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Tools Are Just That – Tools

In my last post, I filled in everyone on my inauspicious start in BBQing and cooking. I spend much of the weekend working on the floor in my upstairs bathroom, making mistake after mistake because nobody had showed my how to use some of the tools I needed to use.

I’m fortunate to have some fantastic tradespeople I call friends at out campground. Under their instruction, I have learned to use a small set of tools well while building our deck and three season room and can complete most tasks I need. What was the difference between the bathroom debacle and the deck/room success? Instruction. That got me reflecting about my last post and the way we far too often roll out technology in education.

That shiny Weber Kettle I received as a gift became nearly useless because BBQing experts had not taught me about direct vs. indirect cooking or even small-scale smoking. Somebody gave me a tool, but no instruction came with the tool.

Left to my own devices, I stumbled along, and came to believe that I just wasn’t meant to be good at BBQing because everything came out overdone, undercooked – or worse – a combination of both. Only after I built my first smoker with my own hands and discovered two sites where I could ask questions and learn, did I start succeeding as a cook and BBQer.

The first site – the BBQ-Brethren Q-talk forum – will scare non-techies. It’s a discussion forum site and doesn’t look all that user-friendly, but the people using that site couldn’t be more friendly. These folks walked me through my first pork but quote, asked questions, requested pictures to troubleshoot, and helped me cook a serviceable pulled pork for our family Christmas.

To me, this illustrates what needs to happen when we roll out technology to teachers. Yes, some folks will know what to do and run with it, but others need to ask questions, fail, and receive patient feedback and assistance until they feel comfortable enough top move forward. How often does this happen in a technology rollout? Too often, folks disconnected from the classroom decide on the technology, purchase the technology and then had it to teachers with an implied “Good luck!”

Another site that helped move me forward by leaps and bounds was Meathead Goldwyn’s Amazingribs site, referred to by some as the Rosetta Stone of BBQing. This site interested me for reasons that will surprise my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Wray. I like the science behind what Meathead does on his site. I hated science in high school, but I can’t get enough of the science of cooking. I especially like when the resident physicist, Dr. Greg Blonder, dispels long-held beliefs about cooking – this one aspect, alone, makes me want to learn more every day.

Again, what if we used this approach when rolling out technology to teachers? To me, the science of BBQing meat – and cooking in general – is the “hook” that Dave Burgess talks about in Teach Like A Pirate. How can we use a pirate hook to roll out technology to teachers? Instead of just another thing they have to learn, how do we make it something they want to learn about and improve their skill set? In the case of Meathead Goldwyn above, meathead knew if he could bust myths that made BBQing seem difficult, he could get more people interested. HIs website can prove challenging to navigate at times, so you may want to check out his book: Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling.

So, what hook should we use to roll out technology? For me, it is about helping teachers buy back time. When I first learned Google Apps, I discovered the wonderful Doctopus add-on and now I could help teachers free up hours from their weekly workload while still allowing them to provide feedback on student writing. Once teachers had that time, they always came back, wanting to free up more time. I think the “hook” answer lies somewhere in that type of thinking.

A tool is just a tool without training. My Weber Kettle, alone, did not make me a better cook. Technology, alone, did not make me a better teacher. We need to make sure we help people learn what they need to know in order to use those tools well.

Reflection: For this reflection, I want to have a question for both weekend chefs and educators.

  • Weekend chefs, what’s one new BBQ or cooking skill you could share with someone new to barbecue and grilling?
  • Educators, what pirate “hook” could you use to make technology more relevant for reluctant staff members and create that need for them to learn?



A Most Ignominious Beginning

When I got married, my aunt and uncle gave us a Weber kettle grill as a wedding gift. It was new and shiny, and I had absolutely no idea what to do with it other than dump in some charcoal, squeeze on a bottle of charcoal starter and light it up.

This made perfect sense because as a non-adult I had never had reason to pay attention when either of my parents grilled. All I know was to stick chicken directly over high heat and take it off when the outside was charred correctly.


