My COVID-19 Diary: Writing. What works for me.

This is my 35th daily post since the COVID-19 quarantine began. A group of my colleagues initiated a blogging group that I have committed to. It’s called #BlogginThruIt. CheckTwitter, you’re welcome to join us. Maintaining a writing routine can be exceedingly difficult. I’d like to offer a few ideas of things that have worked for me in this blogging journey.  

Find your spots. I find the best time of day to write is early in the morning before the rest of my house is awake. I can edit a piece all day long but to sit and compose, using voice to text in my case, I need stillness. Figure out when you do your best work and seize those moments. Avoid letting other tasks infringe upon them. If you’ve got kids, and writing takes place best when they are napping, do that. It’s unfortunate that the same machine that I use to write is also capable of delivering Twitter, Facebook, and Voxer. Don’t let your social media feed distract you, keep these tabs closed on your browser and turn off phone notifications for your favorite feeds.   

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Get small pads. I got this suggestion from the trailer for a David Sedaris Master Class on writing that I’m threatening to take but haven’t done so yet (those things are expensive!). I’m an inveterate note jotter. I’m good with follow up only because I write things down. Sedaris uses small bound notebooks (were they leather? couldn’t tell, I only watched the trailer).  I seem to do fine with the pocket size spiral notebooks from Staples. I get them in bulk in varying colors. This way, the red one is for work notes, the blue one for writing ideas, the green notebook is for home tasks/grocery, and “to do” lists. The main thing, have something you can use to record the ideas that occur to you when they occur to you. Index cards. Junk mail envelopes (I like the slight heft of these). You can use your phone if you want. For me, I find there’s something organic about writing ideas down in my own cursive handwriting that is itself an act of intention. Whatever you use to record your thoughts, these are the ideas you’ll come back to when you sit down to write.

Keep your posts short. If you write a post approaching 1000 words, when they open it on their computer or phone, especially during this coronavirus, many people won’t read it. The typical attention span of a blog reader seems to be between 300-500 words. If I find I’m writing a post exceeding this, I break it up into two, three, or even four shorter posts. This piece is part of perhaps 4 pieces that were originally written as one long reflection on writing blog posts. Of course, if you keep them short, you’re more likely to maintain your momentum in writing every day. 

Going to stop here and take my own advice to keep this short, more humble reflections on writing tomorrow.

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My COVID-19 Diary: Why write?

I’ve joked in previous posts about how little I am accomplishing during the quarantine. This is partially true, adapting the challenge of working from home has mediated any productivity I might have derived from having fewer “live” people around to distract and the lack of a commute that previously consumed about an hour of every day. If I have to give myself a grade for my performance during the quarantine, and why not, everyone seems to be grading themselves, I’d score myself a fairly generous “C+”.  

One thing I have managed to do is publish a blog post every day during the quarantine. I’m happy to have done so for a variety of reasons. I appreciate the opportunity to offer my reflections during this unusual time. It’s not that the Library of Congress is calling to include this blog in its collection but, yes, these are historic times. So much is beyond my power at this unprecedented time, but I have total authority over my writing.  I can’t govern when the quarantine will end or how I need to act during it. My older sons are quarantined, as is my dad, 86, struggling with dementia; I miss seeing them “in person”. Writing helps me to win control in a time when it’s easy to lose a sense of purpose and agency.

As a school leader, I welcome the opportunity to communicate and share the struggle with stakeholders. I’m not sure if my kids read my posts but some parents and members of the community do. It’s fun when, on the rare occasion when I do interact with them in person or virtually,  folks say something to me that indicates I’ve made a connection. Three different people last week reached out to tell me they have a version of the “Re-Wear Chair”. I’ve discovered a dozen others who also have Pelotons and enjoy sharing their rides with me. Some parents at my school reach out with cooking challenges; I have a wicked paella planned using a recipe from one of my 8th graders. Blogging regularly has helped me reconnect with the power of narrative. Sharing stories connects us with other people at the level of the heart as well as the mind. 

Hoping to keep going.  What are you doing to beat the quarantine? What’s your story?

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My COVID-19: Friday un-Focused #6

My favorite writer on the topic of attentional issues is Edward Hollowell who wrote the books Driven by Distraction, Delivered from Distraction, and my favorite, Married to Distraction. His books contain abundant wisdom about managing an adult life in which it is difficult to focus and stay on-task. A Hollowell tip, find points in the day that work best for different tasks and do those things at those times!  Of course, during this global pandemic, I can’t remember any of his other advice, so I’m just going to offer random thoughts:

We all have shining moments in our day.  Mine are the notifications I get on my phone from Waze telling me how long it will take  to get to my next meeting if I leave the house now. “Scheduling meeting with Chad – Light Traffic – Leave now to be there in 27 minutes.”  During quarantine, I arrive to this meeting at my dining room table via Zoom in 27 seconds. I suppose I’m saving gas but I would love to get in my car and drive to that meeting at school.

