“My cape is in my classroom.”

It’s superhero day today at Diegueño, part of our “Kindness Challenge” inspired spirit week. I’ve already seen lots of the usual suspects on campus: Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Teachers are getting into the act as well, though less flamboyantly than they did on “Peace, Love, and Kindness Day,” when campus looked like something out of 1967.

My favorite remark of the day came as one of my teachers was walking in with another staff member this morning. They were comparing costumes (Supergirl and “Kindness Woman”) and the teacher said: “My cape is in my classroom. A girl made it for me for Pi Day, and even did it in Superman colors. She asked me if I was going to wear it today, and I went out and bought this t-shirt to match.”

photo 3 (1)Sitting quietly at my desk (wearing a Batman t-shirt) I thought: “What true superheroes.”

Teachers like this inspire students, and students respond with enthusiasm, curiosity, and engagement. It didn’t surprise me that a student would go out of her way to create a math themed costume for her teacher on the Pi Day celebration put on by our math department, nor did it surprise me that her teacher would treasure that cape and go out of her way to incorporate it in her costume for Kindness Week. Diegueño is a place where the relationships between students and staff are deep, caring, and real.

And in their way, teachers really are superheroes. Sometimes they fly around shooting lasers out of their eyes, sometimes they swing a magic lasso, and sometimes they bounce around the room like human spiders. Beneath the masks, they’re dedicated to learning, students, …and truth, justice, and the American way.

Next week, when we all return to our lives as Peter Parker, Diana Prince and Clark Kent, I know that phrase will whisper again in my memory. Schools are as exciting as Gotham City or Metropolis, and the heroes who teach our students could all (at least metaphorically) say: “My cape is in my classroom.”

 

Code for Learning

Darkness shrouded the abandoned amusement park making it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead. I followed the path between the rides as best I could, knowing someone else was hiding in the darkness, and hoping I could find him before he found me.

I checked the carousel, finding it still had power, and rode it once around, looking out into the night. I walked through a giant maze, hunting for the criminal I’d been tasked to find. “I think I’m lost,” I said aloud. An adolescent hand pointed over my shoulder. “Just go forward, then left, then right.” And then, before I could manipulate the keyboard, the pale face of the man I’d been pursuing filled the computer screen and the game was over.

photo 1I turned to the 8th grade programmer who’d developed the game. “Very cool.”

He smiled. “Want to play it again?”

I was visiting one of the computer programming classes at Diegueño, invited to check out the interactive stories and games the young coders had developed. As I moved around the room, seeing a huge variety in subject matter: swooping planes, spinning rubik’s cubes, and even a whack-a-mole game, I was impressed by three things…

First, the programs were really good. Every game I played or story I watched had both interesting graphics and thoughtful design. Sure these are middle schoolers, so more things caught fire in the games than adults might expect, but the quality of the work was jaw dropping.

Second, the kids really knew what they were doing, and could take me behind the curtain to show me how they’d coded the games. This ability to articulate what they did to create their projects struck me as a significant part of learning to program.

They’d worked in pairs or groups of three and collaboration was a part of all they did. This necessary teamwork helped produce more than great products on the screen, I believe it helped these students think critically about the how and why of all they were doing as well as the what.

photo 4Finally, I walked away from that computer lab infinitely impressed by the pride and excitement I’d seen in the kids. The students were having a ball showing off their work to each other, their teacher, and to me. It reminded me of talking with student actors after a play or musicians after a concert.

Engagement, energy, and fun fueled powerful learning in that programming class, where a gifted teacher guided students from just offstage, and kids had the confidence to tell their principal how to navigate the world they’d created.

I never caught the culprit I was searching for in that abandoned amusement park, but the young coders in the room most definitely caught me. I’ll go back for more doses of inspiration, and if the day has been a stressful one, maybe even try my hand at whack-a-mole.

“What motivates learning?”

