“Ni!”

I once worked with a principal who said he would rather work on Christmas Day than have to come to school on Halloween. Years of having to pull pregnant nuns and gorilla suited hooligans into his office had beaten the ghoulish spirit out of him. I remember once walking into his office as a nurse who didn’t meet the dress code exited and seeing him roll his eyes and spit the word like it was a curse: “Halloween.”

It’s with this history that I approach the final week of October. I’m an optimist at heart, but know that with the costumes marketed toward teens today  I could be walking onto a campus that looks like a cross between Saw IV and Faster, Pussycat Kill! Kill!

This year, I was surprised.

IMG_1058The first startling realization was that the adults were having a ball. I saw an astronaut, cowboy, Indiana Jones, and Princess Leia …and that was just the staff. Hester Prynne taught English. A pirate, complete with pirate ship, taught Science. A gladiator taught History, “Weird Owl Yankovic” taught business, and AP Art History students learned from Sister Wendy.

I excavated my letterman sweater to join counseling and admin as we adopted a ‘50s theme. Elvis piped through the offices. Comfort and discipline were delivered with a high ponytail and poodle skirt.

Halloween 1 003Out on campus, students dressed up in droves. Overwhelmingly appropriate, wit outweighed poor decision making. Degas’ Dancer, Mona Lisa, and the Girl with the Pearl Earring stopped by my office to say hello. Slash played catch with The Cat in the Hat, students preparing for next week’s flag football tournament. An uncanny Dr. Evil and Austin Powers won the costume contest, and I believe Napoleon Dynamite made it the whole day without breaking character.

photo (1)By far the most striking moment of the day, however, came when I rounded a corner and looked up into the bearded face of an imposing knight. Eight feet tall, with tree branches sticking up from his helmet, he waved his fish at me and shouted “Ni!” All I could do was offer him a shrubbery.

I’ll text a few photos to my friend, the principal who hates Halloween. He’ll laugh at the “Monster Mash” flash mob and my ASB Director, the rapper. I may not win him over to liking the holiday, but I think that, like me, he’ll appreciate the Monty Python gag, and leave with a spirit of hope that today’s kids possess both common sense and a great sense of humor.

Island Hopping

There’s an old saw in education about teaching being a solitary profession. The notion is that as often as not teachers close the doors of their classrooms and do their own thing, independent of what might be happening on other classroom islands.

When I started as a teacher back in the 1990s this was true. I could go weeks without seeing another adult in my classroom, and the times I watched others teach could be counted on one hand. Things changed a bit when I switched schools and found myself teaching in the same English Department as one of my best friends. Pure fun had us collaborating and combining classes, talking shop, and visiting each other’s rooms.

photo (2)When I moved to California and a new school, boom, back to the island.

Today, while it’s possible to isolate oneself from colleagues, the climate of education has changed. Administration, once relegated to offices and hidden behind serious countenances and striped neckties, is increasingly committed to visiting classrooms and engaging in conversation about teaching and learning. Teachers, still masters of their own islands, are less Robinson Crusoe and more sturdy paddlers of outrigger canoes. Island hopping abounds, both at school and online, some formal and encouraged by district and school leadership, some driven by teachers who hunger to connect with colleagues at their own school and beyond.

Here in my district Professional Learning Communities are de rigueur, teachers meeting with colleagues to discuss best practices, student performance, and all aspects of teaching and learning (and reteaching and understanding). Seeing teachers connecting with each other, supporting each other, and celebrating the good work going on in classes inspires me. Truth be told, it makes me wish I’d been a teacher now, not back when classroom felt as accessible as bank vaults.

Great teachers often take this connectivity beyond the confines of the classroom, going online to learn and share, joining communities on Twitter or other social media as they build a Professional Learning Network of educators without the boundaries of geography. Sometimes these PLNs manifest themselves in collective celebrations of curiosity like EdCamps, and broaden in experiences like Twitter chats.

I’m happy that I’m in education today, when teachers (and even administrators like me) see the work we do as interconnected. I love that I see teachers flocking to Twitter to share strategies and resources, and that I see departments take advantage of the collaborative time built into our bell schedule to connect with each other about how best to help kids learn.

So here’s to accessible archipelagos, where teachers know they have the freedom to bring their own vision to their work with students, and know that they’re not alone in the grand adventure of education.

Another point of view is just a short hop across the narrow water.

Incredible

In one of the most validating moments of my year so far, a ninth grade student let me know, in the slightly off kilter  way only a fourteen year old can, that I might be doing a good job.

Principals each have to find their voice, articulating through both words and actions who they are as a leader and as a contributor to the education students at their school experience. Some choose to be the person in the suit, dressed to show the high expectations they have for themselves and all those around them. Others choose to be the intellectual, masterfully connected to pedagogical advancement, engaged in professional development, and always able to quote the latest educational research. Some drape themselves with spirit wear every day, shouting their school pride from the rooftops. I suppose the best have an element of all three, and pinches of others.