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Whenever I take the parkway here on Long Island there is a sign that says, “Stay home, Stop the Spread.”  My 9 year old daughter, Juliet, who I drag along with me anytime I leave the house,  always remarks, “Dad, aren’t they a little late. If we’re here, we didn’t stay home.” She may be falling behind in science but Juliet’s pretty observant.   

IMG_5674None of you will admit it but now that you have less contact with people in the outside world, you have a version of “Re-Wear Chair”.   The Jericho T-shirt you wore for only 10 minutes to do the morning announcements, the jeans you dressed in to buy an onion at the grocery, the collared shirt you donned for 20 minutes for a Zoom meeting attended by people who aren’t in your immediate family; I’m not gonna wash those! Have you seen the lines at Costco? I’m sure they’re out of Tide Pods! (Don’t tell my wife about the “Re-Wear Chair” She has yet to catch on.) 

Can somebody tell my wife that although Wayfair does in fact have “just what we need”, we don’t need everything that Wayfair has? And would it kill them to throw an extra screw and a washer into the box. Also, what godforsaken units are used for that Allen wrench they include; it’s not metric, it’s not imperial! That Allen wrench is NOT in your toolbox.  If you lose the bloody thing you better send the whole item back or are you going to use the box it came in as your end table.

It was W.C. Fields who declared, “Never work with children or animals.” For school leaders, this approbation has taken on a peculiar poignancy. Lately, I’m on video often. I try to clean myself up and my kids occasionally wander into the frame of the video, but my youngest daughter is nine years old and she already looks like a teenager (see video below). How can I compete with my colleagues who have babies, toddlers, and puppies jumping in their laps or onto the bed beside them? I’m open to ideas but it’s not like we’re getting any puppies or babies here before the quarantine is over. Suggestions to “amp up the cuteness” welcomed.

I know there was something I was going to do before I started writing this post, oh yeah, wash my hands. You should too! Stay safe, stay well, stay sane.

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My COVID-19 Diary: Is it a snow day? “I don’t know”

John Dewey wrote, “We don’t learn from experience, we learn by reflecting on experience.” But what experiences can leaders draw upon to learn about the pandemic?  The most challenging thing about our current condition is its singularity. The Spanish Flu killed 675,000 people in this country, but that was in 1918. There’s so much we do not know because no one alive today has lived through anything like this. 

Admitting “I don’t know” may be one of the most difficult things for me to acknowledge as a leader, but there’s one area of school management in which I should possess a great deal of practice with this simple phrase.  Indeed, most middle school principals in the Northeast of the United States have practiced saying it for decades with regards to a peculiar regional phenomenon: The Snow Day. 

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Weather is fickle. I don’t know if this will change now that students have been forced to remain in their homes for nearly 10 weeks, but it can be taken as an article of faith that middle school kids love a good snow day.  If the forecast calls for snow, kids will study the sky and scour weather reports on their phones to determine whether school will be closed the following day. 

As a principal, I make it my business to be present in the hallways as much as possible. On days of impending snow, if 500 kids pass me in the hallway, I’ll be asked 500 times, “Is school closed tomorrow, Dr. Gately?”  The skilled middle school principal has learned to keep a poker face at times like this. Of course, I say,  “I don’t know.”  In my setting, these decisions are made by the superintendent of schools, not by the principal (thank goodness). Nevertheless, my kids either don’t realize this decision isn’t mine or they think I have an inside track on the determination.  So they ask, constantly.

Adolescents are discerning observers of facial expression and body language. After all, middle school is essentially like Marine Boot Camp devoted to preparing students for a life of social interaction.  So I occupy a world in which kids are keenly attuned to nonverbal communication. They watch everything we do. It’s essential that I remain stone-faced when I’m asked if school will be open. If I say,  “I don’t know”, but my facial expression communicates, “I wonder if there’s gas in my snowblower?”; my 13-year-old amateur detectives will pick that up until the whole school believes, “Dr. Gately said we’re having a snow day tomorrow.”   Even before social media, a rumor like this would travel around my school in about eight minutes. You’d hear a collective cheer raised by the entire student body. But this doesn’t happen because I possess years of experience with “Snow Day Stone Face.”  I really should play more poker, but I don’t allow gambling in the lunchroom. images

Our generation may not have dealt with a global pandemic before, but we have experiences, however tangential, that can be referred to for guidance as we cope with one.  What experiences are you calling upon to be successful in these trying times?  I need to know. I need all the help I can get.

