#YourEdustory

It started with an inspired teacher and a quotation by Kierkegaard. A little over a year ago Jo-Ann Fox created the #YourEdustory blogging challenge with a mind to help educators reflect, share, and grow. With an EdCamp style list of topics (anyone could add topics on a form open to all) and the urging to write a post every week, #YourEdustory got teachers and administrators putting pen to paper on topics as diverse as learning spaces, 21st century learning, student engagement, resilience, and taking risks.

I looked forward to reading what educators from across the US and around the world had to say on topics, and relished the opportunity to add my voice to the choir. Increasingly I find information and inspiration online; #YourEdustory was a source for both in 2015.

It was through #YourEdustory that I found bloggers like…

Steve Brophy, an Australian educator whose blog, Transformative Learning, packs a punch, particularly on pedagogy and practice.

Christy Fennewald, a Texan with tech and teaching insight shared regularly on her blog, Fennovation.

Lisa Rodrigues, whose beautifully titled blog, The Learning Journey, provides not only a window into education in her home of Melbourne, but offers ideas and insights applicable across the globe.

Andrew Thomasson, whose blog, Concerted Chaos, captures an energy and passion that never fails to inspire me to think about this adventure that is education.

In addition to these, #YourEdustory has prompted me to visit scores of blogs, learning, laughing, and connecting along the way.

And it was through this blogging challenge that I grew, as Jo-Ann’s vision expected we would, by taking on topics I otherwise might not have, like “What scares you most about education?” and “What was the defining moment you decided to be a teacher?

photo 1 (1)I’d re-up for #YourEdustory in a heartbeat, and even if it takes a breather in 2016, the experience of being part of a weekly blogging group has left its mark on me as an educator. So I’ll end this post, and 2015, with a heartfelt thank you to Jo-Ann and Soren Kierkegaard. May we all keep living life forward and telling our own EduStories!

 

Since this seems the time for end of the year lists, here are…

My Top 5 Favorite #YourEdustory posts (to write anyway).

How are you different than your favorite teacher?

Define “learning” in 100 words or less.

What does rigor and engagement look like in the classroom?

Describe a time where you as an educator took a risk in your classroom, and it totally paid off. Or, completely backfired.

How do you bring joy and laughter into your classroom?

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Young Jedi

I was eight when Star Wars came out in 1977, captivated by Darth Vader, enamored with my action figures, and astounded (and secretly delighted) that Han shot first.

Somewhere in my parents’ garage I’m certain there is a shoebox of old Topps cards with stills from the movie. Long ago my seven year old son pirated the action figures he found at Grandma and Papa’s and they now play alongside his more contemporary Jedi and Sith.

What’s the same between my response to Star Wars and my son’s is the stirring of imagination and creativity. Just as my eight year old self laid out Star Wars cards in a facsimile storyboard, mapping out new adventures for the heroes, my son builds Lego spaceships not yet seen in a movie.

photo 2Later this week he and I will go to our first Star Wars movie in a theater, and beyond looking forward to watching his eyes widen above his tub of popcorn, I’m excited to see the adventures it inspires when we get home and he whooshes his X-wing through the living room.

It was that rollicking spirit of adventure that pushed me as a teacher. Learning is doing, and I always felt like some of what I did as a teacher was building a set and setting a scene that my students could flesh out with their own imaginations.

I lectured little and questioned much. I sought out the poems and stories I brought to my English classes from the less visited corners of the universe. A favorite of mine was “Autobiography” by John Barth, a marvelous little short story that got students really thinking. Borges and Murakami joined Walker and Morrison for Bistro Day. Students left the classes we shared knowing Kurosawa as well as Keats.

Along the way, I felt confident that I could help them be stronger writers and readers through the work I did with students every day, but to get them to really be creative and critical thinkers I felt I had to do more. I had to reach for that magical feeling I’d felt sparked by the Mos Eisley cantina and the ice planet Hoth.

photo 2 (1)So…

On a stage purchased for my classroom with a grant one of my seniors wrote, we acted out Shakespeare, pausing to ask questions and understand characters. Then, even better than me directing, students broke into groups and staged their own Tennessee Williams one acts. They brought to what they did imagination, interpretation, and the energy that comes when the ideas are their own and they know that there will be an audience.

