5 for ‘15

photo 2 (3)At the emotional halfway point of the school year, the turning of the calendar provides a nice opportunity to take stock and set priorities for Mr. Toad’s wild ride from January to June.

For me, five priorities are lining up for these opening six calendar months of 2015.

1) I will actively engage with teachers, students, and parents in the teaching and learning at my school. This means participating in departmental discussions of pedagogy, implementation of the Common Core State Standards, and student engagement. It means seeking out student voices and challenging my school community to talk about what, how, and why we learn at Diegueño.

2) I will seek out and embrace the critical conversations needed to make my school the best it can be. As principal, it is my obligation to have the honest and sometimes difficult discussions needed to create and nurture a system in which learning is the top priority. While not every conversation leading to this end is easy, if I approach them with respect and transparency, these conversations will lead to a better school.

photo 2 (4)3) I will celebrate others and the good being accomplished at Diegueño every day. Publicly and privately, I want to support the amazing people I work with. Whether daily on Twitter or our school’s Facebook, weekly in blog posts or staff emails, or monthly in parent meetings and my principal’s message, I will shout from my proverbial rooftop word of the great work at my school.

4) I will be silly. Education is a serious enterprise, and as with all experiences of importance it benefits from a sense of fun. Every week I want my teachers and students to see that I’m willing to be a little goofy (alongside them) as we make sure play and laughter have a place alongside learning.

5) I will give thanks. Diegueño Middle School is a dynamic and caring place, and I want to always keep the gratitude I feel prominent in my daily work. This means letting those around me know how much I appreciate them and what they do, and making the time to say “thank you.”

photo 4 (1)The nature of working at a middle school is one of rollicking distraction, and I know that these five priorities will occasionally take a back seat to rats in the trash compactor or leaks in the D-pod, but just as my mission statement helps serve as a compass for my work, I hope these five priorities for 2015 can help form a road map for what I do.

Rats and road maps, leaks and learning, conversations and compasses, 2015 will be a great year.

I’ll end this post with a heartfelt appreciation. Thank you to everyone who has stopped by this blog over 2014. I appreciate your interest in education and other sundry topics, and hope you’ll visit again in 2015. Thank you and Happy New Year!

The Big Chill

photo (34)For me it was Mr. Shinkle.

That special teacher, I mean, who made a difference in my life. I liked him when I was sixteen and seventeen, and appreciated him years later, when looking back over twenty years of being a teacher and administrator myself I realized just how much he’d meant to helping me be me.

Mr. Shinkle was my English teacher as a junior at North Salem High School (“Go Vikings!”) and I took AP Literature my senior year so I could have him again. He was neither the stereotypical cool teacher, nor youthful or classically dynamic. Truth be told, he was a doughy bachelor who had as one of his goals visiting every major league baseball ballpark. Likely to be wearing a sweater vest and prone to chuckling at his own jokes, Mr. Shinkle’s appeal came, I think, from his humor and his kindness.

He was a storyteller. Not the kind who let tales of his glory days get in the way of teaching Madame Bovary or Turgenev, but one with the ability to spin a yarn at the opening or end of class about battling a rat in his basement with a mop. I enjoyed it then, and appreciate it now, that he could have thirty teenagers’ rapt attention as he discussed the fray, descriptions of his jousting and bucket work punctuated with a tenor chuckle and self deprecating wit. He had us ready to join him in battle, an offer he dismissed with a customary smile. Perhaps he’d get a cat.

That smile and sense of humor helped to define Mr. Shinkle, something I came to understand, enjoy, and (as a stereotypically narcissistic teenager) eventually exploit.

Count on, might be a better description. I certainly didn’t think about anything but a laugh when I saw an opportunity in Mr. Shinkle’s broken leg during my senior year, and his crutches forcing him into the school elevator.

Without malice, and imagining that he might get a kick out of what I thought was funny, I convinced an assistant principal to let me get into the school elevator early one morning before Mr. Shinkle arrived, a roll of butcher paper under my arm.

I cartooned for the school newspaper, but my good stuff was more likely to be found on pee-chees and in the margins of notes. Caricatures were a staple of my artistic output, and with his glasses, lank hair, and mischievous grin, Mr. Shinkle was a comic strip waiting to happen.

