Transitions

527The middle school years are years of great transition. Leaving elementary school behind and preparing for high school can be a time of whiplash and uncertainty. Facing it alone can be daunting; at Diegueño Middle School students have company and support.

Parents and students can both be surprised by the maelstrom of emotions that comes in the middle school years. New opportunities, new behaviors, new challenges, and new rewards all swirl around 7th and 8th grade students, and helping ground our kids in good decision making and a sense of school community is a big part of what we do.

Teachers lead the way by showing their students respect, holding them to high expectations, and helping support them as they meet (and exceed) those expectations. I see this in classrooms every day as students roll up their sleeves and work together on projects, their teachers circulating the room answering questions, helping focus learning, and supporting kids. I love that our classrooms are rigorous learning environments often punctuated with laughter.

Peers help each other by reinforcing positive behavior. Overwhelmingly students at Diegueño make good decisions and help others make the right choices. The typical Diegueño Cougar is quick with a smile, says thank you to adults, works hard in class, and demonstrates an understanding of right and wrong. This isn’t to say that everyone makes the perfect decision the first time; this is middle school after all, a time when students are still learning ropes of being good citizens.

Today, for instance, a student came to my office to admit reaching into a broken vending machine, it’s door off its hinges, and taking two bags of trail mix. “I knew it was the wrong thing to do,” he said, “and I don’t want to be a person who does stuff like that when I’m older.” He won’t be, of that I’m sure, and the poise and remorse he showed in my office today made me prouder of his confession than I was frustrated with his earlier choice.

The other adults on campus help kids with the transitions of middle school. Our counseling and office staff show students love and caring as they hold them to high standards. Our campus supervisor and plant manager help as they reinforce proper behavior at lunch and between classes. Even administrators, Corey and I, do our best to lend a hand as we get to know students and families and model what it is to be a part of a caring school community.

It’s this focus on community that defines who we are at Diegueño, and guides our commitment to helping students and families navigate the waters of middle school. Together we can do great good, and make this time of transition a positive one.

An important part of this is recognizing that middle school is more than a layover between the elementary years and high school. These two years at Diegueño are vital to the establishment of positive habits, understanding of academic expectations, and development of civic awareness. Just because our calendar time together is shorter than K-6 or 9-12 education, the intensity of our work is just as great. Maybe greater.

So too is the importance of our partnership with moms and dads, grandparents and caregivers, aunts and uncles. The adults who parent our students have a huge impact on how their students middle school years will unfold.

Parents support their students by asking questions and getting involved. 7th and 8th graders look and act much different than they did when they were in elementary school, but they need their parents just as much. We try to help parents by providing lots of information on what’s happening here on campus (through our website, Facebook, Twitter, and even blogs like this), and our students thrive as they see that their lives are filled with adults who care about them as students and as people.

Finally, students help themselves by making connections to school and finding activities that help them find balance and perspective. Involved students are successful students, whether it’s ASB, a club, or a love for a particular subject in school. I love that it’s rare to see a student eating alone at lunch here at Diegueño, and that students know that they came come up to adults on campus and talk.

Ours is a dynamic school community with a commitment to help each other and build a strong and kind school family. We all have a part to play, and as we help students through these many transitions our strength comes from the fact that we play our parts …together.

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The Jogging Undead

ASBPicCollageMy ASB Director stood, her arms crossed in front of her, and frowned at the open Conex box. Following her gaze I looked down at trash bags of sponges, plastic buckets filled with wiffle balls, and a pile of foot and a half long two by fours. “What are those for,” I asked, pointing at the lumber. She answered without taking her eyes off the debris in the storage container. “Giant Jenga,” she said with a straight face. And then she laughed.

This, in a nutshell, is ASB, Associated Student Body, more a lifestyle than a class.

In the world of school, ASB students and directors have lots of work to do (maybe organizing a large storage container), administrators asking them questions, and the ability to come up with the idea of, and then say the phrase “Giant Jenga” without breaking the look of determination needed to get the job done. …and they still have time for laughter.

On any campus ASB is the lifeblood of student activity. They’re the ones willing to open their arms to new students in delightfully off kilter ways: a hula hoop contest on the first week of school, a scavenger hunt to explore the changes to campus, and for us at Diegueño Middle School this year a twist on the age old jog-a-thon: an October Zombie Run.

