The Diegueño Family

photo (11)Community and connections. There aren’t two more important words at a middle school. As we begin the 2014-2015 school year at Diegueño Middle School, my first focus as principal is on the school family we are: teachers, parents, students, and all of us who work at the school coming together for our kids. My goal is to foster an atmosphere that encourages our work together, makes it natural to support each other, and helps us inspire and be inspired by each other to be the best we can be every day. Together we can do great good.

This spirit of connection benefits us in many ways. Connected campuses are safe campuses; when we see something, we say something; when we notice a person in need we reach out to help. In conjunction with specific safety plans and measures the fact that we’re watching out for each other and our school helps to keep us all safer.

School families look out for kids, and in this time of transition, from 6th grade to middle school, from 8th grade to high school, and in so many ways as emotions rise and kids grow, as students know that they belong, as they know that Diegueño is their home, and as they know that adults on campus care for them, they can weather the storm of adolescence.

We adults too benefit from a connected campus, and I’m committed to fostering this sense of family among us. We already have much helping us in this pursuit (from an engaged PTSA to a collaborative and collegial staff that really likes spending time together) as we saw during our pancake breakfast on the first day teachers were back on campus. We are a faculty who can laugh together, who care for each other, and whose passion for helping kids can change the world.  I’m excited to continue to build these connections as we welcome new students, new families, and new teachers to Diegueño.

I’m really looking forward to this week’s Back to School Night, the first time since the school year began that we all get to be on campus together celebrating the work we do with and for kids at Diegueño. Our school community will be together, mixing and mingling in the new media center before class visits begin, and spending time connecting with each other in the heart of our campus. Community and connections; the Diegueño Family.

“Got it.”

photo (4)I shouldn’t be surprised when the kids impress me. It happens all the time. It’s just that more than two decades into my life as a public educator the ease with which students show brilliance still astounds me.

When it happened today I was in our newly remodeled media center with our superintendent. I was quietly showing off the improvements to the space, which thanks to the campus-life-altering Proposition AA approved by local voters is the technological and educational center of our campus. A group of 7th grade science students were there, using Chromebooks to establish their usernames and passwords and be wowed by the bandwidth we now have. As the superintendent took photos I walked around the room, slipping into teacher mode to help students find the links they’d need to log in.

At one table, sitting serenely by an open Chromebook, a girl said hello to me and smiled. I saw an opportunity to help. Confused, I thought. She doesn’t know where to start. She stopped me as I swooped in to offer advice about how to find her ID number, develop a password, and set up her student account. “I got it,” she said. “I did this last night on my iPad.”

It was a complicated process. Ms. Coy, who runs our library was leading students through the steps. I’d seen her work with classes before and was sure this wasn’t something to be done without help. “Really?” I asked, looking up to catch Ms. Coy’s attention, hoping not to be caught on camera by the supe looking puzzled.

Really. She had. Perfectly.

And then, as this marvelous 12 year old introduced herself to me, I realized just how fortunate our world is to have such incredible kids populating our future. I’m a big Louis Armstrong fan, and the line from one of his most famous songs floated through my mind:


I see babies cry,

I’ll watch them grow,

They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know,

And I think to myself,

What a wonderful world.


I walked over to the superintendent and told him what had happened. He smiled. “She’s smarter than me,” I said. “That’s right,” he replied. “That’s how it should be.” And I had that feeling I shouldn’t be surprised by anymore. Impressed and inspired.

What a wonderful world.

Video killed the radio…

photo 1I’m experimenting. Unsure if this will be a boon or boondoggle, but knowing that increasingly video is a way of reaching folks, I’m trying my hand at shooting short video messages for my school community. My first, a short foray into “vlogging” in which I wear a ridiculous hard hat, went out a couple of weeks ago. I posted it to YouTube, tweeted a link, and put a link on Diegueño’s Facebook page. Then I sat back to see what would happen.

