Pizza, Push Ups, and Pop

photo 1 (17)Laughter filled the room, and families around tables helping each other, and math.

Planning had been in the works since September, when our math department decided that the flavor of Diegueño’s Family Math Night would be celebratory. They’re a young department, only two over forty, and those two perhaps the most youthful of the bunch. Their idea of celebrating family and math together smacked of the unconventionality of youth, and this proved perfect for our audience, made up of middle school students, their parents, and scads of younger siblings.

The activities promoted a playful attitude, students and parents warming up with a challenge that invited them to use straight lines to cut a pizza into as many slices as they could. Walking around our media center, where eighty kids and parents were getting started, I could tell right away we were in for a great night: the kids were helping the adults.

photo 3 (12)Under the watchful eyes of our math teachers, all of whom agreed to give up the Tuesday night to come help, moms and dads, grandmas and little brothers (and even my AP and I) joined Diegueño students for an evening of hands on math fun.

One popular activity had us learning that Wisconsin’s mascot, Bucky the Badger, does push ups for every point scored in a football game, and then doing our best to figure out the total number of push ups he did when Wisconsin beat Indiana 83 to 20. I’ll be honest, my calculations were going astray until an intrepid twelve year old leaned over and helped me out. His patience with a former English teacher like me, and his ability to see me not as his principal but as a guy who was there to do math with him, captured the spirit of the evening.

Together we enjoyed raffles, skits by the Math team, and informative and practical tips for how parents can help their students at home. Mostly, we learned together and laughed together.

photo 5 (7)The hour flew by, parents and students leaning in to each other as they scribbled shared answers, and smiling broadly as they enjoyed family math time, unplugged and together.

I think my favorite part of the night was the last shared experience, when we got to chew gum and blow bubbles. Sure there was a graphing component to the bubble activity, but the image of parents and kids blowing bubbles through smiles and fits of giggling was one of the sweetest and most inspiring things I’ve seen in more than two decades in public education.

At our best we learn together. Our Diegueño Family is a collection of supportive and fun loving kids and adults. We value rigor and invite in whimsy. Often at the same time.

photo 4 (10)My AP took a photo of us all at the end of the night, a panorama that captured us as learners. You can see papers littered across tables and even a couple of people finishing up computations. These are learners young and old, some with pink gum in their mouths, some celebrating correct answers, all happy to be spending the evening together. And as the very thankful principal of Diegueño I have the pleasure of  being in the middle of it all …blowing a bubble.

Advertisements

Growth

In just two weeks parents, teachers, and students will gather together in our library for our first Diegueño Book Club. A few folks have already told me that they’re coming, and two parents proudly held up their copies of Carol Dweck’s Mindset at our PTSA meeting last week.

I’m looking forward to the chance to sit down with members of our school family and talk about the big ideas Dweck offers. Good discussion has a way of bringing people closer together, and Mindset is a book filled with the fodder for interesting conversation.

photoWhen a math teacher told me that her copy had arrived and a student said that she and her mom were reading the book together, I knew those interesting conversations were on the horizon.

And while the evening our Diegueño Book Club meets will be one place where we talk about growth mindsets, I’m optimistic that those conversations will also happen on car trips and around kitchen tables across the neighborhoods that surround our school.

Late in the book Dweck writes:

“Tomorrow, listen to what you say to your kids and tune in to the message you’re sending. Are they messages that say: You have permanent traits and I’m judging them? Or are they messages that say “You’re a developing person and I’m interested in your development?”

It’s a question I’m interested in more people considering.

As a school community, I’m convinced that we are committed to helping students develop into the amazing young people they will be.

If who we are was cemented when we were in middle school, heaven help us all; I’d be an insecure, stumbling, red-head who routinely felt lost and a little out of step.

Helping to contribute to a school culture that embraces the notion that we all can continue to grow and learn is something many, many members of our Diegueño Family see as important.

