Smile

photo 1 (31)Two teacher work days and a weekend put four calendar days between first and second semester. Now I won’t say that the gap drained students of recall more than summer or winter break, but on our first day of the second semester a 7th grader asked me what time school started.

Knowing her kids as well as she does her subject area, one of my gifted history teachers greeted her students with a fun, active, and short project on the first morning back. I was walking past her room when I spotted her up front introducing what I thought read: “Constitution as a Smile.”

A smile?

I had seen her students perform songs about history, create Revolutionary War podcasts, and reenact the first Constitutional Convention, so I knew that if anyone could make a smile out of the Constitution, it would be her.

So I slipped inside the room and listened. “You can use anything in the room,” she told her class. “The butcher paper, these art supplies, and develop a simile to explain the Constitution.”

Simile.

I smiled.

I’d seen the same class given inspiration and an equally short time frame of about thirty minutes, make marvelous maps of our town. With an emphasis on creativity and critical thinking, the students were being given another opportunity to focus on the process of learning, with their eyes on a product with both merit and whimsy.

photo 3 (24)One team of students came up with a board game, another made a movie poster, a third drew a flag.

The kids were active and engaged, collaborating, laughing, and thinking together. It was half an hour that reoriented them to school after a long weekend, and left them all with a simile, and a smile.

Meeting Tom Sawyer

photo (47)With an infectious excitement, my English Department Chair talked with me about trying something different. She’s unafraid to try something new, starting a blog with her classes, empowering her students to demonstrate understanding in mock trials and writing short stories, and using technology as if she was a digital native, not an explorer from a world of print and paper.

I’d seen her students do amazing things, rising to meet her high expectations, prompted by her friendly guidance, and rewarded by her smile and their own satisfaction in a job well done.

The something different, something new, she was talking about yesterday: Tom Sawyer.

Twain’s book, a masterpiece of wit and 1870s social observations, isn’t something on every middle school’s reading list. With current trends and a host of shiny young adult fiction to choose from, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for a generation never to know Tom and Becky, and only meet Huck when they come across the politically charged sequel that bears his name.

Certainly there are some tough depictions and antiquated ways of looking of the world in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but as I listened to this gifted teacher talk about particular passages, I couldn’t picture anyone I’d trust more to help students navigate 19th century Missouri, and arrive at an appreciation of Mark Twain.

A big part of what they’ll appreciate about Twain comes from his fearlessness to innovate. Not every story in the Twain canon is a hit, but he experimented and challenged the status quo. He’s a nice reminder of the value of risk.

photo (48)In education, taking chances and trying new things doesn’t always mean grabbing a Chromebook. Sometimes different is a new approach, a new text, or a new activity.

As I listened to some of my teacher’s plans, I was reminded of how renewing trying something different can be. Stepping off our usual path can get burrs stuck to our socks, but it can also offer the potential to see sights we haven’t seen, have experiences we otherwise wouldn’t have, and even meet people who make our lives richer.

Like Tom Sawyer.

Ἡράκλειτος

Change can disorient. It can rattle. It can inspire.

Change is sometimes welcome, sometimes earth shaking, and sometimes so subtle that we don’t notice that one thing has gradually become another.

In education our change most often is limited to the space of weeks between school years, teachers changing schools as students change grades, new initiatives arriving and new curriculum being introduced beneath the summer sun. From time to time change surprises us in January, or even less often in the middle of a term.

1462My school has seen a lot of change over the past calendar year, and while it would be a fib to suggest that all of it was easy (major construction, changes in administration, counseling, and the teaching corps can be stressful), it’s true to say that as we find our footing on the eve of the second semester, we’re standing strong, because we’re standing together.

One of the best skills we can give to our students is the ability to face change, unexpected or otherwise, with strength, optimism, and the mindset to make the most of it. As a teacher I switched schools four times, and while each time it took me a year or two to get my balance, each move proved to be the right one, whether I thought it was going to be at the time or not.

It can be that way with movements in education too, as standards and expectations change, sometimes gradually, sometimes shockingly swiftly. Educators with strong centers adjust to these changes without resorting to cynicism or fear. They look critically at what is being suggested and engage with their colleagues to find what works, allowing themselves to entertain that change may bring with it opportunities that are good for teachers and for kids.

I saw some of that good work yesterday, when I got to sit in as English teachers from around our district discussed performance tasks, and dug deep into the ways changes can help students think critically about texts and meaningfully about life. Thoughtfully, they worked together to discuss what they could do in their classrooms to support student learning, and change and grow to adapt to a changing world.

The next few years are poised to offer us more opportunities to grow and change. New approaches in science, not unlike those in mathematics and English, and social science will challenge teachers to engage in meaningful discussions about how and what we teach.

