Educational Equity and Robinson Crusoe

Last night my ten year old daughter asked me about Robinson Crusoe. For the past week or so she’s been grilling me on vocabulary as it relates to a book her fifth grade class is reading. We’ve discussed “parole” and “inclination” and I’ve been impressed by her curiosity and ability to understand increasingly complex language and ideas. But Robinson Crusoe?

photo (1)“Sure,” I answered. “Do you know the story?”

“No. I just saw the book when we were in your office.”

Clever girl.

So I explained to her Crusoe’s shipwreck, his fight for survival, self reliance, and ingenuity. “You know, your brother has a classic comic book of the novel,” I told her. She shook her head.

“I’d rather read the real thing, but I don’t have time.”

“Time before what?”

And she explained to me that she wanted to know about Robinson Crusoe because there was a question in her study guide asking her to compare the main character from a book the class was reading with Defoe’s castaway.

She could, surprisingly well, after she found out who he was. As I watched her, pencil in hand, go back to finish her homework, I thought: what about the kids whose parents don’t have Robinson Crusoe in their offices?

I’m not talking about the “help” from parents that means building their mission projects for them or stepping in to do all the work for the science fair. This isn’t help at all, but well intentioned robbery of their kids’ education.

photo 4 (1)More analogous are the ubiquitous projects that ask students to research and complete a visual about a topic at home. These celebrations of construction paper and salt dough are great …for those with construction paper and salt dough at home, or for those with parents willing and able to make a trip to the craft store.

Even when it is the student who does the thinking and the work, parental support goes a long way to defining how well our students will do in school, and it brings up questions about equity that make me consider how we go about this business of education in our often inequitable society.

I’d love for every student the opportunity for parents to check over their homework, though the pressures of adult life preclude some from this modest luxury. Students thrive when parents are engaged, even when, as high schoolers, they pretend they don’t want mom to ask about what happened in English class.

And yet, as an educator, I recognize that students come to our schools from a huge diversity of backgrounds. They bring with them different levels of affluence, poverty, support, and neglect. Parents may be gone every night for a week covering an extra shift at the restaurant or taking a kid free vacation in Costa Rica. As a principal, I’ve seen both.

Some students come to school fragile, some with shocking resilience. Most, when inspired by strong teachers (and how I wish all were) are curious and ready to learn.

yeatsSupporting this desire to know more is as big a challenge as inspiring it. The old poet Yeats talked of education as the lighting of a fire, not the filling of a pail, but fires need fuel and tending to burn bright. Knowing that not every student has firewood stacked up at home means that more than ever educators have the responsibility to both challenge and support all of our students.

How important is this to true student success? Right now perhaps the best predictor of how well a student will do on the new state assessments is the education level of her mom and dad. As a principal who believes that each student should have the potential and opportunity to rise to her own level (not just her parents’) it falls on us to develop systems and supports that give each kid a chance.

Like a good mystery writer, we need to be sure that all of our readers are given all the information they need to be able to form a solution. Holding back clues isn’t fair. To understand or go beyond a reader (or a student) shouldn’t need an understanding of 19th century horticulture or the philosophy of Quine …or have parents who do.

ASL 1 Art Collaboration - 2015 199What does this look like in a classroom? A thousand different things. Hands on lessons in math and science, primary source readings in history, genius hours, coding, music, poetry… in any discipline students can be pushed to excel and supported by teachers.

Technology can be a great equalizer, or a damning divider. Helping students understand how to critically use technology and then giving them access at school can show every student that the wealth of information that defines our age is at their fingertips. At school we can help them touch it.

Outside the schoolhouse walls technological equity can be a slipperier beast. Smarter people than I are working toward answers, and I’m heartened when I think of the steady progress toward more universal wi-fi and increasingly more affordable devices. We’re not there yet, but every year sees us closer to more and more equity.

This isn’t to say that educational mindfulness or goodhearted technological advancement erases all the advantages some students enjoy. I’ll always answer my daughter when she asks a question about Daniel Defoe. Still, being aware of these issues can help us as we consider what types of questions we ask our students.

photo 1 (3)Reflecting pushes me to have an eye toward equity, a heart toward students, and a mind bent on creating learning opportunities that challenge all students to think critically and know that they have all the relevant information they need (or they can get it through onsite collaboration and technology).

When we provide this support within the school day, or during an extended school day on campus, we help each student. We owe it to our kids. If we don’t, we leave some feeling …shipwrecked.