Curious, I suppose about this goon masquerading as a construction worker, a few  folks started watching. I’d made the commitment to keep it short (43 fabulous seconds) and focused: Stay Off Campus! …while we finish major construction! with the thought that more might watch if they knew their commitment was small. By the end of the day the video had logged about a hundred views. Taking away friends, fellow educators, and buddies from college who just watched so they could send me cheeky emails, that meant that at least a dozen Diegueño families probably saw the message. I was encouraged.

I made another video the next week. Clocking in at 49 seconds, this one focused on two pieces of useful information: how to sign up for an Aeries account and how to register online for our electronic parent newsletter. It picked up almost a hundred and fifty views in a couple of days, spurred I think by the tease on Facebook that it contained “two things to do before classes start.”

I know that statistics show that an increasing percentage of web content is video, and I want to see how I can harness this tool to connect with my families. In an age where paper newsletters are an environmental hazard and all-call phone messages have a tendency to be overused and hung up on, I’m interested in finding out if video can be another arrow in our communication quiver, joining Twitter, Facebook, emails, and our school website as digital avenues of communication. We’ll still call home when we need to, but this provides parents and students with information on demand, and a face to go with that information.

I don’t think the immediacy of seeing the person delivering the message is something to discount. I may not be as pretty as some principals, and I’m still working on sounding natural on camera, but I like that parents and students can put a face to my name, and see the fellow who otherwise would be a disembodied voice on the other end of their phone.

photoMy assistant principal got into the game, making a virtual parent orientation video with voiceover on a Prezi he posted to our website. With major construction keeping our site closed to foot traffic in the weeks leading up to the start of the school year, this was a godsend. A student version, posted by our ASB kids got nearly 400 views, showing, I suppose that cinema belongs to the young.

I posted a third installment of my under-60-second film series. At 37 seconds I thought it would draw folks in. Perhaps the awkward thumbnail photo kept them away. In the spirit of spontaneity I didn’t fuss over editing. In retrospect I would have tinkered with both look and content. It did get some likes on Facebook, however, and even a kind comment, so I’m committed to my Scorsese phase, at least for a while longer.

And if this proves to be folly, if all of a sudden parents begin their conversations with me with “You’re no Kurosawa, Mr. Paige,” then I’m okay with that. Education after all is trying new things and being willing to risk failure in pursuit of something that might work.

Might this? We’ll see. If not, I’ll have grown from the experiment, and given my college friends something to kid me about.

Walking Shoes

photoWith just a week to go before students arrive at school it’s time for me to acknowledge that the summer days of short pants are just about over and that like scores of students preparing for classes, it’s time for me to go school clothes shopping. My list isn’t long. I have a closet full of ties and dress shirts. Really the only thing I need is a new pair of shoes.

Style isn’t my primary concern; no one looks to me for a fashion statement. What I’m after is a good sole, something that can survive the school year.

I walk a lot: into classrooms, around campus, from the entrance of the school in the morning to the back gate as the school day ends. I’ve been a site administrator at three schools and the one constant is that I wear out a pair of shoes every year.

Walking is a big deal to me. Every minute I’m out of my office and moving around campus I have the opportunity to experience what’s happening at my school. It’s on walks that I get to step into classrooms, the epicenter of education. Seeing great teachers engage with students renews me. Watching kids learn, asking them questions as they do a lab in science class or draw in the art studio, or even joining in a kickball game in PE (while tough on shoes) helps me connect with my students and my school community.

I notice things when I walk: the leaky faucet, the abandoned textbook, the parent walking her dog. And when I address these opportunities I help make my school a safer, friendlier, and better place.

Sometimes people walk with me -students on their way to class, instructional assistants between periods, teachers on their preps- and the conversations that spring up as we walk are some of the richest I experience. I’ve heard people stress the “visibility” of administrators, but the word has always struck me as meaning standing around. Give me walking; movement speaks of engagement.

Whether striding with purpose, on my way to cover a class, or strolling with my assistant principal as we talk over a situation or upcoming event, it’s that engagement that matters most to me. I want to be out on my campus, moving in this grand dance of learning, and connecting with others on this journey of education.