We never talked about my elevator joke, though the day after he said “thanks” to me at the start of class. I’ve been left to imagine what his expression was when Mr. Shinkle hobbled into that elevator and confronted a life sized, sweater vested, cartoon likeness of himself taped to the wall of the elevator.

Beyond storytelling and humor, Mr. Shinkle taught me lessons about patience and acceptance and how to live life. The memory that sticks with me most from his class is from the first day of discussion of The Scarlet Letter my junior year.

scarlet-letter-cover-12Hawthorne’s story of Puritan New England is a classic, taught in high schools from Oregon to Maine. I taught it myself when I became an English teacher, delving into the symbolism and ambiguity, even as I knew that every sixteen year old boy in my classes had the same opinion of Hawthorne’s masterpiece that I’d had in 1986: The Scarlet Letter stinks.

I’d read Huck Finn with Mr. Shinkle, and loved One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when he taught it, but with The Scarlet Letter I simply couldn’t get past the opening paragraphs. When we got to class the first day after he’d assigned reading, Mr. Shinkle greeted us with a pop quiz.

It was a mini-essay, one paragraph answering the question: “Who was Roger Chillingworth?” I looked at my blank paper.

This was not fill in the blank, or the kind of multiple choice quiz I could guess an answer for. Faced with an unfamiliar name from a book I hadn’t read in a class with a teacher I liked…

I wrote.

“Roger ‘The Big Chill’ Chillingworth was the finest left handed pitcher ever to play for the Cleveland Indians…”

Five sentences later I’d described a fictional baseball player worthy of Cooperstown. I turned it in, went home, and made myself read The Scarlet Letter.

Mr. Shinkle might have given me a zero on the quiz, or made fun of me the next day in class (it was a time and a place in public education when such things happened). He might have spoken to me about my attitude, which could easily have been construed as cheeky.

Instead, he laughed.

The next day he even read my answer aloud to the class, not to disparage me, but with that smile of his telling me that humor and whimsy had a place in English 11. A place next to Nathaniel Hawthorne.

From that day on I read everything he assigned, and realized that teachers could be pretty great people.

It was a beautiful email from a former student of my own that got me thinking about Mr. Shinkle this winter, her words of kindness prompting in me a pang of guilt for never telling my own favorite high school teacher how much he meant to me.

shinkI did some sleuthing online and found him, that familiar grin greeting me from across the years, and before I return from Winter Break I’ll put pen to paper and let him know the difference he made. If I’m courageous I may even ask him if he remembers his elevator doppelgänger (a word he taught me) or the finest left handed pitcher ever to play for Cleveland.

One thing for sure, I’ll never forget him, and who he allowed me to be.

The best teachers teach with a big heart, sharing a part of themselves with their students. One needn’t be hip or extroverted to be a good teacher, just honest, kind, and passionate about teaching kids. Mr. Shinkle was all of those things. And as I work in schools I’m blessed to walk into classrooms and see great teachers who are the Mr. Shinkles to the kids at the school where I work. It’s magic.

I need to go write a thank you letter.

“You can dance if you want to…”

photo 2 (26)On the day before Winter Break Mr. Kutney’s math classes developed dances that reviewed math terms, laughing and learning as they allowed themselves to be goofy in the service of mathematics and fun. When they finished, in addition to praising specific interpretations of math terms (“I liked how you linked hands to show that sine wave.”), Mr. Kutney said something that struck me as wonderful. “I’m really proud,” he said, “of the way you supported each other and made an atmosphere where it’s okay to get up in front of each other and be a little silly. I love that.”

I did too.

I also loved that I was in the room because kids had called out to me through an open window, interrupting me as I crossed campus to invite me to watch them perform. A measure of health in a school is how much the students (and teachers too) want to show off what they’re doing in classrooms.

photo 2 (25)And beyond. The last day of classes before break also brought an invitation to watch science students launch rockets into the air above our soccer field. Seeing their faces as they returned, victorious, to their classroom, bottles with cardboard fins tucked under their arms, made me proud to be an educator.

Across campus the last week of December saw active learning in classrooms from all disciplines. Art students created stop motion videos, English classes debated morals as related to The Outsiders, and physical science students donned safety goggles and oven mitts (this is middle school, after all) for an experiment on the salt content of seawater.

