How Lincoln Learned to Tweet

photo (4)One of my favorite stories about learning in Daniel Wolff’s book How Lincoln Learned to Read comes in the section on Henry Ford. A ten year old Ford, working with a handful of other boys his age, built a turbine engine out of a ten gallon can and some other odds and ends. Wolff quotes Ford, who wrote: “the boiler finally blew up and scalded three of us, and I carry a scar on my cheeks today.” And then Wolff brings home the example with four beautiful words: “That’s how he learned.”

I’m not advocating uncontained explosions as the best science education, but I do see the benefits of spectacular failures like Ford’s, if they’re coupled with an attitude of exploration and true growth mindset. Ford’s story, like so many in Wolff’s collection of descriptions of a dozen American’s educations, shows the importance of determination, curiosity, and the ability to see failure as part of learning.

With that spirit in mind, I’m looking forward to trying something different for this month’s Diegueño Book Club. It might be marvelous, it could be odd, or there’s a chance of it ending up like Henry Ford’s turbine …a learning experience.

We’re going to try to blend a book club and Twitter chat.

Huh?

Yeah.

Like Ford, an intrepid ToSA, Kevin, and I are looking to build something we can sort of imagine, but haven’t seen before.

We see the benefits of bringing teachers and parents together to talk about education and ideas, as we have already earlier in the school year at Diegueño. We also see how cool it can be for educators to connect through our district’s #SDUHSDchat. Both encourage conversation, both ask meaningful questions about ideas, and both have the potential to make us more reflective about how we work with kids, and participate in this amazing enterprise, education.

So what will it look like on March 10th at 5PM (PST)? Well, we’ve got some ideas…

Diegueño’s library has great technology, including dual screens we might use to project #SDUHSDchat as the folks in the room talked about Wolff’s book. Kevin is thinking to capture some of the comments our the in person discussion and use them to compliment the chat online while I stay focused on the people with copies of the book out in front of them.

With the chat projected, those who are interested in plucking ideas and comments from the feed could use the greater mind of #SDUHSDchat to enhance the discussion we’re having around the table. If the smartest person in the room is the room, and the room has no walls…

We’re working on some questions that we might ask online that compliment the topics we’ll be talking about around the table in the library. For those who haven’t read the book, or all of the book, we want to make sure to provide enough to welcome ideas more general to education.

One of best parts of our last Diegueño Book Club was the wide variety of opinions and great diversity of perspectives. Wolff’s book encourages personal connections to the stories, and invites conversation about current education. In so many ways, those two ends are shared by #SDUHSDchat, and that convinces me to imagine that this pairing might even work.

photo (5)Maybe.

So whether we’re looking at the next New Coke or the next Godfather II, we’re approaching #DiegueñoBookChat with open minds, creative hearts, and growth mindsets. And if things go like Henry Ford’s explosive boiler, well, that’s one way we learn.

 

 

The next Diegueño Book Club, discussing How Lincoln Learned to Read by Daniel Wolff, will be on March 10th from 5:00-6:30 in the Diegueño Media Center.  If you can’t make it to campus, check it out at #SDUHSDchat on Twitter!

 

Pirates, Squid, and Gratitude

File under UNEXPECTED & MAGICAL

For anyone who has been reading my recent posts, you know I had the opportunity to share a cartooning mini-lesson with our art classes, and that one of those same young artists surprised me by sketching a squid in our annual student art competition to design t-shirts for our big Diegueño Spirit Day.

Today a student delivered a present to my office that humbled and amazed me. Accompanied by a beautiful card signed by a bundle of art students was a coffee cup with my new favorite fictional mascot: The regal Diegueño Squid!

photo (6)It’s days like this that remind me how very fortunate I am to be the principal of Diegueño Middle School, and how much I appreciate all of the magical people around me.

 

A Slice of Learning

To hear them talk about Pi Day, I couldn’t help but be excited. “It’s the Pi Day of the century,” one person explained. “3.14.15…”

That it would be on a Saturday didn’t seem to slow anybody down. The opposite was true, in fact, with Pi themed events slated for both Thursday and Friday.

“We’ll have a pie eating contest, of course,” one math teacher offered. “And wear math related clothes, and recite the digits of Pi.”

Glee showed on every face around the lunch table in the math pod. Discussion turned to whether or not a pie might be thrown. I admitted to taking one in the face last year …and that wasn’t even the Pi Day of the century.

As a math loving group of professionals, they kicked around some ideas of mini lessons they could use with their classes. “This can be fun,” one teacher said, and I believed every word.