In actuality, that made no sense. Much like putting someone into a classroom without proper training makes no sense. Oh, they know how to unlock the door, and they can mimic the way they were taught in school, but they really don’t know the art of teaching – good or otherwise.

I spent years flailing around, doing my best but not knowing where to turn for help or guidance. All of my known relatives had come of age in the 1960s and 70s where large fire and quick cook resulted in many hockey puck burgers and inedible chickens.

We can hit the fast forward button here, because I spent nearly 20 years making the same BBQ mistakes and not learning from them at all.

One day while teaching my Written Communication class for the umpteenth time, I grew discouraged by the number of students who simply went to the Tires Plus Website and copied instructions for how to change a tire. In my despair, I found inspiration and decided to learn how to do something on my own and outside my comfort zone. I’d learn how to build and use a 55-gallon steel drum smoker – something that would stretch someone who had not taken a shop class since 7th grade.

After weeks of reading and learning, I bought my first barrel, drilled some holes, found some pallets for burnout, and set it all on fire. The result doesn’t look like much, but it was a thing of beauty to me.

And the first thing I ever cooked on the smoker was this:


A bacon-wrapped, pork sausage roll known in the BBQ world as a “fatty.” I though it was the best thing I had ever tasted. My wife did not agree. In hind sight, she was probably right. In my excitement to cook something, I did not wait for the smoker to come to high enough temperature to turn billowing white smoke into thin blue smoke. And so, it probably did taste like an ash tray, but it was an ash tray I made on a smoker I made with my own hands.

I share this lackluster beginning because it fits nicely with education on several fronts:

  • If I wanted my students to stop copying directions for the web, I had to show them a different way. Plus, once I learned how to make better food, I actually brought the smoker into school and gave a hands-on demonstration and fed them.
  • If I wanted my students to take risks and actually learn, I had to take a risk and actually learn.
  • And – maybe most importantly –  I learned the importance of failure. After that first, terrible dish, I gradually got better. I think I only made one other item that tasted too much of acrid smoke. Caught in that area of “flow” in learning, I did not have enough skill – but I wanted that skill – so I kept learning. This hands-on experience helped me to truly understand Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.

My next post will show you some meals I made, places where I learned and how that learning impacted me as a cook, learner, and educator.

Reflection: Until next time, what is something you learned that was completely outside your comfort zone or skill set, and how did that experience help you as a learner, educator, and/or leader?

Cooking With Fire

I have spent that last two-plus weeks thinking about education, my role in it, and BBQ. Eduheroes Jessica Cabeen, Jessica Johnson, and Sarah Johnson wrote a book called Balance Like A Pirate, and while I do not yet have a copy, the sentiment of finding balance between my professional and personal life occupied much of my thinking.

In February, my oldest daughter and her fiancee brought my first grandchild, Logan Aaron, into the world, and from that day on I have not been the same.

Contrast that with earlier in my career where as a teacher I spent hours at school grading and prepping for the next activity or unit. In short, balance did not even register on the radar.

In addition to Logan’s arrival, I have spent the past year living apart from my family during the week and cramming family into Friday night through Sunday afternoon. My job as an Assistant Principal at D.C. Everest Senior High School is the best I have ever had and fulfills me professionally. But I go to work and then head to my in-laws to eat dinner and sleep before starting the cycle again. Definitely no balance.

All of these factors played a role in my decision to unplug and find balance for during two weeks of vacation. I turned on my away message in outlook and disabled notifications. In an emergency, someone would call, not text or email.

During this time off, a something wonderful happened – I connected again with my passion for BBQ. I’ll explain in later posts why I love BBQ (much of it has nothing to do with eating), but this re-discovery also caused me to reflect on my work as an educational leader.

My heroes Joe Sanfelippo, George CourosAdam Welcome, Peter Dewitt, Shelley Burgess, Dave Burgess, Beth Houf, Todd Whitaker, Tara M. Martin, and so many others had surely reflected about their thinking before taking a risk and putting those ideas in blogs, or vlogs, or other venues. As I cooked one dish after another on my smoker or grill, I saw connections to teaching, education, and leading.