This isn’t to say that the smell of hot chocolate didn’t drift out of the chemistry lab or that the sound of students singing along with “Let it Go” couldn’t be heard outside the drama room. It was the week before Winter Break, after all, and a part of me believes that Frozen may become the Rocky Horror Picture Show of this generation.

photo (33)But even as they wore red tasseled Santa hats and enjoyed pajama day on Friday, students were actively engaged in learning. That final week before break saw a reenactment of the first Constitutional Convention, students learning about natural selection through a bird beak lab, and young musicians putting the finishing touches on their performance for the band’s Winter Concert.

And in Mr. Kutney’s class they danced.

Before the bell rang to end class, after the last group of students had performed, I asked a question that I knew the answer to. “When he introduced this lesson,” I said to the kids, “did Mr. Kutney demonstrate how to do it?” The smiles that accompanied the students’ collective “YES!” will stick with me for a long time.

“Show him! Please!” The kids said, turning to their teacher. He looked at me with a sheepish grin, a young teacher I’m proud felt comfortable to be a little goofy in front of his principal.

I’m a fan of teachers taking risks and having fun, of creating a school culture that expects rigor and welcomes whimsy. I want to be a part of a school family that supports each other as we engage in this celebration of learning with our kids.

photo 1 (22)So when he turned to me I said the only sensible thing a person in my position would say. With a smile that rivaled the kids’ and a whisper of my 1980s past, I told him: “You can dance if you want to…”

…and he did!

More Than a T-shirt

photo (31)Our staff shirts arrived on Hanukkah, just five months after they’d been ordered. Getting t-shirts for my teachers and classified staff had been a first week priority when I came back from Summer Break. My hope was to have them for everyone on their first morning on campus. With a dozen new faces at Diegueño, I thought it would be great for everyone to have a way to celebrate being part of our school family.

A mix up in Purchasing slowed the order. The first week of school came and went, and my staff shirts remained a good idea, but not a reality for the first Friday with the kids.

Staff shirts are pretty standard at schools, something to show solidarity in a comfortable cotton sort of way. More than a tradition, however, I think that at their best they can be a legitimate demonstration of pride in the place we work, a visual symbol of our belonging to a cause greater than ourselves.

Sometimes departments, caught up in the pride of collegiality and love for their particular subject, create their own shirts. I’ve seen great examples, from a math department’s “π-rates” to a simian Advanced Placement Environmental Science shirt: “APES.”

photo (32)Occasionally things go sideways, like the clever English Department shirt that went with a minimalist celebration of the old saw: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” A former English teacher myself, I was given a shirt and wore it proudly, even after a student misread the slogan and asked why English teachers were all wearing shirts that referred to male genitalia.


September passed, with Back to School Night, and Spirit Week, and opportunities missed to wear our Cougar shirts as a staff.

By Halloween my math department came up with a fun departmental shirt of their own that played on geometric shapes and threw in a Pac Man reference. I wore my “omnomnomagon” shirt with a smile, and loved the twinkle in my math teachers’ eyes when they all wore their shirts to Family Math Night in November.

math shirtThanksgiving arrived, but not our Diegueño staff shirts. The long strange story of purchase orders and billing cycles continued, each day my blue Cougar shirts feeling more and more like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.

As December came I almost lost hope. The kids on the Surf Team gave me a Diegueño sweatshirt, but it wasn’t a staff shirt. It wasn’t that symbol of community that I’d imagined in July.

And then, in a season famous for miracles, two boxes arrived. My assistant radioed me across campus with the news. Her smile as I walked into my office and tore through the packing tape might have been a response to the end of the long wait, or might simply have been amusement with my excitement.

The next day happened to be School Colors Day, part of our Winter Spirit Week. One or two teachers thought I’d planned it.

I’m blaming fate for the timing; I was just giddy to see everyone in their blue Cougar shirts.

And as we greeted each other on School Colors Day, smiles on so many faces, I like to believe that we all felt just a little closer.

Call me corny, I’ll accept it. Call me corny while you’re wearing a Diegueño staff shirt and I’ll call you family.

