“Very SDA”

photo 4 (8)The robotics team gave each new teacher a gift bag, ASB students handed out class schedules on the first day, and when I walked into one AP Government the class of seniors greeted me with a welcoming chorus of “Bjorn!” Walking through classrooms this week I saw chemistry experiments, sculpture making, and a round table about how to apply for college. In the gym I saw students stretching beneath a wall of mirrors decorated with phrases Knute Rockne would never have uttered: “There is no higher happiness than peace” and “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.” In screenprinting class they began to design t-shirts and in culinary arts they made pineapple pancakes.

From time to time, when people in our district witness a celebration of something a little iconoclastic coming from my school, I hear the phrase: “Very SDA.” It’s true; the world looks a little different here.

photo 1 (14)I could see this spirit as the students arrived on the first day of classes. One of my assistant principals and I greeted students at the front of the school, welcoming new faces along with the familiar as they walked onto campus ready to pick up their schedules at the Mosaic Cafe. We were joined by teachers on their way to class, who stayed with us to say hello to students. I’ve seen students before who looked happy to be back at school, but I’d never witnessed the reciprocal glee that accompanied the spontaneous hugs I saw on the steps of the school. Teachers and students were excited to see each other, and the affection they shared for each other is a defining ingredient to the culture of our school.

I saw that same affection the next day when I was talking with a math teacher at lunch. He was in his classroom helping a student, other groups of teenagers spread out at tables eating and chatting around them. “Cool,” I thought. “This is a place where students really feel comfortable.” And then he told me about the motorcycles.

One of his students, he explained, was a motorcycle racer and had just won a major race. He wasn’t at school, and because of travel would miss another couple of days. “When he gets back,” the teacher told me, “I’d like to throw him a little parade. Nothing fancy, but an acknowledgement of his hard work and success.”

This week I’ve met a singer-songwriter, a freshly minted Eagle Scout, and a gifted basketball player (who, when she was introduced to me as a “star” by our athletics secretary, smiled modestly, shrugged, and said: “It’s fun.”). In classrooms across campus I’ve heard rousing debates about economics, passionate presentations about our PALS program, and (on a campus tour with our superintendent) we dropped in on an intelligent discussion about zombies.

photo 3 (10)Then, on Friday afternoon, as I was walking across campus at the end of the day, I heard cheering. Wild shouting and sounds of excitement filled the meadow by the bell tower. I hurried over to see what was going on; Friday afternoon on a high school campus it could be anything. A smiling mob of students clustered around the door to our theater. Parts for the fall play had just been posted.

These amazing students, some of whom I’d seen throughout the week learning Japanese, discussing architecture, and showing new students how to find their classes, hugged each other, smiled, and talked about the upcoming production.

photo 2 (12)We’ve all seen lists posted on doors before, elementary class rosters and those who did or didn’t make athletic teams, but this display was different.These were actors and theater techs who were collectively happy. They held scripts and each other and the rich sense of possibility. I stuck around long enough to talk with a few who let me join the conversation about stage lighting and Hamlet and our school.

I left inspired, as I had been by those hugs on the first day, robotic gift bags, and pineapple pancakes. And as I gave a high five to a freshman I knew from last year, I thought to myself just how fortunate I am to be at a place so “very SDA.”

Failure is an Option

…not mindless failure, of course.

Situations without the potential for failure do little to foster learning. Instead, growth happens when students -and by “students” I mean “humans”- are given opportunities to stretch themselves, to feel challenged, to wonder, to hope, and to strive to achieve goals they aren’t sure they can reach.

When, after working through a period of productive struggle, we do achieve the results we want, we learn. When, after that struggle, we don’t get the outcome we were aiming for, we learn. We learn if we’re willing to learn.

It’s that second sort of learning that gives us our biggest challenge in education and our greatest reward. Not only do we need to be willing to see that short term failures are just steps along the way to longer term successes, we must also keep a mindset that reassures us that we can learn, we will improve, and we are not defined by our struggles.

Henry Ford, a man who knew failure as well as success, said that “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” He knew that failures happen. Failures happen to talented people. Mistakes, foiled attempts, experiments that blow up in our faces, these are all part of the process of learning, improvement, and discovery.

Good teachers know that helping students take academic risks helps to create creative learners. I was in a science class today and the teacher invited students to develop a procedure regarding saline solutions. With the smile of a veteran educator he told his classes: “Come back tomorrow and if it fails we’ll revise. Come back tomorrow and if it succeeds …we’ll revise.” Students knew that the focus was to be on the process, not a single answer that could be found in the back of the book. This teacher helped his students know that experiments don’t always work. If they did, they wouldn’t be experiments, not experiments worth conducting anyway.