Thinking beyond the bounds of the math department, one of our teachers said, “I’m hoping the English department might do some Pi-kus.” I must have had a curious expression as I laughed aloud. “You know, he continued, poems with a 3-1-4 rhyme scheme!”

This playful spirit was contagious, and as I listened to Diegueño’s amazing math department talk about decorating rooms and celebrating math with their students, I was reminded of the outright joy that can come with teaching.

These are lifelong learners and passionate professionals, who take their subject seriously and themselves less so. Gifted at helping kids understand mathematical concepts, they also share the ability to be silly, have fun, and show an unabashed love of what they do.

I’m not sure if anyone will throw a pie next week, though if they do I have the sneaking suspicion it may be aimed at me. But I do know that Pi day, the Pi Day of the century, will bring students and teachers together in a fun way that will celebrate all the right things about learning. And…

I’ll try to
Write
A swell Pi-ku.

…and I look forward to joining in the celebration.

math shirt

Swashbuckling

photo 3 (2)Every once and a while an opportunity presents itself that is simply too good to be true. In these golden moments, when something we love collides with something we do, when we get to give back, even as we get to enjoy what we’re asked to do, magic happens. Last week that magic took the form of three intrepid art students who knocked on my office door and asked if I could help them draw a pirate.

My marvelous art teacher had warned me they were coming; she does short lessons each week to hone her students’ drawing skills, and after a few had mentioned to her that they’d seen me draw little cartoons on classroom whiteboards, she encouraged them to ask me to teach a mini-lesson that they could record and use in class.

So, with more than two decades of pirate cartooning in my history, I looked into the lens of the tablet they were using to record, and said: “Ahoy, young artists. I heard you might want to draw a pirate!”

photo 4 (2)And we were off and cartooning!

I mention all this because I wonder how we can do even more to provide experiences like this to our students and colleagues. I lit up when I got to share a skill that has been a part of me since I started teaching. It was renewing and fun to be able to share something I like doing with an audience who seemed interested, or at least seemed to have a good time watching their tie wearing principal put pen to paper and come up with a swashbuckling cartoon.

All around me I see teachers and students who have talents as hidden and even more wonderful than being able to draw a fellow with an eye patch, and I wonder how we might do more to bring these talents out, share them, and celebrate each other together.

Captain TeeThis post is less a pretty summary of something than the start of a brainstorming session. It’s something between an honest question and a call to action. It’s me, still smiling from my time with the art students, wishing we all had such an opportunity to share a part of who we are.

Can it happen in classes? Can it happen in clubs? Can it happen in activities at lunch or after school? Can it be celebrated on the walls or indoor marquee in our library? Can we blog, tweet, or put this on Facebook?

I’m not sure exactly what this looks like for everybody, but I know for me, at least last week, it wore an eye patch and had a peg leg.

A life connected…

My favorite class from my first year of graduate school boasted the title: Medieval Literature, non-Chaucer. We read works by Margery Kempe, William Langland, and Julian of Norwich, all in Middle English, and I found that I loved it. I also realized, that when push came to shove, immersion in Medieval Literature was not what I wanted for my life’s work.

Searching back for the moment I was inspired to become a teacher, I paused at a string of moments that were candidates for that life changing event: Mr. Gossack throwing an eraser in my high school math class, and then walking to the office to admit that it accidentally hit a student; a philosophy professor, Dave, inspiring me in an independent study of Plato, and showing me how student driven inquiry could be so powerful; and the moment when a friend and newly minted teacher told me about getting ready for his first teaching position, and I knew I wanted that level of purposeful joy.

But it turned out that the memory that continued to assert itself didn’t take place in a classroom, or amongst other teachers, or even when I was a high school student. For me, the defining moment in my decision to become a teacher came on a snowy November day as I sat alone in my efficiency apartment in East Lansing, Michigan reading Njal’s Saga.

njalThat semester I’d found myself a few credits shy of what I needed to keep financial aid, so I signed up for one education course along with the literature classes that I was taking in my graduate program. It was a two credit affair, with only a couple of papers and a requirement that I observe in a local school. I could see a middle school from the window of my apartment, and I marched over in my Michigan State sweatshirt and asked if I could sit in on some classes. They put me in an English class, and I remember the dissonance I felt on that first day as I listened as the class read aloud from William Sleator’s Interstellar Pig.

This was not Medieval Literature. I wasn’t convinced it was even literature.

InterstellarPigI stayed for a class, jotted some notes I could turn in later, and left. I’d come back every week over the course of the term, and see twelve and thirteen year olds learn to read critically and write analytically.

