To Raise a Reader

(I wrote this post last week for our families on my school blog.)

If parents want to raise a reader, someone who engages in reading regularly and voluntarily, they should read aloud to their children. Put away the flashcards and take down the sticker charts for number of books read. Make reading aloud every day a priority.

As a parent myself, I realize that this task can be sometimes difficult. There have been evenings when reading aloud didn’t happen in our home due to work or other obligations. However, we have made it a ritual, as regular as brushing our teeth.

The science that supports reading aloud to children, both at home and in school, is clear. Next are some of the biggest benefits, although this list is not exhaustive.

Reading aloud to children:

  • Increases vocabulary acquisition
  • Improves reading comprehension and fluency
  • Increases engagement in reading
  • Broadens their imaginations
  • Improves student writing
  • Fosters relationships between the adult and child
  • Develops listening and speaking skills
  • Facilitates meaningful conversations

Two books reference much of the research on reading aloud: In Defense of Read-Aloud by Dr. Steven L. Layne and The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. Trelease’s resource is in its 7th edition now and should be in the home of every family. Some hospitals will send The Read-Aloud Handbook home with new parents. It was a book I relied on when I taught elementary school.

BUT WHAT IF I HAVEN’T READ ALOUD TO MY CHILD UP UNTIL NOW?

This feeling is called “retroactive guilt.” Educators feel the same way when we discover a new strategy or method and then think about all of the students we had in the past who did not have access to this better practice. The best thing to do is to start reading aloud now and make it a habit. For a list of titles that will engage kids at every age level, go to Scholastic’s list of 100 Best Read-Aloud Books.

MY STUDENTS ARE NOT IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL. WILL THEY ENJOY BEING READ ALOUD TO BY ME?

Yes. Tweens and teens may not admit it, as adolescents seem hard-wired to resist any and all direction from the adults in their lives. But they will enjoy it as long as they find it interesting and they have some say in the book. The best read-aloud books are typically plot-driven. They can’t wait to see what will happen next. Consider these lists of possible titles from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Older students also enjoy pictures books; they can even read them aloud to their younger siblings. Audiobooks to listen to on smartphones and in the car is another option.

BUYING BOOKS CAN GET EXPENSIVE. HOW CAN I KEEP THE COSTS DOWN?

Two words: Public library. Mineral Point has an excellent public library with helpful and knowledgeable staff. There is an entire floor dedicated to children’s literature. Library staff offers a storytime for little ones every Monday morning at 10 A.M. If transportation is an issue, consider utilizing Overdrive, a digital library of eBooks and audiobooks. Patrons can check out titles and download them on their smartphones, tablets, and computers. Overdrive also has dedicated pages for kids and teens.

Reading aloud is an easy and enjoyable activity for any family hoping to raise a reader. At the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention, some Mineral Point Elementary School faculty heard children’s author Mem Fox speak about the importance of reading aloud. Her ten commandments for reading aloud are applicable to parents and educators.

Cajun Dancing

“Would you like to go Cajun dancing? It’s for my friend’s birthday.” I have to admit: at the time that I heard this request from my wife, I might not have been attentively listening. If I had, I imagine I would have asked a series of questions.

“What is ‘Cajun’ dancing?”

“How much does it cost?”

“About how long do we have to stay?”

My inquiries would have been more about my desire to avoid this activity than any interest in dancing. Alas, the day came and I had committed. At the very least, we could connect with friends and have a night out.

We got to the dance hall and checked in. The instructor called us to the middle of the floor for the lesson before the dance. After a brief introduction of the style of music, we got started. “Okay, we are going to start with the basics. Three steps to the left, lift foot and dip, and then three steps to the right, lift foot and dip.” She modeled this with a partner plucked out of the circle at random. Then we tried it.

My wife and I only got to briefly dance together during the lesson. The men were moved one partner to the right after each bit of new instruction. I could tell which partners were as new to this as me by the mutual sweat in our palms. Those more veteran to Cajun dancing were unfiltered in their feedback. “Be sure to put your hand on the blade of my shoulder, not the side.”