When teachers model divergent thinking and risk taking in the classroom the results aren’t always pretty. Sometimes they bring with them awkward silences or outbursts of laughter. Sometimes we’re left with egg on our faces; sometimes we come up with an omelette we can share.

As a teacher there were many times I picked the proverbial eggshell from my hair, and other times when grand experiments yielded something delicious and unexpected.

I felt, when I taught, that it was my responsibility to let my students see me take chances in the classroom in the spirit of the risk taking I hoped they would bring to their own educations.

When I spent hours taping yards of butcher paper to upturned tables and bringing in a bank of fans to create a wind tunnel in my classroom (part of a lesson on cultural misunderstanding that warrants its own post sometime down the road), I not only wanted my students to understand how environment shapes culture; I also wanted to inspire in them the belief that putting their whole heart into a wild scheme had the potential to be wonderful.

Sometimes these experiments in teaching worked. Sometimes they didn’t. I believe my students may have learned as much from the failures as successes. When things didn’t go as planned, I was honest about it and my students were overwhelmingly kind.

I’m certainly not saying I enjoyed the flops, not in the moment anyway, but the principal I’ve now become finds it easy to raise a glass to the gumption of my momentarily defeated younger self standing in the middle of a stage amid a pile of feathers.

Now I work with teachers whose own sense of educational risk taking I hope to encourage. Thinking creatively and trying new ideas in pursuit of something great energizes teaching and learning.

I don’t want the teachers or students at my school to believe that “failure is not an option.” I want them to understand that failure is an opportunity.

One great teacher I know takes it a step farther. On math projects, I’ve seen her give students a paper on which they’ll write their answers with room for “attempt one,” “attempt two,” and “attempt three.” Stressing the importance of making inferences, learning from what works and what doesn’t, and revising their answers, this teacher gives her students the gift of knowing failure is more than an option; it’s an expectation. So too is perseverance, adaptation, and improvement. Her encouragement and her smiling invitation for her students to inhabit a growth mindset is inspiring.

I hope in my conversations with teachers and students and my celebration of purposeful risk taking in the classroom I can help to inspire a culture where failure is just another part of genuine learning. I’m blessed to work at a school with an adventurous spirit, and the good work I see in classrooms every day inspires me as it inspires the students. Dynamic learning doesn’t happen by accident; it springs forth when teachers and students are willing to open their minds, take a chance, and try something that stretches them to find out more.

I’ll end this post with a line from a man much wittier than I’ll ever be. Will Rogers asked “Why not go out on a limb? That’s where the fruit is.” In education, when teachers provide students with the freedom to go out on those limbs, the results can be delicious.

Teacher Prep Day

The heroes arrived today
and I had the privilege of
making them pancakes.

Scores of teachers
many new
meeting those who know
and love
this school
as if it were their home
because it is

as it will be for hundreds of students
on Tuesday
who
without the benefit of pancakes
flipped by their principal

(because that would be so many pancakes)

will arrive at school
eager to see each other
ready for the fireworks of life
and excited to learn

from those heroes.

photo 3 (9)

 

The Powerful Play

This week’s #YourEdustory prompt asks what I’m proud of in education, and as I sit down at my desk at the end of a bustling morning of welcoming students back on campus for “Taking Care of Business Days” the answer for me is simple and true: I’m proud of the students.

A campus without kids feels incomplete, and welcoming students back to school today -having a chance to see the excitement and expectation they bring with them- made the year feel like it had begun.

As a principal, I’m proud to be a small part of a great enterprise that supports students. I felt this way when I was an English teacher as well. I’m part of a generation of teachers who came of (teaching) age around the time of the movie Dead Poet’s Society, and I’d be fibbing if I suggested that I didn’t have the model of Robin Williams’ character in the back of my mind as I worked with kids.

Particularly impactful for me, as for so many English teachers about my age, was his quotation of Walt Whitman’s poem “O Me! O Life!” The point made to the students in the movie was that they each had something to add to this world around them. In Whitman’s answer to why life: “That you are here -that life exists and identity/ That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

Talking with the students today reminded me of the amazing possibilities ahead of our students. When I asked students what they were most looking forward to in the upcoming year I heard answers as varied as music and drama, cross country, robotics, and AP art. The passion and purpose our students bring to these pursuits is astounding. The planning and support our teachers bring to their work with these young artists, scientists, and scholars is amazing too.

