Roses

I began teaching five years before Columbine. It’s not that schools were perfectly safe then; one of my students lit the mascot on fire at an assembly during my first year of teaching, and in my third year another student tried to burn down the school. He brought gasoline and splashed it around the front doors before lighting a match. The front doors were metal, set into concrete. They power washed it the next day and arrested the student. But the reactions of students to acts of violence perpetrated on school campuses was different then.

When my students heard about the shooting at Columbine High School, thousands of miles from the small, rural, Oregon high school where we were, they wanted to honor the students who had been killed by planting a rose. If they’d kept up this tradition over the past nineteen years, that campus would be a massive tangle of thorns and flowers.

But that didn’t keep up. Reactions changed.

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Columbine wasn’t the first mass school shooting to happen in my teaching career. Just a year earlier, and much closer to home, Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon saw 24 students shot and two killed by a recently expelled former student, and it certainly has not been the last. Since Columbine the number of tragedies on campuses has grown, and while debating the exact number is as foolish as it is distracting, the truth remains that schools today have a different relationship to gun violence than they did at the end of the last century.

We are better protected, with more thoughtful school designs, key card doors, and more secure campus perimeters; and better prepared, by safety drills of all sorts and dedicated inservices to inform teachers and school staff about what to look for and how to help keep our kids safe, and…

When students today hear about a school shooting, the disbelief their parents might have felt when they were in school has been replaced by something else: the view that this is a just part of their world.

That feels strange.

When word came from Parkland, Florida about the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School the adults in my school and district responded with grief, empathy, and concern. We drafted messages for our school community, prepared our counselors to be ready for students, and were visible and welcoming the following morning. My assistant principal and I visited classrooms, I shared a message of support with my staff, and we as a family of caring educators got ourselves ready to be there when students wanted to talk.

Most didn’t.

Two teachers visited my office, as emotional as I was, and we processed what we’d read about the Florida shooting. We talked about where we were when we heard about Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and some of the other tragedies that rocked our profession and our world. We remembered our own high school experiences, and wondered aloud the reason our current students seemed less interested in talking about it than students had back when my high schoolers had wanted to plant that rose.

Why is it, we asked ourselves, we adults are so shaken and our students seem to be responding so much more quietly, if at all?

I had a long conversation with our school resource officer, a caring soul who stopped by our campus to see how we were doing. He was quick to point out the importance of being proactive and focusing on how we can prevent these tragedies. I’m hopeful he’ll join me when I address the student body at a pair of assemblies next week.

The responsibilities of an educator in 2018 feel different than they were when I started teaching a quarter century ago. The conversations we need to have with our kids extend beyond the familiar topics that lured us to this profession; they include today matters of life and death, safety and security, and so much more.

I’m still reeling from the horrors reported from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, and steeling myself to talk with students more deeply next week. As a principal I want to do all that I can to keep my students and staff safe, my campus secure, and my school a positive place to learn. It’s work that won’t end in my lifetime, and work so important that I tend to it as I would a rose.

 

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February 14th

Tomorrow is a big day, filled with anticipation, love, and more than a little excitement. It is, of course, the first day major league pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

About once a year I set aside my usual topic of education and say something about our national pastime. Occasionally I’ll try to tie baseball to something related to teaching and learning, but just as often I just let my love of the game have the stage for its annual post. Baseball is, like life, or learning, a subject that invites waxing poetic.

So… Pitchers and Catchers.

I scraped ice from my windshield this morning, bundled up against the 28°, and headed to work in the dark. The trees around my house are bare, and even though a few intrepid daffodils are starting to poke up through the flowerbeds, spring seems miles away.

Somewhere in warmer climes professional baseball players are beginning to arrive to play ball. They are loosening up arms, jogging along outfield walls, and preparing for the long season they hope won’t end until October. Between now and then is the end of winter, the full of summer, and the beginning of fall, and with their arrival, forgetting what the frost tells me every morning, is spring.

SpahnWith spring my thoughts span memory, lighting on the time when I was twelve and my dad took me to see a college ballgame where Warren Spahn was coaching. I wanted to much to get his autograph, but the game was going long it was almost time for me to leave. I went up to the chain link dugout between innings and asked: “Mr. Spahn. Mr. Spahn. Could I have an autograph?” He frowned at me. “We’re in the middle of a ballgame,” he chided. “I know,” I apologized, “but I’m catching a game in half an hour and I have to go.” He nodded and signed the paper I handed him. I still have that autograph.