So – long story short(ish) – I decided to take a risk and do something crazy. Instead of keeping these thoughts to myself, I decided to create a YouTube channel and put together videos of dishes I BBQ and blend in my reflections on connections to my work in education. My close friends will finally get some of the secrets to my recipes (not all), and fellow educators can also see why their work is mostly messy but matters so much. If I do this right, everyone can watch the videos and come away hungry. Hungry for BBQ and hungry for doing the important work in education. And maybe we’ll have a little fun and learn how to find balance together.

While we wait a few weeks for my next BBQ cook, I may hop on the Interwebs and post here providing a little backdrop to this unlikely combination of BBQ and Education. You’ll see the first smoker this non-tradesperson ever built and hear about some terrible food that started out as a good idea.

Until then…We’re not cooking with gas here – we’re cooking with fire.


Breath…It’s Worth It (You Can Do It)

I honestly cannot remember the last time I took an actual break from educating and leading. For my entire career, I have put in extra hours, losing family time I can never get back. All of that has changed this summer. After getting hired as the new assistant principal at D. C. Everest Senior High School, the only way we could make it work because of the long commute and the long hours required of an AP was for me to move in with my in-laws while my wife, Jenny, stayed at home so our daughter, Meghan, would have a “home base” in her final year of nursing school.

That’s right. I spend week nights at my in-laws and weekends with my family in Oshkosh or the trailer in Green Lake, WI. As challenging as this arrangement is, it has added clarity about what is important and requires attention.


Before accepting this position and making all of these life changes, I learned that I would become a grandpa next year.


That little peanut above is my grandchild. I don’t even know if we have a he or a she, but it does not matter one bit. That child served as a wake-up call. I cannot serve others – as a husband, father, grandfather, family member, and leader – if I do not take time to be “present” in my life when life happens.

Seriously, school and the upcoming year could not have been further from my mind.

I took actual vacation for the first time EVER. My laptop bag and iPad stayed behind at home while Jenny and I took a road trip and just enjoyed our time together out-and-about.

I stopped thinking about school and enjoyed the view from a Tiki Bar in Elkhart Lake, WI. We even took a photo in front of “Antoinette” in Plymouth, WI, the “Hub City” of the dairy industry. We did take and post pictures, but my thoughts stayed on that precious time with my wife the entire time. Seriously, school and the upcoming year could not have been further from my mind.

Those two folks on the left are my amazing in-laws, Mary and Ken Lawrence. Without them, I could not have said yes to the phenomenal opportunity here at DCE. On the right is my godson, Max, who may or may not even know I’m his godfather – we see him far too seldom.

Neither of us have ever seen me relaxed before.

My point here is that even though I have returned to the work of preparing for the school year, I will keep remembering to find the balance. After leaving work yesterday, Mary called and said her sister, Lois – the spunky lady just to Mary’s left – had invited us to watch Max perform on the patio at a local restaurant. I immediately said “Yes,” and I’m so glad I did. I cannot ever remember feeling as relaxed as I did yesterday evening. I enjoyed singing along as Max belted out Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel” and the Eagles’ “Hotel California.” And I laughed along with my family members as we told funny stories. I was reminded of when I came home that first weekend, and my wife greeted my with “What’s wrong with you? You look different.” You see, neither of us has ever seen me relaxed before.

Work Will Always Be There

I came into work early this morning, so I could write this post and watch the response to the promo video I spent yesterday filming and editing to tease the upcoming home opener for varsity football. Work was right where I left it, and I easily picked up where I left off yesterday. The difference this time? Last night, the only thing that mattered was time with family and friends. When I leave tonight, I will head to the trailer in Green Lake and enjoy laughing with my youngest sister, Rebecca, and my brother-in-law, Regan.

Don’t lose sight of what is important: your significant other, children, grand babies, family, and friends. Make work important and your passion while at work, but in the words of the venerable sage:

Bueller Quote