Category Archives: life


I’ve been doing some research and thinking about Ubuntu. No, not the Linux operating system, but its namesake. I started looking into it a couple weeks ago. While watching the World Cup, I noticed a commercial that included this word and I wanted to know what it meant. As I read more about it, I became intrigued and had to wrap my head around it. This post is the result of that thinking.

Before sharing this, I’ll share my classroom application for this. I have struggled over the last couple years to find balance between enforcing the rules that I want enforced and giving students input into the class rules. I’ve set  my own rules, tried to create a class constitution, but haven’t found something really effective. This year, I’ll be trying something new – a class covenant. I’ll post more about this concept later, but the applicable part for now is that I will provide guiding principles and students will identify the outcomes of those principles in different contexts. After learning about Ubuntu, I have no doubt that this will be one of the guiding principles in my classroom this year.


What is Ubuntu?

“Ubuntu” is what it means to be human. A Zulu maxim provides perhaps the simplest definition of Ubuntu: “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,” which means “a person is a person through other persons.” It is a philosophical belief that being human means recognizing and respecting the humanity of others. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong.” Tutu goes on to say, “Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself.” It is, he says, the relationships between us that make us truly human.

It is not an uncommon philosophy. English poet John Donne, in “Meditation XVII,” opined that “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” noting, as Tutu does, that being human means you are part of a greater whole. Immanuel Kant, in Groundwork on the Metaphysic of Morals, writes that all persons should “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” By treating others not as objects, but as people, we not only respect them, but respect and affirm our own humanity and the ways in which we are bound to one another.

What does Ubuntu look like?

While Ubuntu is a worldview, there are certain outward characteristics that reflect the internal belief that we are all connected, most notably the traits of compassion and justice.

It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. The quality of Ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them. (Archbishop Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream)

Tutu points out that respecting the humanity of others and having empathy towards others leads us to be positive and welcoming to other people. When we truly believe in the concept of Ubuntu, we realize that when someone else is degraded, then we ourselves are degraded. This leads us to a point where we are enacting justice on behalf of others

In addition to seeking justice, Ubuntu impels us to be compassionate and hospitable. “A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?” (Nelson Mandela). Ubuntu, according to Mandela, puts our own personal gains in a larger context – the context of something greater than ourselves, some transcendent cause. Our own personal gains, whether mental gains (such as education) or physical gains (such as money), inevitably benefit the greater community and make it a better place for everyone. Thus, those with Ubuntu are more likely to share their gains of wisdom or wealth with their neighbors.

Of course, this is no different than the Christian ethic, which values respect and justice as the highest human good. In Leviticus 19:18, the scripture says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” commanding us to recognize the inherent humanity in each other. Again in the Gospels, Jesus reminds his followers not only to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength,” but also that the next greatest commandment is that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31). In the scripture, loving God with everything we have leads to what Mandela and Tutu call “Ubuntu” – the respect and compassion that we have for each other within a community.  The end result, however, remains the same – people with Ubuntu are welcoming, compassionate, and affirming towards all people.

How to apply Ubuntu

With a basic understanding of the Ubuntu philosophy, the application of these beliefs should be somewhat obvious. Building meaningful relationships, treating people with respect, affirming people across cultural divides, and enacting justice on behalf of others should seem to be clear outcomes of Ubuntu.

Even so, there are some guiding principles that can help us become more adept at applying Ubuntu in a practical way. Stanlake J.W.T. Samkange emphasizes three maxims that give a sort of practicality to Ubuntu, much as Kant did in his Metaphysic of Morals. First, he said, “To be human is to affirm one’s humanity by recognizing the humanity of others and, on that basis, establish respectful human relations with them.” First and foremost, the application of Ubuntu requires us to appreciate not only with our words, but with our actions, the inherent humanity in each other. As a result of this appreciation, we are able to treat each other with dignity and respect.

Samkange’s second principle of Ubuntu is a practical application of the previous maxim: “If and when one is faced with a decisive choice between wealth and the preservation of the life of another human being, then one should opt for the preservation of life.” This particular statement emphasizes that respecting our humanity and the humanity of others should always be the primary motive for any action. Wealth, while useful for advancing the good of the community, should never be valued above preserving the humanity of another person. For example, even something as simple as an insult degrades the humanity of someone else, and given the opportunity to make money by insulting someone, we should always say no to the money, because that person’s dignity is more valuable to us.