And then I’d go back to my apartment and plow through Tristram Shandy and Paradise Lost. I loved the great books I was reading, but as fall days shortened into winter, and snow began to pile outside my door, the ivory tower began to lose some of its appeal.

Friends I knew in academe loved what they did, and I couldn’t imagine them doing anything else. For me, however, the idea of a life lived in thick books and ivy covered buildings began to feel… well, a little off.

And on that night when I was sitting at my desk, Njal’s Saga open in front of me, it hit me: I wanted to live a life connected to the real world. I wanted to make a difference.

I left graduate school at the end of the term, returning to Oregon and unloading trucks for a year as I figured out how I might make that difference. It turned out to be teaching, and with each year I spent in front of a class I found I loved it more.

From time to time, when I think back on my days at Michigan State, my memories always include the moment when I realized that one chapter of my life was over, and that something important was about to begin. I didn’t completely know it then, but I was going to be a teacher.

“Be the wing”

photo 4 (7)They were cool with the frogs, but told me that the chicken wings grossed them out. “The wings were fattier than the kids expected,” one science teacher explained. “It took some work to get the skin off.”

This week’s chicken wing dissections, a great way for students to see how muscles work and bones connect, provided kids with a hands on approach to anatomy that they won’t soon forget. Smiling beneath goggles, their gloved hands busy with tweezers and curved scissors, the students brought critical attention to something that they’d previously only experienced with dipping sauce.

photo 2 (8)The experience of approaching something familiar with new eyes can be a great way to learn. I’ve seen this in action in theater classes, when a unit on puppetry gave young thespians a chance to explore the elements of comedy and drama using tools that might have shown up in a kindergarten classroom or a Punch and Judy show. Costuming through sock puppets may be an unconventional approach, but it works, and seeing the kids’ joy in performing, and watching performances, was inspiring.

photo 1 (6)Across campus in math classes I’ve seen teachers use infographics to teach percentage, the students evaluating the images and using the math they are learning to think critically about the facts and the spin each visual message presents.

In an English class I saw a great teacher show her students examples of futurist predictions from folks as diverse as Jean-Marc Côté to Ray Bradbury, and then make their own about what will be familiar in the future they’re helping to create.

photo 3 (6)From natural selection balloon animals to construction paper compliment chains, every day I see students approaching the world with the eyes of curious learners. I loved one science teacher’s mantra for dissection: “Be the wing.”

…and the sock, and balloon, and the futurist.

I continue to be amazed and delighted as I see gifted teachers inspiring students to push beyond what they know, and make the ordinary extraordinary.

Dig This

photo 4 (3)It was a February day so sunny and warm I expected to be able to turn on the Dodger game in the car on my way home. A dozen or so dads from my kids’ grade school gathered for a demolition party. Fueled by camaraderie and the spirit of helping out, we put our backs behind shovels, picks, and rakes, and leveled the remnants of a community garden to prepare the way for a renewed space where the kids could plant and learn.

Two things hit me as I bandaged up a torn finger and had a chance to look around me at the work getting done: we were having fun and feeling good about what we were doing, and while we weren’t directly working with kids, our digging, and lifting, and raking was going to make a real difference for students.

While a little dustier than some of the work parents do for schools, what we were up to was a pretty standard example of what parents do all the time at Diegueño: they give generously of time and from pocketbooks, they have fun together (at luncheons and volunteering at jog-a-thons), and they make huge differences for kids.

photo (2)At Diegueño our students see the generosity of parents in real and profound ways. A large number of the Chromebooks our students use every single day are a direct result of PTSA donations. Our parents have funded tables, chicken wings for science class, puppet theaters, and enough kleenex to fill a dozen boxcars. Students laugh and learn in a media center stocked with books (some) donated by parents, and each hold a student agenda because the parents know that helping kids stay organized helps them both short and long term.

The parents at Diegueño know that support goes beyond writing a check. With generous hearts and artistic eyes, parents host staff appreciation lunches throughout the year, as famous for their gorgeous centerpieces as they are the outpouring of love and thanks offered to our teachers and staff. In a world where it’s easy to be critical, these luncheons remind us all how fortunate we are to be in this together.

Healthy relationships between parents and teachers is one measure of a healthy school, and from events like our Diegueño Book Club to the parents who volunteer in the library at lunch or art room on Fridays, parents and teachers understand that we’re all partners in educating healthy kids.

I'm the one in the garish makeup for the "Zombie Fun Run!"

