Category Archives: Motivation

7 Books That Make Great Graduation Gifts

After doing yesterday’s post about videos to inspire graduates, I realized that I could easily  list a few books that I would recommend as graduation gifts.  Oh, The Places You’ll Go is a regular favorite, but here are some lesser known choices that might work:

For Kindergarten or Primary Students:

Pete the Cat’s Groovy Guide to Life by Kimberly and James Dean (I just ordered this, so I can’t whole-heartedly recommend it, yet.  However, I will update this with a blog post as soon as I get a chance to review it.)

image from: Pete the Cat's Groovy Guide to Life by
image from: Pete the Cat’s Groovy Guide to Life by Kimberly and James Dean

For Elementary (5th or 6th Grades) or Middle School Graduates:

Heroes for my Daughter (or Heroes for my Son) by Brad Meltzer

365 Days of Wonder by RJ Palacios

Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome by Brad Montague and Robbie Novak

For High School or College Graduates:

Whatever You Are Be a Good One by Lisa Congdon

Zen Pencils Book by Gavin Than

Things Don’t Have to Be Complicated edited by Larry Smith

Of course, you don’t have to restrict your gift-giving to graduates. Teachers and administrators might appreciate these, too ;)

You can check out more general gift ideas on this Pinterest Board, and I have some other recommended books here.

Graduation Inspiration

As graduation season rolls around once again, I thought I would compile a list of videos that I’ve found over the years that eloquently describe the hopes and dreams I have for my students in the future. I’ve placed the length of each video beside it.  Not all of these are graduation speeches, but they all give one or more of the following messages: Be Kind, Work Hard, and Make the Most of Your Time and Abilities.  Most of these videos (and many more) can be found on my “Inspirational Videos for Students” Pinterest Board.  As always, please preview any video before you show it to your students.


Thoughts on Kindness from George Saunders (2:12)

Making It from StoryCorps (2:43)

If You’ve Never Failed, You’ve Never Lived (1:16)

Ashton Kutcher’s Teen Choice Award Speech (4:40), Ashton Kutcher on his Teen Choice Speech (3:15) – better for older students

The Time You Have in Jellybeans (2:44)

212: The Extra Degree Inspirational Movie (2:59)

Kid President Graduation Speech (4:12)

The Real Purpose of Your Life (2:18)

These last two are my all-time favorite videos to show departing students:

Jeff Bezos at Princeton (18:44 – his part starts around 6:27)

Mark Bezos: A Life Lesson from a Volunteer Firefighter (4:40)

For more resources, Amy Borovoy curated a wonderful list last May for Edutopia. You can find it here.

A Graduation Message from Kid President

Kid President has released a new video that addresses graduates everywhere.  Watch the video for some great advice – and to find out if he has a special “announcement” about the upcoming election ;) For more inspirational videos, check out this Pinterest Board.

Teachers aren’t Superheroes

This post is dedicated to my friend, Katri.  She knows why :)

Every day I experience small failures in my classroom. Every day I question my teaching qualifications and wonder, after 24 years, when someone will finally discover that I don’t belong in this job. Every day I look at a frustrated student and think to myself, “It’s not you; it’s me.  I should have done this differently.”

I share about 5% of my teaching life on this blog. The other 95% is mediocre at its best and somewhat Keystone-Cop-like at its worst.  And I promise that is not false humility.  Some days, the only thing that I can be proud of is that I abided by my own oath to, “First, do no harm.”  Making sure I don’t take out my own frustrations by delivering biting words to my students is a daily struggle.

Last week, I had a particularly bad day with one of my classes.  It started out well with a fabulous Skype conference that seemed to benefit all participants.  But then came a Genius Hour presentation which did not go at all well.

The group presenting for Genius Hour had shown all signs of meticulous preparation beforehand.  They took pages of notes while Skyping with an expert, had beautifully designed posters, and spent hours rehearsing.  The resulting project, however, gave little information – and then gave way to a lot of silliness.

Afterward, I kept retracing my Genius Hour guidance steps to figure out where I had gone wrong.  I’m still not sure.  I think one big problem was that I over-emphasized making the presentations less monologue-y and more interactive.  This seemed to translate as, “Don’t include too many facts and do include a highly amusing but not very educational game in which the audience can participate.” Combine that with a class that just got finished with two days of state testing and the tantalizing summer breeze outside of our classroom, and disaster was pretty much guaranteed.

I would like to say that I composed myself after the presentation and managed to salvage the rest of the day, but you can surmise from the beginning of this sentence that I didn’t.  I think I managed to, “Do No Harm,” but I’m pretty sure I did, “No Help,” either.

For at least an hour, my students did what they rarely do in my class – they all worked on the same exact assignment at the same exact time.