We went outside to read Wordsworth beneath trees, to the track to run a stade or two during our ALIlliad unit (a mashup of Greek epic and Muhammad Ali worthy of a future post all its own), and we worked (and played) together to form experiences designed to spark that feeling of magic that can happen with great art and good company.

It was that feeling I first got in 1977, and sometimes felt I helped my students feel too …occasionally in space.

Every other February my classes and I celebrated “Space Week.” All fall and early winter I asked my students for ideas. What could they bring to Space Week? What should we do this year?

How young is too young for Space Week? My then one year old daughter visited wearing a Space Fez!

How young is too young for Space Week? My then one year old daughter visited wearing a Space Fez!

As the countdown ticked away -we started a hundred days out- students thought about the possibilities. Light saber battles, alien abductions, and a celebration of Valentina Tereshkova all found their way into one Space Week or another. Once I grew a beard and dressed as Obi Wan Kenobi for a student video. Caroling “Fly Me to the Moon” became a Space Week tradition.

Year after year my students embraced the spirit of adventure. They looked into the unknown and said “I want to try this.”

And we did.

Now, as a principal, I see similar forays into the greater galaxy all around me: great teachers whose students build rockets, design robots, and sculpt public art. Gifted and inspiring teachers celebrate their students’ imaginations and help provide opportunities (from poetry slams to pottery wheels) to take the controls of their own learning. Those teachers are always nearby, sometimes offering the wisdom of Yoda, and sometimes making subtle adjustments with the quiet beeps and whirs of R2-D2 tucked behind the cockpit.

At its best, education is a lot like a seven year old holding a toy spaceship and whooshing through the living room.

I wish for my own kids an education that is filled with teachers who choose to inspire and nurture creativity, a sense of wonder, and an appreciation for adventure. I spent most of my teaching life trying to make my classroom feel like the Millennium Falcon, and I’m given hope as I see the teachers at my school and the inspiring work they do with students every day.

photo 5Kindle our imaginations and we’re all second graders walking out of Star Wars. Give us freedom to play as we learn, to imagine, to dream, and to pilot our own ship. Give students that and…

Whoosh!

“Bollards!”

photo 5“What’s a bollard?”

It’s not a question you expect the day before Winter Break, but at San Dieguito High School Academy anything can happen. Today saw our second event in the much adored Homeroom Olympics. It’s a tradition as emblematic of our school culture as anything, with a mix of the brainy and zany, clever and creative, unexpected and traditional. Today: a scavenger hunt!

As a dad, I know that the highlight of any kids’ party is a treasure hunt, complete with clues, riddles, and the possibility of sprinting toward the unexpected with a smile on your face. Today the teenagers who are San Dieguito did just that.

Exactly as the bell to start homeroom rang, an email went out with a list of objects (a banana, a Magic the Gathering Card, a spork) and challenges (memorize a pun from the library, spell out S-D-A with your bodies, take a selfie with the mascot).

photo 2 (5)And they were off!

It was impossible not to smile as students sprinted from the bell tower to the media center, laughed their way through gathering four student ID cards (one from a person from each grade), scoured the quad for someone with multicolored shoelaces, and tried to figure out the riddle at the end of the list.

They are mighty, but quite small, with big feet and necks quite tall.
If you find one your spirits will soar, when you hear its very loud roar.
Made famous in 1993, for coming alive once again
Chris Pratt showed they weren’t so bad, on Isla Nublar they’re not foreign.

photo 4 (2)Homeroom Olympics, championed by the assistant principal with the biggest heart in the universe, Dr. Jeanne Jones, bring our school together. Purposefully designed to include students from all across our student body, the events bring a sense of play to campus.

As students worked together today to find a non-smart phone (they borrowed one from my assistant), someone who can do the splits (you’d be surprised how many can), and figure out what a bollard is (so they could get a photo with one on campus), the students embraced the inner kids they still are. Sure, many are just months away from going to prestigious colleges, entering the workforce, and starting adult lives of their own, but for today they played.