I’m an educator, so my answer will carry the bias of one who believes in schools. Deeply. It’s a point of view I’ll proudly own up to. So while I know that it’s not tough to come up with a raft of examples that show people who have learned on  their own, self-educated individualists who accomplished great things, solitary travelers who cracked open the oyster of knowledge and extracted a pearl, I answer that question: “What motivates learning?” with a single word: teachers.

As humans we’re naturally curious, but moving past just figuring things out to really understanding them is helped when we have someone to encourage, inspire, and reassure us.

My four year old nephew visited this spring. As he lingered by a strange looking plant in my parents’ backyard, my mom, who spent years working in a kindergarten classroom, told him: “That’s a cactus. If you touch it, you’ll get poked, and it will hurt.” He eyed the spines and walked away. A few minutes later, he ran into the house holding his fingers. “That’s a cactus!” he told his grandma. “Don’t touch it!” Experience told him that plants could bite; a teacher helped him learn what he needed to from that experience.

More systematically this happens in classrooms every day. Great teachers help students take information and organize it in ways they can use. They provide students with context for what they are learning, and experiences through which they can expand their understanding and take an active role in what they are learning.

The best teachers inspire. They ask questions and prompt students to want to ask even more. They share their own passion for the subject, and for learning, and see in their students a growing curiosity and desire to understand more.

At their best, schools are places where students learn to want to learn and where teachers create opportunities for kids to explore. Through a mystery to be solved, a challenge to be overcome, or a mission to be accomplished, students learn when teachers create students thrive when teachers put them in the position to thrive. Those inspirations and opportunities don’t happen by accident. They happen under the kind, strong, and watchful eyes of teachers.

Beyond Batman

photo 1 (3)It was the Classics Illustrated Robinson Crusoe that captured my six year old son’s imagination. Filled with swords and shooting, pictures of Crusoe’s nightmarish hallucinations and a gory melee with a band of “cannibals,” it brought all the fruit forbidden in a liberal 21st century household to his nightstand in glorious technicolor.

For me growing up it was The Fantastic Four, entertaining companions on long road trips and always ready to engage my daydreaming thoughts with the possibilities of a flying fantasticar and traveling into space.

Moodier superheroes took over as I got older, Batman and Moon Knight broadening my world view, even as they wore masks and capes. Storytelling, visual and otherwise, has the capacity to stretch minds and get readers to think about the world in new ways. Before Shakespeare, Twain, and Ellison, for me that meant comic books.

photo 4 (2)Not to sell short some of the best of my youth (Moench and Sienkiewicz’s Moon Knight is still a favorite), today the term “comics” hardly captures the depth of the medium. Serious novelists from Brad Meltzer to Michael Chabon have penned comic books, and others like Neil Gaiman jumped from comics to novels. Add to that the sheer variety of illustrated stories: Fanny Britt’s Jane, the Fox, and Me, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and Frank Miller’s 300, and the broad appeal extends well beyond the familiar confines of Gotham City.

What this means is that today’s comics, relevant and resonating, have the capacity to invite even reluctant readers (though certainly not only reluctant readers) into the world of text.

The benefits are many.

photo 2 (3)Offering opportunities to read and think about big ideas, comic books and graphic novels from Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant to the latest incarnation of Moon Knight can serve as a welcoming portal into the realm of ideas.

For my six year old son those ideas of exploration jump off the page like a flock of birds startled by Crusoe’s flintlock. For my ten year old daughter, it’s Raina Telgemeier’s Sisters and Smile side by side on her bookshelf with Colin Meloy’s Wildwood and the indefatigable Harry Potter.

photo 3 (4)At Diegueño I’ve seen Gene Luen Yang’s Boxer and Saint, collected Avengers comics, and plenty of anime. Bright young readers gobble up graphic novels like The Golem’s Mighty Swing, Watchmen, and The Graveyard Book, and their lives (both reading lives and otherwise) are richer as a result.

I suspect that these excursions into comics are like scouts sent into the woods of adult literature, curious, capable of bringing back information, and starting the first maps into literary adulthood.