On December 9th we’ll gather in our library to talk together. Before then, and after too, I look forward to the conversations happening in lunchrooms, grandparents’ family rooms, and in camping chairs on the sidelines of soccer games. I’m excited about the potential for us to use this opportunity to connect with each other, support each other, and grow.

Thanks

There are lots of ways to measure the health of a school’s culture. One that won’t ever make it into any kind of report, but strikes me as a sound barometer is how often and in how many ways people say thank you.

Here at Diegueño, “Cougar Pride” cards have long been a staple of recognizing students for their contributions to our school family. They’re a way staff members can recognize students who have demonstrated the qualities we celebrate in the pillars of character we believe so much in. Students like getting these acknowledgements from their teachers, and staff like giving them as a way of saying thanks.

photo 1 (15)This year, our school counselor, new to Diegueño, asked if we had a public way staff could say a similar thank you to each other. She talked with my amazing assistant and they came up with the concept of “PAW Prints,” cards that staff could present to each other to honor and acknowledge kindness and support. I lobbied for the acronym to stand for “Professional and Wonderful,” my assistant added the phrase “like a paw print, staff members make an impression,” and our counselor reached out to local businesses, so we could add a monthly raffle to the program and add an element of spice to the new way of saying thank you.

That PAW Prints were a welcome addition to Diegueño hit me when my library tech stopped me to say how much she appreciated a PE teacher, also new to campus, who offered to cover media center supervision so she could attend the PTSA’s teacher appreciation lunch. “I’ve never had someone offer like this,” she told me. “I’m writing her a PAW Print!” So often it’s easy to put off writing a thank you note; having a system in place to make it easier contributes to a healthier campus.

lunchThat PTSA lunch was another example of how members of the Diegueño Family show their thanks to one another. It wasn’t teacher appreciation week here on campus, just a regular week in November, and the PTSA decided to cater a beautiful lunch for staff to express their thanks for a great start to the year. With tables decorated with pumpkins and fall leaves, it felt like a miniature Thanksgiving dinner, shared by teachers, office staff, and parents too.

Parent thank yous aren’t limited to big events. Just this year I’ve had many parents stop by my office on their way in or out of school, pop their heads in my open door, and tell me how much they appreciate the extra help a teacher gave their son, the nice email or phone call they got about their daughter, or the kindness shown their student by our counseling department. They send emails too, and while it would be a fib to say that the majority of the emails I get are complements or appreciations, more thank you notes come to my email in box than you’d expect.

photo 2 (19)The unexpected nature of impromptu thank you notes is something I’ve always loved. I do my best to write notes of thanks myself, using homemade pirate themed cards that I hope bring a smile as well as a sense of my appreciation. It’s funny, but I find that on the weeks that I write the most thank yous, I’m happiest. There’s something about putting pen to paper to express how much something is appreciated that helps to put the world in perspective.

I’m proud to work on a campus where thank you is part of our school culture, where from student to teacher to parent it’s not unusual to see an act of kindness followed by a heartfelt “thanks.”

Bouquet

Young and in love, his wife pregnant with their second child, my new science teacher arrived at school early today, as always, an overflowing bouquet of flowers in his hand. Is he thanking someone, I wondered, or just really early getting flowers to give his wife. They’ll wilt, the dad in me thought; I’m more paternal than ever in my role as a principal.

“Nice,” I said as he passed my office. He smiled broadly, and I could picture how happy his pregnant wife would be when he got home with the flowers. He held the bouquet up next to his head and said two unexpected words: “Plant dissection!”

And he was gone, off to his classroom to prepare for a day of cutting those flowers apart.

photo 1 (14)Teachers like this compose the majority of the educators I’ve had the pleasure to work with. Unlike the sometimes critical depiction in popular culture, in more than two decades in education I’ve seen many teachers give up their own time and resources, investing in making their students’ experiences in the classroom the best they can be.