Finally, Samkange provides a third principle: “The king owes his status, including all the powers associated with it, to the will of the people under him.” Those who are in power, he says, are only in power because the people have allowed them to be in power.  This democratic ideal, Samkange says, was a “principle deeply embedded in traditional African political philosophy.” Consequently, the practical application is one directed at those who are in leadership: lead courageously. Those in power must continue to recognize the humanity in the people they lead, and must continually affirm the dignity of others. It is particularly imperative for those in leadership roles to develop Ubuntu because they have an impact not only on the people they lead, but on other whole communities. Thus recognizing that they are “a person only through other persons” allows them to work for a transcendent cause, lead courageously, enact justice on behalf of others.


Ubuntu is not a religious belief. Truly, it is not even an all-encompassing worldview. At its most powerful, Ubuntu is scarcely a moral imperative. Rather, Ubuntu is an underlying belief – it provides the “why” for actions that we all know to be good and just. By recognizing that we are all persons only through other persons, that I am human only because of the humanity of others, and that humans are intrinsically interconnected, I have a reason to treat others with respect. I have a reason to be affirming of others. I have a reason to be kind and welcoming and generous. It is this concept of Ubuntu that gives us the motivation to become real human beings and to treat others as such. Ubuntu gives us validation in our mission to accept responsibility, lead courageously, have empathy, enact justice on behalf of others, and work for a transcendent cause. Ubuntu is knowing what it means to be truly human.


The Most Important R

We’ve all heard about the three R’s: reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. And by now, most of us know the “new” three R’s: rigor, relevance, and relationships. And today I am reminded why that last R – relationships – is far and away the most important R in teaching.

I found out today that a student in our district passed away last night. I had the privilege of knowing Sabrina quite well – she was in my 2rd period class three years ago. That was my first year of teaching, so I have some pretty vivid memories of that group of kids. After leaving the Junior High, many of them friended me on Facebook, talked to me in the halls when I visited the High School, and said hi when I ran into them around town. Sabrina was a gifted actress and starred in school plays and musicals. I remember her being a friendly, energetic and bubbly young lady, and loved having her in class because she seemed to bring an extra energy to the room.

As I sit back and think about Sabrina, her family, her friends, and what they are all going through right now, I can’t help but be reminded of a simple lesson: when all is said and done, I can teach the most rigorous and relevant lessons on the face of the Earth and it won’t matter. What really matters are the relationships we had, the people we loved.

We try to teach our football players this lesson – that being good at sports, being rich, or being a “playa” doesn’t amount to anything in a lifetime. Instead, it is the relationships we build that will be our legacy. After we are gone, that’s what we’ll be remembered for.

From a teaching point of view, this puts a little perspective on what we do. I can sit here bemoaning the papers I’m trying to grade because my students aren’t understanding theme. At the end of the day, though, I should really be more concerned with what kind of difference I’m making in their lives.

I don’t hope Sabrina was really good at identifying theme in a piece of literature – I hope that she knew I cared about her as a person. I hope that I did even one thing to make her life more joyful.

And I hope I can communicate these same ideas to the 155 students I have in my classes this year.

Do your kids use

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted, largely because I’m trying to keep up with more responsibilities than I can count at school and home. Nevertheless, I feel a compelling urge to post on a fairly new tool I came across called, which has the potential to be more dangerous to students than most other websites I’ve heard of. Just to give you an idea of it’s prevalence, I took a quick poll of my 8th graders. About 1/3 have a Formspring page. About 3/4 know about

Usually I like to post tools that could be useful for teachers to use – either to make the administrative side of our jobs easier or to help students learn something better. In this case, however, I want to make those few readers of this blog aware of this site, which is quickly replacing MySpace and facebook as the site du jour for the teenagers I work with. is a very simple site. Users like my 8th and 9th graders create accounts, which give them a formspring page. If you or I go visit that user’s page, we see a box to type in with a title that reads “Ask me anything.” You fill out this box and it anonymously asks the user any question you can come up with. The user will then post his/her answer, along with the question, for all to see. Simple concept, right?