As for me, a teacher at heart, I spend much time thinking about how I can best connect with the students at my school and support their learning, both inside the classroom and beyond. To do this, I tap into my paternal nature, and hope to project an accepting, benevolent, and committed deportment, one that sees the best in students and expects the best of them.

In a word: Atticus.

Truth be told, I’m no Gregory Peck, a fact I was reminded of in that honest and disarming way students have of speaking the truth. Walking across campus this morning, a student called out to me from where she was standing with a group of freshmen. “Mr. Paige!” she said. “You should be Mr. Incredible for Halloween!”

open-uri20150422-20810-1uc5daw_96b0b8deYe Gads, I thought. “Really?” I said.

“Yeah!” she replied, with a smile that showed neither irony nor malice.

“Okay,” I said, unsure of what else to add. “Something to think about…”

I did think about it.

Hair thinning, middle thickening, and a bit long in the tooth, Pixar’s Mr. Incredible isn’t unfamiliar to a fellow like me; I see some of these attributes in the mirror every morning. Beyond those physical casualties of middle age, however, he’s also a character with more than a few of the qualities I strive for as a principal.

Protective, durable, and ready to help, this cartoonish dad doesn’t always get things right; often enough he even looks silly, but he keeps his center and knows that with hard work and his heart in the right place, he can make a difference.

As much as I wish students would see me as Scout saw her father, at least in To Kill A Mockingbird, I realized this morning that I’m comfortable with the fact that my students might see me as a more …contemporary father figure, one that smiles a lot.

Will I put on a red suit this October? No. But I will carry with me the incredible feeling that at least one of my students sees in me something good.

Alumni, present and future

One of the joys of being a part of a school with a long history is seeing the continuity of school spirit. Here at San Dieguito, that means students studying in classrooms where their parents and grandparents might have learned. It’s a school where generations of students have proudly called themselves Mustangs and are happy to celebrate their ties to a place that made a real difference in their lives.

1936-37 San Dieguito Jr High Cullen School 1936I got to see this in vivid technicolor today when we held our annual Founders’ Reception, welcoming graduates from as far back as 1940 back to campus to celebrate our Mustang legacy. It was a bustling affair, beginning with time to connect in our central learning commons and ending with a celebration beneath the bell tower in the front of the school. Current students helped show alumni around campus, listening to stories and laughing across the generations, their common denominator our very special school.

One of the students returned from a tour and came up to me, eyes wide. She nodded at two women who were laughing together near the bell tower and said: “Their stories were just so cool!” I smiled back and said: “In sixty years, that will be you.”

photo 4That notion of current students as future alumni is something that helps tie our youth together with our shared past. The students who led the tours and welcomed alumni got to meet living evidence that while we encourage each student to be him or herself, we also have the blessing of being part of something greater than any one of us. We are Mustangs, all of us.

As the afternoon went on, we heard stories from throughout the history of our school. With a slideshow of images running behind her, a graduate from 1940 spun yarns that reminded us all that gentle delinquency, softened by memory and time, isn’t unique to “kids today.”

A graduate from the 1960s captured the spirit of the room when she acknowledged that we were all here because we loved our school, cherished our memories of it, and wanted to come back, even, as we were, “cleverly disguised as adults.”

photo 5That love for San Dieguito shows itself in hundreds of ways: the graduate who played professional sports returning to talk with students, the graduate who fronts a rock and roll band returning to jam with our student musicians, and the large number of alumni who return to teach at their alma mater.

One of my favorite observations from today’s events was the current students who were working at tables and computers in the back of the learning commons as the Founders’ Reception was going on in the front. They worked through my remarks and the general opening of the program, but when alumni started talking, I saw those current students put down their books, turn in their chairs, and listen. I like to imagine that in 2080 or so, future students will close whatever they’re reading and turn toward the front to listen to them, those eighty year old Mustangs from the class of 2016.

photo 2Next year is our school’s eightieth anniversary, a big event, and I look forward to celebrating eight decades of Mustang history with the kids, both those currently enrolled future alumni, and the others, like me, cleverly disguised as adults.

Mustang on a Unicycle

photoThis morning I was greeted by a Mustang on a unicycle. Our San Dieguito High School Academy mascot was bouncing and rolling outside the ASB room, preparing for Friday’s Homecoming assembly, surrounded by laughing students asking questions like “Can you dance on that thing?” and “Can you see well enough to juggle?” An art teacher walked up, looked at me, and said: “This is how I get to start a Monday. What a great place!”

It is.

In addition to the unicycling Mustang, our campus is home to individuals who write music, fix cars, and run marathons. Students compete in speech and debate, robotics, and athletics. Just this month we saw a marvelous theater production of All in the Timing, Culinary Arts catered a festive Cabaret Night, and more than fifty clubs set up booths at our annual club fair. This week our volleyball team won its 20th  game of the season and our soccer team was recognized with a NSCAA High School Team Academic Award.

We’re a place where students (and the adults who work with students too) can be themselves and be part of something great. Our traditions reach back to 1936, when the school opened with students in tents, and our thinking looks forward to preparing students for jobs that haven’t yet been invented in a world that doesn’t yet exist.