I’ll buy a new pair of shoes this weekend before the first day of classes, and if I find them worn out when I step on the stage at our promotion ceremony in June I’ll have a chance of being what I set out to find: something that can survive the school year, a good soul.


What if the conversation had no bounds? What if we could talk about what we do with the people at our own campus and with kindred spirits across the country when we needed them, not just in those snatched seconds between classes or while we wolf down a sandwich at lunch? If, as a teacher I admire likes to say, “the smartest person in the room is the room,” then how fortunate are we that the “room” of our professional learning doesn’t have any walls?

A few years ago the notion of a Professional Learning Network (PLN) daunted me. How could I, a site administrator with enough responsibilities to fill my time (and maybe more) and with a few great people on my own campus (but hardly enough to qualify in any way as a “network”) put together a group of creative and interesting professionals who could (and would) support my own practice? Sure I’d phone friends who could offer advice. We’d exchange ideas and even proof each other’s written work (using that old technology: email), but this wasn’t a coherent group, and wasn’t anything like the think tank I’d imagined a PLN should be.

And then I got past the idea that it took a special kind of educator to be online, and that I wasn’t one of them. I put aside the anxiety of not being “techie enough” and took a leap. I decided to be one of the educators who was connected.

Actually, it wasn’t as quick as that. For me, joining the online world of education took some time, a few stumbling steps, and finally a recognition that I wasn’t going to throw a switch and change my world. Connecting online, just like connecting in person, takes effort, energy, and a positive spirit. And a bit of time.

I started with Twitter.

A friend and fellow site administrator mentioned the possibilities Twitter offered and I invited a Teacher on Special Assignment (ToSA) out to show me the basics. He was patient and funny, and gave me a couple of resources to help answer my questions, even as he laughed and said: “Just try it!”

I did, tweeting a couple of photos of campus life to start, and then going about deciding who to follow. Remembering my Shakespeare (“Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast”), I did a little more each day.

People smarter than me stressed the importance of engaging with others; lurking is a fine way to start on Twitter, but doesn’t build a PLN. At first I was uncertain about replying to tweets I liked, but I found that the “conversations” they started …no, I’ll take the quotation marks off that… the conversations they started (they were conversations) were fantastic. All of a sudden I was able to get (and occasionally offer) advice or inspiration to an assistant principal in Marin County, a librarian in Baltimore, and a teacher in Escondido. These weren’t people I’d met in person, but they were engaged, engaging, and people like me who love working in education.

I also learned how important it was to create content. Sometimes this was a graphic or a link to an article. Ultimately it helped to inspire my blog. I’ll be honest, I’m still figuring out this part of my professional life, but I feel like it’s something that I hope might help spark some thinking and discussion. …or maybe it’s just therapeutic.

As I recognized how much information and inspiration was out there I began trying new things: joining an edchat, replying to tweets that spoke to me, and going to an edcamp at the suggestion of folks I’d been following on Twitter. At the end of last year I even tried my hand a moderating an edchat for our district and was wowed by the response.

Dubious at first that Twitter could lead to such meaningful connections, I’ve been won over by the reality of how much this little blue bird has to offer. And…

Whether at edcamp or  face to face with teachers and fellow administrators who I interact with on Twitter, the line dividing online and real world has blurred as I’ve had opportunities to continue conversations started on Twitter with people over coffee or as we sit together around a table with other professionals.

Twitter (or any online system of connecting with others) doesn’t ever replace in person discussions, but it does provide opportunities to connect that broaden the conversation on this magical enterprise we call education. It takes away the constraints of time and makes geography irrelevant to interaction.

I’m still working on how best to learn and grow both online and off, but the concern I had just a few years ago, the worry that I wouldn’t find a group to connect with has been replaced by an optimism that while I’ll never be the smartest guy in the room, I’m part of something greater: a room without walls, big enough for anyone to join the discussion.


photo (58)When I was eight years old I saved my allowance to buy all things Star Wars. A few weeks of saving got me the double album movie soundtrack, another week or two the hardcover storybook, and then… action figures! My first, in 1977, was the first character I’d seen on screen: C3PO.