They played together. They laughed with each other and with their teachers. They took selifes with Dr. Jones, not because she was an object on the scavenger hunt, but because she is an angel.

Many found a huge number of the items on the list; all found that sense of community that defines who we are at San Dieguito High School Academy.

“Remember what the fella says…”

Inspiration comes from a thousand sources. As a principal, I find the most lasting inspiration comes from the people I work with: staff, students, parents, and alumni. If I’m ever feeling run down, the best balm I’ve found is to visit classrooms. Watching the energy of great teaching and learning is a pick me up like no other.

Still, there are times when I can’t make it to a classroom: an evening in my office before a night time supervision, a day when meetings trap me at my desk for an extended period, and it’s then that I look to art for inspiration.

photo (6)To that end, I keep two slim blue volumes near my desk. They’re small enough to slip into a pocket, worn with age, and thumbed with use. I can’t count the times one or the other has accompanied me (tucked in a school jacket) out to a cold night of soccer or lacrosse. Perspective, is what they provide me. Poetic, insightful, and touching in the way only Shakespeare can be. When I need to hear it, I’m reassured that I’m not alone in despising “idle ceremony.”

But a reflection on this lit’ry fare would be more at home in a book than a blog, and truth be told, it’s only one of those thousand sources. Pop culture provides its fair share of perspective and inspiration too, and three sparks that kindle my fire come from movies or popular music. When I have only a couple of minutes, I turn to…

https://youtu.be/b56F3fiTqfc

“The trick is not minding that it hurts.” Want to be a strong principal? You’re going to have to put out a match with your fingers from time to time. You can’t make it not hurt. You can control your own response to it.

I love Lawrence of Arabia, but I think my favorite movie may be The Third Man. From its opening lines (“I never knew the old Vienna…”) through the final shot of Anna’s walk from the cemetery, the quirky profundity of the film sticks with me. Probably the most famous lines deserve to be so. Faced with the horrors of post World War Two Europe, Harry Lime asks his friend, Holly, to “Remember what the fella says…”

https://youtu.be/PT6TYisX9oA

And sometimes even that isn’t enough. There are days when I’d welcome a cuckoo clock and end up sitting down with the Borgias. At the end of these days, when I’m too tired to read Henry V and want nothing more than to simply move on, I’ve found that the gravel in Leonard Cohen’s voice gives me some peace. Reminding me that “There is a crack, a crack, in everything,” by the time this song is done, I can almost believe that crack is “how the light gets in.”

https://youtu.be/BCS_MwkWzes

bigthree

Meatless Mondays, Construction Pathways, and Toilet Paper

Where but a Student Forum at San Dieguito HS Academy would students, administrators, and teachers talk about mindfulness, vegetarianism, and stocking the shelves in the girls’ bathroom all in the same meeting? I shouldn’t be amazed by our monthly Student Forum; I’ve written about them before and know that they’re as much a part of our campus community as public art or the Homeroom Olympics, but I can’t help but be moved when I see democracy in action and student voice put front and center in the greater discussion of this place we call home.

photo (4)Today’s forum was interesting in the fact that it followed a morning of student speeches at our ASB nominating convention. The assembly that saw these student hopefuls speak to their peers about their vision for our school was a great example of the creativity that exemplifies our school. Passionate, purposeful, and plucky, the speeches ranged from besuited and polished to casual and irreverent. One student had his head shaved while he read off reasons he deserved votes, another led the crowd through a literal step to the left and step to the right (“I was told I needed to give a moving speech,” she explained, “So I did.”), and another ended his appeal for votes with a limber transition into the splits.

Each of these candidates showed a love for their school and a commitment to “keeping SDA funky.” Whoever wins, our school will be in good hands.