Vertebrae

“Art is not cozy and it is not mocked. Art tells the only truth that ultimately matters. It is the light by which human things can be mended. And after art there is, let me assure you all, nothing.”           -Iris Murdoch

I saw a theatrical performance this fall that almost made me cry. Student actors, passionate in their craft, led the audience up and down the scale of emotion, transmuting laughter into heartbreak with a turn of the head and the subtle motion of a hand. I’ll remember the performance for a long time, in the same way I can recall singers and songs from decades ago as clearly as if they’d just walked off the stage. It’s the magic of art, an ability to change lives, alter perspectives, and touch us to our core.

That the set has been struck or the musician has long since left the building doesn’t diminish the memory of the art that was created. Much as a painting or sculpture, both less transient pieces of art, music, theater, and dance all have the potential to resonate with an observer and remain as real in that person’s mind as the Elgin Marbles …if the observer is willing and able to engage with the art.

photo 1I saw such engagement this afternoon, real, honest, and profound.

It was sparked by destruction.

The construction of a new classroom building on campus has meant that as a school we need to say goodbye to two classroom buildings, their walls decorated with student artwork. For a couple of decades, mosaics and murals on these walls have celebrated everything from theater to sea life. Square senior tiles reach to the eaves, clay faces peer out from planters, and the ceramic bones of a life sized dinosaur stretch across the back of one of the buildings.

Removing the artwork wasn’t possible; sturdy, mid century adhesive had seen to that. Justifiable sadness spread about losing the work.

I talked with students about the art, attempting the analogy of performance I used to start this post. It almost sounded plausible. Art teachers weighed in about the fact that it was really okay; the world changes, and those changes are part of growing up.

photo 4 (1)And then, today, as I walked up to a group of students chipping away at a giant seahorse, I was struck by the sheer power and unapologetic magic of art. One student used a hammer and crowbar to pry at a seahorse, doing his best to remove the work without damaging it too much. That it was an impossible task didn’t seem to matter; he was uninstalling it, just as years ago a person about his age had put it onto the wall. He was focused and serious about his work. He knew that seahorse more closely than anyone since it had been created.

Two students nearby paused to point at a small detail in the wall, appreciating the craftsmanship of a teenager (who would now be old enough to be their parent). “I never really looked at this before,” one said. “See!” She pointed. From across the decades, the detail of a simple starfish brought two teenagers into communion with an artist who they may never meet, but with whom they share the bond of art and our school. They tapped at the starfish with hammer and chisel, more successful in their scrutiny than its removal.

The sentiment echoed and was amplified when I walked across the court to where some seniors were looking at the senior tiles of students old enough to be my age. They ran fingers over the smooth white surfaces, reading the words -really pausing to read them- and laughing, commenting to each other, and making connections to their own lives.

photo 2 (1)I could almost hear Robin Williams from Dead Poet’s Society behind us whispering “Carpe Diem.”

I hope that these same students will bring this attention to the mass of student art that continues to fill our campus. The art lost in this courtyard is a small percentage of what we have all over San Dieguito, all of it with the same potential to inspire.

I hope they will create their own.

Our photography classes have taken some high resolution pictures of the murals and mosaics, and we’ll use these images to make posters for our new science and math building. We’re also looking to reinstall the metal Mustang from the 1980s that once held dominion over the front of the school in the expanded courtyard that will open for students in 2017. These nods to the past are meant to honor those artists who have contributed a verse to the poem that is San Dieguito High School Academy. They’re the actions of adults aware of the limits of holding on to the past.

My heart was stirred today by the youth uninhibited by such limits.

photo 5 (1)I hope that the photos will capture the spirit of the art that time and hammers are taking away. The more ephemeral magic, however, and something that I will remember forever and wouldn’t dream of trying to recreate, was today’s interaction between the art and the students.

This, I thought, is what art does when it is at its best.

The individual tiles and pieces of clay that were a part of our campus will be gone by the time I post these words, words themselves that are as temporary as a dream, but the experience our students engaged in today will last as long as they are alive. The spark that passed between the active observers and the art they interacted with is truly inspiration.

To see this artwork’s last act be to deeply connect with students, students who would have been the distant future to the artists who created the mosaics, struck me as profound.

photo 3 (1)As I walked away from the court a student called my name. Jogging up to me he smiled and said: “Mr. Paige, I’d like you to have this.” In his outstretched hand was a perfectly shaped brown vertebrae. “It’s from the dinosaur,” he said.