Consulting Detectives

boxI first played the game a lifetime ago when I was a beginning teacher in Oregon. Two friends, a fellow English teacher and a college professor, and I would get together just about every week to smoke cigars and play board games. All of us bibliophiles and Sherlock Holmes fans, we found ourselves captivated by a now out of print game called Consulting Detective. A series of Holmesian adventures, it eschewed a standard board or dice, and instead presented us with a map of Victorian London, facsimiles of the London Times, and ten cases to be solved collaboratively. We were in heaven.

When I moved to California I brought a copy of Consulting Detective with me. I wasn’t sure how I’d use it again; once you’ve done the cases, you can’t repeat them, and anyway I wouldn’t want to without my friends Dave and Steve. The box sat on my bookshelf for most of my first year at Piedmont High School and then around January 6th, Holmes’ supposed birthday, as I prepared a unit on detective fiction for my classes returning from winter break, it hit me: use it to challenge the kids.

In retrospect the use of Consulting Detective with my students was one of the choices I’m still proud of. I surrounded the experience of playing the game in table groups with plenty of reading of Doyle’s stories. The students were immersed in the milieu; in subsequent schools over the course of a decade, I added a Diogenes Club day and radio play, and as I saw them dive into the challenge of solving a case that felt relevant and real their engagement was wonderful to watch.

Of particular note was the fact that there wasn’t a key to the problems. The students needed to work together to come up with a plan to follow clues and come up with a solution. In pursuit of this answer they ran into red herrings and dead ends, and (for a couple of hours) became Sherlock Holmes, or at least a pack of street urchins.

If they solved the case: cheers! If they remained stumped: they remained stumped.

A few intrepid young sleuths who completed their cases were always willing to join in with a group who couldn’t come up with the answer. Working together at lunch or after school, these teams of students collaborated to solve the mystery and finally arrive at that collective cheer.

The students who played Consulting Detective with me are now in their 20s and early 30s, and I like to imagine that the generous spirit, critical thinking, and ability to work as a team to complete a task they showed in class are traits they’ve taken with them into adulthood.

As we talk in education today about how we can create experiences that challenge students to struggle with the unknown, I look back fondly at Consulting Detective in my classroom. I changed up the stories I taught every year, rotating “The Red Headed League,” “The Speckled Band,” and “The Adventure of the Dancing Men.” But whether I led my students to the Grimpen Mire of Dartmoor or the Falls at Reichenbach, they always ended up together with that map of London in front of them and a case to be solved.

mapThe continuity of Consulting Detective gave me a better perspective about how groups of students thought, not just wrote or performed on tests, year after year. I could see the groups who could work together, the students who could suspend disbelief, the kids who genuinely liked the challenge. To be honest, I knew these kids would be all right.

My copy of the game is pretty ragged now; I’m not sure it could survive a class of middle schoolers. I hope that Consulting Detective comes back into print again. If it does, when it does, I look forward to seeing if a few students might want to join me in a hunt through the streets of London, thinking, collaborating, and putting the lessons on Sherlock Holmes to the test. Someone might say that it’s “very common core.” I’ll argue: it’s very fun.

Active Lightning Drill

My friends in law enforcement are some of the best people I know. Their dedication to keeping the peace and protecting us all is profound, and I’ve found them to be folks with a good sense of humor, integrity, and an unexpected optimism about the human condition. Like educators, their work brings them in contact with all segments of society, including those places most of us would rather avoid. I see the local police officers I get to work with as allies, and they’ve earned my trust as I’ve worked with them evaluate our lock down drills and review our safety plan, and in the cases they’re on campus to help a student or family grapple with the choices that a young person has made.

This was my starting position when a conversation with a veteran teacher the other day got me thinking about the way administrators like me approach school safety with our staffs. I’ve been called a little wonky about school safety (a badge I proudly wear, as I did a silver sheriff’s star when I was a kid) and my friend came to me to talk about the way we get information to our teachers about what to do in particular emergency situations.

Now I’m the guy who brought in the local police to provide an “Active Shooter Training” on the first day teachers came back from summer, so when he started asking me questions about how effective I thought that presentation was for our teachers I puffed out my chest a little bit and started talking about how important I thought those preparations are. Yeah, he agreed, but how effective are they?

