L-I-S-T-E-N

photo 1 (5)I hate spelling bees. The unnecessary pressure on kids, the meaninglessness of getting every letter right in a word so obscure it risks ridiculousness, and the public tightrope we ask students to walk all turn my stomach.

A teacher I work with and respect loves spelling bees. She cites the value of working hard to achieve something academic, the value of public praise, and the joy that fills the faces of the winners.

We can talk.

And she knows that if she wants to organize a spelling bee at Diegueño, I won’t get in her way.

I come back to that quotation attributed to Robert Frost: “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.”

Building and nurturing a professional atmosphere, where it’s more than okay for people to have different points of view, is a hallmark of a healthy school.

Just last month, as I was discussion a big school decision about how we’ll organize our “Cougar Academic Time” I got a reminder of where we are as a school. Shooting for transparency, I told one of the teachers I was talking with, a department chair, my point of view, which I knew from earlier discussions was different than hers, and she nodded and explained why she felt the way she did. A first year teacher was having lunch with us, and she listened to what both of us had said. Then, in a moment that made me pleased and proud, she said: “You know, I think I like a totally different way we could do it.”

The comfort this first year teacher had in telling her principal and department chair her opinion, knowing it was about an important subject that we all have a vested interest in, and knowing that it was very different than what either had in mind, is the kind of open communication that is so important in education today.

Twitter, edublogs, edcamps, and all the new ways educators connect can be a boon, but if they’re really going to move our practice forward, we must be willing and able both to say and hear different points of view, and like Frost, not lose our tempers or self-confidence.

That means actively asking questions, both of ourselves and others, like “what am I not thinking about?” or “what am I missing?” It means reading opinions that challenge what we do, putting our own ideas out there, and inviting conversation.

How do we avoid the echo chamber of like minded colleagues? How do we avoid being “yes men and women” ourselves? I think it’s simply by embracing the mindset that we’re all learning, and that sometimes our best teachers are those people who help us feel uncomfortable enough to make change.

That shouldn’t anger us or shake our confidence; it should educate us.

Advertisements

Authors of Imagination

LuCoyWith a book fresh off the New York Times bestseller list, young adult author Marie Lu stood in front of more than a hundred 7th and 8th graders in our library and talked about imagination. Her stories took the students back to her time interning at Disney, to her work designing video games, and to the moment she told her parents that she would not be going into the high money profession they’d hoped she might, this delightful author provided Diegueño students with pure inspiration. She had many, many fans on our campus, and stayed late into the afternoon signing copies of Legend for the kids, but the best part of it all was to hear her talk about the power of imagination and following your dreams, and to see the kids really listen.

I met my first real live author when I was in college. A literature major, I drove to Powell’s Books to hear John Barth read from his latest novel and carried home an autographed copy of The Sot-Weed Factor that still sits on my bookshelf. Over the next few years I managed to take a creative writing class from a novelist named Craig Lesley, and hear a couple of big names speak in person. By the time I heard them, I was well past my most formative years, and took away less inspiration than admiration, more appreciation for the books they’d written than belief that I could write one of my own. Not so with our middle schoolers.

From stories about dragons to teens in apocalyptic landscapes, Diegueño students have been treated to talks by more than half a dozen authors, all organized by the magician, Ms. Coy, who runs our library. The impact has been powerful.

To see students experience a discussion of the creative process, and to see them engage in the discussion of ideas with women and men who have made writing their life’s work, is astounding. The kids offer enthusiastic questions on imagination, creativity, and the hard work that is making art. The authors have responded with smiles, encouragement, and inspiring stories about what it was like for them as they grew up and grew into the lives they now live.

Our most recent author visit saw four female science fiction authors come to campus together and interact with the kids as a quartet of “Girls Gone Sci-Fi.” In an education world turning its face toward STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math), I could think of no greater compliment to the great work our science, art, and math teachers do than this.

photo 5 (13)Do I think the next Stephen King or Toni Morrison is sitting in the Diegueño library? Maybe. I do know without a doubt that the opportunities our kids have, and at the age they have them, provide fuel for lives of greatness. Learning is being inspired, and inspiration comes from many places. I’m proud that one of them is the family room of Diegueño, where books don’t stay on shelves, and authors don’t stay on book jackets.

Extra Innings and Building Kites

The March morning was gorgeous and the game was moving fast. The kids, two teams of six and seven year old tee-ballers, were having fun as their parents cheered them on, not a negative voice from the crowd, even when the shortstop and centerfielder started wrestling behind second base.

photoJogging back the bench with the team I coach, the other coach and I met halfway through the third inning. “What do you think,” he asked, “want to play an extra inning?”

