Thank You

It took my breath away.

I saw the envelope in my box and, it being December and all, thought: Holiday card. How nice. How wrong.

IMG_5405Inside was a beautiful Thank You covered in so many messages from students that all I could do was be overwhelmed by gratitude. I’d had the chance to teach a little poetry lesson a couple of weeks ago and this was in response.

The explosion of colors and variety of handwriting, the little drawings, the creativity, this was a window into the world of the amazing students who fill ACMA. They are truly independent and creative spirits and this kindness was in keeping with the spirit of goodwill that I have come to realized helps to define our school.

Then I slowed down and started reading. My goodness.

And hidden amongst the student messages was a line from Rumi jotted out with a message from their teacher.

Everyone has been made for some particular work,
And the desire for that work has been put in every heart.”

Thank you for sharing your heart with us.

To every student, and particularly to that generous teacher who was willing to give me the keys to the car for a couple of marvelous days, I say thank you. I’ve long believed that there is nothing in the world like the give and take of conversation in a classroom. The energy teachers and students share when they are discussing ideas can’t be replicated, it is, like poetry, music, and art, magical. It is why we do what we do.

IMG_5407As a principal that’s an important reality for me to keep at the front of my mind as I do all I can to support the work going on in my school. Often the day to day reality of being an administrator is much more mundane than Rumi or Cavafy, but the motivation for what I do should always be that “particular work … put in my heart.”

That thank you card is proudly displayed on my bookshelf now, and the appreciation will live in my heart longer than this school is standing. Those students gave me a treasured gift, both during my time in the classroom and this afternoon when I opened an envelope filled with kindness and perspective.

Advertisements

(Robotic) Hands On Learning

“Mr. Paige, come look what I did!”

I’d just stepped into a sixth grade science classroom, prompted by the knowledge that they were in the building phase of a cool project involving robotic hands, and she was the first student who looked up and made eye contact. The class was so busy, so focused, so when this young scientist invited me to check out her work I threaded through the groups of students standing around tables talking, tinkering, and engaging with each other, and hurried to where she was standing.

IMG_5349When I got to the table this student shared with her group I saw pure delight in her eyes. Proudly she explained the intricacies of the mechanical glove she and her peers had been working on. “Biomechanics,” she called it, as she talked about the “anatomy of the hand.” This young scientist explained the project to me, nodding at the open Chromebook on the table and pointing across the room where their teacher was working with another group to test some fingers.

This is a project championed not only by our amazing ACMA science folks, but also by our district’s TOSA team (Teachers on Special Assignment). It’s a nice example of what can happen when educators work together, teachers open their classrooms to new ideas, and everyone puts student engagement first.

At an art school like ACMA it’s not unusual to see students engaged in activities that mean much to them. Potters, poets, and performers spend hours both in class and out creating works that demonstrate their creativity and artistic ability. Musicians, dancers, and painters practice, problem solve, and innovate as part of what they do every day. Filmmakers, theater techs, and graphic designers know all about trying one approach, revising, adapting, and doing something different. In all those artistic fields I see passionate and purposeful students determined to create something amazing …the same qualities I saw in that robotic hand.

Similar too was the pride in that student’s voice when she invited me to come over and see what she and her group had done. That hand, all wires and cardboard, showed the results of that same curiosity and creativity so familiar in art studios and performance spaces across campus.

It’s in these moments of creation that real learning flourishes. As students make, from clay or musical notes, or words, as they build, with movements, code, or even wires and cardboard, they create connections that bring understanding to life. The students who are making maps in history class, building court cases in English, or applying math to real world problems all have a chance to find relevance in what they are learning.

IMG_5354This week’s robotic hand could be next week’s Sphero challenge or next month’s cigar box guitar build. The joy I saw in that student’s eyes, and the focus that filled the whole sixth grade science classroom, could be echoed in choir, or theater, or Spanish class.

At its best education provides students with opportunities to succeed, to create, and to engage. When that best arrives, as it did this week in the form of the robotic hands, the power of learning is profound.