As educators we strive to help students learn, not just tick a box that we’ve taught a particular bit of information. In classrooms we provide students with opportunities to ask meaningful questions, work hard to help them think critically, and do our best to provide perspective on how the subject matter at hand relates to their lives, and the lives they’ll lead as they become adults. We strive to help students weigh sources for validity and arguments for worth. Had the training that started our year done that?

Four uniformed officers, who had listened to us when we told them that this was the teachers first day back, and that they would still be coming off summer mode, presented information to us on safety measures during an active shooter situation. They’d framed the discussion using a memorable analogy; in an emergency situation, they said, people fall into three categories: sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. The wolves were the “bad guys,” out to hurt the herd; the sheep were our students, who would be panicked in such a situation; and the sheepdogs were police and some of us, there to protect and guide.

The officers stressed the dangers of such a possible situation, referenced the close to home school shooting in Carlsbad still in our collective memory, and played 911 tapes to illustrate the very real panic that occurs when something so horrible happens. They urged teachers to think about how they would respond to that kind of emergency situation, playing the “what if” game in their minds, and discussed options when confronted with an active shooter.

Knowing that the importance of school safety is paramount to all we do, I asked myself: did the presentation give my teachers opportunities to ask meaningful questions? Did it help them think critically? Did it provide perspective?

Honestly confronting the question of how well I’d done at giving my teachers information on this element of school safety gave me pause.

I’d been thorough in my preparation of the school safety plan, but I realized that I’d done less to thoughtfully prepare my presentation of that overall plan than back when I was an English teacher and I prepared a lesson on Nathaniel Hawthorne. My focus had been on getting the important material taught, but I might have done more to help my staff really learn.

Independent of what my teachers thought of the first day presentation (many had liked it, though one had questioned the notion of wolves and sheepdogs as an iffy analogy) as this teacher asked me about its effectiveness, I wondered if I’d done enough to put into practice the paternal feeling I have as a school principal, looking out for the people at my school. I had farmed out some of the work; it was men in uniforms, not me, who told my staff about what to do in a “lock down” situation, should an “active shooter” come on campus. And I’d invited that presentation to be given in relative isolation, not as part of an articulated comprehensive safety plan that would include what to do in the (more likely) case of an earthquake or fire in the chemistry lab, or even a lock down that wasn’t part of an active shooter threat.

In retrospect, I think I’d do better job of encouraging learning if my presentation of this information was an “and” rather than an “or.” It is important to prepare for this most serious (even if remote) possibility, but I shouldn’t isolate the active shooter presentation from the rest of the safety plan.

How powerful it would be to prepare them to lock down, and prepare them to duck and cover, and prepare them to evacuate in case of a fire. To frame the learning in broader terms would not only have given my staff the information they needed, but also the perspective that could help them best with what they would need to do in the case of any emergency.

It’s the comprehensive nature of school safety, and the “Safe and Drug Free School Plan” we develop each year, that makes our preparation so powerful. We have a planned and practiced response for many emergencies, knowing full well that some are less likely than others. As we develop our plans, we’re smart to make sure we help our teachers and students know the difference between them. After all, my friend noticed, students are more likely to get hit by lightning than be involved in an active shooter situation. How much time are we putting into active lightning drills?

That said, the drills we do at a school are profoundly important. As my equally safety minded assistant principal likes to say, we play like we practice, and knowing that we can get the entire student body out of all classrooms and ready to move off campus in three minutes reassures us all. It’s during these and all our drills that teachers model the sense of calm control that is paramount to keeping kids safe. This applies to lock down situations too.

As a fellow who has been in two legitimate lock downs in my career, both called proactively, and neither ending up with any intruder on campus, I know how much they can rattle teachers and students. In those times I felt more comfortable, and was able to show a quiet calm to the students around me, because of the drills my school had conducted. Practicing is important; knowing what to do is vital.

Talking to my safety minded friend, I realized that the things that made me feel most prepared were those things I’d learned from my own site administrators. As educators they were the best teachers, able to filter often anxiety inducing information in such a way as to help teachers know what they had control over (keeping students calm in a safe and orderly classroom) and what they didn’t have control over (needing to know exactly what is happening from a tactical overview vantage point).