What am I proud of in education? That I get an opportunity to help foster an environment where students can find their place in this “powerful play” and that I can join a group of professionals (teachers as inspiring as Williams’ Mr. Keating) in helping students decide what verse they will contribute.

…on a chalkboard

On my final day on Diegueño’s campus I cut through a narrow storage room to deliver an apple fritter to my head custodian. More a hallway than a real room, it’s a place to store PE clothes and old files that aren’t confidential. A couple of TVs gather dust beneath the last remaining chalkboard on campus.

I’d been through here a hundred times, but on this morning, tinged with the emotions of leaving a school I care deeply about, I saw something that hadn’t been there before: a pirate.

photo 2 (2)For a couple of days, since finding out I’d be principal at San Dieguito High School Academy, I’d been wondering what, if any, my legacy might be at Diegueño.

I know that I am proudest of the people I helped to hire. The true positive difference I’ve contributed to at the school is the amazing teachers working with kids who came to the school on my watch.

But these educators’ legacies are their own, and my thoughts turned to what contributions I’d made in my year on campus. Certainly I’d done my best to nurture a sense of family within my staff and school, encouraging connections, valuing relationships, and celebrating kindness. The roots of community are deep, and I believe the tree will continue to grow, but as with so many things, I was just one gardener. The legacy of the Diegueño Family is its own.

I worked hard to have fun, and to bring an attitude of whistling at work to Diegueño. This meant playing badminton on the lawn with teachers and parents, bringing ice cream sandwiches to teachers in rooms without air conditioning, and teaching students how to draw a pirate. With a rumbling “Arrr!” that sketch on the chalkboard suggested some of it had stuck.

At least for a little while.

photo 1 (2)Ultimately Diegueño continues without me just as well as it had before me. My time as steward to the school changed me more than I changed it. For a few people: students, teachers, and parents, I hope I made a difference, an act of kindness or support, something that helped make their lives a little better. In the end it’s often those small and true acts that matter most.

Legacies are funny things. I don’t look to have my name on a plaque; I simply hope that I’m thought of, when I’m thought of, as a person who made a positive difference in someone’s life. I move through the world with the goal of helping, and if I’m remembered (with fondness or frustration) I’m at peace with the fact that many of those memories will disappear with time as surely as a pirate drawn in chalk.

High School Academy

photo 4 (6)I love old schools. When I graduated from high school, mine was the 75th graduating class. One of my favorite classrooms was heated by a radiator from the 1920s. I love the odd corners and cobwebby attics. I once worked in a school with a “vault” in the basement, an enormous room filled with shelves of antiquities that was literally carved into the ground; two walls were bare earth.

Old schools have history and traditions, stories and surprises. Working at a school that has been around for while means honoring that past and (as all work with students inspires us to do) looking toward the future at the same time.

At their best, long established schools can help students feel a part of something greater than themselves. If not fussy in its own sense of self, a school that has been around for close to a century, or even more, can provide a reassuring stability that allows current students the confidence to experiment, explore, and know they belong. Great old schools are like good parents.

…and great schools don’t happen by accident.

photo 3 (5)I type this post from a principal’s office that has held stern looking administrators in ties and starched collars since 1937. (Well, actually, they look like pretty nice folks.) It’s a room with stories of its own, and a place where good and bad decisions have been made for since Roosevelt was in office. In my first month on the job, I’m only beginning to hear some of the stories.

One topic of conversation that I have heard a lot about, however, is what we call our school.

When it began, it was known as San Dieguito Union High School. It served students from 6th to 12th grade, and welcomed pupils from up and down the coast who previously had to travel as far as Oceanside and Escondido to go to school.

In 1954 things changed.

photo 2 (7)With the opening of Earl Warren Junior High School, SDUHS saw itself transform into a true high school. Changing the name, however, proved a slower process than changing what happened on campus. It took a decade before the yearbook reflected that the school was called San Dieguito High School, and another decade before the word “union” disappeared from diplomas. There was some angst about changing the name, we were “San Dieguito Union” in the eyes of the alums, but change happened, and things settled in during the 1980s with students becoming comfortable with the name SDHS.

In 1996 things changed.