Our challenge as educators is to build our lessons and our schools with the potential to inspire students to want to know more, to work together to understand, and to come up with a product (be it something written, built, or performed) that inspires them to turn to us when we enter the room and say proudly: “Come look what I did!”

Riffing with Cavafy

“It does not bother me if outside
winter spreads fog, clouds, and cold.
Spring is within me, true joy.”
          -CP Cavafy

Last week I got to teach.

It has long been a promise I’ve made to myself that every year of being a principal I will set aside time to step back into classrooms and embrace the reason I got into education in the first place: to teach. Over the past few years I’ve had the pleasure of working with middle schoolers and high schoolers, walking the foggy streets with Sherlock Holmes, talking hope with Emily Dickinson and Emily Brontë, and even teaching a little cartooning. This engagement with students is far more than magical; for me connecting with kids is a fundamental reminder of the reason I do what I do, the rationale behind my decisions as a principal, the “why” of my work.

Last week that work brought be to the plains of Troy and five classes of juniors and seniors who had just finished reading Homer’s Iliad. I’d taught the epic a lifetime ago, or at least large swaths of it, in a unit I called the ALIliad, a mashup of Homer’s heroes and Muhammad Ali. It was rollicking fun, perfect for spring term Senior English, and I had fond memories of those busted brain-pans and ancient heroes. For my return to Troy, however, I opted for something more …traditional: CP Cavafy.

Cavafy is an early 20th century Greek poet who lived and wrote in Alexandria. His work, seemingly simple and certainly powerful, captures ideas political, passionate, and personal, and his ability to discuss history and epic in very human ways suggested him as a nice follow up to the hard work the students had already done with Homer. Cavafy builds on the traditional as well as anyone, and I figured some of the students might dig making connections, juxtapositions, and discoveries between and about the two poets.

IMG_1359As rain battered the classroom windows, we started with a little music. To set up the notion of a modern artist riffing on something grand and established I’d given the students the homework of listening to “My Favorite Things,” first the recognizable Julie Andrews version from The Sound of Music film and then John Coltrane’s take on the tune in all its modal glory.

The students, particularly those ridiculously talented student musicians brought amazing perspective to a discussion of the two versions of the tune, juxtaposing Coltrane and the Rodgers and Hammerstein original like professional critics. They led us to where I’d hoped they would: the idea of an artist, to use Coltrane’s line, “looking back at the old things to see them in a new light” and creating something new, something different, something meaningful.

That ACMA is filled with passionate student artists made our discussion richer than I’d imagined.

We followed this Coltrane preface with two essential questions and dove into Cavafy with aplomb. After reading “Trojans” together, students broke into groups and wrestled with four of Cavafy’s poems: “The Horses of Achilles,” “The Funeral of Sarpedon,” “Night March of Priam,” and “When the Watchman Saw the Light.”

I wanted the students to see not only a different take on Homer, but also understand the humanizing Cavafy does to the familiar characters, even immortal ones, and dig how this more modern Greek poet looked “back at the old things and [saw] them in a new light.”

Discussion sparkled, creative students applying their intelligence and spirit to Cavafy’s texts. That they brought insight I hadn’t thought of when planning the lesson shouldn’t have come as a surprise; some of the best things about teaching are those moments when students startle you with an unexpected perspective and creative approach.

We talked about art and grief and love and beauty, and class after class I found myself more and more thankful for the opportunity to spend this time with the students. Classrooms truly are where the magic of education happens.

We ended with “Ithaca,” of course, because, well, Cavafy.

And in that poem of appreciation I heard echoes of last week’s teaching journey.

…do not hurry the voyage at all.
it is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way…”

Last week’s lessons were best when they were unhurried, a luxury limited to the first day and compromised on the second by a shortened schedule and looming assignment justifiably on the students’ minds. But even then, even when the minute hand pushed me forward like a Trojan into an Achaean spear, the experience of connecting with students is one that I am profoundly thankful for.