I have no object more precious from San Dieguito in my office.

We can’t change the flow of time, but we can change the world and ourselves. We can’t prevent the destruction of things, not always, but we can make art, and pause long enough to appreciate it.

One of my favorite authors said that “art is the light by which human things can be mended.” I saw that today, as clay crumbled, tiles chipped, and anxiety about losing something seemed to mend, at least a little. 

Today art, the backbone of our school, reached across the decades to bring people together. It did so spontaneously, genuinely, and unexpectedly. I was lucky enough to leave with a vertebrae.

photo 5

Garbage Can / Windy Day

photo (7)It’s something principals do, spotting an overturned garbage can and righting it while walking across campus. Along with nabbing stray sandwich bags after lunch or straightening framed awards in shared waiting rooms, these little offhand actions show a commitment to always making the school a better place.

Today, as I was headed up to the library, I saw a group of three students pause by a plastic garbage can tipped over by last night’s wind storm, lift it upright again, and walk on as if nothing had happened.

Something had.

They’d inspired me with their unpremeditated act of kindness and subtle school spirit.

Participating in the #YourEdustory blogging challenge this year has prompted me to write about all sorts of topics and caused me to reflect on my own practice, our meaningful profession, and the school I call home. Almost always I’ve found the weekly topics interesting and thought provoking; only once have I been stumped. That was a couple of weeks ago now, when at the end of October this prompt smiled at me like a diabolical jack-o-lantern:

What “scares” you most about education right now?

Well, I thought …nothing.

I’m a firm believer in the ingenuity of educators. I remember my first teaching job at a high school in rural Oregon that routinely lost electricity in December and January when winter storms blew down power lines. I kept a couple of candles in my desk and kept on teaching.

I knew I could squeak out a post on budgets, but the truth is that I believe that a great teacher can help students learn with or without robust financial support. I might have written about the encroachment of cell phones and other personal electronic devices and the fear that brings to some, but if I’m honest, I love this new challenge and look forward to the technology rich world our students will inhabit and help to create.

With so much in the news about student (mis)behavior and police in schools, I thought about filling my post with something about discipline and how new legislation about marijuana and vapes impacts the schoolhouse, but my experience in education has taught me that things aren’t darker now than they were in 1990 or 1970 or 1940. Different? Sure. Worse? No.

So I avoided writing anything.

In an uncharacteristic silence (at least with regard to #YourEdustory), I ignored the topic and drove on. Self reproach whispered in the back of my mind: Just write something about how frustrating it is that teachers have to ask for kleenex or how you wish housing costs allowed educators to live near where they work… I kept mum, believing that all things being equal, education is moving in the right direction. Nothing “scares” me about it, not helicopter parents, unhealthy college pressures, or any conversation that begins with “kids today.”

Education faces challenges, sure, but nothing to be frightened of. Historically, educators have dealt with very real challenges, from the disruptive teenager described attacking his teacher in Little House on the Prairie to drama surrounding standardized testing and new state standards. Historically, educators have figured it out.

…and then I saw that group of students set right the garbage can and it hit me. If I’m scared of anything related to education, it’s that the general public has too little confidence in the kids.

Too often the public sees students as victims or delinquents. Reports about drugs, cyberbullying, and cheating litter our newspapers, and teens are more likely to be called out for insolence than praised for their self confidence.

Sometimes it’s concerned community members who see the worst in students. A senior smoking a cigarette as he leans against his car does little to conjure images of James Dean and more to send homeowners into conversations about hot places and handbaskets. Some believe that students driving too fast, a complaint leveled against students at my school since the mid 1930s, speaks to the decline of youth, not the reality of the teenage brain.

Parents can feel pressured into this underestimation as well, intervening more aggressively or earlier than their own parents might have, motivated by love but hampered by fear as they step in to protect a student who would have the strength to address the concern herself if given the chance.

The students I know are strong and more confident than many suppose. They learn at levels well beyond my own high school experience, and many of their parents’ experiences as well. At their best, they have an understanding of the world they are preparing to enter that would astound anyone willing to listen.

Certainly students are students, and despite the exuberance of youth and the confidence of being a teenager, they can benefit from guidance from those of us who have been on the planet a few years longer than they have. They also benefit from the respect that comes when we recognize that they have resiliency and reserves enough to surprise us.