Pitchers and Catchers.

I think about going with my uncle to the Metrodome in Minnesota to see Frank “Sweet Music” Viola pitch for the Twins. It was the dome’s first year and the air conditioning wasn’t working. We sweated into the plastic seats and I got to see the imperial Carl Yastrzemski stride across the field ignoring everyone in the stands. Afterward we went to a little hole in the wall bar for coney dogs. There were black and white photos of athletes everywhere, memorabilia, patrons who looked like they might have been sitting in those worn out booths for decades. It was a place unlike any other I’d ever seen, and at thirteen I felt like I had been welcomed into adulthood.

YastrzemskiPitchers and Catchers.

My team did not win the World Series last year. They did not win the year before that, or the year before that. In fact while I have been with my wife for 26 years, she has never known me when my team won the series.

But with the arrival of pitchers and catchers hope returns to fans like me. We see under the southwestern sun …possibility. My team may not be playing come this October, but they might. They certainly will be in the background of my April and May, June and July, August and September.

They will be on the radio, my favorite window into the game, while I finish this school year and begin the next. They will fill the hours of summer and the first cool days of autumn. And if my team isn’t out of the running by the all star break, and maybe even if they are, they will provide a chance for hope every night, 162 times between now and the end of September.

When I am given the chance, loving the game as I do, I will strive to have the grace of Warren Spahn and avoid the superiority of Carl Yastrzemski, at least as they seemed on the days when their paths crossed mine. I will do my best to show those around me the generosity of my uncle, sharing a coney dog (whatever that might be a metaphor for), and show everyone around me the smiling optimism captured in the notion: “Maybe this year.”

Until the first pitch is thrown, which now feels like it will be soon, I will scrape my windshield and think about spring.

Pirate Week at Twenty

photo 1 (2)Quietly passing next week, like a rowboat of buccaneers sneaking out of a hostile harbor, is the twentieth anniversary of something meaningful to me and maybe a few students I had the pleasure of sharing a classroom with: Pirate Week.

It started as a lark, a fellow English teacher and myself looking up at the gray winter sky and recognizing that everyone in the state seemed to be in a bad mood. It was January 1998 and we wondered what we could do to cheer up our school. Pirates, we thought. Everyone likes pirates. Right?

Ah, to be young and foolish.

We set the date of “Pirate Week” for the short week after President’s Day; four days seemed more manageable than five, and we had no idea what we’d do.

photo (43)I grew a beard. It came in an inspiring red; my last beard showed far too much gray.

My students found a long forgotten wooden replica cannon in the theater’s prop room and somehow managed to install it in the front of my classroom. They plotted costumes, devised activities, and planned adventures for the week ahead.

That first week was an experiment. A treasure hunt, the occasional raid of my fellow English teacher’s classroom, a bit of hardtack, and lots and lots of “ARRRRRing!” We ended the week exhausted.

…and folks seemed in a better mood.

tl doorPirate Week continued every other year after that (every year would be too much, so we added Space Week in 1999, another post for another time). It followed me to two new schools, at one my students put on a pirate themed craft day for a local elementary class, and at another an intrepid student painted my classroom door with a swashbuckling mural (with a winking nod to Space Week too).

One year a band of teachers joined me in a pirate choir who toured the school singing “A Pirate’s Life.” We were loud, if not too much in tune, and as with the first Pirate Week, shanties and such seemed to bring smiles to the midwinter blues.

Over time kids started bringing me pirate things: a flag, a cookie jar, a peg legged statuette, and when I transitioned from the classroom to being an administrator that buccaneering spirit continued on thank you notes, the occasional Halloween costume, and an amazing ceramic wall hanging given to me by my secretary.

Captain TeeInspired by Pirate Week, when my niece was young I even wrote a seafaring story, Pirates Plunder, that I could read aloud to her at bedtime, scribbling sketches in the margins to make her smile. She chuckled at the drawing of Captain Tee wearing a lei. I kept my day job.

My life as an administrator has contained a few fabulous piratical moments, no raids or singing, but more kindness than a flotilla of ships and a spirit of fun whose memory brings me joy.