Having adequately introduced ourselves to just about everyone in the hall, the instructor transitioned our music from a CD to an actual Cajun band. They needed to do a soundcheck before the official dance began. Feeling good about our progress, our instructor announced, “Okay, don’t worry about being perfect. The most important part about Cajun dancing is to…have fun!” The band started playing and we danced.

The beginning was rough. We bumped into other couples. I lost my step count more than once, even though I was counting under my breath. “Are you leading me, or am I leading you?” my wife quipped with a smile. Yet for all my initial fumbles, I finally found my rhythm, more or less. Counting steps gave way to spins and turns.

This new learning experience revealed missing elements in too many classrooms. When was the last time we as educators kept reading and writing instruction to the bare minimum? What would happen if we positioned our students as teachers and learners for each other more often than not? How would our student respond to the announcement, “Don’t worry about being perfect; just go have fun!” after a brief writing demonstration? Yes, some students would flounder. But not for long.

In an educational world where accountability as left no lesson untouched, the victim of standardization is engagement. We have lost faith in our students’ natural abilities to learn. Our fear of mistake-making has squeezed out some of the joy that should be a by-product of this process.

Let’s get our kids out on the dance floor as soon as possible. Yes, we should teach strategies, offer feedback, and provide assistance when needed.  But is achievement without engagement an education worth having? 


I am currently scheduling one- and two-day workshops for this summer. Topic: How to use classroom technology for developing self-directed learners.

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Educators participating in this workshop will become more confident and fluent in using digital tools in the classrooms. The goal is to identify practices and technologies that can nurture self-directed learners. This professional learning experience will be student-centered, engaging, and relevant for all educators, K-12.

Click here to request more information.

How to Create a Twitter List of Reliable Media Sources

Twitter has been the primary medium for sharing news regarding the presidential election and transition. This social media tool can be effective for gaining multiple perspectives on a topic or cause. The challenge with Twitter is in how to use it so the information you are receiving is reliable. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff?

My suggestion: Create a Twitter list. You don’t even have to follow people or organizations to put them on a list. Here’s how:

  • Select “lists” within the menu under your Twitter profile picture.

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  • Scroll down and select “Create New List”.

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  • Select a hashtag relevant to the topic of interest, such as #WomensMarch. Find people on Twitter who are reporting information and offering commentary (versus simply stating opinions on a topic).

Often journalists and news organizations will have a blue check next to their profile picture. This means they are verified Twitter accounts and have a broader audience on important topics.

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Once you find sources that are reliable for media coverage, select their profile and add them to a new list. You can create a new list when you start looking on Twitter. There is no need to follow them if you prefer not.

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  • Start reading your Twitter list.

The easiest way is to select the list within your Twitter account and read the feed. When posts are retweeted within the feed by those you’ve listed, this can be an opportunity to add more reliable media sources to your list.

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If you read on an tablet or smartphone, I suggest downloading Flipboard to read your Reliable Media Sources list. This free application offers a more visually appealing way to read tweets. You can still access Twitter through Flipboard.

If all of this is too much, you can also simply follow my reliable media sources list. Click here to follow. One caution: Avoid reading these list feeds constantly. News reports can become all consuming, even when the sources are valid. We need to live in the real world so that we have some grounding in reality and be a part of our communities.

In an age where the credibility of the press is openly questioned, it is more important than ever to know how to navigate the information available and decide which sources are most reliable. Fake news does exist. Yet it is up to the reader to determine what sources can be counted upon for facts. A more informed public is the best way to combat misinformation.

Most Memorable Blogs Posts of the Year – 2016

Every year around the Thanksgiving holiday, I provite a short list of memorable blog posts I read the last twelve months or so. This is not an award show. I cannot say that these are the “best blogs” of the year or anything, although these posts were very well written.

I curate other writers’ posts on my own blog for two reasons. Selfishly, I want to have an easy way to come back to what they wrote to read again and possibly inform my own writing. Unselfishly, this list (and past lists) are a great place to start exploring what blogging looks, sounds and feels like. Maybe their posts will inspire you to blog yourself.

Without further adieu…

A tragic story well told by Father Tom Lindner (Are We There Yet?)