Here’s the dilemma: anyone who works with young people can quickly point out that anonymity nearly always breeds irresponsibility. This case is no different. While doing a little research, I was (un)fortunate enough to come across a couple of former students’ pages on and can honestly say that I will never look at those students the same way again. After only a couple of minutes browsing around, here are a couple of things I saw that set of alarm bells in my “teacher brain”:

  • Conversations on each page quickly degenerated into some general types of questions/comments:
    • “I hate you” comments were remarkably prevalent. I saw people calling each other names that I wouldn’t use around my closest friends. Moreover, the frequency of these comments was staggering. In a lot of ways, this site more or less encourages cyber-bullying, and does it in a public space.
    • “You’re awesome” comments are much less disturbing, but encourage a pretty self-centered view on life. For example, I saw a few comments such as, “Why are people judging you? You’re so nice!” Not surprisingly, the students in question respond with statements about how they are good people that don’t judge other people but that other people actually judge them.
    • Questions/comments about sex. Every question that can be asked about a person’s sexual history, preference, etc. is being discussed in public for the world to see. Like I said – I’ll never look at some kids the same way again.
  • This site allows a space for kids to do discuss these things in an uncontrolled environment without talking about issues with parents or teachers or people who may have a little more experience and wisdom.
  • Think MySpace encouraged risky behavior? Looking at two pages on Formspring, I saw full names, cities, and cell phone numbers posted for all the world to see. At our school, we try to teach kids what information to put out there and to be responsible citizens of the internet. Apparently our lessons aren’t sticking.

Now, I’m not saying we should sue the website and get it shut down or anything like that. I’m not even necessarily saying the site should be blocked by school web filters. What I am saying, though, is that this is just another site that parents and teachers need to be aware of and, hopefully, talk to their students about using responsibly. I know I will.

Have some experience using Do your children or students use it? I’d really appreciate hearing your thoughts, comments, and questions on this one.

The Choices Teens Make

One of the blogs I read regularly, Webware, posted an article that I thought was interesting, titled “Survey: Teens ‘sext’ and post personal info.” It sums up a recent study of teenagers and digital behavior, particularly focused on cyberbullying and sexting. Some of the data quoted in the article that caught my attention:

59 percent of the teens say that posting personal information or photos on public blogs or social-networking sites is either “somewhat unsafe” or “very unsafe.” Only 7 percent say it’s “very safe,” while 34 percent say it’s “somewhat safe.” Yet, when asked about their own behavior, 62 percent of the kids post photos of themselves, 50 percent share their real age, 45 percent the name of their school, and 41 percent the city where they live. When it comes to more private information, only 4 percent post their address, 9 percent “places where you typically go,” and 14 percent post their cell phone number.

The study’s executive summary explains, “Though they are aware of the risks, many teens expose personal information about themselves online anyway.” [emphasis added]

Unfortunately, the article fails to really delve into this issue. Yes, it’s alarming that kids are posting information about themselves. Yes, it’s alarming that 20% of students are somehow involved in cyberbullying. Yes, it’s alarming that 20% of teens have sent or received a “sext.” What I don’t believe is that we are not more worried that kids are making choices that they know are bad ones. They understand that there might be a lot of negative consequences, but they choose to do these things anyway.

Has this kind of behavior from teens been going on for a while? Of course. Kids smoke and drink in spite of knowing both legal and physical consequences. Kids have sex despite knowing all the potential consequences. This has been going on for a very long time. What I don’t understand is why we are so alarmed about cyberbullying or sexting – why aren’t we worried about the underlying causes instead?

We can force kids to take health classes and tell them all about the dangers of smoking, drinking, and sex. We can force kids to take digital citizenship classes and tell them about the dangers of cyberbullying and sexting and sharing too much information. However, in spite of all this instruction, kids are going to choose those things anyway.

The question, then, must then become a deeper one: how do we teach kids to make good choices? We all have students that make bad choices. Some use drugs, some sleep around, some don’t turn in their work, some don’t study for tests. What is it that we can do as educators to move our students towards better decision making?

Normally, this is where I would start answering these questions. The problem is, I don’t have an answer. If I knew how to convince teenagers to make better choices, you would be reading my book and watching my lecture DVDs right now. But I wonder what thoughts others have on this difficult issue. How do we even begin to address this herculean problem?