In the spirit of Ernie Banks’ famous suggestion for a doubleheader -“let’s play two!”- we agreed to let the kids go another round. The reward was two happy teams, an extra quarter hour beneath the springtime sun, and a lesson I hope to bring back to the work I do as a principal.

Life is a ballgame, or so the old song goes, being played each day, and when things are flowing, particularly with kids, there’s something right about abandoning expectations and playing an extra inning.

I see examples of this joy and connection in the classes I visit. The teachers I work with know how to set up experiences for kids that challenge and engage them, and then prowl around the classroom with questions that help students connect with subject matter as diverse as Andrew Jackson and cutting open sheep hearts. These teachers know that encouraging that engagement, allowing time for the meaningful struggle that is learning, and helping kids find the joy in their studies is the real way kids learn.

It’s not unlike a quotation by Herman Horne I spotted at a neighborhood park last summer.

Ideally, all work for adults should be like a youth making a kite.”

Picturing Horne’s late 19th century youngster putting paper on wood, back bent as she leans over the project, mind drifting to the kite rising into the sky, I’d extend that notion beyond what we do as adults. I’d suggest that all the best learning does just the same. In cases like this, time disappears, and whether it’s that youth and the kite or a student today coding a video game, magic happens where concentration and experimentation intersect.

photo 4 (6)Now I’m not suggesting that we make class periods longer; the same timelessness and focus on learning can come about as teachers adjust during their lessons to maximize student engagement and opportunities to extend learning, nor am I saying that I’d like to push summer back a couple of weeks. But I do know that on our best days, when we’re connected and the kids are really learning, there’s a whisper in my heart that says: “let’s go another inning!”

Taking a Break

Even competitive swimmers take a breath. Powering forward, arms reaching, legs kicking, eyes on finishing strong, their status as humans means that every few yards they need to turn their heads and draw in air. In those breaths, swimming becomes a metaphor for school. Schools are at their best when they inspire passion for learning, curiosity, and a sense of community through the ongoing teaching and learning that takes place on campus. Ideally, students learn to push themselves, practice, and keep their focus on relevant rewards for mastering the material they are taught. And just like those swimmers, learners need time to turn their collective faces to the sky and draw in a deep breath. They need time off. These renewing gulps of air happen every time a student gets to spend time doing something different than her usual school routine, and when she gets extra time to relax, renew, and pursue what she loves most. Wordsworth had it right when he described standing out in nature. In Tintern Abbey he wrote:

…here I stand, not only with the sense Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts That in this moment there is life and food For future years.”

Breaks offer us that renewal. Well, at least some days or weeks back on campus. The value of rest and play, two staples of time spent away from school, are good for students and adults alike. Sometimes folks talk about a “slide” from academics, but I wonder if that’s as true as a step closer to our true, poetic selves. The best breaks give us time to feel connected to those we love most, enjoy some experiences whose memories provide that “life and food for future years,” and end just as we’re looking forward to coming back to school. The best breaks fill our proverbial lungs, and leave us ready to cut through the water of school, propelled into learning.

Cootie Catcher

“There are a whole lot of ways that could have gone wrong.”

photo 2 (11)It was my assistant principal’s line as he watched the students walking away from us, laughing on their way to class. We’d been out in the quad at the bell, and as we were walking by the flagpole my AP had spotted a “cootie catcher” on the ground. With the heart of a twelve year old boy, he’d picked it up and put it on his fingers. Three boys paused by us, two grown men trying to remember how this thing worked, and leaned in.

“Pick a color,” my AP prompted. One did. G-R-E-E-N. “Pick another.” R-E-D. “Now let’s open it up…”

And that’s when we both realized, even if the curious, laughing kids didn’t, that we had no idea what was written inside.

photo 2 (18)Now over and over again my AP and I have told kids and parents how proud we are that our school is a place where people can make mistakes and learn from failing in a safe space. We talk about the importance of taking risks and doing so in an environment that is kind and around adults who are there not to punish them, but to help them learn. It looked like the tables had been turned.

So with a slow intake of breath, we opened the cootie catcher.

“There, that one!” the boy pointed at the inside of the folded paper. And we read: You will do well on your test today.

Exhale.

After the boys walked to class, we looked at each other and took a minute to reflect on the quality of kids we’re blessed to have at our school. Then we talked about that bundle of contradictions that are the middle school years. On the cusp of high school, and just leaving the orbit of elementary school, sweetness sits side by side with the urge to push boundaries and exert independence.

Very often we see a student somewhat different from the face that twelve or thirteen year old shows her mom or dad. Sure we see the student who texts in class or is figuring out what flirting is, but we also see the kid who giggles when he gets to join a three-legged race at lunch or shoot a rocket in science class. We get to help students navigate those waters between 6th grade and their freshman year, and even as we promote responsibility, model industry, and nurture growing maturity, we know that this is a time to celebrate cootie catchers and messages as innocent as “you will do well on your test today.”