As a principal it’s important that I own safety at my school site. That means more than making sure the gates are locked and the safety plan is up to date. It also means that my new teachers have all had opportunities to engage meaningfully with that safety plan. It means that my assistant principal and I are the ones up front providing information to our staff, with both of us working behind the scenes with law enforcement and firefighters to ensure that we have the most up to date information we can have.

I’ve come to believe that the best person to educate educators are fellow educators, and that at my school and with my staff, that includes me.

What, in the end, is the purpose of teaching school safety? The answer is simple: a safe school. To know what to do in any emergency situation, from the more likely to the least likely, is information far more important than anything I could have ever said about The Scarlet Letter. Focusing on what I need my staff to learn is far more important than ticking a box that says they were taught any particular thing.

I want my teachers and students to be ready for everything, and unafraid of anything. I want my school community to be informed, but not alarmed. To get there takes a thoughtful approach, diligent practice, and a dedication to teaching and learning. If we really learn what to do, and how to approach emergency situations, we’ll be able to respond in the way best for all kids …quick as lightning.

“Save an orange for me!”

It was an evening of stories. A parent told about getting her first “F” on a math exam and her teary phone call home to tell her dad that college wasn’t for her. A teacher shared the experience of being cut from choir in sixth grade, when everyone else in her circle of friends made it. “And in sixth grade,” she said “my friends were my world.” I remembered aloud striking out in T-ball and feeling devastated. I had failed, the six year old me thought, therefore I’m a failure.

photo (25)We told hopeful stories too: of the sister who tried out new jobs every few years, just so she could have new experiences, and was good at them; of the coach who encouraged his players to take chances and not dwell on failure; and of working hard to succeed, believing it possible, and pushing through challenges to learn, grow, and thrive.

It was our first Diegueño Book Club, and a wonderful collection of parents and teachers joined me in our media center to discuss Carol Dweck’s book Mindset.

Hearing the many voices from around the table helped underscore the relevance of the book, as well as the longstanding truths Dweck fleshes out. An English teacher pointed out that for years she’d been answering her students when they said they couldn’t do something with the reply “You can’t do it yet!” All of us live or work with young people, and we saw the huge opportunities we have to engage with the kids in our lives in a way we might promote a growth mindset, even as we see in our kids students with both fixed and growth ways of looking at the world.

Our diverse perspectives around the table shared some similarities. Many of us had begun our lives with what we recognized now as a fixed mindset, and most could point to a watershed moment when that fixed mindset no longer worked for us, when we had a choice: give up or move forward.

One of my favorite stories of the night came from a parent recalling her experience of going out for the cross country team in high school. She was a swimmer, she said, and tried running only to find out that she was the slowest on the team. Determined to finish, and to keep a positive attitude, she would call ahead to her friends: “Save an orange for me!” And keep running.

She believed she could get better, and that she was growing from this experience, even if she wasn’t finding the success she saw in other areas of her life. Without a delusion that she’d be improving so much she would win a shelf of trophies, she persevered with a smile.

It was inspiring to see our group of interesting and interested adults all making connections to our own lives and thinking about our kids (either our biological kids, or the 957 students at Diegueño ). Our conversation, rooted in Dweck’s book, moved from the volleyball court to corporate America, and from the hospital to the Thanksgiving table.

We reflected on the idea that people with a growth mindset “believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.”

And then, by way of our own high school and college experiences, we made our way back to our own students’ classrooms.

Knowing that real learning involves some struggle, we talked about how we could promote opportunities for students to wrestle with ideas and engage in productive struggle. Classrooms are safe environments in which students can learn to face uncertainty, work through unknowing, and build the academic resiliency needed to persevere in the face of the unknown.

We all discussed how good it can be if the student who finds stress and temporary failure does so in an environment that encourages them to work through the problem, with a teacher who inspires them to try, and peers who are also struggling in plain view. How much better to have this happen earlier and in a safe space, and learn the skills to avoid that failed math test and tearful phone call home from college.

We also talked about how tough nurturing the sprouting shoot of real learning can be beneath the harsh sun of grades and the anxiety that comes from a mark not being as high as students and parents would like. Communication can help, and we all have work to do.