Plus, comics are fun.

Smells Like Tween Spirit

photo 3Usually the quad is filled with smiling students and fun activities. It’s the place we have music and games at lunch, and picnics for both students and staff under the noonday sun. Today, it was filled with garbage.

Rubber gloved and wrist deep in banana peels and bread crusts, sifting through juice boxes and granola bar wrappers, our ASB students brought their industriousness (and scrunched noses) to an Earth Day audit of garbage and recycling on campus.

Their plan is to revamp recycling at Diegueño, bringing new energy and focus to sustainability and good earth stewardship. Working with a fantastic teacher, who did her best to stay upwind, the students were engaged in a lesson that transcended the regular classroom.

photo 5This real world learning is an important part of education. Sometimes it’s easy to see in action: students creating our school’s yearbook, actually making something that will live on for decades in cedar chests, brought out fifty years from now to bring smiles of memory.

Sometimes it swings: our student band marching in the annual holiday parade, bringing cheer to a whole community.

Sometimes it’s inspirational: the students who led our campus tours for incoming families, particularly the intrepid group from our Dual Language Immersion program who translated beautifully, were walking examples of the greatness that can come when students are given a chance to do something meaningful and real.

photo 4The two years students spend in middle school should prepare them to engage with the greater world of their own community and beyond. The thoughtful and thorough work of our ASB students did just that, and the rewards will benefit both the kids and our school.

I’m proud to work at a school that values learning both inside the classroom and beyond the schoolhouse walls. I’m inspired by students who embrace this social consciousness, and teachers who nurture and support them as they find their voices and build their knowledge.

And for any who find themselves in the quad surrounded by garbage and recycling, it’s a good life lesson to figure out a way to get upwind.

Playtime

I just finished reading the book Play by Stuart Brown, a medical doctor and university professor who has made a living of studying play. It’s the choice for our next Diegueño Book Club, a new tradition at our school this year, and one that has seen parents and teachers come together to share laughter, ideas, and good conversation about learning, school, and growing up. Play will be a nice addition to our library, and promises some great material to discuss.

photo 1 (4)Brown’s premise is that play is valuable, and even necessary, and has value well beyond helping us feel good in the moment. As an educator, I found much of the book a nice reminder of how important it is to bring balance to the work we do at school. About halfway through Play he states something great teacher know from experience: “Learning itself is enhanced by play.” That phrase rings true to me, and I see examples of it every day at Diegueño.

I see play in science classes, when students hop in displacement barrels, or build cranes and catapults.

I see play in theater, when students design and create puppets, and then climb behind the puppet theater to put on a show for their peers.

photoI see play in computer programming classes, when I see students coding. And I see the pride they bring to their work when they cajole me to sit down and play a video game they’ve designed. …and laugh when I make a blunder and see the words GAME OVER on the screen.

As a person who spends his days with about a thousand 7th and 8th graders, I also see the benefits of play as a social action. The tweens and teens who make up Diegueño’s student body need opportunities to stretch who they are in safe ways, and play, in its many forms, supports that.

I know that when our Diegueño Book Club meets on May 19th, starting in the quad to play before we sit down and talk about the book, one example of the value I see in play will come from our recent school Spirit Day.

1489At Spirit Day our entire student body, as well as almost all our staff, put on either blue or gold t-shirts, designed with a Cougar Pride image by some student artists, and spent the afternoon playing. ASB designed a dozen events, including tossing horseshoes, tug of war, and “chariot racing.” The smiles, the teamwork, and the sense of community was profound, and not only did the day bring us closer together as a school, it provided students and teachers an opportunity to laugh and play together.

I’m looking forward to talking about Play with the teachers and parents (and any students) who come to the Diegueño Book Club next month. Just as much, I’m committed to doing my best to bring that sense of play to my work every day.


The Diegueño Book Club will meet in the grassy area by the flagpole in the heart of Diegueño’s campus on May 19th from 5:00-6:30 PM. Wear comfortable clothes; we’ll be talking, laughing, and playing!