I walked out of the classroom tired, energized, and happy. For a principal to step back in front of a classroom is a reminder of what an exhausting and exhilarating job being a teacher really is. It is a reminder that the interaction between students and teachers is unique, magical, and (sometimes) profound.

It was raining outside, but my spirit was there on the plains of Troy with Homer, Cavafy, and some of the best students I’ve ever known.

Failing… Together

The last third or so of Jessica Lahey’s The Gift of Failure takes readers to a place even more intimidating than the dishes in the kitchen sink or the youth soccer pitch; it’s in this meaty final stage of the book that she brings us to …school.

As a principal, and particularly as the principal of a school with sixth through twelfth grade students, I appreciated that while Lahey found some universality in the school experience, she divided her discussion in half, spending time with both middle school and high school (and beyond). While they’re distinctions we minimize here at Arts & Communication Magnet Academy (where we’re a seven year program, like Hogwarts) the reality of the differences between eleven and twelve year olds and seventeen and eighteen year old students is real, and speaking to these differences allows for a clarity that I think will serve us well when we gather for our ACMA Book Club on December 4th to talk about Lahey’s book.

IMG_5230

One of these ideas that I’m likely to read verbatim when we meet comes from Lahey’s perspective as a middle school teacher. She writes:

Here’s the ugly and wonderful truth about middle school: it’s a setup. Middle school teachers ask students to succeed at tasks that their half-cooked, adolescent brains are not yet able to master, and therefore, failure is not an if proposition, it’s a matter of when.”

Lahey breaks down this contention with the more reassuring perspective that while the challenges and responsibilities students face in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade push them to their limits (and beyond), eventually they do get it and the result of this newfound control over their own lives can be amazing. “So fear not,” she writes. “Failure is a fact of life in middle school, so embrace it. Everyone is doing it, even the cool kids. Even the kids who look as though they have it all figured out. …jump in and take advantage of all those learning experiences in the guise of everyday failures, littering the middle school landscape.”

Beyond acknowledging the “landscape” of positive failure, Lahey offers suggestions for both parents and educators on how best to support students through these years of challenge and change. From organization to time management, from schedules to a sense of humor, she lays out practical and possible supports for anyone living and working with these baby giraffes.

Lahey also acknowledges that things shift around ninth grade, speeding up as students make a running start to break out of their parents’ orbit.

That Lahey calls high school students “emerging adults” helps to underscore the message of the book and the importance of supporting our students as they move beyond high school and into adult lives of their own. These are the years students have more safety and support in which to make mistakes. So often as a principal I’ve had conversations with kids and parents about the difference between the choice they made as a sophomore or junior and what that same choice would look like if they were over eighteen. Our society is more forgiving of minors and our school system, at its best, is a place where support and education is the priority over punishment.

Lahey takes this farther, discussing the importance of parents shifting into a new role for their high school aged students. Quoting a high school teacher and administrator, she writes:

When parents take the supporting role, but balance it with the ability (and it is a learned skill for parents) to step aside and watch and welcome and expect the student to choose his/her way, students seem to make the better choices relatively quickly  if not automatically. Students want to do well. They want to make the right choice … but they also want to have the ability to choose.”

What struck me, in addition to the truth I see in the statement, is the parenthetical reality that is so seldom explicitly stated: the ability to step aside and watch “is a learned skill.” How, the principal I am asks, do we do this? If we see this patient parental support as learned behavior, what are we doing to help parents (and students) learn and value it?

It’s a point I look forward to asking the parents and students at our book club about.

One of the parts of The Gift of Failure that I could see being tough to talk about is Lahey’s systematic dissection of grade levels nine through twelve. In this section she takes on the sacrosanct idea of an achievement laden college resume. Quoting a college president she writes:

…the expensive trips to far-flung poverty? Fifty-two activities scattered across the seven days of the week? Honestly. It doesn’t help. Give me a kid with a passion for learning, a kid who has demonstrated some measure of autonomy and motivation. Give me a kid who knows his or her mind. But these things are harder to come by if the child has been tutored and handheld from birth.”