I’m the one in the garish makeup for the “Zombie Fun Run!”

I look forward to my monthly Coffees with the Principal. It’s not that the crowd is simply there to clap at what’s going on; at our best meetings we share questions and answers, celebrate student learning, and talk about how best we can work together to help kids.

Our PTSA meets twice a month, and in addition to great discussion about how to make Diegueño the best place it can be, I love that I hear lots of laughter, and that the parents seem genuinely happy to be there.

Good ideas? They’ve got them, along with big hearts, ready smiles, and a love for our school. Shovels? Well, we haven’t needed those yet, but if we did, I have no doubt but that they’d dig that too!

What Matters

photo 1 (1)This winter my daughter, a serious fourth grader, made an amazing pilgrim diorama complete with balsa wood houses and goats made out of clay. She approached the hands on project with determination and imagination and came up with something she had a right to be proud of.

The educator in me, always watching what good teachers do, liked that she’d been given the freedom to choose her topic and what project she wanted to do, and appreciated that she’d then been able to present her work in front of her peers. A good lesson, I thought to myself, the kind of thing that doesn’t just happen on its own.

And as I was thinking this, I heard my six year old son in the next room talking aloud about Star Wars. He was alone, so I peeked in quietly and realized that he was up to something that was about to prove me wrong.

photo 2 (1)Legos Star Wars has stepped to the forefront of my son’s first grade imagination, armies of blocky plastic clonetroopers littering our family room floor. While I’d been in the kitchen watching my daughter wield a hot glue gun, my son had been creating a scene with his Legos, a complex, sprawling thing complete with droids, ships, and an inch tall Yoda. Without an “assignment” from school, he’d brought the same care and creativity to his project that my daughter brought to hers.

The talking I’d heard was my son explaining his work as he held our little video camera and shot footage of a tour of the scene he’d created. He’d seen a boy about his same age do something like this on YouTube, and was inspired to make his own.

These two examples of learning provided a strong reminder about the great power of the imagination and importance of relevance. Students will do what we assign to them, sometimes with passion, interest, and wonderful results. They’ll also do more things than we can imagine, and do them with as much care (or more) because they love what they’re doing.

I was reminded of the students I’ve known who live rich lives beyond the schoolhouse: the special education student who had a C+ in PE because he didn’t always dress out, but told me about the two marathons he’d run that year; the girl who volunteered at the animal shelter, helping do everything from feeding to helping vets heal animals; and the boy who spent two hours every morning working on his family’s dairy farm before coming to school, and then another hour milking between football practice and doing his homework.

Invariably these students were humble, mentioning their own non-school related accomplishments almost casually, or self deprecatingly. As I got them to talk about what they did, their pride and excitement would come through, and I always thought: how can I harness this in a way that works at school?

photo 2 (2)Through salons and senior projects I sometimes even succeeded. Though never often enough.

Thinking of these kids and my own, I believe that the best educators find ways for both guided instruction and freer exploration, celebration, and application of the things students love. Both are important to learning. As teachers, it’s up to us to help create opportunities for students to discover new (or new to them) things. Our own experiences can help us generate a passion for Spanish or sculpting, introduce students to Hamlet and haiku, and open the door to the scientific method and mathematical reasoning. And as we show students the value of coding and physical fitness, we do well to give credit to a well designed curriculum. My daughter knows more about the Plimoth Plantation than she did before she started sculpting goats, and I wouldn’t want my son’s understanding to start and end in a galaxy far, far away.

But that isn’t all that matters.

Allowing students to explore and share what they are passionate about can be life changing. Building on their own interests, whether baseball or bluegrass, can motivate students to achieve more academically. Reluctant readers sometimes invest more time in reading about subjects they care about, and those who wouldn’t think of giving an oral presentation can see the shackles of anxiety fall away when they’re telling others about a subject that matters to them.

Providing students with a framework for learning: academic vocabulary, the skills to discern quality content online, the ability to structure a presentation or an argument, is as important as giving them the freedom to explore topics they are interested in. Both, done well, can energize learning.

As we allow students to be the people they are, full of quirks and interests, passions and preferences, we begin to engage them as learners, not just as students.

photo 4 (1)We can still integrate the staples of a more traditional education; I’d never advocate taking Shakespeare, fractions, or frog dissection off the syllabus, but even as we talk about world history or algebra, as we help students make meaningful connections to their own lives we help them do something else. We help them learn.

Why?