Four years before the new century, San Dieguito Academy began as a school of choice with an emphasis on academics and the arts. The rechristened name of our existing school frustrated some and confused others unfamiliar with the district.

photo 3 (4)For graduates from 1997 to today,  however, their high school experience was spent at “SDA,” the three letter moniker synonymous with a culture of open minded exuberance and creative expression. Contemporary t-shirts and modern signs say SDA; it’s the name we see in the newspaper and in Tweets and Facebook posts from recent grads.

And…

Our life as an academy is just a part of a rich tradition that extends much farther back than the mid 1990s. Our school, and graduates from 1940 as much as 2014, share something more than geography. We are all members of the greater Mustang family, and each make up a part of the tradition that is our school.

So… What to call our school?

I’d be foolish to imagine that I could change the spoken nomenclature and replace “SDA” with anything longer and more descriptive, and truth be told, I don’t want to. I’m also committed to purposefully honoring the graduates from the first six decades. It’s why you’ll see that in the written correspondence that comes from our school, I strive to refer to us as San Dieguito High School Academy, SDHSA.

photo (5)I keep a framed image in my office of the design for the staff shirt from 1996. It has a traditional Mustang and the full name of our school on it. I see myself, as a steward of this great school, in that image. It is my job to honor our past, energize our present, and look toward our collective future.

Sure, when crowds are cheering at a basketball game, they’ll shout “SDA!” and for our current students, that’s more than okay. For our past graduates, it’s just as appropriate that they can look at our website, Twitter feeds, and Facebook page and see their school reflected there too.

After all, we’re all family.

Go Mustangs!

photo 2 (2)

I’m not so naive as to think that this is the final word on how we refer to San Dieguito High School Academy, but after a great Twitter conversation with a recent grad and a delightful talk with some supportive folks in our Foundation office about the importance of history to our institution I felt like I ought to say up front why I’ve adopted SDHSA as my way of talking in social media about our magical Mustang family.

For me it was pirates…

pirateEvery successful classroom contains laughter. It doesn’t have to be belly laughs or feel like a comedy club, but for students to learn a sense of humor has to lurk somewhere in the space students share with their teacher. Smiles need to be the rule rather than the exception.

Gifted teachers have a million different ways to bring this lightness to their work with kids. For me, a lifetime ago when I was in the classroom, laughter took on its most daring look when I cracked open a treasure chest and put on a sash, eye patch, and hoop earring.

The most fun I ever had in a classroom was Pirate Week.

Its origins were humble; one rainy winter when I was teaching at a little high school in Oregon, my best friend and I decided that we needed to do something to raise student and staff morale. It was January and had been gray and wet since October. It seemed the whole state was in a bad mood.

We kicked around some ideas to shake things up. What would everyone have fun with? What would be unexpected? Who didn’t like pirates?

Together we found some piratical short stories and nonfiction we could use in our English classes. We put together a few activities that would get the kids moving, taught our students the proper way to deliver a hearty pirate yell (one fist in the air, one fist forward, and a rousing “ARRRR!”), and learned the words of “A Pirate’s Life” so we could go caroling.

photoSome of my theatrical students located life sized wooden cannon in the prop closet behind the stage. Two boys brought in a recipe for hardtack. A group of girls decorated the room to look like something out of Treasure Island.

I grew a beard, starting far too early before the designated week and looking like a Russian poet for almost a month. Students plotted costumes, created props, and planned an elaborate treasure hunt.

Along the way we laughed.

Outside the weather stayed predictably inclimate; inside we sailed the sparkling waters of the Caribbean with Captain Blood. The week itself swashbuckled in. Hook hands flashed, hoop earrings appeared on unlikely lobes, and shanties filled the air. We ended the week exhausted, happy, and closer than we’d ever been.

Pirate Week taught me the value of big, fun, and unexpected events. I continued it every other year for more than a decade, and saw students and teachers add to it with beautiful ideas (inviting a third grade class to a day of crafts and games, a treasure hunt put on by ASB with a real bag of gold coins at the end, and the creation of a roving band of teachers who sang pirate songs to students at lunch).

Why every other year?

Even pirates could grow stale if they were always around. Plus, it opened the door for Space Week!

I foundphoto (43) that Pirate Week was much more than the five days we dressed like buccaneers. The smiling passion it engendered extended from the beginning of the year to the end.

In addition to the positive attitude and good humor we bring to work every day, it’s energizing to have something a little madcap to highlight the year. That Pirate Spirit, as I took to calling it, colored all we did together. We were a cohesive crew, not just a collection of strangers of a ship.

Together we laughed. Together we learned. And when I see a former student, the chances are great that they’ll begin their hello with a hearty “ARRRR!”