Boom.

But true to form, Lahey doesn’t abandon her readers at the revelation; she spends time unpacking opportunities for students to build their independence and demonstrate the “autonomy and motivation” that college president was talking about.

…and she throws in a marvelous checklist for parents of new college students.

But that checklist wouldn’t feel significant if it wasn’t so necessary. Backing up a step, Lahey ends the book with a section devoted to “succeeding at school.” Wisely beginning the section with a brief history lesson about home and school relationships from the Colonial era through the choppy waters of the seventies and eighties, and the introduction of new measurements and standards of the current day, Lahey educates before moving into an informed discussion of positive and proactive steps parents might take to promote parent-teacher partnerships that benefit students. A partial list directed toward parents includes:

  • SHOW UP AT SCHOOL WITH AN ATTITUDE OF OPTIMISM AND TRUST
  • BE FRIENDLY AND POLITE
  • LET TEACHERS KNOW ABOUT BIG EVENTS UNFOLDING AT HOME
  • BEGIN WITH THE ASSUMPTION THAT YOU HAVE AN INTEREST IN COMMON: THE STUDENT
  • GIVE YOUR CHILD A VOICE
  • IF YOU ARE CONCERNED WITH A TEACHER’S ACTIONS, TALK TO THAT TEACHER

For each of these, as well as the others on the list, I see corollaries for teachers, counselors and administrators like me. For all of us, the last item on the list holds a special truth we’re wise not to ignore: SUPPORT THE STUDENT-TEACHER PARTNERSHIP, EVEN WHEN IT’S CHALLENGING.

As a principal I’d add: especially when it’s challenging.

Lahey ends the book with frank and honest discussions of homework and grades, the twin bugbears of education, and topics I’m sure will support rich discussions on Monday night. In her final pages she turns back to the tough but true message of The Gift of Failure:

If the unpredictability of our own journey is frustrating, the suspense that parents experience as we watch our children’s stories unfold is downright unbearable. Because we can’t possibly know how their stories will end, their failures are the more acute, immediate, and treacherous; more Shakespearean tragedy than quaint anecdote.”

How can we help our kids, and each other, navigate these uncertain and stressful times? Together.

For those interested in being a part of that “together” here at ACMA, our Arts & Communication Magnet Academy Book Club will meet on Monday, December 4th from 6:30 to 8:00 pm in ACMA’s library.

Sometimes

We believe in things that will give us hope
Why shouldn’t we? Why shouldn’t we?
                    -Mary Chapin Carpenter

Much of what I do as a principal is look for hope. I walk the halls, listen to students, ask questions of adults, and seek out those corners of the school where good gathers. When I find it, like a cat, I pounce.

Then I thank.
I share.
And I celebrate the hell out of it.

Because as much as I want to believe Emily Dickinson and cling to the notion of Hope as a thing with feathers that perches in the soul, the more prosaic world has taught me that as often Emily Brontë is right and…

Hope, whose whisper would have given
Balm to all my frenzied pain,
Stretched her wings, and soared to heaven,
Went, and ne’er returned again!”

That doesn’t mean you give up. As a principal it means you put on your walking shoes and go birding.

Today hope looked like this:

With just a week left in November, rain forecast every day for the next two weeks, and a mandatory fire drill hanging over our heads, my amazing secretary, intrepid AP, and I looked up at a break in the clouds and considered the possibility of evacuating and getting the kids back in the building before rain returned.

We needed to wait until the end of the period for the drill to count (requirements mandate a drill that takes place at least partly at lunch), so with an eye toward the clouds I sent an email to my staff:

RE: Blame it on the rain…
Hello all,
Put simply, it’s not going to get better, so we’re going to take advantage of what is supposed to be 18 minutes of not-rain to do our mandatory fire drill in just a few minutes. It will start at the end of this period and nudge into first lunch. We’ll get them out and back in as quickly as we can.
Margaret will ring the bell very soon.
Let’s do this,
Bjorn
PS: https://youtu.be/BI5IA8assfk

 

Principals always hope humor helps.