Every morning I put on a tie, brew a pot of coffee, and do my best to say “good morning” to almost a thousand twelve to fourteen year olds. I try to help these tweens and teens navigate the emotional maelstrom that is middle school; help teachers execute a plan to inspire these same kids to balance equations, develop thoughtful topic sentences, and learn the intricacies of the Incan empire; and help parents understand that even as their youngsters are acting differently, stretching their independence, and stumbling around like baby giraffes, all will eventually be well. It’s a job of surprises, unexpected chaos, bruised emotions, and disappearing time. And I love it.

Why?

I love it because I feel that on the days I’m at my best, I make a difference.

I love it because I get to work with like minded professionals who are as dedicated to helping students learn as I am. Their energy, insight, and passion for teaching and learning inspire me.

I love it because I’m part of a school family that cares, about our school, about our mission to educate youth, and about each other.

My mission statement, which has remained consistent for a long time reads: “I believe that I can make a difference. By working hard, treating others with respect, and acknowledging that all can learn and improve, I believe that I can help create a place where students, teachers, parents, and others in the school community can succeed, and this success is no less than a better life.”

Why do I do what I do? Because I believe it matters.

Atticus and the Dentist

First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” -To Kill a Mockingbird

A lifetime ago I coached high school football, working with the offensive line for a head coach who was also a dentist. The head coach loved the game and, a father himself, was fair, firm, and generous with the boys on the team. His staff, mostly made up of young teachers like me, appreciated his commitment to the program, and shared his passion for helping mold the positive character of young men.

At the end of the season, when we all gathered together for the awards dinner, I remember the playful banter between the head coach and a young teacher in his first year of working with the freshman football team. “Maybe you could read them the Gettysburg Address,” the head coach joshed, kidding the teacher about his halftime pep talks. Without missing a beat the young coach shot back: “Hey, I don’t tell you how to floss!”

That line has stuck with me for more than twenty years.

I think it resonates with me because, as an educator, and one who has always embraced taking chances and trying new things, I realize that the job I do inspires lots of opinions.

Every parent has been to school, and while I know it’s not a winning proposition to try to explain that education looks a lot different than it did three of four decades ago, when I hear criticism of teachers and schools I think back on the beautifully brash response to the dentist.

It’s not that I want to blindly support every choice that happens in a classroom, nor do I allow myself to lean too much on the crutch that teaching is a tough job. Of course teaching is difficult; if it weren’t, the overwhelming majority of parents and students wouldn’t appreciate teachers with the justified passion that they do.

Want to see someone’s eyes light up? Ask her who her favorite teacher was.

But teaching isn’t straightforward, it’s a fluid enterprise filled with highlights and some bellyflops. Sometimes in the same class period. In that way it’s like parenting. Well, like parenting thirty-five kids all at once, and trying to help them love/appreciate/read Harper Lee while sitting in a room filled with potential dates to the winter formal.

I welcome discussion of what we do as teachers. I love hearing from students what works for them, and strive to empower kids to be able to articulate why they’re learning what they’re learning and how they learn it best.

I love conversations with parents, and love even more the rich conversations parents have with teachers. More often than not both teacher and parent leave a true conversation renewed, with a better understanding about how best to help promote a student’s learning. I’ve seen meaningful discussion take place in forums as diverse as a coffee with the principal, when teachers came as guests, and a book club at school that saw teachers and parents side by side discussing how best we learn. More often, I hear about the conversations that happen between teachers and parents, perhaps sparked by a concern about a grade or an assignment, that blossom into something positive that builds an understanding and relationship between two adults working toward the same end: helping a student learn.

But I bristle when I hear criticism that is cruel or misinformed, when incomplete information fills the fuel tank of discourse and the engine coughs and belches smoke. That’s when that line from Harper Lee comes to my mind, when Atticus teaches Scout that simple trick of empathy. And I try to understand the emotion behind the vitriol.

The other side of the critical coin is the thoughtful reflection I see teachers bring to their own practice. This happens far more often than many outside of education imagine, as teachers collaborate around strategies to help kids, share best practices, and work together to support each other (a pinch of wisdom from a veteran, a splash of passion from a rookie, and the steady stir of time together talking about the art of teaching).

Are we perfect? No. Few things in life are, and if we’re not willing to take chances and try approaches that are new and different, then we would never inspire anything beyond the ordinary.

I applaud teachers who pursue the extraordinary. I celebrate those who recognize that the work they do with students is magical and difficult and profound. I admire all in that huge number of teachers I know who are their own most thoughtful critics, the ones who keep their heads, and do an even better job than me of remembering the words of Atticus Finch, not just a decades old response from a teacher to a dentist.