Father Tom is the priest of the Catholic church our family used to attend. Here he writes about the importance of journalism in the era of the 24 hour news cycle and social media. Father Tom also reflects on the challenges of the priesthood. His honest reflections coupled with his prior experience as a journalist makes for an insightful article.

Why We Are Opting Out of Testing by Christopher Lehman (Christopher Lehman)

An educational consultant offers his reasons for opting his oldest child out of the state test in New York. He shares the steps a family could take to ensure that they understand all sides of the issue. This post does not resemble other calls to opt-out that merely demonize testing. Lehman provides an objective, factual and personal piece.

“Making” Does Not Equal “Constructionism” by Peter Skillen (Inquire Within)

Peter Skillen provides a brief history of making and makerspaces. His piece stand out due to his belief that this approach to learning is about more than just electronics. Makerspaces allow us to be “active creators of our own knowledge” in all disciplines.

Building poems, art, music, mathematical solutions and so on are all part of the ‘maker movement’ in my mind.

If we are tinkering but never building understanding or developing new ideas, then we are not utilizing makerspaces on behalf of students to their full potential.

Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year by Kim Liao (Literary Hub)

I always appreciate hearing about other writers’ struggles, of course not to revel in them but to feel okay about my own many rejections. Liao shares how she received 43 rejections and didn’t meet her goal of 100. Why 100 rejections? According to a colleague of hers, “If you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances, too.”

Where Ideas Go to Die by Brad Gustafson (Adjusting Course)

Dr. Brad Gustafson, an elementary school principal, shares his debate on whether to host an all schol picture using a drone for his building’s 50th anniversary. He understands the need to celebrate, yet has concerns about disrupting the school day and classroom instruction. Brad realizes the importance of holding his “no’s” at bay, at least at first.

Hate is a Strong Word by Ben Gilpen (The Colorful Principal)

Ben visibly shares his struggles with a teacher evaluation system that does  not align with his professional philosophy. He shares a personal experience as a golf caddy to illustrate the importance of being objective when observing teachers. Ben’s thoughts about the limitations of staff supervision are candid and appreciated.

I came to my first ISTE expecting to find educators sharing stories of inspiration and struggle… by Adam Rosenzweig (Medium)

I submitted a proposal for the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) convention. It was rejected. This post from an educator working with at-risk students provided some perspective. Rosenzweig found that the ISTE experience was “a sales environment” and a lost opportunity for educators to engage in deep conversation about how technology might improve teaching and learning.

My favorite quote from his post is: “What problems are we hiring edtech to solve?” Wise words. It reminds me of another turn of phrase, adapted by me: “If technology is the aspirin, what is the headache?”

Note to Educators: Pay Not or Pay Later! by Dr. Gary Stager (Medium)

Ever since I read Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom (on sale now), I have been a big fan of Stager’s and co-author Sylvia Lebow Martinez’s work. Here, Stager admonishes education’s infatuation with “free” technology. He points out the problems in not paying for technology that supports student learning, including the challenge of smaller software companies to produce excellent resources.

The Uber of Education is a Horrible Idea by Dean Shareski (Ideas and Thoughts)

Shareski offers his perspective with regard to integrating technology with instruction in the name of being more efficient in this endeavor. He sees many flaws in the approach. “Education at its core is about relationships and experiences. At its best, it involves caring adults designing and guiding learners through rich learning tasks.”

A Level is a Teacher’s Tool, NOT a Child’s Label by Jill Backman (Fountas and Pinnell Blog)

I was so thankful when I discovered this post. It said everything I felt about the inappropriateness of telling a child they are a “level” when self-selecting books to read. To a deeper point, any teacher using an assessment should be able to tell you a) who it’s for and b) why it’s being used. Backman offers a concise rationale for why levels are not for kids.

School Offices Must Serve as Sanctuaries by Jimmy Casas (Passion…Purpose…Pride)

A topic not often brought up in educational leadership discourse is the importance of the front office of any school. Casas offers a helpful comparison between morale builders and morale killers. It is a post worthy of sharing with your own office staff.