The teachers I know, and especially those here at Diegueño, are generous of spirit and thrive on innovation in service of learning.

Just this fall I’ve seen history teachers collaborate to create projects that give students hands on experiences to bring social studies alive. Whether putting in the extra effort of coordinating a mock election or designing a new research activities that take advantage of our increased student technology, these teachers inspire kids.

Inspiration takes many forms on campus, from student designed and constructed airplane models zooming above the grass by the CE Smart lab to students coding their own video games, from improv in acting class to found poetry in English class. Our young musicians, athletes, and scientists all have opportunities to engage in the challenge and reward of learning.

In math, a hotbed of innovation as we transition to an integrated approach and implement the common core, teachers seem never to stop working together to improve the learning experiences for our kids. I’ve seen math teachers purchase manipulatives, give up lunch hours to help kids, and stay long past the end of the school day to work with each other.

Across campus I see teachers creating opportunities for students to learn: the Chihuly art installation in our media center, the Dual Language Immersion program student blog, American Revolution podcasts, the list goes on.

Professional, caring, and supportive, our teachers make a difference. Love of teaching and learning is one of the things that makes Diegueño the great place it is.

A place worthy of bringing flowers.

Pencil, Paper, Purpose

With so much focus in education circles on technology, social media, and common core, I was struck this morning when I sat in on a class where one of my superstar English teachers was using a pencil and paper (projected on the board) to teach her 7th graders about thesis statements.

Without technological flashiness or portable electronic devices, but with a heaping helping of patience, humor, and encouragement, she led her students through the steps of developing a thesis that they might argue in an essay. This was teaching as it might have appeared in 1990, 1970, or 1950 (though it would have been accompanied then by a grunge soundtrack, teacher who smelled of cigarettes, or man in a short sleeved white shirt and black tie, respectively). It was good teaching, the kind of instruction that doesn’t go out of style.

Those who imagine that students today need to be on a Chromebook or smartphone to be engaged, or that they need to be working in groups puzzling out a concept every minute of a class period would have been surprised by the focus this class of twelve year olds brought to their work.

The students sat, their own pens poised over paper, watching as their teacher modeled the development and writing of the thesis. The kids answered her questions and provided great examples she might use to make her sample argument. With heartfelt encouragement, the teacher acknowledged student suggestions and pushed her kids to make connections, to think critically about the subject, and to draw on examples that supported the point.

In a moment not from the 1950s, students shared the sample thesis statements they’d developed individually with a group of four, discussing the merits of each before reporting back to the class. They class then reviewed, refined, and reflected on the strengths of the best thesis statements, and the students left with a better understanding about how they could apply that knowledge to the topics they’d chosen for their own upcoming papers.

It was a good example of the notion that sometimes the best tool for the job can be a simple one, and that sometimes the best method of learning is simply eye to eye.

As they move forward with their essays, the kids will use technology that their parents and grandparents wouldn’t have dreamed about when they were cracking open the World Book Encyclopedia or whiting out spelling mistakes they’d made on their typewriters. Even during the lesson today students enjoyed a certain freedom and comfortability that would have seemed foreign a couple of decades ago. At it’s heart, however, the magic of this lesson came in the interaction between a great teacher and interested students.

I could tell that they’d built a relationship over the course of the year. In her ready smile and the kindness in her eyes, the teacher showed that she loved her class. In their attention, participation, and willingness to contribute, the class demonstrated their affection and respect for their teacher.

Teachers since Socrates have recognized that it’s these relationships that underpin learning. Technology changes (chalkboards replaced by whiteboards replaced by document cameras replaced by Google Docs), as does pedagogy (that smoky fellow in the shirt and tie would be an anomaly these days), but even as they do it’s nice to see some gems keep their timelessness.

I remember with affection my own 7th grade English class and Ms. Sarver, teaching me about thesis statements. Many of the kids in today’s class will remember their teacher in the same way. Sure they’ll also remember the hands on, technology rich instruction they enjoyed in the class, but when they really look back I think what will stick with them most will be their teacher’s smile, her encouragement, and their learning.