Zombies.

The reaction to the event was marvelous. Our steadfast AP asked the conservative questions a steadfast AP ought to ask: What will parents think of a Zombie Run? Remember, we’re talking about the undead here. “The Jogging Dead!” I added. They both winced.

Our drama teacher celebrated, offering to help teach a “zombie tutorial” on how to look and act undead. “A lurch-a-thon” I offered. Another wince.

And then the kids, and at a middle school it always comes back to the kids: they loved it. They took the idea back to their parents, and good taste added a word to the title: “Zombie Fun Run!”

I’m in.

It’s not that students always get exactly what they want. I remember an ASB Director telling me about her informational meeting before a school wide dodgeball tournament. She gathered the teams around her, held up her fingers and said “Three rules… One, no unitards.” The wrestling team had participated the year before (to the uncomfortable gawking of the crowd). “Two, no team names with naughty puns or innuendo.” Groans. “And three, no team names that include the word balls.” Shrieks of grief as the teenaged boys lamented the fact they’d have to come up with different team names. Good ASB Directors laugh at such things, and help students learn boundaries, even as they sometimes push those boundaries.

ASB is the spirit of campus, and in their attitudes and actions one can get a sense of the school. In my first year at Diegueño I knew I’d come home when I saw three manifestations of the character of our ASB.

The first, when our school grew over the summer, with about a hundred more students than we’d had the year before, we found ourselves short on science labs. Without missing a beat our ASB Director offered her room (with a sink and good ventilation) to be transformed into a science lab. This meant that she would have to share rooms and that ASB would need to move lots of supplies, and she did it for the good of the school.

Her students, seeing such great modeling, overflowed with generosity as well, and over the summer, while construction had campus closed to the public, they came to school and helped us film an orientation video for new students. These quality kids could have been at the beach or by the pool, but they strapped on hard hats and helped make Diegueño a more welcoming place for new students.

The third instance of ASB character, and a reminder of the exuberance of youth, came on Back to School Night as legions of ASB students filled campus to direct parents to classrooms, answer questions, and charm every adult in sight. Aggressive human directionals, they approached parents with passion and purpose and led them where they needed to go with a smile. These students showed their school spirit and love of helping in an endearing and awesome way.

On a campus with great kids, ASB is a synecdoche of all that is right with youth today. Kind, curious, and energetic, these students (led by an adult who shares their sense of adventure) reassure me that all will be well, and pretty fun too.

And this spring, when our whole school participates in Diegueño Spirit Day, I’m looking forward to challenging my ASB Director to a lively game of Giant Jenga.

SDUHSDchat

On Tuesday evening I’ll host my first SDUHSDchat of the school year. For those folks who don’t know what a Twitter Chat is, think of a group of educators all sitting around a table discussing a topic, dividing about half an hour into answering four questions. Now imagine that the table is so large that everyone can gather around it, that everyone who wants to speak gets a chance, and people who’d rather just listen can do so without feeling awkward.

Twitter isn’t a social media that everyone uses, though I’d wager the majority of those reading this post have at least a passing familiarity. For educators it’s been a boon to professional development and connections. In my district we’ve joined the growing number of teachers and administrators who host a weekly online meeting place where we can exchange ideas with each other (and with anyone interested in joining the conversation).

Led by a Teacher on Special Assignment, a math teacher, an English teacher, and a middle school principal (that’s me), SDUHSDchat is a low risk way for teachers and those interested in teaching to come together for thoughtful (and sometimes witty) talk about the world of education today.

Heck, as a parent I think I’d be curious what teachers and other educators in my student’s school and district had to say about things.

And it’s easy.

It doesn’t even take a Twitter account to follow along on the string of short posts in the “chat,” just click on twitter.com/#SDUHSDchat at 8:00pm on Tuesday (9/23) and watch what people have to say. If you want to join in the conversation (and it’s really worth doing, even if it’s just to add a short thought or two) then you need a Twitter account, which is free, easy, and fun. Just go to: twitter.com.

For anyone with any anxiety about Twitter, a friend showed me this article that helped me wrap my head around what tweeting is all about. You may want to take a look at: Mom, This is How Twitter Works. It’s funny and informative at the same time. Who could ask for more?