Part of the reason for San Dieguito’s special culture is the fact that it isn’t only the elected student officers who get to have a hand in the direction our school takes. Students at large are empowered to make their voices heard in a variety of ways. By the time I got back to my office after the forum, I had a tweet from a student asking about why a drinking fountain had been turned off. I tweeted back that I’d find out, and I’m hopeful to have an answer for him (and any other students on Twitter) by the end of the day. Other students stop me (and my assistant principals) at games and during intermission in the lobby of the performing arts center with questions and comments that help us as we strive to be sensitive stewards of this special place.

photo (5)The crown jewel of our San Dieguito HS Academy democracy is the forum. The freedom to talk about any subject and to do so in a real and honest way helps to define our school culture. Just as important is the fact that great crowds of students, teachers, and administrators not only know they can speak, but know how important it is that they listen.

I look forward to every forum, and see each as an opportunity for me to learn how best to help guide San Dieguito HS Academy in the direction that benefits students most. Today that meant talking about the possibility of chalking arrows on the ground to help with pedestrian traffic, arranging a meeting between students and our food service folks, and putting priority on replenishing toilet paper in the girls’ restrooms.

I wish every principal could be so fortunate as to have this kind of ongoing student input. I know that I’m thankful for the strong voice of a thoughtful student body and a school where that voice is given a forum to be heard.

Friday Night

photo 1 (4)There’s always something happening after school on a high school campus. Performances, sporting events, tutoring, art shows, movie nights …pick any evening and you’re likely to find students extending their school days by doing something they love.

I’ve been asked about the biggest difference between being a middle school principal and working at a high school, and while it’s easy to talk about the explosion of academic options (engineering classes, art electives, advanced study in everything from bio-tech to art history), I think perhaps the greatest difference is the enormous amount of opportunity students enjoy outside of the classroom.

Here at San Dieguito, students create their own clubs, a dizzying array of options from Skateboarding to Girls Who Code, from the Creative Writing Club to Midwives in the Making. With these kindred spirits, students organize food drives, lunchtime activities, and trips to learn more. They seek out cultural events and opportunities to help those in need. Clubs make a difference in students’ lives, and together those students make a difference on our campus and beyond.

Along with clubs, extracurricular activities abound in high school. Beyond the limited palette of middle school athletics, high school sports burst into technicolor with multiple options for student athletes from field hockey to basketball to water polo.

photo 3 (10)The arts in high school take center stage, giving students a chance to join musical theater, orchestra, and opportunities to play guitar. Heck, at San Dieguito, add learn to build a guitar in our wood shop to the list of options.

On Friday I was reminded of just how bustling campus life is every night. I split time between a hard played basketball doubleheader and a rousing Comedy Sportz performance. At a school without football, Fridays at San Dieguito take on a kaleidoscopic tone; no single sport or activity dominates the after school landscape. Students are as likely to come to “Cabaret Night” as they are to cheer on our volleyball team with the familiar “S-D-Ace!

photo (2)So Friday I found myself in the booth overlooking the stage in our performing arts center, peeking over the shoulders of the students coordinating lighting and sound. Below, a packed house chatted excitedly, ready for the annual alumni game where past graduates return to campus to challenge present students in an improv contest.

The evening was a blur of wit and motion. With the crowd applauding, these student comedians mixed intelligence and perfect timing as marvelously as Dan Aykroyd once blended a fish in his bass-o-matic. Unselfconscious, positive, and really, really funny, this, I thought, was the spirit of San Dieguito.

And then I went to the gym.

photo 2 (1)There on the court were student athletes working together, cheering for each other, and representing our school with sportsmanship and class. These students, who had put in so many hours of practice, showed that the same collaboration that helped them complete labs in science and skits in Spanish on the basketball court is simply called teamwork. Performing in front of a crowd, taking chances, and giving their all, these student athletes were the epitome of what is right with teenagers today.

These actors and athletes don’t just come alive on stage or on the court. As I watched them on Friday night, I recognized students who I’d seen collaborate on successful egg drops in Physics, others who had participated in our Student Forum, and even our ASB representative to the school board. The students who participate in extracurricular activities are the same who participate in class discussions.

Involved students are often the most successful students. Whether they love building robots or dancing, are on the academic team or tennis team, come to campus for a school dance or movie night, students always keep a light burning at San Dieguito. It’s a place where students always have an opportunity to be part of something special.

Match. Flame.