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My COVID-19 Diary: What you don’t know

The job of the principal in the school building is to know things.  I need to know what’s going on in the classrooms of the school, but also in the lunchrooms, and the hallways, and on the athletic fields, not to mention the locker rooms (oy… the locker rooms). Curiously, I’m also expected to know what’s happening in the boiler room and that room with all the electric wires. For the record, I know where these rooms are but I rely on our incredible Head Custodian, Mr. Mandrachia, to tell me the deal with boilers and circuit breakers. What makes this role both uniquely challenging and exciting is the diversity of people and processes with which you engage every day.  It’s a lot to know about.  

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Kids think I know how to spell the Spelling Bee words

However, when you are a school leader or any kind of leader, you must recognize that there are times when the only appropriate answer to a question is, “I don’t know.”  At times of crisis such as we are experiencing now, this is ever more critical.  Folks are willing to give you trust based on the accuracy of the messages you relay, yet providing reliable information has never been more challenging. Even scientists are having to admit there’s a great deal they don’t know about the virus at the center of the pandemic. Every week the shape of coronavirus symptoms seems to change. First, it was respiratory impacts, kidney failure soon emerged as a common impact, then cardiac arrest, and this past weekend there was an article about “COVID-19 Toe”.  This is not the kind of shifting fact pattern we are accustomed to from science. In this context, how can a humble middle school principal be expected to transmit correct information to his staff and to families? It’s critically important for those in positions of leadership to ensure precision of information, or, lacking this certainty, to admit they do not know.   

Over the past eight weeks, I have said “I don’t know” in a professional context more often than I have uttered these words in my entire career. And I better get used to it. I watched Governor Cuomo’s news conference when he closed school buildings for the year. I thought his decision would answer the big question. But it took scarcely a beat for reporters to ask: What about Graduation? Prom? Grades? Summer school? What about September?

Leaders can become more comfortable saying, “I don’t know”; but can the rest of us get used to hearing it?

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My COVID-19 Diary: I don’t know?

In my personal life, I rarely say, “I don’t know.”   It’s not that I know a lot, far from it, but I’ve always felt that when you’re in a conversation with somebody, you are there to contribute. 

Before I explain, one exception…. 

I have one exception to this rule. It’s a deviation I have learned over long experience. 

When asked, “Do you know where the ______  is?”  or “Have you seen the ______?”; unless I know exactly where the item is, and I can go get the _______ and produce it to the delight of the seeker who posed the question, I do not offer an opinion or admit the last place I saw it.  Here the thing young readers, this question is a trap!  When you offer a theory or admit that you saw the “kitchen shears” (in my house,  ______,  is usually scissors) on the dining room table earlier in the day, it is now your fault that they’re missing. If you offer a theory about where they might be, it is now your job to find those kitchen shears. In the category of lost items, I have conditioned myself, much as it causes me great emotional turmoil, to respond, “I don’t know.” 

Otherwise, I find it difficult in conversations with family and friends to say, “I don’t know.” 

It’s like rowing a boat where two people each have an oar,  if one of them doesn’t pull their oar equally, the boat’s simply going to go around in circles. If we’re talking, it’s my job to pull my oar by sharing my thoughts. Someone I admire once told me, “When asked a question, you aren’t always expected to give an answer, sometimes all that’s required is to talk about the question.”  I’ve consistently tried to deliver on that requirement. If you expected me to say “I don’t know” why did you ask me?  

Perhaps it’s in my DNA. My ancestors, who valued conversation with near-religious reverence, huddled around a turf fire in a dark pub in Galway, wouldn’t countenance,  “I don’t know”. Even if I have no expertise in an area, I’m willing to give you my thoughts or venture an opinion on what I think the answer might be. I make sure to provide context, never asserting that what I’m about to declare is empirical truth.  “I read an article about”, “something like that once happened to me or to somebody I know”, or “I don’t know much about this but here’s what I think” are typical sentence starters in these circumstances. Verbalizing a theory or planting a flag somewhere in the vicinity of the query is something owed to the person on the other end of the conversation. My position is that people who say “I don’t know” are refusing to hold up their end of the chat. It’s the price one pays for admission to the discussion right?