And today, twenty years later, I look back at Pirate Week and think fondly of every eye-patched and hook-handed student I ever taught. I appreciate the teachers who joined me in some scurvy fun, and the administrators who put a second eye patch on long enough not to see the shenanigans happening on their ships. It was all in good fun, after all, and no one got hurt.

IMG_5848I keep a copy of Treasure Island near my desk these days, the bookmark a collection of photos from that faculty pirate choir. On my wall is that ceramic skull and crossbones, and on the back of the clipboard I carry around a sticker given to me by a student who had visited the Caribbean. This President’s Day week will go by more quietly than 1998’s, but with no less of a sense of adventure.

To all those kind souls who sailed with me during a Pirate Week, I say thanks. To them, and to any I haven’t met under a black flag, I wish a fair wind, a box of gold, and pinch of that pirate spirit every single day!

Doodling

At one of our school information nights, after we’d talked to the crowd of potential ACMA students and families, a panel of current students took questions from the audience. Most of what they asked could have been expected: What are your favorite classes? Can sixth graders try out for plays? How much homework do you get a night? The kids answered them marvelously, of course; given an opportunity to talk about their school, students have the ability to show the poise and passion, intelligence and good humor that defines them.

Toward the end of the Q&A, a little girl raised her hand. She was a fifth grader, curious if ACMA was for her, and when one of our current students nodded toward her outstretched hand, she asked her question: “Do teachers let you doodle in class?”

“What?” One of our students asked her, uncertain if she’d heard it right.

“Doodling,” the little girl answered. “Can you doodle during class. My teacher now won’t let us.”

As an educator and the dad of two kids, my heart broke a little.

And then our student laughed, kindness in her voice. “Of course,” she reassured the girl with a smile. “This is ACMA. You can doodle.”

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That question and answer stuck with me throughout the week.

I found myself in a painting class alongside the girl who had provided the answer. She and her teacher were chatting as she sketched and I brought up the exchange. “I suppose I should have said you can doodle in math class as long as you’re willing to do math in painting,” she said to her teacher. He grinned. “You remember last year when you did that?” She looked puzzled. “Seriously, you were doing math one day in Drawing II.” How very ACMA, I thought.

At the end of the week we had an all school assembly, and because of a mix up in communication, the video that was to anchor the day came in at just over two minutes, not just over twenty minutes. Oops. It was time to improvise and that girl and her question echoed in my mind again. I asked for a flip chart of paper, a pen, and an easel.

The crowd collected, I shared the story about Information Night’s doodle question.  Beyond cute or whimsical, it struck me as something more.

Doodling is creativity run wild. It is what grows outside the planter boxes of learning. These scribblings are imagination circling around structure, our unconscious self appearing next to the information we have to record.

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There are those who believe that doodling can enhance our life and learning, helping us be more productive, or freeing our emotions when words are not enough. Judy Blume, an author that fifth grader might have read in school, admitted that “I doodle a lot and often get my best ideas with a pencil in my hand while I’m doodling.” 

The spirit of an artist appears through her doodles.

So I talked with our students about the importance of exuberant creativity and allowing ourselves the freedom to keep open our imaginations. I confessed to being a doodler myself, and took the time to sketch a pirate on the paper on stage. While it was nothing fancy, I hope that the act of seeing their principal draw in front of them and praise the act of putting pencil or pen to paper will stick around as long as that girl’s question has for me.

I hope that when they’re sitting in class, or when my teachers are sitting in a meeting, they won’t feel a stigma for drawing lines or flowers, robots or leaves, caricatures or boxes and arrows. Who knows, maybe the result will be something that moves discussion in that classroom or that meeting forward. Maybe they too will get some of their best ideas with a pencil in their hand.

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M-I-C… see the best in others

The wire sculpture of Mickey Mouse wasn’t his, so when I saw him bending it where it hung in the hallway I stopped to watch what was going on. Concentrating, he squinted into his work, fingers working over the wire, reforming the circle of an ear. As I watched another student joined him, asking “What’s up?”

IMG_5781“I bumped it,” he answered, finishing the job of fixing the wire. “But it’s okay now.”

That little action said a lot about life at ACMA. That we are a school with a wealth of student art hanging in the hallways: wire sculptures, drawings, paintings, and more, and hanging not behind glass, but at eye level for everyone to see, is significant. That that artwork doesn’t get ruined or damaged by mischievous hands is profound. It’s also indicative of who we are as a school community.