How we could encourage students to develop growth mindsets took up much of our conversation. We agreed that we were partners in this enterprise: parents, teachers, students, and even administrators like me.

photo (29)After talking about the importance of all our work, and honestly after laughing a lot too, we ended the night on a positive note. Reading Mindset, we agreed, had positively impacted our interactions with our kids, our students (and even our in-laws).

We left the evening knowing that we may not have all the answers (…yet), but we’re among friends, all of us running at our own pace toward the same goal of helping our kids. And we know those ahead of us, or enough of them, will listen when we raise our voice and say, with hope and a belief we can improve: “Save an orange for me!”

Learning the Notes

photo 2 (1)A guitar found its way into our attendance office, a nice one that invited playing. The first morning I heard it, as I was walking back to my office to brew a pot of coffee to start the day, a Beatles tune drew me across the hallway, and I found two students helping each other master the chords before classes began.

In twenty plus years in education, I’ve gotten used to the fact that it’s not unusual to turn a corner at a school and find something both wonderful and unexpected. Always, I’ve told myself, follow the sound if something sounds like “Penny Lane.”

A couple of days later it was “Let it Snow” that brought me from my office. Our marching band was rehearsing for the Encinitas Holiday Parade, and the sound of horns carried from the blacktop behind the multipurpose room. As I walked up, I saw our band director, a young mom who gives up time with her baby to teach music one period a day, clapping and walking backward as a phalanx of young musicians marched in time after her. From flute to sousaphone, the expressions were serious, though I caught more than a few smiles when the song ended and they finished their circuit around the outdoor basketball courts.

photo 2 (2)Those same smiles spread across the faces of both Diegueño musicians and band members from our neighboring high school when musicians from my school joined the Maverick Brigade, the award winning marching band from just up the road, to march in the parade. And as I got to talk with kids and parents at the hot dog and cocoa fueled tailgate party before they started marching, I was reminded of how magical music can be.

Music brings people together, students and a secretary before classes, middle schoolers a year from elementary school and high school seniors a year away from college. It provides a shared experience and common vernacular for people from all sorts of backgrounds and points of view, and in my experience it brings out the best in people.

In middle school students are beginning the journey of discovering and deciding who they will be. They’re choosing their metaphorical instrument, and learning the notes of their own lives.

My campus supervisor, a musician himself, and someone I regularly talk music with, once called me a musical connoisseur (because I could discuss the differences between Billie Holiday and a young Peggy Lee). I had to tell him the truth: I’m just a fan.

I love to listen to music and spend time with people who make it. I love that playing a instrument shows us that learning takes practice, and that like so much in life, the results of hard work can be beautiful, even as the product is never completely done.

I love that at Diegueño our ASB fill the quad with music at lunch every Friday, and that as the students laugh and move to what they hear they’re able to take some of the pressure of school and shake it off.

I love that our band sometimes marches out onto campus and fills Diegueño with song. They’re willing to take these treks across the grass by the flagpole as they’re learning the tunes, a good model for us all to see that we don’t need to hide our first steps toward knowing, and that learning has a few notes that we don’t yet always hit.

I heard that attendance office guitar again in the administration building on Friday, a much more polished riff from a song I couldn’t quite place. The sound came from the conference room next to my office, and I had to peek through the window to see what was going on.

Two figures were there, a student, focused, fascinated, and learning, and my assistant principal, plucking on the guitar, teaching, talking, and helping this student learn the notes.

As I walked back to my desk, my secretary chuckled and nodded her head toward the conference room jam session. “I wondered how long it would take him to pick up that guitar,” she said with a smile.

photo 1 (1)Music teaches, inspires, and helps people connect. At a school it could be as formal as a marching band or as casual as the quiet instrumental pieces played behind a drawing lesson in art class. It might be spirited, as in an ASB lunch activity, or softly profound, when one musician (even one wearing a tie) helps another learn a song.

Loud, quiet, solo, or marching in a parade, school, like music, is all of that and more. School is a place of magic, one place we learn the notes.