It started to rain, not hard, just enough. We looked from the sky to the clock. Another ten minutes before our drill.

Hope.

Five minutes later I put on my coat. I would not bring an umbrella. Not every teacher would have one for this unexpected drill and I’m a gentleman after all.

Clouds moved above me when I stepped outside. Rain fell, but not hard. The alarm rang and students flooded out.

I whistled a little Milli Vanilli. This might not be too bad.

Kids squinted up at the dark clouds blowing across the sky. Someone was barefoot. Someone else didn’t have a coat. A teacher, hood framing her face, looked at me and said “really?”

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all -“

And then the rain stopped.

We all looked up.

A student said “look,” pointing, and my momentary relief at feeling the rain stop disappeared, replaced by the wonder inspired by the most perfect rainbow I have ever seen.

IMG_5201
It could just as easily have begun to pour.

But today it didn’t.

Today it didn’t.

As beautiful as that rainbow was, reaching over our students and reminding all of us of the artistic beauty of nature, tomorrow’s hope will be just as important. That found hope, seen in the kindness of a student, the caring of a teacher, or any of a thousand things there to be seen by someone looking for them, will have the power to inspire. If I can capture it, celebrate it, and remain thankful I will have done right by my school and those around me.

Life has the capacity and the inclination for greatness.

Sometimes it rains, sure, and sometimes there are rainbows.

Dishes, Friendships, and Failure

Jessica Lahey drops more than a little wisdom in her infinitely readable The Gift of Failure, the subject of our upcoming ACMA Book Club. In the first part of the book she describes the power of failure as a parenting tool, and in the second section she shifts into particular and poignant examples of “teaching kids to turn mistakes into success.”

Building on her initial argument, Part Two of The Gift of Failure begins with the assertion that kids want to feel capable, and that as the adults in their lives we have the responsibility to give them opportunities to attempt difficult tasks, learn from mistakes, and grow as a result of their experiences.

They’re ideas I look forward to talking about with the parents, students, and ACMA staff who join me for the book club on December 4th. Hearing the points of view of both the adults and the students means the possibility of helping each other, broadening our perspective, and realizing we’re not alone in what can be a challenging time.

IMG_4804

Presented as clearly as it is, the advice Lahey offers is a challenge that I feel up to more often as an educator than I do as a dad. As she notes, often teachers see in their students a greater capability than is seen by their parents. I get this. As a dad.

I felt this particularly when I read Lahey’s question about chores, or as she wisely calls them, “family contributions.” Discussing the importance of kids helping at home, she asked:

What’s more important -that the dishes are immaculate, or that your child develops a sense of purpose and pride because he’s finally contributing in a real and valuable way to the family?”

At the risk of sounding confessional, there are times in this mixed up world that I feel like I need a clean and picked up kitchen.

I suppose the clever reader (or Jessica Lahey, or a parent, or a student, or a staff member) will say: deal with it. Either accept a little messier or come up with a new set of chores. I know that’s sensible; it’s just that after a busy day, after I’ve hurried home from my kids’ soccer practice, there are some days I’m too tired to be the best parent I could be.

…and I want those dishes to end up clean, the kids’ homework to get done, and bedtime to happen before 10:30.

Lahey writes about her own son’s adventures in putting away dishes, noting “since that first day, he has broken dishes in the process of learning how best to carry, stack, and load them, but who cares? I’d trade ten broken plates for his smiles of competence and pride.” I am not yet that parent. Ye gads, I am not.

Maybe the group will have ideas about what works for them in this regard. The students who fill ACMA’s hallways are a responsible, well adjusted bunch. Their parents have done something right. I’m hungry to hear the stories of what that something might be.

Lahey provides the descriptions of more than a few “something rights” as well as touchstones for parents (and principals) like me. One that stuck with me came after the description of a scenario of a student packing her own lunch only to be disappointed by yogurt squashed by an ice pack. “She needs,” Lahey writes, “to be disappointed in her own choices once and a while.” What a beautifully phrased dollop of truth.