This is a quirk of my personal life, how I am, ‘at home’.  In my PROFESSIONAL life, however, as a school leader, I have learned that it is sometimes essential to say “I don’t know.”  This deserves more conversation. But we want to know, in what ways are your personal selves the opposite of your work selves, and you’re not permitted to say, “I don’t know.”   

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My COVID-19 Diary: Who are you “at home”

I quipped in a recent post that there are three distinct school districts in operation under the roof of our home right now. Last week I needed to retrieve something from the East Williston School District, the APA Style Manual 7th Edition that was in a small bookcase next to my bed.  I heard a familiar voice coming out of my wife’s computer. Let’s call him Tim. His name’s not Tim. But the voice was very familiar to me. I didn’t hear what he had to say but I was curious.

When Danielle came down to the Jericho School District at lunchtime, her commute has been reduced to about 7 seconds, the walk downstairs from the upstairs bedroom, I asked her if she had been talking to Tim, a friend of mine. She said that she’d been in a Zoom meeting. We left it at that. Being educational leaders in neighboring school districts, we have developed the habit of steering away from matters that might infringe on the confidentiality of individuals with whom we share relationships.

This has me thinking about the intersection between our professional lives and our personal lives, an essential question that has long held my attention.  To what extent are the persons we bring to work, the same as the persons we are at home? And, vice versa? During the curious psycho-sociological experiment that is the global pandemic, this dynamic has never been more on display. Some of us, working from home, with our families within arms reach, are now both our professional and personal selves under the same roof. Families are confronting the work lives of their spouses, dads, moms for the first time.  The reverse is also true, many overworked professionals are presenting to their families some version of themselves 24/7, and hoping it works. What to do? 

Is the work YOU and the home YOU the same?   Who’s the YOU that is in your house 24 hours a day? I’d love to hear how you’re answering these essential questions.

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My COVID-19 Diary: Friday un-Focused #5

My wife Danielle is also an educator so we joke that there are three school districts operating in our house. Yesterday I got up from the dining room table where the Jericho School District is located and went upstairs to the East Williston School District three times and just stood there, forgetting why I made the trip.  

Such is my state of concentration during this unusual time. I’d like to offer some random thoughts:

Without the distraction of a normal daily routine, food, specifically, dinner, has become the center point of our day. We put in place a rule, you can’t start asking “when’s dinner” until after 11 AM. 

Yesterday:

Danielle: “Do you want pork chops?” 

Me: “I don’t know, I’m not that excited about pork chops. Maybe there’s a recipe.”  

Danielle: “I know you just said something but what I heard was, ‘The kids liked the pork chops too much last week, let me look for a way to make them in some fancy way to make sure that they hate them this time.”

Can anybody tell me how we ended up with so many blueberries? We have almost 3 pounds of blueberries but we’re down to four rolls of toilet paper. That’s not helping anybody. We made some killer scones… but still…

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Another movie that is always on cable, Donnie Brasco. What’s so soothing about Johnny Depp doing a bad Brooklyn accent?  I prefer him with the eyepatch.

Sometimes I compare the way I look after Peloton workouts to the way Danielle looks. Hers seem much harder than mine, she’s more out of breath. She says it’s all about the music, “Don, how sweaty do you expect to get doing a half-hour workout to the soulful tunes of James Taylor?” She’s got a point. You got a friend…

I’m noticing that during a Zoom Chat in gallery view, some people are able to remain so still that you’re not sure if it’s really the person or their thumbnail picture; or if their screen froze. Other people look like that scene in The Exorcist where Linda Blair’s head turned completely around on her neck. I’ve learned a new trick in meetings. There’s usually at least one person who is constantly glancing down and appears to be doing something with both hands. That’s the person who is taking notes. I side text them and ask to share the Google Doc with me. 

And I’m certain I won’t be the first educator to comment that I hope we can keep the mute function when we return to face to face school. Imagine how handy that feature is going to be period 9 on a day before vacation (Don looks wistfully off into the distance, contemplating period nine in the school building the day before vacation, remember that?)

Enough randomness.  Go wash your hands! 