That gold plated robot made a reappearance this summer when my six year old son, Henry, found that he loved Star Wars and that my parents still had a few figures tucked away in a box in  their garage. Now, side by side with their 21st century cousins, Greedo, C3PO, and a couple of yellowing stormtroopers dash through the galaxy of my son’s imagination.

Looking at the old droid, my own youth seems a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. C3PO in one hand and Henry’s new General Grievous in the other, I’m struck by how different technology is today. Where my old toys struggled to mimic what was on screen, Henry’s action figures bring an amazing realism to their much lighter frames.

It’s analogous to something I see at work, with clunky computer labs replaced by more nimble Chromebooks, smartphones, and laptops. Today’s students have come to expect a level of technological perfection unheard of just a couple of decades ago. Their essays now carry a professional sheen my college papers lacked (even though I loved my Mac). Their presentations can be as polished as any businessperson’s and their connectivity would have made the visionary George Lucas of 1977 shake his head in wonder.

I see students at my school use technology with an ease sprung from the expectation that technology is an integral part of their lives. “Can I do this?” is a question less often asked than “How can I do this?” It’s a way of looking at the world that science fiction writers (and filmmakers) brought to the middle of the last century, and one I’m proud to see in the young minds that will shape this century of their own.

As we talk about technology in education we do well to embrace our students’ propensity to take leaps of …not faith so much as …fancy. Students are willing to take daring chances, and as a result they discover new ways of looking at the familiar and unexpected ways to engage the curriculum at hand. They don’t always follow the path we show them; sometimes they find more interesting ways of learning. Uninhibited by the expectations that fettered past generations, whether stereotypes about what kind of student could do what or how limited the circle of their world might be, today’s students interact with the world with their eyes open to possibility.

Nurturing this sense of possibility means giving students opportunities to collaborate, create, and communicate. Teachers (and schools) are vital to students’ growth, and can inspire, guide, and inform even as they allow students to experiment and experience. It helps to be able to suspend disbelief long enough to know that sometimes these strides forward will use technology our generation isn’t a master of.

This isn’t to say that our students will leave everything we know behind. Even my son allows his Star Wars figures to ride in a 35 year old landspeeder. But these ways of an older world aren’t theirs.

I’m interested in how technology will help change education. No app can replace a good teacher, and no machine can be what a human can be (sorry, C3PO), but as a much as iEverything has changed the world around us, so too it seems that to prepare our students for life beyond the classroom we must not limit ourselves, or our kids, to a way of moving through life that is no longer up to date.

And how do we, the pre CGI crowd, help this next generation of learners use technology learn?

I think we’ll do so by understanding that the tools change and the rules change, but in the end what stays the same is the spark that drives all learning: curiosity.

As we acknowledge our students’ gifts and accept their comfort with technologies that would have struck us as science fiction when we were kids, we can help provide them with the broader perspective won with reflection over time. Our advice about creating a digital profile comes with a wisdom absent in the under 17 crowd. The questions we can ask to get students thinking about online sources they use are an important part of the lesson independent of the specific technology. If we remain unafraid, our hand can guide their learning.

Our students live technology; we’ve lived life. And a big part of our collective job is to steer our kids in the right direction even as we allow them to move in hyperdrive.

If we do it right we may even learn and live in this emerging world with them. Who knows, maybe we’ll even be surprised to find that the scope of their imagination is broad enough to include the nostalgia of our past, just not the flip phones and dot matrix printers. Those aren’t the droids they’re looking for.

Happy New Year!

…in August.