It may be the best e-mail ever with regard to active learning, though it came too late for me to warn every student milling in the quad before first period began. Sent by one of my amazing science teachers, it read:

“If you hear a loud boom today and tomorrow it’s just science!”

jvc3I was out in front of the school when I spotted the message on my phone, greeting students as they arrived for first period. Here at Diegueño, we also run a zero period, which meant some kids are in classes an hour earlier, and it was those students who were treated to the active learning that prompted my teacher’s email. I heard the explosion as I was talking to a student by the trees near our administration building, and together we watched as a white cloud rose above the science building. His eyes widened. “That’s science,” I told him.

Not every example of hands on learning involves loud noises or smoke. Hands on learning can be a mock election in history class, claymation in art, or fraction circles in math class. the students creating podcasts about the Revolutionary War didn’t need anything to explode to engage with their topic, though truth be told, some used sound effects to make their points.

Hands on can also mean hands on keyboards, and I’ve seen kids giddy about coding and web design as they labor and learn, creating their own product in technology rich courses. Building websites, prototype airplanes, or giant Jenga games in ASB, students love to create, and the energy they bring to their work is awe inspiring.

mathAnd it works.

Students learn from doing, and the excitement they bring to education when they’re making, experimenting, and journeying into the academic unknown helps the the learning stick. Students who act out Greek scenes in drama class remember Persephone and Midas better than those who simply read through Bulfinch. Students who talk about how they sank chin deep in a steel drum of water can explain displacement in a way that resonates.

Sure it takes extra effort to put students in a position to learn through experience, but that work is worth it. Punctuated by meaningful opportunities to engage and explore, a curriculum in any subject area comes alive.

photo (27)I caught up with the science teacher who sent that fabulous email later in the morning, and her broad smile mirrored those on her students’ faces. Active learning isn’t just good for kids; it energizes all of us in the school community.

And while the booming echo of the science lab caught my attention this morning, it was equally inspiring to spend some time in an art class where students were sculpting, writing, and filming stop motion videos. Engaged and curious, these young artists were creating shorts that were funny and fantastic, and brought together a collection of skills that mirror the problem solving they’ll use in life beyond school. Under the guidance of a teacher who asked questions and provided support and inspiration, these students were actively engaged in their own learning.

I see examples of this type of engagement across campus, from science labs to Spanish skits, from our marching band to the Geography Bee. Students who help to create their own education thrive, and fill our campus with the fire of learning. As educators we are at our best when we allow students to have a hand in their learning, when we light that fuse curiosity, stand back, and watch learning explode.

If you hear a loud boom today, that’s learning.


We laugh a lot at Diegueño, students and teachers together. We laugh at jogging zombies and bubble blowing math teachers, at Kahoot review contests and improv scenes in theater. I’ve seen students laugh when ASB puts on lunch events, and teachers join them when colleagues were willing to join in the fun.

I heard once that one of the measures of success in a commercial laboratory was how often scientists laughed. Laughter, I remember hearing, meant that something unexpected and good had just happened, two hallmarks of invention.

Sometimes the best learning is accompanied by a smile, as students work together, struggle with something unknown, and discover an answer they hadn’t known before. I’ve heard Diegueño students laugh out loud at the end of a successful presentation, at the turning point of a lab in science, and as they researched a history project together and something innovative popped up on the shared document they were working on on their Chromebooks. I’ve seen laughter punctuate a lesson in Spanish class and precede the mega-run in PE.

Parents laugh too. At our recent Family Math Night students sat with their moms and dads and as they graphed the number of bubble gum bubbles blown in a minute and wrestled with polynomials they laughed together.

Some of the best laughter I hear is on the occasions I’m with parents and we can relax together in the eye of a middle school hurricane knowing that the kids are okay and that we’re partners in this enterprise.

Middle school can be a stressful time for everyone, students are experiencing the sometimes dizzying transition from elementary school to high school, parents are watching their kids change and grow before their eyes, and even those of us who make education our lives witness the world around us change in sometimes disorientating ways.

And all will be well.

photo (2)At my first staff meeting I told my teachers that I was optimistic about the year not because I thought we would have ten months without challenge, but because I knew that together we were up to any challenge we would face. I meant it.

When we’re feeling pressure, when we’re facing something unexpected or new, it helps to be able to look around and can see that we’re not in this alone. And as we do, one of the best things we can do is appreciate the good around us, give thanks for the people who share our lives …and laugh together.