Finding More Hours in the Day

The Passage of Time, by ToniVC (on flickr)

"The Passage of Time," by ToniVC (on flickr)

The last several weeks have been absolutely hectic for me. It all started when I got sick and had to take my first sick day, but much of by busyness has little to do with my health. I’ve found myself overwhelmed with meetings, grading, baseball, football meetings (already!), and the stress of being a young teacher as our district considers RIFs. All told, I’m happy I’ve been able to stay afloat. But time continues to be fleeting in my life.

Obviously, as a result, blogging has taken a bit of a hit. Though I want to post, any small amount of time I have has been spent doing something else – catching up with my wife, sleeping, obtaining parts for my new PC, etc. On top of all of this, I’m trying to work on several personal projects that I’ll have to share later.

All of this has raised two questions that I want to pose to anyone out there interested in sharing (right now, I’m particularly interested in the second):

1. For the bloggers who might be reading this, what do you do to make time to blog? Do you set aside a regular time in your day to compose posts? Do you wait for the muses to deliver inspiration? I’m curious what sort of strategies others are engaged in.

2. I’m already in the process of finding a solution to this question, but I pose it to others for additional input: what strategies do you use to make yourself more efficient, both at work and at home?Are there any theories/systems/tools that you use that help you create more time in your day for things like blogging?

Twitter Hits the Mainstream

A recent report from Bob Condotta on the Seattle Times’ Husky Football Blog notes that

Steve Sarkisian’s “Twitter” page had an announcement from him that a new wide receivers coach had been hired.

[…] I’m told today that [Twitter] is officially his way of passing on news to the Husky nation.

If Twitter had not already hit the mainstream consciousness in this country, events like this are certain to make it bigger.

I’ve continued to put off joining Twitter – I feel like I’m already trying to keep up with enough stuff as is – my blog, wikis, keeping up with my barrage of RSS feeds…oh, and there’s that whole “teaching” thing, as well. Do you think this is reason enough to sign up? Why are some of you on Twitter?

My Three Favorite Words

Go with the flow... by muha

"Go with the flow..." by muha

I know it’s kind of random, but I thought I’d at least throw this out there.

I have favorite words. These are words that sound good, look good, and have some sort of important meaning to me. In an attempt to try something different, I thought I would share my three favorite words. Maybe you could share yours, as well, either in the comments or on your blog. I’m curious to know what words some other people really appreciate.

1. Flow. I love this word above all others for a number of reasons. First, it sounds like what it means – smooth, effortless, almost placid; I can hear the long O sound trail off at the end, rather than coming to a complete stop. I love how “flow” works its way into just about every aspect of life, and in a positive way. I first began appreciating this word as it relates to Ultimate (as in, Frisbee) – it’s the idea that the offense should steadily work its way up the field to score, rather than picking up big gains or stalling in one area. Over time, though, I’ve come to associate “flow” with a lot of things: the way we should smoothly connect one curriculum topic to the next, the way a good book reads, even the how we should understand the rising and falling of life itself.

2. Balance. I love how the two syllables in this word are themselves balanced around the “L.” It creates a sort of steady hesitance to the word. In football, coaches talk a lot about “balance” and how good teams are very balanced between offense and defense, run and pass, etc. Teaching, also, is all about balance – classroom management, instructional strategies, differentiation and everything else requires finding that middle ground that gives every student an opportunity to learn. Too much of one thing and too little of another means some students don’t get that opportunity. In English, I have to balance teaching reading and writing. In Batman Begins, the villain, Ducard, says that “Justice is balance.” Even more so, I think, life in general is about balance – between work and play, busyness and rest, and so on. Without balance in our lives, we move toward the extremes of stress or sloth.

3. Space. The fleeting sound of this word – with the two “s” sounds bookending the long “a” sound – conveys a sense of calm to me. And that’s what I feel about this word. Like flow, it’s a word with a lot of different applications for me. In football, you want to get your best players out in space – a place where they can do the things they’re good at and where they can make great plays (now translate that to education). On a teaching level, it’s an important concept – allow space in lectures and discussions for students to think (also called wait time). In music, great musicians are all about space – those rests between notes. B.B. King, Miles Davis, and many other jazz, blues, and classical artists have made a living on the concept of musical space. Even on a personal level, the idea of space is appealing to me as both an introvert and a fan of the outdoors. Having the space to enjoy myself and not be bothered by people is a wonderful gift for me (one of the reasons I love snowboarding so much).

So there you have it – my three favorite words.

What are yours?