonzalez shook me to the core.

Because I have lived a relatively comfortable life, it can be easy for me to look away and shield myself from the bad things because the bad things rarely happen to me. With the exception of cancer killing my first wife at the age of 33, just about all my bad things have been temporary setbacks at best. It took me two years to get a full-time teaching job, but I know plenty of teachers which that journey took far more time. I occasionally get into arguments with family, but who doesn’t? There are days that work frustrates, but if you are a teacher and haven’t been frustrated at some point then I may need to drink what you are drinking. My current struggle is dealing with a shoulder injury caused by a car accident this past summer. Which isn’t fun, but it is legitimately my first injury since high school. I have never been the victim of a crime, sexual harassment or racial profiling. Nor have I ever had to worry when I would eat next or stress about paying my rent or mortgage. I can afford numbness because while I work very hard at what I do, I have it very easy compared to at least 95% of the world.

I have watched Emma Gonzalez’s video several times. I get teary-eyed, I get angry, I worry about the safety of my son at his high school, my daughter at her college, my wife at her school (she is also a teacher) and I worry about my middle school. And I ask myself, why would any young person want to be a teacher? If the 20-year old Tony Keefer was an undergrad now I know he would have never considered going into education. He would have said, “Why would I want to go into a profession that is under attack – both literally and figuratively?”

If we want stronger communities in our schools, we need to become better at many things. One of the things I feel we need to do better is not hiding from the issues that can break down attempts to build strong communities. I know I need to be more visible and vocal about what I think needs to change. I need to be more like Emma Gonzalez.

When I started teaching, somebody gave me the book The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer. It was one of the first books that inspired me to connect more with my students. When I leafed through it while trying to write this post, I came across this, “The personal can never be divorced from the professional. “We teach who we are” in times of darkness as well as light.”

Sadly, as I write this post, it is yet another time of darkness. Back in the front of my brain is the disbelief of how we, myself included, have become observers in a dystopia that sends ‘thoughts and prayers’ after a mass shooting, but can’t figure out how to take action. I am not sure if I completely know what I will do differently yet, but I am not hiding anymore. The professional in me will make things more personal. And I won’t keep my personal thoughts to myself anymore.

photo credit: arjan.jongkees Broken Hearts and Broken Promises via photopin (license)