In addition to disappointment, Lahey promotes family contributions as a vehicle for learning self competence. Her chapter on “Laundry as an Opportunity” provides a host of rich examples for our discussion, and I look forward to listening to the experiences folks, both student and adult, are willing to share.

As rich may be the discussion of how students navigate the sometimes turbulent waters of friendship. In addition to that potentially polarizing question of “is it okay for parents to snoop into kids’ rooms and social media?” the topic of how much parents should be involved in the “constantly evolving” social lives of their kids promises fodder for interesting conversation.

Yes,” Lahey writes, “kids will make bad choices in friends, and some friendships will fail, but those missteps are what we look back on in order to recognize the traits of a healthy relationship versus a toxic one.”

The truth of that statement gives me pause. As a human I believe it is true; as a dad I wish it wasn’t. At least I think I do. I know that I don’t want my kids, or the hundreds of students I get to work with at my school, to have to make bad choices to learn about toxic relationships …and …and I do want them to grow, to learn, and to be strong. This is a topic I’m excited to talk with the students about. I have a feeling that their perspective will help not just me, but the other adults in the room.

That’s really the point of the whole enterprise of our ACMA Book Club, taking the time to talk together with fellow travelers on this journey of life. Listening, contributing our voices, and connecting with each other, I believe we create the opportunity to help each other and help ourselves.

 

 

The ACMA Book Club meets on December 4th from 6:30-8:00 pm in the Arts & Communication Magnet Academy library to discuss The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey.

Go… !

Here at ACMA there’s talk of finding a mascot. With just over a quarter century of history behind us, the thinking goes that it’s about time we landed on a little more cohesive identity, an easier way for the community around us to recognize that we’re more than just the sum of our parts, and that whether a student is a poet or a painter, dances, makes films, or acts, she is a part of a dynamic creative community where she can be herself and be part of something bigger than any one student or one program.

I love the acknowledgement that we are an all encompassing haven for artists of many kinds. There is a tremendous and unifying power to the creative process, and whether we sculpt, write, make music, or make sets, the very nature of creating art gives us all a common point of view and shared sensibility. Art unites us.

Now, that mascot.

The truth is… and I may be in the minority… I love the fact that we haven’t ever limited ourselves to just one mascot. There is a delicious possibility in the notion that on any given day we could be anything we choose. Van Gophers? Could be. Therapy Llamas? Could be.

As I explained to a friend the other day, we’re the David Bowie of schools, some days Ziggy Stardust, some days wearing a suit and singing about getting to the church on time. Try to tie us down and we’ll slip right through your expectations.

Screen Shot 2017-11-08 at 1.32.41 PMGo Chameleons?

Could be.

Or today we might just be the Spiders from Mars.

But such nonsense may not be the unifying reality best for our school. Maybe we would benefit from a single image to rally around, a metaphoric melody we could riff on. Heck, it could be fun.

So it’s with a smile and an open mind that as we move toward winter the discussion of how best to celebrate and communicate our school begins to take shape.

Over the next few weeks we’ll reach out to students and alumni, teachers and staff, and ask for ideas about how we might best articulate ourselves to the world beyond our campus. What, we’ll ask, can we do to clearly present who we are and what we do?

We’ll always be ACMA. We’ll always be a place where creativity abounds and creative souls are honored, encouraged, and challenged to make art. We’ll always think just a little differently and not be afraid to create works that show that spirit.

And as we begin our second quarter century we will take the time we need to connect with each other and articulate our own artistic identity. No matter what the outcome, this is a process that is good for us as a collection of artistic individuals.

Past graduates, current students, and staff from every year, ACMA is your school and it always will be. If you’re a little unsure about the notion of a mascot, I invite you to join me in suspending disbelief, knowing all will be well, and believing in the power of art to guide our adventure at ACMA and beyond.