 

The Diegueño Puzzle

photo 5

A Diegueño Cougar dons a deerstalker!

One of the most important parts of teaching is being able to adjust plans as you go. This happens within the best lessons as well as between them, as teachers make decisions about what worked and what didn’t, and reflect on what changes might benefit kids and learning. I had the opportunity to teach a series of lessons on Sherlock Holmes over the past two weeks, and as I finished my first days of sleuthing with the kids, and looked ahead at another half dozen lessons over the next couple of weeks, I realized that that I could make my lesson better.

More than could, I knew that I needed to reflect on and revise my lesson if I was to be an example of the kind of teacher I admire. As a principal dedicated to being an instructional leader, living the work meant putting in the effort to do it right. So…

I began with Holmes. I knew his methods, and took three simple quotations as my starting point.

“The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning.-Sherlock Holmes in Sign of Four

photo 1This meant looking hard at my lesson on “The Musgrave Ritual” and being willing to change things even if I was fond of them as they were. I’d loved taking the kids outside to measure the shadows of trees, so they could use similar triangles to determine their height as Holmes had done in the story. I knew they’d remember it, and I liked the adventure and interdisciplinary aspect of it. But… I only had a an hour and forty-five minutes for my lesson, and if my goal was truly to engage meaningfully with a literary text, I could better spend that time with kids. Clear reason demanded a change. I resolved to keep the introduction of Holmes as I had it, the hands on activity on observation and deduction, and to slice away my field trip to the quad.

“Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person.”  -Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”

The best way of judging what worked in the lesson I taught was observing how well it engaged and challenged the kids. I wanted some adult voices too; working collaboratively beats working in isolation, and I knew I would do well to bounce some ideas off a team, my own Diegueño Irregulars.

I called my ToSAs.

My district has a cadre of Teachers on Special Assignment who support classroom teachers with the implementation of the common core state standards, technology, and more. These are amazing educators, and a few of them Holmes fans, who I knew could help me. Individually we’re all Watsons, but together we might be someone who approaches Holmes.

Not wanting to appear the fool in front of these educators I respect prompted me to spend some time preparing what I might do, now that I’d made the decision to prune the similar triangles from my lesson. I thought about how I could actively engage the students, thinking of great examples from teachers at Diegueño that had kids up and puzzling over a challenge that forced them to think, reflect, and discover.

I knew I wanted them to engage with the text. I’d seen them enjoy a wonderful struggle with a handwritten letter from Arthur Conan Doyle to the editor of the Strand Magazine (regarding the illustrator, Paget). I wanted to bring that same level of textual analysis, or even more, to the story, and (reason over emotion) I realized that I’d do better to change up which Holmes adventure I used.

photo 3Remembering a great line on detection from “The Reigate Squire,” I went to that story with an eye toward teaching possibilities. The mystery hinges on a handwritten note, reproduced in the story, which readers (and Holmes) first see a scrap of and then see in toto. I did some work determining how I’d navigate the students through the story, and I felt like I had something to share with my team.

My meeting with the ToSAs, punctuated with laughter and defined by a shared commitment to creating opportunities for kids to learn, pushed me to improve what I’d developed. Their questions led me to consider how I’d ask the kids to engage with the text (including a close reading of the illustration on the passage I was having the students annotate was just one idea I hadn’t thought of on my own). I left the meeting excited about getting back in the classroom with my revised lesson.

It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize, out of a number of facts, which are incidental and which vital. Otherwise your energy and attention must be dissipated instead of being concentrated.”  -Sherlock Holmes in “The Reigate Squire”

The classes who joined me for “The Reigate Squire” were fantastic. In one a student noticed the telling feature of the handwriting in the note as early as Holmes had, something I never imagined happening. They applied their skills of deduction to the copies of the note I gave each, and brought critical reading skills to the text of Doyle’s story.