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My COVID-19 Diary: I want to talk like that

I’m 11 years old, it’s springtime of seventh grade and my friend has a neighbor whose nieces from Texas visit every year to spend a week in New York. One of the girls was our age, the other, a bit older. For several reasons that you can probably decipher, we look forward to this visit every year. For the other 50 weeks of the year, we’d devote a great deal of time discussing them.  When you’re 11, you can spend loads of time talking with your buddies about nieces from Texas. We could kill a whole afternoon considering the nieces; add-in, “who’d win in a fight”,  and that’s a full day of conversation for a bunch of unsophisticated young adolescents  (for the record, I still think my sixth-grade math teacher could “take” the lady at the security desk at my school). When the nieces were in town, we’d use any excuse to walk by the house or even ask the aunt if she needed us to help her with anything.  I can only imagine how transparent our motives appeared to her as, for two weeks of the year, we became the most altruistic kids she’d ever met.   

Not the only, but one of the reasons we fixated on the nieces from Texas were their accents. They spoke with a deeply appealing southern drawl that was captivating to our ears. My friends and I were fascinated by their use of the “ah” sound in simple words like  “faav” (five), “pah” (pie), and “naht” (night). In conversation, we’d artfully try to get them to employ this diphthong for our benefit,  “What’s that cake with the fruit inside called? What’s the opposite of ‘day’?’ Okay, maybe not so artful.  Their way of speaking rendered the native diction of our East Flatbush neighborhood both crude and pedestrian. 

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On stoops (Dutch for “porch”) in Brooklyn, kids spent a great deal of time solving the world’s problems. Some of our chats had this theme, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have an accent.”  Hours contemplating which dialect would be best. Some of our grandparents had peculiar ways of speaking, but their “off the boat” inflected English from Ireland, Italy, and Germany seemed to our ears out of touch with the modern world. On T.V. we heard elocution from every part of the country.  Wouldn’t it be cool to talk like somebody from California (Beach Boys), Hawaii (Hawaii Five-0), or Texas (the nieces)? We may have even tried some of these accents on for size.  It’s my recollection that most of these debates ended, as many young adolescent discussions do,  with my friends concluding that having any accent beside the one we had, would be stupid.  That it never occurred to us that all we had to do was move 100 miles in any direction out of New York City and we would have had an accent was  a testament to our naïveté.  

The fact is, while this is another post about regional dialect and pronunciation, it’s also an accurate snapshot of the nature of adolescence. Middle school kids, teenagers, want to fit in, but at the same time, they want to stand out. They want to be different, just like everybody else. As an 11-year-old, I was enthralled by the distinctive regional accent of the nieces from Texas. But, if I tried to affect it myself, if one of my friends did, we would think it was stupid. It’s challenging to be different when you’re in middle school, but you can,  as long as you’re being yourself. There’s something that people always respect, at any age, authenticity. If you really are from Texas, or California, or Hawaii, or if you really are into Star Wars, or coin collecting, or Harry Potter… then kids will respect that. Be yourself. If you don’t believe me, go stay with your aunt in Texas for two weeks, they’re gonna think you are sooo COOL!  


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On the stoop, solving problems

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My COVID-19 Diary: That’s not how we talk

It’s been 30 years since I moved out of Brooklyn but traces of #BrooklynForLife can be detected in my speech to greater or lesser degrees depending upon the circumstances or my temperament at a given time.  I swear to God I was working on this post before I saw this piece from the Associated Press (if you could hear me say out loud the opening phrase of this sentence, it would give further context to what I’m asserting here).  I’ll leave it to sociolinguistics to parse out the difference between Brooklyn and  Queens elocution but the New York accent, whether via Anthony Fauci (Brooklyn), Andrew Cuomo (Queens), Chris Cuomo (who actually had COVID-19, also Queens), or Bill de Blasio (who knows), is front and center during the crisis. As we became the epicenter of the disease, the pandemic has given a megaphone to our often maligned elocution. 

Inaccurate versions of Brooklyn diction in TV and film have always irked me. Law and Order has been on television for over 30 years so virtually every actor in America has taken a shot at it, and if they missed out on L & O there was always Blue Bloods.   Actors have diction coaches with whom they hone regional inflections for the various roles their careers demand.  I lack the expertise to determine with certainty but they seem to do a passable job with southern locution, the Irish brogue, and cockney-speak but when it comes to the distinct articulation of Kings County denizens, they invariably fall short.  Perhaps because I’m saddled with it, I tend to be hyper-sensitive to poorly rendered Brooklyn accents.  Boston dialect must be much easier to operate because it’s the vehicle that mediocre actors default to when the advice of their diction coaches fail them. I’ve watched with mild annoyance as many episodes of Law and Order took the exit ramp onto the highway that leads to Good Will Hunting and The Departed driven by dubious versions of the Brooklyn accent.   

So when Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings are no longer available, maybe I can get a job as a diction coach.  Fuhgeddaboudit!

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