“Do you get it?”

There’s an amazing buzz of energy in the room that’s hard to describe. The teacher, bouncing on her feet, moving around the room, smiling along with the kids, has the mood buoyant and the rigor high. Students, divided into groups of four, face each other and talk about the questions in front of them, pursuing answers (and “answers” is purposefully plural) as their teacher moves from quad to quad, looking students in the eyes and asking questions that prompt the kids to reflect on what they’re doing and justify their solutions.

It could be any subject: the papers the kids bending over holding US maps, Shakespearean sonnets, or sheep hearts ready for dissection. Today, as I sit inspired in this dynamic classroom, it’s math, with kids talking percentages, cross-products, and different approaches for figuring out the answers to questions that sound like they could come out of their own lives.

I was there for a short visit, but found myself compelled to stick around for a while, drawing inspiration from what ultimately is the most powerful force in education: a caring teacher actively engaged with curious students.

In an educational landscape increasingly dotted with outposts of technology (Twitter Chats, Chromebooks, and Google Classrooms) the single act of a teacher leaning over a desk and looking a student in the eyes is unmatched. Add to that moment a classroom history of caring, high expectations, and shared experiences, and the result is electrifying.

As I watched this gifted math teacher talk with her kids, not at her kids, not around her kids, but with her kids about math, I was reminded of what makes me proudest about being an educator.

Teachers who are passionate about who they’re teaching and what they’re teaching are the single most powerful force in all of education. These teachers build relationships, inspire curiosity, and make a profound difference in the lives of the kids they work with. As a principal, I’m blessed with the opportunity to see teachers like this work with students every day.

I get to see the face to face interactions between students and instructors that have been the hallmark of learning since before Socrates and will be long after we’ve won the world back from the robots.

I see the sparkle in the teachers’ eyes, the light in the eyes of the students, and the face of learning as it smiles with understanding.

I love the opportunities that technology has brought to teaching and learning, and many of the changes we’ve seen in schools and education, but at the end of the day it’s that pure moment of connection that still inspires me most, when the teacher asks “do you get it” and the student smiles and says “yes.”

Out of the Box

It hit me, as I read the prompt for this week’s #YourEduStory challenge, that I didn’t have an answer I was proud of. The question of the week: “How can you empower student voice in your school?”

Sure we talk with students, informally at lunch, in student groups run through counseling or intervention programs, and in our ASB class, where student leaders articulate their perspective beautifully. But even with those mechanisms in place to hear what students are thinking, as a school, I know we can do more.

So…

I took this week’s prompt as a call to action more than a chance for reflection, and I brought this question to the people I really wanted to hear the answer from: students.

Early in the year I’d met with a trio of amazing kids who wanted to talk about homework. We actually looked at a few articles together, and began an interesting conversation, but in the sturm und drang of the school year, I’ll confess that I let it fall away.

This week I got them together again and asked: “How can we empower student voice at Diegueño?”

Here’s what they said:

To empower student voice, we can do multiple things, all of which will encourage students to speak up. One of the things Diegueño could do is have a box placed somewhere easily accessible on the campus, where students can place their opinions on school related matters, anonymously or named. The box would need to be gone through once a week or so, and the top five things brought up would need to be considered seriously. The staff could also host a meeting every month or on some periodical schedule that any students would be welcome to attend. At the meeting, some of the ideas put into the box could be brought up, and the students and teachers could discuss how to solve them. The box and meetings would need to be kept in shape by the students, as this would be a chance for them to discuss things openly with other students, and possibly with teachers. Whatever matter the students decided to resolve should be announced during morning announcements or lunch, and the students would be responsible for making sure it is taken seriously and responsibly (with help and approval from the teachers, of course). Also, the surveys Diegueño staff occasionally posts online are great in my opinion.”

What a great set of ideas.

So in keeping with the idea of this question as an opportunity, I’m setting these four goals, and giving myself the challenge to blog about each sometime in the next few weeks:

First, I will meet regularly with a group of students to ask questions and listen to what they have to say about their Diegueño experience, and I’ll use what they tell me to inform the work I do to make our school the best it can be.

Second, I’ll get working on that box!

Third, I will work with ASB to organize a forum for students to discuss their points of view about our school.

Finally, I will find a way to make transparent and public our conversations.

Hearing students is an important part of being an educator, and acknowledging when you haven’t done a good enough job of it is part of improving. I’m thankful to have had my spring interrupted by the challenge of this topic, and to have been given the opportunity to adjust what I’m doing to get better.

What will the kids say? I don’t know, but I’m excited to find out.

And when someone asks me about empowering student voice next fall I’m looking forward to having an answer I can be proud of.