Well, you say, I could ask for more… I don’t want to be caught flat footed when all this “chatting” starts up. You could tell me the topic! You could even give me a peek at the questions, so I can get ready and feel comfortable before I try this thing out.

Done and done.

This week’s SDUHSDchat is about “Motivating Students / Classroom Management.” I put that slash in between the two terms on purpose, thinking some would see it as an “and” and others as an “or.” Some would start thinking about how the two are related; I think they are. Some would say you can’t have one without the other. All cool starting points!

Now, the questions… I’m still polishing these up a bit (it’s not yet Tuesday night), but what I have right now (spaced 5-7 minutes apart) is…

 

  • What is the relationship between motivating students and classroom management?
  • What has worked best to motivate your students this school year?
  • What classroom management challenges have been the greatest this year, and how have you addressed them?
  • What are the most important elements in a classroom with good classroom management and motivated students?

 

I might adjust the questions a little before we go live on Tuesday. I’d really like to weave in something on Growth Mindsets (while still being sensitive that not everyone is super familiar with Carol Dweck’s work). But this gives you a head start.

So what do you think? Feel adventurous? Want to dip your toe in the water? I’d love to hear what you have to say, and think you might find it fun too. We’re all part of this grand adventure that is education for the same reason: the kids, and SDUHSDchat is just another way we can help support each other. Think of us all as friends having a conversation around a table, a table with enough seats for everyone.


SDUHSDchat at 8:00pm on Tuesday 9/23/14 (and most Tuesdays during the school year).

Dad Magic

When my kids were younger and I was able to pull off some trick that amazed them (pretending to pull a quarter from behind their ears, say, or opening a jar of pickles that they couldn’t unstick) I’d look at them and answer their unspoken question: “how?” with two simple words: “Dad magic.” They’re ten and six now, and hardly astounded by the ability to take off an accidentally locked door handle, though my two word explanation of success still finds its way out of my mouth often enough to be expected by them both.

As a principal at a middle school my day to day opportunities to help aren’t usually so simple. The issues 7th and 8th grade students face, from peer conflicts to pressures in school aren’t fixed with a screwdriver.

Instead, the privilege I have to make a difference brings with it a need for patience and listening, and a mindset steeped in protection and caring. This responsibility isn’t something I take lightly, and as I was explaining to a mom just the other day, I feel like the parent of more than 900 students at my school. I’m here to look out for them, help them learn, and provide a safe space for them to grow up.

To accomplish these ends I’m blessed to be surrounded by caring adults who share a parental attitude and caring sensibility.

My assistant principal has the uncanny ability to balance both a strong professional presence and a true sense of joy. The kids see in him someone they can trust, laugh with, and respect.

My office staff bear witness to the aphorism of it taking a village to raise a child; their caring, mothering, teaching, and holding accountable students helps our kids make the transition from elementary school to young adulthood. Students who pass through the doors of the administration building get more than PE clothes or hall passes; they learn in every positive interaction how to be wonderful people.

From my plant manager and campus supervisor who look at every issue from a student safety point of view, to my registrar who is the biggest advocate for kids I’ve ever known, to the teachers who make all the difference, the adults I share my day with are astounding.

The issues we help kids through range from profound to silly, a reflection I suppose of life. We work hard at jobs we love, and in a profession that has called us to make a difference. I know I’m not alone when I look at the students and see myself as their parent on campus.

And then yesterday I had something happen that in a moment took the concept of in loco parentis out of my head and put that feeling of being a parent directly in my heart. It was a hot day and the lock on the new gate was acting up. Not broken, but fussy, the push bar was sticking and making it difficult for some kids to go out that one door.

I spotted a group of students, five or six 7th grade girls just two or three years older than my own daughter, pushing on the release bar without results. At under a hundred pounds their center of gravity wasn’t helping them with the oomph they needed to budge the stubborn door.

I joined them, always happy to help, and used the tried and true method of unsticking a door: a burly Swedish guy swinging his shoulder against the problem. I’m well more than a hundred pounds. The door popped open.

Because our kids are wonderful the first thing I heard was a chorus of thank yous, followed by one girl who said: “How’d you do that?” Her friend answered her: “Magic” and without thinking I lifted a paternal finger and added my voice to the conversation “…Dad magic.”

Ice, Ice, Baby

The thermometer said 85 degrees. If I was going to be doused with ice water, today was a good day.