A Thousand Rivers by Carol Black (Carol Black)

If I had to pick one post – one article – as a favorite read from the past year, this would be it. Black offers an expansive overview of the limitations of applying research to education, specifically in reading. This is essential reading for any parent questioning a school’s decision on behalf of their child.

Mistakes Will Be Made

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I recently read aloud the first book in the Timmy Failure series to my son. The author, Stephan Pastis is the creator of the comic strip Pearls Before Swine. The first volume in this series, Mistakes Were Made, aptly summarizes Timmy’s struggles. He is a young, clueless detective who could not find his way out of a paper bag. Timmy’s ineffectiveness as an investigator is due to his overconfidence and his unwillingness to listen to others, even when they are right and are trying to help. My son has thoroughly enjoyed this series. He listened to the second book in the series on CD. We purchased copies of the first two volumes for him so he can reread them. He is now asking me to read aloud the third installment. I am only too happy to oblige.

I thankfully do not have a lot in common with Timmy. While I am a part of a new school district, it will be with a position I am familiar with (elementary principal). My experience as an educator spans sixteen years. I would like to think of myself as a good listener and leader. As prepared as I feel, however, I know that mistakes will be made.

I bring this up because more than once someone has told me how much they are looking forward to what I will bring to Mineral Point Elementary School. A humbling news article was printed in the local paper almost immediately after I was hired. The expectations are clear: The school will only improve with my addition. While I appreciate the vote of confidence, I know the sheen of my hire will eventually dull. I’ll make decisions in which not everyone will agree with. Circumstances will put me in no-win situations. Plus, I am a person. As they say, “To err is human”. It’s the nature of everyone, not just the principalship.

So what can one do in these circumstances? First, it is imperative that trust is built and relationships are developed. There has to be an investment in people, that social capital in which I can draw upon down the road when I make hard decisions. Staff need to know that I am there for them and will get to know them as a person. With trust built and relationships developed, they will be more likely to see me in that same light.

The toughest thing about the power of trust is that it’s very difficult to build and very easy to destroy. The essence of trust building is to emphasize the similarities between you and the customer.

― Thomas J. Watson

Also, having systems in place to allow for trust to build and relationships to develop is necessary. Mineral Point Unified School District has invested in this professional infrastructure. For example, there is a full time library media/technology integration specialist at the elementary building. Time has been allocated each week on Wednesday afternoons to discuss curriculum, instruction, and assessment. A current elementary staff member has been repositioned as an instructional coach. Providing time, resources and support for professionals to have important conversations about our practice will only deepen trust and relationships.

Finally, it is critical to keep the focus on the reason why we work in education: Student learning. It is not about the curriculum or the tools. It’s about the kids. It seems quite simple. Yet as anyone who works in education knows, it is much more complex than that. So many expectations and tasks, helpful and otherwise, are thrown at us throughout the year. It can be easy to get bogged down in the details. My job is to help staff stay above the fray by protecting time to collaborate and offering strategies for being more effective in our work.

As I said, mistakes will be made. This is one of the few things I can count on as I prepare for the school year. By building trust and developing relationships, providing structure for our professional conversations and focusing on what’s most important, any mistakes I make will be mitigated with these positive and intentional efforts.

I will be taking some time off in August from my blog to complete some writing projects. I may post my progress on my website (mattrenwick.com) in the meantime.

Recent Books I’ve Read and Recommend

Being in between positions, I am finding more time to read books and write about them. I usually post my ratings and reviews on Goodreads. This social media tool provides an HTML code of your post to publish on your blog. So…here you go! Look for more reviews over the summer. If you have titles you have read recently and would recommend, please post in the comments.

The Action Research Guidebook: A Four-Stage Process for Educators and School TeamsThe Action Research Guidebook: A Four-Stage Process for Educators and School Teams by Richard D. Sagor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A comprehensive guide for educators to conduct action research in schools. The author provides lots of templates as well as examples from both the teacher and principal perspective. I used this text to conduct my own action research. The four stage process was explained well. It might be too much information for educators just getting familiar with the action research process.