“Coach”

photo 1 (1)I was sunburned and my back hurt from trying to throw soft toss strikes to a lineup of six year olds. We’d played three innings over the course of an hour, and my team was more than a little ready for snacks. As we gathered together by third base, ready to do the traditional “two-four-six-eight who do we appreciate?” chant that was old when I was young, one of my players leaned in to me and asked: “Is now when we get to go hug our moms?”

It’s a simple truth that I’ve learned over the course of our season: If you want to feel joy, watch t-ball. If you want to feel inspired, coach it.

I’ve spent my entire adult life working with kids. As a teacher, a high school coach, and an administrator, I’ve laughed with, disciplined, and taught literally thousands of youngsters. Sometimes I was out of balance, my job taking more time from my family than it should. Other times I got things right. This spring, for the first time in forever, I said “yes” to coaching my son’s T-ball team. It was the most renewing choice I think I’ve ever made.

Not that it’s easy, the best things in life often aren’t, but it provides me with three gifts I treasure.

Coaching six year olds gives me perspective. I work with almost a thousand middle schoolers every day, and see in them so much of what I see in my t-ball players. The goofiness, innocence, and joy that I witness on the baseball diamond is echoed at my school. Sure the twelve and thirteen year olds are trying harder to be cool, struggle with the changes of adolescence, and feel self conscious in a way no pack of outfielders chasing a rolling ball ever have, but in their smiling faces and hopeful eyes I see the exuberance of youth.

Coaching T-ball puts me in contact with the raw energy and joy that is childhood. It reminds me that we all need to cry sometimes, get a hug from our mom or dad, and then pick up our glove and get back in the game.

It’s why I end every practice with the line: “go hug your parents!” And it’s why I honestly believe I’m a better middle school principal because of the kids on my team.

Coaching T-ball gives me hope. I see such goodness in the kids I get to play ball with, and such generosity in their parents, who volunteer to help out at every practice, love and support their kids, and show kindness and patience (even as they bite their lower lips as their sons and daughters swing at that soft tossed ball).

Coaching my team inspires me to be my best self. At spring break, when we went to soft toss in lieu of a tee, I was worried that the kids would cry. A lot. To my surprise, they hit! At least a bit. And even those to whom hitting did not come naturally were willing to try. To swing. To miss. To learn. To improve.

As an educator, the lessons for me are many. And even when I’m sunburned and sore, the kids’ determination to improve, their desire to have fun, and their ability to burst into unscripted happiness is magical.

photo (6)This weekend my son gave me a drawing. Newly obsessed with major league baseball, I figured it to be a sketch of Matt Kemp or Clayton Kershaw. I was wrong.

“That’s you,” he said, pointing to the paper. “Throwing baseballs to me.”

He didn’t see me cry right then, but I melted inside.

I know that coaching T-ball has made me a better person, and I hope and believe that it has also made me a better educator. I know there are lessons there on patience, and believing in others, and kindness there if I am willing to listen.

I have a feeling that at this spring’s 8th grade promotion ceremony I’ll have feelings not unlike I had last week at third base. Tired, hot, and ready to go have dinner with my family, I honestly believe that I’ll also feel that hope, happiness, and inspiration that youth offer to us all. And whether I say it aloud or just whisper it under my breath, I’ll remember that now is, or should be, the time we get to go hug our moms.

inspired tball

 

White Knuckle Learning

Hanging on tight, aware where you’ll end up (if all goes well), but not really sure about the twists, turns, and loop de loops along the way, knuckles white, eyes narrowed to concentrate on the next few seconds rushing toward you, and (when things get really interesting) mouth opening in a laugh…

That’s learning.

Not every second in a classroom is filled with an activity that has students building, acting, singing, filming, or slipping into what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” And that’s okay. Amusement parks aren’t all roller coasters; they spend some real estate on flowerbeds, snack bars, and colorful maps of the park.