Our superintendent likes to wish our district a Happy New Year every fall when we return to school. The beautiful dissonance of the saying under the summer sun is a nice example of what’s it’s like to be an educator. While many families are cramming one more trip into the waning days of summer, teachers, counselors, and administrators are busy preparing for the opening of school, cleaning, photocopying, and planning how we’ll greet our students on August 26th. While many professions see their year begin with the first month of the calendar, we have the opportunity to start fresh every August. No matter how things ended in June, no matter what happened the school year before, no matter what changes have come about over the summer, we open our doors with a spirit of renewal. This just might be the best year ever, we think. This could be the year I…

…make a difference for a student who needs me to make a difference. Our work at schools is done with and for kids. For some it’s our structure that guides them, for others it’s our love. For all the possibilities are great and it’s in our work together that this potential becomes reality. We begin each school year not knowing whose trajectory will be influenced by what we do in our classrooms, and this could be the year that we make a difference in a young person’s life that we can’t even imagine. There may be no greater feeling of anticipation than standing on the doorstep of a new school year ready to step into the classroom with the young strangers who will become our working life.

…help a parent support her child. Parenting is hard work and parenting middle school students is harder still. While the payoff of strong parenting is great, its not always immediate, and as educators we sometimes do our best work when we help parents see in their students something they haven’t seen before, or help them see that the challenges of the middle years are temporary, and that in the end, we’ll be okay. Our work with parents is huge, and as educators work as partners with moms and dads, grandparents and guardians, we help students and families make the transition from elementary school to high school and beyond. We truly are a team, and together we are the greatest support any student can ever have.

…connect with colleagues. More than ever teachers are working with each other to develop curriculum, implement the common core state standards, and support students. This could be the year that that collaboration becomes our way of life, when conversations about this adventure that is education knit us together as a professional family. This could be the year we support each other and feel that support in transformative ways.

This could be the best year ever, and on the eve of this new year (in August) I’m feeling the excitement of possibility. I look forward to the opportunities we have ahead of us. Not everything will go as planned; how boring would it be if it did, but as the school year stretches ahead of us like a winding road I’m excited about the journey.

I am an optimist not because I believe things will be easy, but because I believe that we have the capacity to handle any situation we face. All will be well, not by accident, but because we make it so.

That said, to students, teachers, parents, and colleagues, I’ll join my superintendent in saying: “Happy New Year!”


Summer Reading

I’ll admit that this summer I read at least as much detective fiction as I did books for work, Sherlock Holmes and Kurt Wallander jockeying for time alongside more educational titles. Summer should be a time for books on a towel in the sand, and I’ve always found Håkan Nesser more welcome at Moonlight Beach than Carol Dweck. Well, maybe I’m making that up; Mindset should be read everywhere.

Three books stood out to me this summer as interesting reads before starting the school year at Diegueño Middle School: Getting to Calm by Laura S. Kastner and Jennifer Wyatt, The Drama Years by Haley Kilpatrick, and Secrets from the Middle by Elyse S. Scott. I liked the combination of these three, as they addressed the three major forces working with kids: Parents, Students, and Teachers.

A parent myself, Getting to Calm was a great reminder of the importance of keeping perspective and poise when raising kids. I have two elementary age kids at home, and see opportunities in my parenting them to make decisions that will support, encourage, and help them grow. I also know that at some point, sweet as they are, they’ll probably call me names. Well, at least roll their eyes and make a decision or two that I wouldn’t at this point in my life. As a middle school principal, I know that the same is true of my work with my 900 or so 7th and 8th graders. Staying grounded, understanding options, listening with empathy, and creating a plan that can lead to positive results is as important to a school administrator as it is a parent, and both the dad and principal in me appreciated the clarity and common sense in the book.

With specific examples (that rang true, based on my own parenting experience of a now 24 year old, as well as my 20 years in education), Getting to Calm helped to underscore the power a family has in determining a student’s success. Parents shape their students’ lives, and the scenarios in this book underscored the importance of the choices we parents make as we respond to the decisions of our tweens and teens. Adolescence isn’t a time without challenges, but when families and educators work together these challenges can be opportunities for growth. I could see this as a nice resource for parents navigating the waters of adolescence for the first time.