These are the thoughts I try to keep in mind as I work with students at my school. When they ask “why?” I want to be able to answer them with respect and honesty. When they try something new, I want to be able to suspend disbelief long enough to see what they are doing and how it might just work (even if it isn’t the way I’d have done it). And when they do something magical and unexpected, like righting a windblown garbage can, I want to celebrate.

“You can’t paint that …can you?”

The real inspiration comes from teachers. Imparted to students class period by class period, through lunch activities, events like those in our homecoming week, and ongoing conversations, creativity and creative confidence are cornerstones of the education students get here at San Dieguito High School Academy.

photo 5Teachers model creativity with the activities they use in their classrooms: Day of the Dead celebrations, acting out scenes from literature, and reenacting events from history. Great teachers inspire students to stretch themselves creatively, and just this year I’ve seen evidence of that in art shows, robotics, and more student concerts than I’ve ever seen. These are pure exhibitions of student creativity, and they help to define our school.

As a principal, I feel a true calling to promote this creativity and creative confidence. Sometimes I have obvious opportunities. I meet often with our ASB students, and do my best to start with “yes” when they come up with innovative and different ideas. I make a point to visit classrooms, studios, shops, and labs often and celebrate the work I see envisioned and created by students.

Sometimes promoting creativity takes …a creative approach.

We’re in the midst of major construction on campus. A new two story science and math building is about to rise in the center of campus. Knowing that this big dig would be surrounded by fencing, our art department, parent foundation, and students have conceived of the idea of celebrating the 80th anniversary of our school with a mural that will cover one of the walls and look back over eight decades of San Dieguito. Helping to midwife this project, which brings a creative approach of honoring the past, engaging in the present, and looking toward the future (literally, with plexiglass windows cut into the plywood of the mural, so students can peek at the building that is to come) is a tangible example of how, as principal, I can help promote the fact that creativity can and should be a natural part of everything we do.

photo 1 (6)Complimenting this way of thinking, and hoping to be an acolyte for creativity at San Dieguito, I turned the hard hat I’ll be wearing over the next eighteen months over to some student artists, who (after coming to terms with the idea that it wasn’t breaking rules for them to paint on a hard hat) accepted the commission and got right to work on making the boring white helmet “very SDA.”

Knowing that they had freedom to bring their creative vision to something the principal would wear regularly and publicly seemed to inspire the student artists. Smiling, artistic gears turning, they took the “canvas” back to their studio and got to work.

photo 2 (6)I’m blessed to be a part of a creative community of educators and students and to play a supportive role in promoting creative confidence in those around me. I’m not the most gifted artist, scholar, or musician, but I’m the fellow in the colorful hard hat watching creativity build.

Becoming a Tree

There are some days when it is difficult to believe in the goodness of human nature. Fortunately, the choice to believe is always ours.

More often than not the truly cruel corners of the world aren’t found on school campuses. Like packs of cigarettes left in gloveboxes in the parking lot, most often the unhealthy reality of the world stays sensibly away from classrooms, lunch lines, and pedestrian teenage drama.

When flickers of darkness do show themselves, the demons (mature enough to haunt adults) so raw behind the pained eyes of the people they inhabit have the ability to shake even the most seasoned educator. Not long ago I encountered a person in crisis whose pain reverberated like the peals of a bell.

It’s at these times that the goodwill built over months and years, the friendships forged by time and proximity, and the attitude built by a thousand examples of kindness sustain us. We can look around at the others we work with and know that we are not alone. With a deep inhale of breath, we can recognize that the frightening, wide eyed instability looking at us in the moment will not destroy our optimism, even if it bruises our hope just a little bit.

The reality of darkness, jarring as it is when it walks into a school, is beyond our immediate control. Our choice to acknowledge it and remain steadfast in our optimism is a decision we get to make.

Like parents, or in loco parentis, strength and hope are our obligation and the gift we provide our students.

After a recent day of unsettlement, I found a poem -or better said, a poem by Frances Cornford found me. She wrote of the independence of children, who need freedom to explore…

But when there falls the stalking shade of fear,
You must be suddenly near,
You, the unstable, must become a tree
In whose unending heights of flowering green
Hangs every fruit that grows…”

And so we are, as educators, strong trees with deep roots, with sweet fruit, and with thick bark.