As a philosophy major, the words of Heraclitus echo in my mind: “You can never step into the same stream twice.” He was talking about the constant flux of the world, and I see that reflected in my own professional life.

Three GoonsMy first administrative job was great. I worked with two administrators who quickly became great friends. Lars and Justin and I faced tragedy together, struggled with big challenges, and became a cohesive team through two years of helping each other. Leaving them to come to Southern California, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever find the same connections with people I worked with.

And then I did.

I became a better administrator when I moved south. Buoyed by more great colleagues, and a slew of fantastic teachers, I stepped into a job that stretched me professionally and forced me to grow. I left the comfort of a known situation and dove head first into something different. And all was well.

graduation APsAnd then…

I looked up, five years into my new position, and saw that I’d changed as an administrator. I’d matured, gotten perspective, and was better able to articulate why I did what I did, and why I was who I was.

With an opportunity to become a principal, my professional world changed again. And, welcomed by an amazing staff, strong assistant principal, and fantastic students, I’ve been inspired. Again.

In addition to welcoming change in a way I once wouldn’t have, being a witness to many changes in my couple of decades in education has helped me pause and appreciate the stream as I’m standing in it now. I know that it will look different before I know it. And that’s okay too.

We live in a world of flux, and it’s helpful to look for those who can help us grow, and to reach out to those we can help. Appreciating our current circumstances is as important as being willing to change them, and knowing that change brings opportunity matters as much as valuing the good of where we are.

Looking ahead I’d like to substitute the word “change” with another, term, pregnant with possibilities: where I see change I’d like to read opportunity.

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They’ll maybe have Paris

photo (44)…someday.

I pinch hit for an English class the other day, an emergency taking the teacher out of the room and leaving me with some time to fill. It was an honors English class, and I had the opportunity of discussing the world of the 1940s with a group of intelligent young teens who had just finished reading The Diary of Anne Frank. We talked about the causes of World War II, the black market, and the resistance movement in France. We read an excerpt from a story about a soldier told with first person immediacy, spoke about the stress the war put on everyone, soldier and civilian. And then we watched the end of Casablanca.

Now I dig old movies, The Third Man may be my favorite film, and I’d never pass up a screening of The Maltese Falcon, or Citizen Kane. So when I saw Bogie and Ingrid Bergman were on the agenda I was excited. I was also pretty dubious that a movie made in 1943 would play well with the kids.

As they started watching, my preconception looked like it would play out. A couple of boys shifted seats so they could whisper. I moved across the room and let my burliness quiet them. A girl in the third row began to braid the girl in the second row’s hair. They kept their eyes on the screen, but I wasn’t convinced that they were all that concerned about Laszlo’s fate or Ilsa’s heart.

Many, however, did seem interested. Those stolen letters of transit, Sam at the piano, dueling anthems sung at each other in Rick’s Café Américain, all the notes that captivated these kids’ parents, grandparents, and grandparents’ parents seemed to resonate with some of them too.

It’s something magical about teaching, seeing your students engage with a text that you connected with when you were in school. English teachers get it a lot: students surprised at first meeting Boo Radley, longing and loving with Juliet, and feeling their hearts break when Travis puts an end to Old Yeller. One of my own favorite experiences as an English teacher was having the privilege of introducing my students to Hamlet. “It’s the first time you’ll read this,” I’d tell them. “Enjoy it. And next time you read or see it, think about some of the things we’ve talked about, and dig deeper for even more. They’re there.”

photo (45)Texts, whether fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose (or even film) have the potential to spark thoughtful and meaningful discussion. Great texts can prompt students to think about the world a little differently. They ask kids to think and feel, and then be able to support their opinions using evidence from what they’ve read or seen. With some texts this is easy; they’re stories that strike a chord with the students right away. Some are tougher sells, antiquated language or stilted characters getting in the way of student connections.

Watching the kids watch Humphrey Bogart, who would be 116 years old today, I wondered which Casablanca might be.

And then we got to the end of the film. Rick shot Major Strasser, and before Louis could tell his lackey to round up the usual suspects, one of the boys I’d moved closer to earlier turned to his buddy and said: “I told you someone was going to get shot!”

The class heard Rick tell Ilsa about that hill of beans, shake the impassive Laszlo’s hand, and offer to Louis that they were at the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and I noticed that the kids, all the kids, were really watching.

Really? I thought. They really liked this?

So I thought I’d kick the tires of that possibility. Maybe I’d been wrong; maybe a 72 year old film could resonate with today’s youth. I took a deep breath and asked that age old question: “Should Ilsa have stayed with Rick or gotten on the plane with Laszlo?”