So too education, where it is important to take time building classroom culture, feeding the students enough information and perspective to get them wanting to know more, and providing them with an understanding of what the course will help them learn. …then setting them loose to run for the roller coasters!

photo 1 (5)These opportunities for white knuckle learning look different in every classroom: students making a Charlemagne video in history class, conducting a mock trial in English, or painting with acrylics on canvas in art. Students who understand why they are learning what they are and have been inspired to want to know more, learn as they choreograph a stage battle, dissect a sheep heart, or fly (and crash) airplanes they’ve designed.

photo 4 (2)Students learn best when their engagement allows them to be so focused on the experience they are involved in that the classroom around them melts away.

Not long ago I was taking our superintendent on a walking tour of campus. We visited classrooms and saw a broad range of student activities. Then,, when we opened the door of an eighth grade science lab, we saw the roller coaster.

Literally.

“They’re learning about physics and applying some principles of engineering,” the smiling teacher told us as we found her among the sea of students clamoring atop tables to hang foam track from the rafters. “It’s a little crazy,” she said, “but they really remember what they learn.”

1rollercoasterAnd oh, what they learned.

Teams of kids bent, twisted, and taped foam to meet the parameters of the roller coaster design lab. They experimented, rolled marbles down the tracks, failed, rebuilt, and failed again. No two roller coasters looked the same, but as we walked from group to group, ducking through the spiderweb of track, the students looked away from their serious work long enough to explain to these two guys in ties just what they were doing. Their eventual successes in achieving what they wanted with the roller coasters paled, in my eyes, in comparison to their ability to clearly explain what they were in the process of learning.

When I’m asked about student engagement, theirs are the first faces I see, focused, curious, and learning. Engagement is a roller coaster. Students thrive when they can can ride and design.

“Look it up…”

poetry1“What do you do when you don’t know the meaning of a word?”

Hands shot into the air.

“Look it up on your phone,” one girl answered.

“Figure out context clues,” offered a well read young scholar. Wow.

“Look it up in a dictionary,” a student suggested bashfully.

“Good,” I praised her old school response. Then, looking around the room, I called on the boy in the back, the last hand in the air. “And…” I prompted.

“Ask your mom?” He said.

Perfect.

It’s why I love teaching. The unexpected nature of the flow of a classroom discussion. The exquisite goofiness of students. “Yes!” I said. “That could work too.

I was about a third of the way through a lesson on poetry, a celebration of Emily Dickinson and Emily Brontë and their poems about “Hope.” Both poems are old, and some of the language that shows up isn’t familiar to the kids, so before I asked them to dive in and discover meaning, I knew I wanted them to be sure they knew what the words meant that make up the verse.

And so we read through the poems, and students underlined the words they didn’t know.

Gale. Abash. Strife.

They’d have time to collaborate with each other once we got to the heart of the lesson, but I wanted them to wrestle with the words first on their own.

“Okay,” I said after a couple of minutes. “Use one of those ways of getting the definition you need to find out what the words you underlined mean.”

Phones emerged from backpacks and purses like gophers after a rainstorm. Three students strided to the bookshelf on one side of the room and pulled down dictionaries. A couple of kids sat, puzzled, before grabbing thesaruses from a counter. And they all got to work.

As I walked around the room I heard quiet conversations. “I don’t get this definition,” one girl whispered, looking down at what Wikipedia had to say about grated. “I think a silverfish just crawled out of this thesaurus!” said a boy. “My eyes are spinning,” said a girl with a thick red dictionary open in front of her. “I don’t think I’ve used one of these since like second grade.”

And then I heard it. Quiet. Hardly loud enough to disturb even the kids around him. It was the boy from the back row, his phone held to his ear… “Mom. Hi. The principal is teaching us about poetry right now, and I wondered if you know what the word abash means.”

I may have a message on my phone when I get back to my office. Or maybe I just made the conversation around one dinner table a little more interesting tonight.