Another good guide for the tempest of middle school is The Drama Years. Subtitled “Real Girls Talk About Surviving Middle School –Bullies, Brands, Body Image, and More,” the book stresses three hallmarks of a plan for staying safe, sane, and strong in 7th and 8th grade: finding an “anchor” activity, having a “big-sister” type mentor, and giving back to the community. While I’m usually dubious of books with hyperbolic titles, the points made about these three tools for success were spot on. I’ve seen thousands of students in my time as a teacher and school administrator, and overwhelmingly those who struggle most are those who lack the perspective that all will, ultimately, be well.

To have an activity separate from school classes (acting, singing, athletics, robotics, tai chi etc.), to have someone to talk with (a mentor, older teen or adult, who can listen with empathy), and to have the understanding that comes from volunteering (that while middle school is tough, life can be even tougher for some), these things help girls (and boys) put the daily, and very real, stresses of their school experience in perspective. As I strive to make Diegueño a place where students feel connected, supported, and free to become the people they will be, The Drama Years was a nice primer on the challenges students face and how we as adults can help them do more than survive; we can help them succeed.

Secrets from the Middle was recommended to me by our superintendent, and was an interesting read from the point of view of a retired middle school English teacher who maintained that success in the classroom was more than just vocabulary lists mastered or sentences diagramed. Her premise in this thin but powerful book was that teachers need to allow themselves to be human as they work with students, to stay true to themselves as they connect with kids. With 30 years of teaching experience, hers was a voice I’d like all my new teachers to hear. She stayed positive, real, and honest about what it’s like to work with 7th and 8th grade students. Stressing structure, engagement, playfulness, and rigor, she described a teaching philosophy that was good for kids. As she said well, “I rarely backed off from my guiding principles through the years, and I let students know why I believed in them.” Engaging students in the “why” of things not only helps them in school, but helps them in life.

True experience can only be won on the ground, not read about in books, but these three short volumes were a great addition to my professional bookshelf, and provided nice perspective on the middle school years before classes begin on August 26th. It’s then I’ll look forward to watching great teachers connect with kids, have opportunities to keep calm, and do my best to keep the drama confined to our two periods of theater. I know that every year brings challenges, and I honestly feel that after reading these three books I’m a little better prepared for whatever happens when soon, to put it in Sherlockian terms: “The game is afoot!”

photo (56)

Mission Statement

mission statementI have the task of writing my personal mission statement before our first district wide administrator meeting next week. My mission statement is one that has been with me since my first year as a site administrator, buffed and buffeted by reality, but true to the first time I wrote it down almost a decade ago.

When I heard that we would be sharing our statements, my first thought was that my own might sound naive in comparison to the others around me. Smart, innovative educators fill our administrative ranks, and I know the room will be populated with thoughtful and detailed statements as filled with meaningful content as they are lyrical. Mine is honest, but walks the line of idealistic.

I thought a bit about how I might tune my own statement up, adding something about technology, about my PLN, about the common core. I thought about my audience: those smart women and men who would be reading it blind and looking to connect it with its author.

My own statement, while true to what I believe, doesn’t reference the latest in educational research or comment directly on the opportunities technology brings to us. It doesn’t speak directly to community or school safety, both big ticket items to me, and both growing in importance with every week I lead.

It’s short.

My insecurities began to bubble up.

And then… I found myself having coffee with a fellow principal, someone I’ve known for a while and respect a lot. He listened briefly to my thoughts and then cut to the chase. He shrugged. “Be true to you,” he said, effectively ending the discussion.

Be true.

I finished my coffee and let his words sink in, and it seemed to me that a personal mission statement is just that.

I’d been wrong about the audience. Certainly others should read it; I do right when I put it out publicly for teachers, students, parents, and others to see, but it’s something personal. I’m the target audience. I’m the one that statement should guide. More than being a document for the world to see, it’s something I should look at every day, something that should inform my decisions.

As that wise friend said over coffee, it needs to reflect who I am and what I do.

So here it is.

“I believe that I can make a difference. By working hard and treating others with respect, I believe that I can help create a place where students, teachers, parents, and others in the school community can succeed, and this success is no less than a better life.”

Take it for what it’s worth. For me, it’s true.