Beastly Bones (Jackaby, #2)Beastly Bones by William Ritter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An entertaining follow up to the first Jackaby book. The author provides enough red herrings to keep you guessing about the perpetrator and its origins. A nice blend of mystery, paranormal, and humor.

Solving 25 Problems in Unit Design: how do I refine my units to enhance student learning? (ASCD Arias)Solving 25 Problems in Unit Design: how do I refine my units to enhance student learning? by Jay McTighe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nice companion to the other UbD resources by the authors. I could see teams of teachers using it when doing a curriculum audit.

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on PerformanceBetter: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are few books I elect to own in multiple formats. Better is one of them. I listened to it as an audiobook, and plan to purchase a physical copy soon. There are so many ideas in Better that I want to come back to: Innovation, systems thinking, improving performance, and doing the right thing that any person can relate to. It’s a book about medicine, yes, but so much more.

Digital Reading: What's Essential in Grades 3-8Digital Reading: What’s Essential in Grades 3-8 by William L. Bass II, Franki Sibberson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the rare #edtech books that prioritizes pedagogy over technology. The authors take a deep dive into the benefits and costs of reading on a screen. I especially enjoyed the chapters on connectedness and home-school communication.

Mistakes Were Made (Timmy Failure, #1)Mistakes Were Made by Stephan Pastis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nice departure from Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Timmy may be the worst detective in history, mostly because he doesn’t listen to others or make basic observations. His ignorance leads him into a lot of trouble that is more funny than serious. The author keeps things grounded when he touches on Timmy’s home life, a realistic portrait of a single parent situation (minus the polar bear).

Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get DiscoveredShow Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A brief text filled with many ideas for sharing your work and process with others. Felt it was too short. The author could have expanded on some of the topics a bit more. Still, well worth my time reading it.

View all my reviews

The Three P’s of Learning and Living

This is a transcript of my speech I gave for our 5th graders’ Moving On Up ceremony. It is also my last address I will give at Howe Elementary School, as I have taken a leadership position with the Mineral Point Area School District, also in Wisconsin.

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So how many days are left? (smattering of responses)  Uh, teachers, I was addressing the students…;-)

That’s okay! Having a clean end to a school year can be rewarding for all of us, educators included. It allows us to take a step back and reflect on the school year as a whole. A little bit of disengagement with the current pace of life is not a bad thing.

During these transitions, it is also good to take stock in our current situation. This means acknowledging where we came from, where we are at, and where we anticipate going. As I took some time to do this recently in preparation for this speech, I discovered that my life as an educator has followed three basic principles up to this point. They are not steps to be taken. Rather, these principles served as guideposts. I share and describe these with you today, as I believe they might also apply to your own personal learning and living journeys.

The first principle is passion. When I was your age, I was passionate about pretty much one thing: Sports. It didn’t matter if it was Little League, our school’s basketball team, the wrestling club, or a pickup football game in a friend’s backyard. If an athletic contest was taking place, I was sure to be involved.

Okay adults, you may want to cover your ears…One thing I did not have a passion for was school. It wasn’t that I was a bad student. I just didn’t work as hard as I could have. Part of that is my own fault – I could have made more of a commitment to my education, and getting my grades up to where they belong with a little more effort. But I didn’t. Also a part of this lack of engagement was that I often didn’t see the relevance in the learning experiences I was asked to pursue. Unlike sports, where our practices were always in preparation for an opportunity to showcase our talents and abilities, school lacked that same opportunity for me. I did what I needed to do in school in order to participate in my passion.

As I progressed through school and entered college, I started coaching the very same teams that I used to participate in as a younger student. This is when I realized that my passion for athletics could also be merged with a career, specifically working with kids in school. This led to the second principle I discovered of living and learning: Persistence.

We hear a lot about “grit” and teaching kids to persevere through challenges. It is my personal opinion that you cannot teach this skill. As educators and parents, we can only create the conditions in which learners will want to pursue a level of mastery and expertise in an area of interest.  That is what happened with me. Once I knew what I believed I wanted to do as a profession, I worked harder in my academics. I rose from a so-so student in high school to being named to the Dean’s List in college several times. A little bit of passion can go a long way.