A history teacher had called me out, daring me to take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and to the laughter of my students I’d said yes. The ASB class set the date, seeing in me a “lunchtime entertainment.” A student would pour; I’d get wet.

I knew I’d have the student body’s attention, my first chance to address all the students as a whole this year, at least for the few moments before the plastic bucket was empty and I was dripping onto the lawn in the quad. Make the most of the opportunity, I thought; the educator in me started rehearsing what I wanted to say…

I’d start by thanking the kids for a great opening of school. Strong and caring teachers, kind parents, and an amazing school staff set the stage, but it’s the students who make the show soar, and this year they have. Our big, interesting bunch have filled campus with a positive energy from the first day of classes.

Playing on that sense of community and desire to help each other I’d bring up the reason behind the ALS Challenge, raising money and awareness for research to combat this disease. I’d provide a specific example or two, like our own local “Bike 4 Mike” event benefiting ALS research, a real way they could get involved.

I’d say something about the future …that’s them. Cures, answers, vision for a better world, these will be their legacy. Would I lose any sense of being articulate looking over a bucket of ice water? We’d see.

When I got to the quad and looked out over the crowd of kids (phones poised; this would end up on Facebook), that line by Emily Dickinson floated through my mind: “I dwell in possibility/ a fairer house than prose…”

DwellThe students at Diegueño and in classrooms across California, the United States, and the world are possibility. Our job as educators is to support them and challenge them, to give them opportunities and inspiration.

The seeds of curiosity we plant in 7th and 8th grade grow roots in these adolescent years, sprout, blossom as the students move on to college, and bear fruit through the work they do as adults.

Do I believe a student in today’s lunch crowd will help cure diseases? Yes. And more.

Future firefighters and teachers, future engineers and poets, future philosophers and surfers stood on that grass today.

Do I believe that the students now at Diegueño will change the world? Yes. And more.

Those young women and men will define our world. They will discover answers to questions we don’t yet know to ask. They will be the activists who come up with the next Ice Bucket Challenge, the researchers who use the donations to find cures for diseases, and the population who supports progress, kindness, and possibility.

For today, however, they’re the twelve and thirteen year olds watching a guy in a tie get ice water dumped on his head. And laughing.

photo (12)

Gates

photo (9)Folks coming on campus at Diegueño thread through a grove of eight shade trees as they pass low slung buildings that one new teacher compared to the architecture she’d seen in Big Bear. Past the trees, campus opens up onto thoroughfares widened by Proposition AA construction and green lawns where students eat lunch and socialize between classes. We have a brand new media center, with furniture that reflects the playful attitude of middle school and amazing technology ready to help kids learn. New walls have been painted, new lunch tables with umbrellas dot campus. Heck, even the teachers are handsome and pretty. And to get to this land of plenty you have to pass a wall of bars as welcoming as those at a federal penitentiary.

I like it.

Years in education have made me a bit of a school safety wonk. I’m the fellow who actually enjoys Safety Committee meetings. I get jazzed about scheduling duck and cover drills, and hold a stopwatch when we practice an evacuation, always hoping for a better time. When I see the new gates we’ve put in at the front of the school I see safety. I see security. I see a clear demarcation of the line between the world of school and the world beyond. Inside those gates we make the magic of education; outside carries the uncertainty that our education prepares us for.

Sometimes safe isn’t convenient; it takes longer to walk through the main administration building, check in, and then go on campus than it would for someone simply to stroll on. Sometimes safe isn’t aesthetic; I’m looking forward to getting some vinyl signs on the new fences to soften the look a bit. But safety is, well …safe. And that trumps convenience or looks.

Attitudes toward campus design have evolved over the past few decades, as schoolhouses ceased looking like the classical structures kids see in Richard Scarry books. Now campuses are more open, with spaces for students to congregate and an understanding that we’re better off when we have more room for students to interact than might be seen in the narrow hallways of Disney tween sitcoms.

Even in the three decades since Diegueño was built the world around us has prompted school designers to create distinct boundaries to campuses and improved gates and fences to deter non-student access.

These adjustments to our infrastructure, brought up to date on our campus with Proposition AA construction, are needed and reassuring, and even as we enjoy the new entrance and exits, educators know that a major element of school safety is the community and connections within those boundaries. Students who look out for one another help school officials prevent unsafe situations. Creating a climate that is connected (students, teachers, and all members of the school community) is as important as solid gates or deterring walls.