Either way, I know that the real reason teaching is the grandest profession is the kids. Their earnestness, curiosity, and insight; their ability to engage with the world, be it poetry, pottery, phenomes, or pi; their open eyes and open hearts, and their willingness to pick up the phone and call their moms, all give me hope.

As Emily Dickinson said more than a hundred years ago:

Hope is the thing with feathers-
That perches in the soul-
And sings the tune without the words-
And never stops- at all-

After teaching a lesson about poetry to some of the best seventh graders I know, I’ve got hope in my soul right now. And if I listen, I can hear it singing.

Or maybe calling mom.

Like A Mom

I had a good conversation with a friend tonight about schools and campus cultures and community perceptions. The kernel of our discussion was why students clamor to get into some schools and why they don’t get as excited about others. School choice is a big issue around my neck of the woods, and giving that choice has a raft of advantages, but it does mean that perceptions matter.

A lot.

One idea we bandied around was that bell schedules drive decisions. It made sense as a valid argument; if a student could take more classes one place over another, or at times that were more convenient than another, the school that offered that would have an upper hand.

My friend’s take on the matter, however, was that those big decisions, that desire to be on a particular campus and part of that specific school’s community boiled down to one thing: school culture.

It’s hard to disagree; my more than two decades in public education have taught me that culture trumps programs. Every time.

But my experiences have also shown me that sometimes the perception of a school’s culture isn’t the same as what really happens on campus. I wrote about this (what seems a lifetime ago) when I was at a high school competing for the attention of prospective students, in a post titled “Perceptions”. I thought then, as I do now, that we have a responsibility for telling our school’s story.

No. Stories.

Because a school is really a complex tapestry of stories, not only defined by the bold patterns of sports, arts, and clubs, but also rich in the subtler colors of those little acts of kindness and welcome, the moments in classrooms where the spark of learning blazes, and the times when kids and the adults on campus pick each other up when things are getting wobbly.

So as I talked with my friend tonight, I asked what she thought principals like me needed to do to bring our school culture to the families who were considering different schools. Her answer surprised me.

Be safe, she said.

And as we talked more about this, she pulled the trump card of education, the one point that I’ve never seen a counter to. She said: You have to think like a mom.

At any school, beyond the banners and beauty, past the academics and activities, more important than the polish or the programs, lurks the question: how will my daughter or son fit in?

Moms think about this. They wonder where their kids will eat lunch, what opportunities their unathletic daughter will have, where their shy son will have a chance to thrive.

Kids feel this too, and look around a school on those campus tours hoping to find comfort along with opportunity. They want to know that if they can’t sing a song or throw a ball, if during that first week they forget their PE lock combination or which classroom they have for math, if they’re not always the shiny penny, what happens to them?

And the truth is, shiny pennies have those same, justifiable, insecurities.

When parents ask me what they can do to prepare their sons and daughters for middle school over the summer, my response is brief and consistent: breathe. Reassure them. They’ll be fine academically, and they’ll find kindness and helpers when they arrive.

But it’s not as simple as that.

I think we make it possible for students to believe they’ll be supported and challenged and loved when we tell our school’s stories. We inspire comfort with every tweet and post that shows what happens every day on our campus. We help those who don’t yet know where they belong believe that they can find their passion every time we celebrate all aspects of our school, and let them know that there are lots of ways to be a part of our school community.

And we show ourselves to be safe when we put a priority on building a positive school culture, from the image of our mascot we present to the focus our student leaders bring to their work.

I’m proud to see some smiling cougars up on banners around campus as well as the (kind of creepy looking) image of our traditional mascot. I love that our ASB put on a Friendship Week this year that was so successful that we’re going to run two next year …as well as a Kindness Challenge, and slew of community building events.

And I believe that my responsibility is to talk about it. Blog about it. Tweet about it.

The first step is to purposefully build a school culture that cares, has a way every student can be part of the family, and is safe. The second step is to celebrate that to the world.

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