Later in the week a teacher told me about another incident that seemed to capture our ACMA spirit. She’d lost her keys after a staff meeting and when she told my amazing secretary, whose work day was ending, they set off on a quest that lasted more than two hours. During the search our night custodian scoured through a dumpster, the teacher and secretary circumnavigated the building, and when hope seemed lost they made phone calls to see if they could track down any leads. When the keys turned up, the teacher’s joy came in second to her appreciation of those she works with. As my secretary told her: “That’s what friends do.”

It is.

And it matters so much.

This isn’t to say that things are perfect. We’re human, all of us, and sometimes we act like it. It’s in those moments that we need most the examples of kindness we see in others and the reminder to listen to the better angels of our nature that our school does its best to promote.

I see students having a voice in urging acceptance and positivity every time I walk down the hallways. Some of our middle schoolers just completed a positive body image project and are proudly sharing visual representations of their fine work across the hall from that wire sculpture I saw the student repairing.

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I see staff reminding each other of the value of care, offering heartfelt appreciations to start every staff meeting, sharing handwritten thank you cards, and treating each other like friends.

Here at ACMA, a place of exuberant creativity and spectacular performances, we are a community that likes applause, and as I hear students laughing and clapping as they eat lunch in the hallways, encouraging each other in classes, and showing acceptance for each other as they navigate the search for self so common in adolescence, I’m given hope that all will be well.

Sometimes the wire of our ears gets bent out of shape, usually a result of some sort of carelessness, but I believe that there are an abundance of people in the world, who -inspired by a positive community- will pause and put the effort into making things right again.

 

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No Philosopher King

The looks I get when teachers and students hear that I have a degree in philosophy range from bemused to noddingly impressed. What was he thinking? Some seem to be wondering. What a great foundation to be a leader! I imagine others thinking to themselves. Well, I imagine it anyway.

I’m a high school principal, hardly Plato’s philosopher king, and as kooky as it sounds, in my workaday world of running a school I consistently lean on the background and perspective my philosophy major provided to me.

A part of that perspective, of course, is critical thinking and the ability to logically parse out arguments, two skills that serve me well as I work in a profession filled with decisions to be made and answers to be found. Inundated with data and opinions, provided a range of “facts” that don’t add up, evaluating situations for validity is a part of what I do every day. Years with Carnap and Quine taught me to be careful with my thinking and left me confident in my ability to put my mind to problems and be able to see the clearest way.

IMG_5346But education, and particularly the role of principal, isn’t always clear or logical, and I’m also thankful for the ability to suspend disbelief and hold various and contradicting points of view that comes from my study of philosophy. So often the right choice comes only after walking a labyrinth, a task made easier by some comfort in the world of the unknown. Paradox may be too strong a word for some of what I see, but as I work to find solutions to the puzzles of my work an understanding that sometimes Zeno’s arrow is staying in the air for a while helps put things in perspective.

Also helping with perspective are the ethical arguments I learned studying philosophy. More often than one might expect issues in education are issues of equity, fairness, and justice. Beyond those logicians or playful puzzlers, social philosophers like Rousseau and Foucault, who helped to inform my professional self, also provide a certain perspective that I use to help navigate the turbulent waters of educational policy. I’m not saying that I break out Aristotle when I need to decide if a kid should get a free bus pass or we ought to suspend a student for smoking in the bathroom, but I do believe my time as a philosophy major helped me lay a foundation from which I’ve built the approach I take to my work.

Finally, and as important as any of the other impacts I’ve mentioned, I find that studying philosophy inspired in me a profound curiosity, a desire to keep learning, to question, and to always strive to know more. This pursuit of knowing and love of learning help to define who I am as a principal and an educator. They’re qualities I hope I model for my students and school community.

While those students may or may not know what to make of my degree in philosophy, it’s a part of who I am, and that, I think, makes a difference they can feel.

Words, Words, Words

IMG_5722“Are otters artists?”
“Our otters are artists.”
Words
Tongue twisting bursts
of shared creativity.

My daughter came up with the otters
and as we refined the couplet
laughing in our kitchen
the world felt good.

Words have the magic
of connecting
transforming

No new idea there, but
a simple appreciation
for the times poets spun
“morning morning’s minion”
“sibilant penumbra”
or “man’s first disobedience and the fruit…”

And for those instances
in kitchens
and in poems
when we ourselves
turn something
of an artistic otter.