One Cocktail Napkin at a Time

Very few writers are talented, timely and lucky enough to write what they want full time and make a living. The rest of us just muddle through, carving out little nooks and crannies of space to create. In graduate school, Verlyn Klinkenborg recommended that we not wait to write until we are sitting at the right desk at the perfect hour of the day with the light shining through the window just so. “If you wait for the ideal conditions to write, you’ll never write,” he said. “Realistically, you will be writing in the midst of doing seven other things to try to make a living. So get used to grabbing cocktail napkins to scribble down ideas and writing on the train.”

I think of his advice often. As Simon takes fewer naps and more editing gigs fill my freelance plate, I’m getting better and better at squeezing my writing into unexpected and far-from-ideal times and places because, well, writers write and that’s what it takes right now.


Peter Kirwin asked me to write the end to the conclusion for our new book on education technology, Hammers Don’t Build Houses. It is a great project, and writing the conclusion was no small task. Unlike a few years ago, I looked at my calendar and could not see a single chunk of time to write it before the deadline, so I started chipping away. I thought about the book and simmered the message down to the core  while driving and cleaning. I started writing in my head in the shower and while falling asleep at night. I jotted down phrases on post-it notes that seemed to stick while playing trucks and trains. I trusted it would get finished. Then on a Tuesday, Simon fell asleep in the car on the way home from the library. I ran inside, got my laptop, and wrote the whole conclusion in one sitting in the front seat, screen pressed against the steering wheel. Simon started to stir as I was finishing the last thought. I took a deep breath, closed my laptop and smiled. “Hi honey! How was your nap? Should we go in and play play play?”

We are living in an age of possibility for teachers and education. If you like the conclusion, take a look at the whole book. Hammers Don’t Build Houses is available today!


We don’t become teachers for the fame, glory, or salary. We become teachers because we know education matters. We see that learning brings dignity. We believe that a literate society is a free society. Teachers work for the moments when our students’ eyes are sparkling, full of curiosity or accomplishment or new understanding. Master teachers have the foresight and vision to see where knowledge can go, where a group of students is heading. We create the playground, build the scaffolding, and nudge students saying, “Look, the truth went that way.” Then we step back and smile, watching them move and learn and grow in the space we intentionally carved out.

So much professional fulfillment resides in those moments of real learning and engagement. Being a part of those moments with students is pure magic. One moment of true connection, one glimpse of students claiming their own education, actively seeking knowledge, and we’re ready to sign up for another grueling school year.

Our education system needs improvement. It is not serving all kids, and every kid matters. The stakes are high and change is fast. Our students have to sift through more information in a year than our parents did in their entire childhood. We teachers have to navigate through more information, too.

Technology isn’t the answer. You are. You are the magic. You are the one with the foresight and experience, the vision and the knowledge. You are the one your students need for encouragement and guidance. You can manipulate technology to create more opportunity for engaged learning, curious seeking, and pivotal understanding.

If not utilized correctly, technology can insight bored, comatose eyes, not eyes alive with learning. With your mastery as the main ingredient, however, technology can serve you. Education needs to get better, and there is no better place to start than in your classroom.

One of the greatest gifts you can give students is taking them seriously. Challenge their capabilities. Encourage them to claim their own education so that learning does not stop at the door of your classroom. Model for young people what it looks like to give technology no more or no less power than it deserves. Claim the culture you are cultivating with your students. Harness your tools and enjoy the ride.