Like trees, we are susceptible to the stray arrow or wildly swung hatchet, and likely we’ll have someone’s initials carved into our side, metaphorically at least. I know that I can look down and see names scraped into the bark of my own memory.

And like trees, we are strong enough to handle it, to show that strength to those around us, and to lose our own instability long enough to see the goodness in the world and be, for someone else, a tree.

Whirlwind

Pecos_BillHomecoming at San Dieguito High School Academy runs for three weeks.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that we do things differently; marching to the beat of our own bongos is part of what makes our school so “very SDA.” As the principal, I have the distinct pleasure of waving my hat above my head as I ride the whirlwind of school spirit, looking something like Pecos Bill in an illustration from the middle of the last century. This wild ride captures much of what it’s like to be a part of our school family, involving students, staff, parents, and alumni.

photo 4 (3)Homecoming assemblies traditionally rally around sports, cheerleaders and athletes trotted out to run through a paper banner painted with some slogan about winning. Here at San Dieguito things are a little different. Students saw new teachers dance to Michael Jackson’s Thriller; the homecoming court introduce themselves in diverse skits involving lip syncing, hockey jokes, and confetti; and our Homeroom Olympics roll in on a gondola. Student MCs got the crowd on their feet to cheer on a wide variety of peers as they participated with, not against, teachers in a series of games, and the school came together to celebrate what it’s like to be a Mustang.

Mustangs from as far back as 1940 joined current students after the assembly for a Founders’ Reception in the library. Talking with current students and each other, alumni from the eight decades of San Dieguito shared stories and showed that the title of this year’s Foundation Dinner, Dance, and Auction could not be more true: “Mustangs are Forever.”

photo 2 (1)The next Monday kicked off Spirit Week, with students and staff sporting pyjamas on one day, workout gear another, and “Tacky Tourist” outfits, before a wild Friday of Halloween costumes and homeroom trick or treating. That night was the homecoming dance, and only at SDHSA would one highlight of the evening be a haunted house put on by the Japanese Honor Society.

Throughout it all, campus life hummed with the usual energy of October. Sports teams brought students to the field, pool, courts, and gym, our “Stang Gang” coming out in force to cheer on Water Polo, Tennis, and to punctuate fantastic volleyball play with their polished cheer of “S-D-Ace!”

photo 4Similar crowds celebrated music during the ongoing “Battle of the Bands” which stretched through and beyond Homecoming, and looks forward to a final evening performance a week from now. Some drew inspiration from Switchfoot frontman, and SDHSA graduate, Jon Foreman, who played a gig with our wind ensemble a week or so ago, and the crowds cheered all the student musicians as they brought music to our outdoor stage.

Homecoming ended officially with our annual Flag Football tournament that saw more than 500 students play in a tournament after school on Friday. As the afternoon turned into evening, student teams moved from the field to the stands, enjoyed tacos and treats from the food trucks on campus, and cheered on their peers as the top four student teams took on a faculty squad.

photo 2 (5)My most lasting memory of the night, beyond the kindness of the players and laughter on the field, was the throng of students who sat on the sideline cheering on the game. These spirited students held up signs of encouragement and exuded pure joy as they watched the huffing and puffing of the staff team (whose pregame chant was “Don’t Get Hurt! Don’t Get Hurt!”) and the laughing and lightning quick talent of the student athletes.

At halftime the whole student body came onto the field to dance.

I’ve been in the school business for more than twenty years and I’ve never witnessed more positive energy than I saw on the sideline that night. Heck, they even cheered when the crafty veterans stole a victory from the students in overtime. Good clean fun.

It’s Sunday night now, and I’m both tired and inspired. Not to stray too far from campus, but as my wife and I watched a romantic comedy, About Time, this weekend, I was reminded of the importance of savoring every day. The lead character in the picture, a redheaded time traveler, narrates his learned wisdom, saying:

In the end I think I’ve learned the final lesson from my travels in time; and I’ve even gone one step further than my father did: The truth is I now don’t travel back at all, not even for the day, I just try to live every day as if I’ve deliberately come back to this one day, to enjoy it, as if it was the full final day of my extraordinary, ordinary life.”

We all have the potential to live extraordinary, ordinary lives. I’m thankful every day that mine involves pyjama days, student rock and roll bands, and flag football.

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Thanks to Mr. Stimson for this action shot of our antiquated veterans pulling out a win against the youngsters!