1937_FootballArtists, athletes, surfers, and scholars all find a home at San Dieguito, where individuality and acceptance are part of the ether in which we live and learn.

It’s okay to be different here, and whether students choose to wear a cape or a jersey, celebrate pirates or ninjas, study math, science, or poetry, they know that this is their school.

Theirs, and a unicycling Mustang’s.

“What you got?”

Last Saturday I was reminded of the unbounded joy of creative play. Sitting comfortably in the audience at San Dieguito High School Academy’s “Cabaret Night,” an evening of performances diverse enough to include singers, dancers, and a bell choir’s rendition of Lady Gaga’s Just Dance, I was startled into action by an invitation I couldn’t refuse.

Our ComedySportz team had just taken the stage. Gifted at improvisation, these lightning quick student comedians work wonders in wit. Earlier in the night a group of ComedySportz performers had ended the first act with a synchronized swimming display to Blue Danube …without water. They were back on stage now for a language rich game, more Groucho than Harpo, called: “What you got?”

photo (3)…and they invited me to play.

I’ve read a lot about play, looking at it through the eyes of an educator and a dad. Stuart Brown’s book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul was one of the first I read on the subject. I’ve written about that book before, in conjunction to a book club I participated in with parents and teachers, and I came back to it after Saturday night, finding resonance in the line: “Play can become a doorway to a new self, one much more in tune with the world. Because play is all about trying on new behaviors and thoughts, it frees us from established patterns.” Play can be a path to learning.

Other research bears out the importance of play in the lives of students, and I’d argue that it vital for adults as well. Beyon that, there is huge value in students seeing the adults on their campus engaged in play.

As a high school principal, I believe that it is important that my students see me as approachable, honest, and supportive. I also know how important it is that they see me as human. Jogging through the aisle and up to join a smiling group of student performers on the stage, I thought I should add “willing to look the fool” to the list.

We often encourage our students to take chances and stretch their worlds by presenting to the class, joining a club, or following their passion and working to make a difference. As the adults in our kids’ lives, we talk about expanding our comfort zone and being willing to try something new. We talk about school as a safe place to fail.

Looking out at the audience, past the student referee’s grin, I realized that I had an opportunity to show my school community that I was willing to do those things.

How’d it go?

In a word: fun. I wasn’t the best at “What you got?” but the crowd seemed to chuckle at my buffoonery and revel in the ability of the student performers. More than that, I hope I was able to show that it isn’t just the students who can benefit from trying something new. We all can make our lives richer by stepping out of our comfort zones, engaging with new challenges, and allowing ourselves, even publicly, to play.

Seahorse

photo 1 (5)San Dieguito High School Academy is a celebration of public art. Go around any corner and you’re likely to see a mural or mosaic. Most buildings are decorated with permanent student art, some now decades old, celebrating all things San Dieguito as well as peace, beaches, and the exuberance of youth. For a campus with buildings constructed in the 1930s, 1950s, and 21st century, the unifying factor in it all is the whimsical spirit captured in tiles and paint, gardens and glass, and other expressions of teenage creativity.

photo 2 (3)On my first day on campus back in July, I got a taste of the magic that swirls around campus and takes shape in the art on the walls. Walking up by the sculpture room with the former principal who was giving me a tour (he was #16 to my #18) we happened upon a teacher, an alum, and a student working on a larger than life sculpture with the head of a horse and the body of a sea serpent. Troweling cement onto the armature, they worked in the shade of a pop-up, smiling as they dipped their heads together to talk about the drying time of the material they were using.

COpuaFlUcAAgS6TIt was a grand experiment, the beginnings of something that may become a fixture here at SDA. In scope and ambition it dwarfs many of the other projects around campus, certainly exceeding what I’ve ever seen at other schools where I’ve worked. The plan is to have ceramics classes make tiles to cover the piece. It will take a forklift to move it to its eventual home in a newer part of campus.

Our sculpture teacher calls it the Seahorse; I call it the larger than life manifestation of our school culture.

San Dieguito High School Academy has a long tradition of art and architecture. Designed in the 1930s by architect Lilian Rice, the heart of campus exudes a vintage charm. Other parts of campus show the character of the decades in which they were added: the low slung science wing from the 1960s, the shaker siding on a gym constructed during the Ford Administration, and the prim modulars of the 21st Century. We’ll add some murals to those newest additions soon.

photo 4 (2)To walk through campus is to be treated to a vibrant history lesson. Images from across the decades smile back at current students, reminding them that they are part of something greater than any one of us, and part of someplace that values them for who they are and who they want to be.

One of my favorite pieces of public art is the four square tile image of a Mustang up by our Mosaic Cafe. Rough hewn, purposeful, and possessing a beauty that is hard to define, this piece speaks to me and seems to capture who we are here at San Dieguito.

photo 2 (12)We’re almost eighty years old this year, and while I don’t know exactly what our school will look like eighty years from now, I do believe that in 2095 students, alumni, and even retired principals who might live to be in their mid 120s, will live and learn in a campus defined by public art.

Who knows, maybe that Seahorse will be a cornerstone of our school as it prepares to enter the 22nd century.