And it looks better.

So our ASB organizes activities to help students smile, laugh, and know each other. Our teachers get to know their students as they discuss everything from coding to creativity, from probability to presidents. Our counselor and campus supervisor join my assistant principal and me out at lunch, where fist bumps and high fives outnumber telling kids to pick up trash, and it’s more likely to see a student giving our assistant principal advice about fantasy football than it is hearing him tell a student to behave. Skinned knees in our health office are treated with conversation as well as bandages, and I’ve seen students arrive early to school to talk books with the fantastic Mrs. Coy in our library, “the family room of campus.” It’s these connections that create the environment where when someone sees something she says something, where teachers and students look out for one another, and where we get a sense of belonging to a community greater than ourselves.

All the while our staff wear photo IDs, volunteers have name tags, and parents coming on campus sign in and are issued identification badges. Vigilance and welcoming stand side by side at Diegueño.

I’m a fan of the new gates on campus, and the other measures that are part of the important work we do. But as I talk safety, it’s important for me to remember that the best safety is a connected community, and the best way to begin a day at school is to greet people outside the gates, where the first thing they see at Diegueño is a smile.

A Fine, Fine School

photo (3)Perspective. As a school administrator it’s one of the most important things that I all too often ignore.

What I mean is that it’s easy to let my job, both the obligations that come with it and the passion to make a difference that I carry with me every day, take over my view of the world. I tend to get to work early, writing with a pot of coffee at my elbow, and stay late, finishing up the work I’ve left in my office all day while I was out on campus and in classrooms. My patient and understanding wife allows me get away with it, to a point, and my kids let me know when I should be more present with them, usually with a smile and the invitation to play a game, go to the park, or bake something.

Reading to the kids last night, a wonderful book by Sharon Creech found its way into the stack on the nightstand: A Fine, Fine School, the story of an overzealous principal who confuses his own love of his school with the notion that more is always better. I think my wife might have slipped it into the mix to teach me a lesson. She’s always right when she sets about doing something like that, even if it takes me a while sometimes to listen.

Reading it aloud to my six year old son, I thought to myself: A Fine, Fine School should be required reading for all site administrators.

The story is simple: Mr. Keene, the principal at this fine, fine school, loves his school and the learning he sees so much, that he decrees more and more time in classes. Weekends disappear. Holidays slip away. The school days get longer. The summers get shorter. The kids… the kids, who are fantastic, as kids are, wave goodbye to their dogs and baby siblings, put sticky notes on their backpacks to remind them of the flood of work and dates for the swarms of tests. They eat school lunches in a cafeteria festooned with the sign: “Why not study while you chew?” Bags appear beneath their eyes, and stacks of books fill their lockers, backpacks, and arms (all with witty titles slipped in by the illustrator to make parents reading the book smile).

It’s a student, of course, who helps Mr. Keene see the light. Her question leads him to consider the difference between school and learning, a lesson that we all, as educators, do well to reflect upon. This ultimately prompts a revelation, and Mr. Keene to tell his school: “You, all of you -children and teachers- you need to learn how to climb a tree and sit in it for an hour.” The important stuff: family, play, and reflection have a place in education too. A Fine, Fine School reminded me of that with humor, kindness, and great illustrations by Harry Bliss.

Reading the book comes on the heels of a conversation I had with a teacher. She’d been at a district meeting and talked with a principal who told her: “The best teachers teach from a full life.” What a beautiful thing to say.  It’s a line I’ll pirate and use with my teachers.

Dedication isn’t something most educators have trouble with; balance sometimes is.

As a principal part of my job is to help my school be a place that recognizes that dinner with family is more important that any homework assignment that a student gets (or a teacher later grades). Living a full life means learning in classes and learning beyond classroom walls. Life teaches us all when we’re at the park, on a team, in a play, or baking a pie. Our best teachers are sometimes our parents, our kids, or our friends. School is important; learning is essential.

I want my students and my teachers to love what they do at school and love what they do outside of school.

Do I love what I do? Yes. Do I have a fine, fine school? Indeed I do. And do I need to encourage balance, perspective, and full lives? Yep. And with the help of my own kids, and a copy of A Fine, Fine School for bedtime reading, I’m optimistic that this year will be …just fine.