We used the quotation above to discuss how reading a mystery can help make explicit the process of reading any text (from a history textbook to a poem), and how they, as literary detectives, gather clues from the text that they can apply to theories about what they’ve been reading.

photo 4I’d wondered if “The Reigate Squire” could hold up with an audience of middle schoolers; it’s not “The Red Headed League” or “A Scandal in Bohemia” (those great stories were too long to be contained in a single period in which I was also introducing the kids to Holmes). It did.

The story was a perfect vehicle for the object of the lesson, better, I realized, than “The Musgrave Ritual” had been. It centered on the written word and provided the kids with a puzzle they could solve only by paying close attention to what (and how) had been put on paper.

As a principal, this Holmesian fun has renewed me, and helped me keep perspective on the grand enterprise of teaching and learning. It’s Holmes who says in “The Five Orange Pips” (itself a teachable story): “A man should keep his little brain attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library, where he can get it if he wants it.” Teaching is in my brain attic. And Sherlock Holmes. And the belief that we can always improve.

Pod People

Teaching, with its intense expense of energy and emotionally taxing nature, is a profession that risks isolation. Teachers divide into different classrooms each period, some only to emerge as they hurry to the bathroom or check their mailboxes before running back to their room to meet with kids.

Many of us recognize how important collegial contact can be, but in the sturm und drang of a standard day in middle school the breaks between teaching can barely feel like enough time to clear the echo of “Ride of the Valkyries” from your mind before diving back into the maelstrom of teaching and learning.

In a world where so much seems to work against a connected staff, geography matters.

Some schools, especially those built in the last century, exacerbate the disconnection of classrooms and increase the isolation of teachers. At Diegueño we buck the trend of endless rows of rooms, instead clustering classrooms around central pods with an internal door to each classroom.

These pods do more than serve as storage for books and technology; they’re places where departments gather to eat lunch. They’re centers for collaboration. They are the building blocks of community.

It was in the Science pod that I found out about the shared scope and sequence for teaching Life and Physical Science …and that one of my teachers had participated in hundreds of road races and triathlons.

In the History pod, shared by our Spanish teachers, I tried my first guava, got an education about dual language immersion, and was gleefully surprised to find out that our most senior teacher (who has been in his same classroom since the school opened in 1985) rides a unicycle.

The English pod felt like home to me the first time I stepped inside. It wasn’t just the brimming bookshelves, posters of authors, or boxes of tea, all familiar to me as a former English teacher; it was the people who circled the central table: funny, smart, irreverent, and in love with the enterprise of helping kids learn.

I saw teachers from all the disciplines gather together in the Math pod for one of the best experiences of the year. It wasn’t a complicated event, just indicative of what teachers at Diegueño are like. In September, the Science and English Departments had hosted lunches for our dozen or so new teachers. As October began, and the adverb “new” was rubbing off the word “teachers,” the Math Department organized a dessert party for the whole staff.

Tables in the Math pod were heavy with sugar (the young teacher who’d made his moms chocolate chip cookie bars, a heaping plate of VG’s doughnuts, a loaf of the best pumpkin bread I’ve ever tasted). More impressive than the food was the crowd: teachers laughing with each other, happy with one another’s company.

We talk, in administrative realms, about what we can do to encourage positive professional community, and here -sprung up from teachers for teachers- was an example of what schools strive for.

I won’t suggest that a dessert party couldn’t happen in a school without pods, or that it’s infrastructure alone that encourages community. I will say, however, that I’m thankful for the geography of Diegueño that gives teachers a fertile ground to grow collaboration, friendship, and fraternity.

As I enjoyed a second chocolate chip bar on that afternoon in October and looked around at the teachers who were not in their individual rooms or battling the giants of isolation, I gave thanks for these passionate and talented educators who make the most of their common spaces, these community builders, these friends, these pod people.

desserts