I figured they’d all cite something like “true love” and we’d be done with it in a couple of minutes. I’d be able to leave the room with my misconceptions mostly intact, and they’d go on with their day, visions of that airplane disappearing into the fog left far behind.

I asked them to write down some arguments for each choice, and then talk with someone sitting next to them to see if they’d overlooked something of consequence. That done I went with the well worn hands in the air approach. And the vote split.

Curious, I broke them into sides of the room and invited them to talk about why they felt the way they did. Fifteen minutes later the class was engaged in a lively debate about Ilsa’s right choice.

One girl switched sides.

The class was thoughtful, articulate, and opinionated. They used examples from the film to make their points, and even seemed a little interested when I suggested that if they asked their parents or grandparents what they thought Ilsa should have done, they’d stand a good chance of hearing an opinion.

Did the kids really connect with Casablanca? Did they understand the human condition better, or really relate to these adult characters from the middle of the last century? Did they really get the film?

Pushed to give an answer, based on what I saw in class that day, I’d say they will get it, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of their lives.

Listen

photo 1 (29)The prompt was a simple question: “What is the best thing you do in your job?” and like some simple questions, it brought an unexpected depth.

As a middle school principal, I like to think that I do many things, and do some of them well. I want to believe that my day to day work is important and that I have a positive impact on the students, teachers, staff, and parents I work with. I really, really care about my school and the people in our Diegueño family, and coming up with a “best” struck me as a tall order.

I’ve learned to breathe a bit, my wife (who is much, much wiser than me) encouraging me to slow down and find my equilibrium in this rough and tumble world of educating teens and tweens, so faced with this topic I let myself relax, fingers poised above my keyboard, and let my thoughts quiet before an answer came to mind. Listen.

Listening is not a skill I’m the best at, but it is something that I’m at my best when I do well.

I love the line from Robert Frost: “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” He could have been a middle school principal.

I know that I’m at my best when I really hear what those around me are saying.

Sometimes it’s positive: The teacher who catches me out on campus to talk with me about her concerns for a student. The student who sets an appointment to come to my office to engage in meaningful dialogue about the kind of homework given at the school. The parent who goes out of her way after a Coffee with the Principal to tell me about the way her son loves school.

photo 3 (22)Other times it’s tougher: The parent whose son is experimenting with bad decisions. The teacher who is struggling to work with a contentious student in class. The student who feels disrespected by someone who just a year before was one of her best friends.

As a principal I have the opportunity to listen to many voices. Sometimes they’re in opposition, unable to see each other’s point of view. Sometimes a little patience can help everyone know they’re heard, and emotions can cool as we all listen to each other.

Some of the voices come to me laughing, others are filled with pain. Some are uncertain, others single mindedly opinionated. Some agree, or come to understand, my point of view; some leave calling me names.

When it’s all said and done, if I can keep my center, and listen without losing my temper or self-confidence, then maybe I’ve really learned something. Moreover, I’m better able to make a difference, a positive difference, in the work I do with and for my school.

So without saying I’m the best at doing it, and with a nod to my own impatience and occasional self-doubt, I’ll go with listening as my “best thing.”

Those I work with might agree. Then again, they might not. Either way, if they come to me with an opinion, I’ll listen.

Hogwarts

potter1It felt like a metaphor, even as it was happening. I sat there, hands blackened by grease and dust, my son sitting on his bed looking down at me amongst the debris, the tip of the yellow and maroon tie winking at me from the mouth of the vacuum cleaner.

My mood was souring quickly; I’d just sucked up the Harry Potter tie from my six year old’s Halloween costume, and I had that sinking feeling that the machine was broken beyond repair, the tie was lost forever, and in a few minutes I’d be explaining my idiocy for not looking where I was vacuuming when I had to tell my wife what happened.

I figured the metaphor might be something about mistakes, about the importance of paying attention and staying in the moment. I’d get a post out of it, anyway, even if it cost me some embarrassment and a new vacuum.

Screwdriver in hand, I pulled apart the machine, thinking the metaphor might have something to do with having to clean up the messes we make. There was certainly enough dust around me to suggest this was happening to teach me something.

And then my son, whose tie it was, and whose attitude I was worried might be one of disappointment and loss, looked at the parts of the vacuum strewn across his bedroom floor and said one word, giving it two syllables for emphasis: “Awesome.”

And I knew this was a metaphor for learning.

Sometimes learning is neat, straight lines and right angles: a spreadsheet, haiku, or historical timeline. Sometimes it’s covered in grime and inspires quiet swearing we hope our kids won’t hear (or at least won’t repeat in front of their mom).

I see both kinds of learning as I travel through classrooms at my school, and I love it when I see students willing to roll up their sleeves and pull apart the experiences presented to them by their teachers.