The thing about passion creating the conditions for persistence is, when someone wants to become very good at something, we start to identify gaps in our skills and abilities. For me, this happened in my 2nd year of teaching. Previously, I had taught 5th and 6th graders in all subject areas, including reading and writing. I thought I was flying along in my first year, offering kids great literature and opportunities to write about what they read. When I moved to a 3rd and 4th grade position the next year, I realized that while I had been teaching reading and writing, I was not teaching readers and writers. It became evident to me with these younger students that I could not merely expose them to resources.

So I read everything I could about effective literacy instruction. I pored over current resources, attended conferences about differentiation and assessment, and observed veteran teachers in their classrooms. Once I persisted in improving myself, I gradually became the teacher I wanted to be for my students.

When I felt I had become proficient in instruction, I found this need to share it with other educators and make a difference in their professional lives. This led to me getting my administrative license ten years ago, which leads me to my current position at Howe. When I accepted the position five years ago, I felt like this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. This was my purpose in life, the third principle.

What I didn’t anticipate was how my purpose might change between then and today. My passion for education and my persistence in learning everything about my profession evolved into writing about my experiences and the knowledge I had gained to support our work. Writing online in the form of social media and blogging has led to published articles and books on the topics of technology in education and school leadership. This was not in the plans five years ago, yet here I was, trying to balance a full time principal position while writing and share about my work and finding balance with my family and personal life. It was becoming an impossible task.

This year, I realized that purpose in education has changed a bit. I am no longer content with leading a school as my sole pursuit, as admirable as this vocation is. The saddest part about this discovery is that my passions and pursuits are not conducive with being the principal at Howe Elementary School. Something had to give, and it wasn’t going to be my family, nor my writing and everything that comes with that.

Enough about me. (By the way, have you noticed that principals like to hear themselves talk?) This is about your special day. You have achieved a major milestone in your educational career and I congratulate you. You should celebrate. Once the confetti settles, consider some humble advice as you take that next step in your life:

  • Your passions may not align with your current responsibilities. That’s okay. Keep working hard. The habits you build now will transfer when you find what excites you in the future.
  • Don’t let what you believe you are good at right now necessarily determine what you will become later in life. While I loved sports, as many of you do, I did not have the necessary talent to “make it”. I became open to combining what I loved to do with what I could provide for others that would bring satisfaction and stability in my life.
  • Persistence is largely dependent on how relevant one finds their current learning and living experiences. Try not to rely on every person in your life to connect your situations with your personal pursuits. Instead, figure out where the connections are between what you love and what is possible.
  • Allow your circumstances to reveal what your true purpose in life might be. If you look closely enough, you might see that what you are striving for may not be what you originally anticipated. This is also okay. It’s a natural part of the change process.
  • Write out or draw a visual of your dream job. I did this at the recommendation of a close colleague. It was excellent advice. When I started applying for positions this spring, I approached each interview as an opportunity for the district to partner with me on our mutual goals (instead of trying to sell myself as a “good fit” for the district). If I was going to move forward, it had to be on my terms with regard to my dream job.
  • Resist allowing others to frame what you are seeking. This is important. They mean well, but they don’t know you or what you are truly after. For example, a few districts did not hire me for the position I sought, but thought I would be excellent for __________. I politely declined. Although it was scary, especially for my wife as I had already resigned my position at Howe, I am glad I kept after what I really wanted.
  • At the same time, consider the advice of others, especially those you respect and admire. They have most likely gone through similar experiences and can offer suggestions that will be helpful. Having good mentors in your life is essential. Still, keep your focus on what you are really after. When ready to move forward with what you really want, don’t settle. You may regret it.

To close, the principles of passion, persistence, and purpose lead me to think about an important phrase you most likely learned about during your social studies instruction. It is at the beginning of our country’s Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Notice that it is not “Life, Liberty and Happiness”? “the pursuit of” is critical language. Our founding fathers understood that while it is our right to live our lives as free people, it is up to us to find our true happiness. It is not an entitlement, but an opportunity if you so choose to pursue it. I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. I will be thinking about you as I pursue my renewed purpose in life. Have a great summer.