Any time I attempted to do a small group activity, I felt like I was playing Whack-a-Mole as I continuously found myself redirecting off-task behavior.

By the end of the day, I asked the students for suggestions.  They gave me some good feedback, so I will try to act on it and modify accordingly for this week.

This post is not about asking for sympathy or advice.  It’s actually my way of saying, “Thank you.”  Thank you to all of the teachers out there who try to do your best every day.  Even though your best may not always be the best, and you suffer from self-doubt the majority of the time, you get up each morning, re-adjust, and try again.  And, as a reward for your perseverance, you will experience those rare moments when you feel like you are the teacher you always wanted to be.

Teachers aren’t superheroes. But if we get things right every once in awhile, we might inspire a few students to save the world.


Thanks for Teaching Us (Reblog)

Thanks for Teaching Us is a site that allows students to publicly thank their teachers.  I blogged about it 3 years ago, and thought it would be good to mention it again.  Next week is Teacher Appreciation Week in the U.S. (May 4th-8th), and teachers are always thankful for heart-felt words from their students.  If they have permission to have their work and first name on the internet, allow them to type their thanks on this site.  Once it is posted, the letter can be e-mailed to the teacher.  Searches can be done on the site, as well, for teachers and schools that have already received thanks.

Thanks for Teaching Us

5 Things We Need to Start Pretending

I was intrigued by a couple of blog posts yesterday that were titled, “5 Things We Need to Quit Pretending.”  You can read them here and here.

Time to Pretend

Since I like to steal ideas but modify them, I decided to flip the coin. What should we start pretending in education?  Here are my 5 things (okay, it’s actually 6 – just pretend it’s 5):

  • Every child in our classroom is our own flesh and blood and we have a vested interest in the education they receive.
  • Our classrooms have no walls and it is just as easy to interview a student in another country as it is to speak to the teacher next door.
  • Every student has at least one social media account and it is our responsibility to teach them how to use it safely and kindly.
  • The interactive, passionate lessons you teach will have a greater impact on your students than their scores on their standardized tests.
  • Dr. Derek Shepherd did not die on Grey’s Anatomy.
  • Steve Jobs was reincarnated into the young man who refuses to stay in his seat, always asks you to repeat directions, and never actually follows them.  You will patiently engage him in exciting lessons and he will mention your name one day in the Harvard graduation speech that he was asked to deliver after creating a successful and thriving community on Mars, referring to you as the person who inspired him follow his passions.  When you retire, he will offer you one of his palatial mansions as a retirement home, which will include a chauffeur, a chef, and a hot tub that you never have to maintain because, duh, there are other people who will take care of that.

Okay, I guess I got a little off track for a moment.

Obviously it’s not pretending to think our lessons are going to effect our students more than those silly test scores.


Zen Pencils – the Book

Gavin Aung Than, the super-talented artist behind Zen Pencils, published a collection of some of his comics last November. Needing a bit of inspiration this week, I read it again from cover to cover. When I finished, I felt like I was almost as powerful as Rising Phoenix, one of his recurring characters.

Rising Phoenix from Zen Pencils "Marie Curie" cartoon by Gavin Than
Rising Phoenix from Zen Pencils “Marie Curie” cartoon by Gavin Than

Gavin takes famous quotes and creates amazing cartoons around them.  Some of the 36 cartoons included in the book are based on selected words from: Theodore Roosevelt, Marianne Williamson, Marie Curie, and Vincent Van Gogh.  Gavin’s artistic interpretation of each passage is incredibly insightful and extremely creative.

Zen Pencils Book

Of course, one of my favorite gems in the book is Gavin’s cartoon based on Taylor Mali’s poem, “What Teachers Make.” (Not one to show to your students, though!)

To see one of Gavin’s recent masterpieces, take a look at “All the World’s a Stage,” a beautiful adaptation of the Shakespearean quote from As You Like It.  This is the closest I’ve ever come to crying over a cartoon – or Shakespeare.

Though I wouldn’t recommend this book for younger children (a tiny bit of questionable language and gestures and a large portion of higher level vocabulary), you can see in this “Reader of the Month” feature that Gavin’s readers are as young as 10 years old.  You can see Zen Pencils inspired artwork by the two girls here.

The book includes a wonderful pull-out poster featuring many of Gavin’s cartoon characters and the motto, “Imagination Unlocks the Universe.”

Zen Pencils would make a wonderful graduation gift for a high school or college student or for any teenager or adult who appreciates a healthy dose of creativity and inspiration.  I will be adding this to my “Books for Gifted Students – Or Any Child Who Loves to Learn” Pinterest Board as a recommendation for older students.  If you have an interest in Zen Pencils, but you aren’t sure you want to commit to a book of 36 cartoons, take a look at the Zen Pencils store, where I guarantee you will find a poster that is perfect for any setting.