Some students revel in this engagement, happy to be trying something new. They embrace the challenges presented to them with the same excitement as my son, Henry, who slid down beside me on the carpet and picked up a screwdriver. “Look at the vacuum,” he whispered, his eyes wide. “Awesome.”

For some students the struggle and sense of not (yet) understanding is a huge challenge. They’d prefer to be working with the more familiar, questions that have a single answer, experiences more contained. My admiration for the students who push through this discomfort, who learn to suspend disbelief, is great. My appreciation for the teachers who inspire this growth is profound.

photo 5 (14)I’m not a mechanical guy. I have a toolbox, but not the inclination to tinker much on my own. My wrestling match with the Hoover was inspired by necessity: I was going to get that Gryffindor tie. And while I didn’t (yet) have it, I understood why I was doing what I was doing, and this clarity helped fuel my work.

Henry, interested in the parts and process, was more than willing to sacrifice the tie for the experience. He wasn’t motivated by the end product of a costume tie; he wanted to peek inside the vacuum and see how it worked.

We were both motivated, however, and both had context for what we were learning. Neither of us were following any established directions; we were exploring, experimenting, and struggling. I gritted my teeth, unsure of the outcome. Henry focused and had fun.

We’re different that way, and I realized (as I was restraining him from trying to take the entire vacuum apart on his own) that if I paid attention to the spirit he brought to the work, I could learn a lot from our collaboration.

I finally freed the tie, wrapped as tight as a cord by the vacuum, and, disappointed, started to throw it away. I stopped when my wife stepped into the room and said: “They can still play with that. They love it.”

She was right, of course, though Henry was just as interested in watching me do my best to reassemble the machine. So I put the vacuum back together, a little wiser than when I’d started, and certainly more interesting to my son, and I gave a silent thanks for the visit to Hogwarts.

How, What, and Why

I was there by accident. Well, maybe fate.

Over the course of a day I visit many classrooms. I like to take my laptop and a yellow legal pad and put myself in the lively learning spaces where the real work (and play) of a school takes place. Being in classrooms allows me to see students elbow deep in science labs and putting on ties and blazers for mock trials. I get to see kids taking notes and engaging in class discussions, flying model airplanes they’ve designed, acting out scenes from Shakespeare, and painting flowers on canvas. I like to zigzag across campus to see a variety of subjects, following a math lesson with some time in a coding class, and then a visit to a PE class followed by a discussion of the Shays’ Rebellion in US History.

Today my travels took me into a College Readiness class, where I had the eye opening opportunity to watch as a group of really bright students discussed the best way they could approach in-class tutorial, and what they wanted on the form they filled out before coming to class to work on a particular topic. They spoke about the way they learned, the reflection they needed to do to be prepared to engage with each other and the material they were studying, and how best they could use their time to learn. I wish I’d taken a video to share with my staff.

Encouraging conversation about teaching and learning is a big part of my job as a principal.

I hear teachers talk about learning often, gathering around lunch tables and in by the mailboxes to share what’s working and what isn’t, sharing something they heard at a conference or district workshop, or spending part of their prep visiting another teacher’s classroom. These discussions are vital to sustaining a vibrant learning community, and go a long way in helping teachers know that it’s okay to take risks, try new approaches, and even fail as part of learning in a safe environment.

It’s a discussion that we’ve broadened to include parents, through events like Family Math Night and our Diegueño Book Club, and I believe that as more members of our school community can listen to each other we create a strong and cohesive school family.

The next big step, and what I’d consider a bellwether of a shift from good to great, would be for discussions about how we learn, what we learn, and why we learn to go on between students.

Many students earn high marks in school because they’re able to play the school game, though if push came to shove they might not be able to answer that “why?” question. I’m interested in helping to create an environment in which the perspective that comes when “why are you learning this?” is a question every student can answer, and even have a hand in deciding.

To promote this discussion among students, and between teachers and students as well, will take focused effort to show the importance of students understanding their role in their own education, and time as a school community to make these conversations happen. I see the beginnings of such reflection and engagement across campus, and as we begin a second semester at Diegueño, I’ll be working to nurture it even more.

Back in that College Readiness class the teacher sat down with a students and looked at a high school tutorial form. She asked her students if they were interested in using this form instead of the one they had been using. She pushed them to explain why, and the 7th and 8th grade students in the class debated everything from font size to wording. Finally one 8th grader said: “If we can just tweak it a little bit, I think it could work for us.” At thirteen, she spoke with startling wisdom and perspective.

When kids are conscious of their own learning, the how, what, and why of it, they have the possibility of doing more than doing school; they have the potential to truly learn.