Because there is still magic, even as the robots march steadily forward…

robotWhen I was young and foolish and filled with the unfettered exuberance of a first year teacher, I worked in a classroom without exterior windows. I found that utter darkness could be achieved by covering up the one slim rectangle of glass that led out to the hallway, and that even after the time it took to listen to a recording of a long poem by Poe no one’s eyes could adjust enough to see.

I stretched the time once, silencing my class, killing the lights, and playing “The Last Question,” a short story by Isaac Asimov. Familiar with my space, I walked the perimeter of the room, listening. It was so quiet I could hear breathing; nobody talked. As the story reached its end, our eyes still useless in the pitch black, I took a box of wooden matches from my pocket, struck one in a dramatic arc, and held it to a candle quietly placed on the table of a student in the front row. His face and mine, lit only by the orange and yellow glow, looked at each other as the final words of the story filled the air: “Let there be light.”

Robots can’t do that.

Last week, a teacher I respect gave me an article titled “The Deconstruction of the K-12 Teacher” by Michael Godsey, a contributor to The Atlantic and English teacher in California. With wit and a well researched point of view, Godsey discusses the changes in the expectations of teachers, changes he sees rushing at us with the determination of Cylons chasing Starbuck and Apollo in a 1978 episode of Battlestar Galactica.

Godsey recalls describing the future of teaching as “a large, fantastic computer screen at the front, streaming one of the nation’s most engaging, informative lessons available on a particular topic. The “virtual class” will be introduced, guided, and curated by one of the country’s best teachers (a.k.a. a “super-teacher”), and it will include professionally produced footage of current events, relevant excerpts from powerful TedTalks, interactive games students can play against other students nationwide, and a formal assessment that the computer will immediately score and record.”

Cylons.

In all seriousness, what Godsey describes feels more than a little plausible. As he notes later in the piece, “teachers like me are uploading onto the web tens of thousands of lesson plans and videos that are then being consolidated and curated by various organizations. In other words, the intellectual property that once belonged to teachers is now openly available on the Internet.”

As a fellow who started his teaching career during the Clinton administration, I’m equally astounded by these changes. The internet has taken the sharing of resources, including teaching resources, to a level undreamed of in the 1990s or before. The rugged metal filing cabinets of teaching lore, filled with worksheets and mimeographed handouts, are increasingly losing ground to Google Docs and websites. Some call this progress.

The challenge of this increased information, for teachers in the context of lesson planning and humans in the context of …everything, is being able to discern wheat and chaff.

Godsey does a nice job of cataloging resources that purport to do just that, and he strikes the right tone of angst when quoting a principal who told him that “we’re at the point where the Internet pretty much supplies everything we need. We don’t really need teachers in the same way anymore. I mean, sure, my daughter gets some help from her teachers, but basically everything she learns—from math to band—she can get from her computer better than her teachers.”

And it’s here that he began to lose me.

As a principal myself, and teacher of thirteen years, I recognize that the world in which we teach is profoundly different than it was a decade or more ago. I also honestly believe that we need teachers, and not just facilitators, more than ever, and we need them in the “same way.”

Where that way is the same may be where Godsey and I begin to diverge.

Before students had technology that allowed them instant access to information -conveniently located on a device they could use to text their friends- a part of what teachers did was help provide specific information about a particular topic. Gradually, this aspect of education lessened and the ability to evaluate the validity of information students acquire on their own has increased. Acknowledging that, I’d argue that an even more important part of education, from 1990 to 1960 to 1930 has been to connect and inspire.

This is better done in person than any other way, and by people passionate not only about teaching, but also about the particular subject they are teaching to students.

Godsey provides an accurate juxtaposition when he explains: “I measured myself against these websites and Internet companies. It seems clear that they already have a distinct advantage over me as an individual teacher. They have more resources, more money, an entire staff of professionals, and they get to concentrate on producing their specialized content, while the teacher is—almost by default—inherently encouraged to transform into a facilitator.”

Yes, and I’d add: But teachers have the kids.

Students learn online, they learn from peers, they learn from videos and books and articles. Sometimes those resources can inspire them, just as sometimes we as adults draw inspiration from sources that are not teachers. And…

The inspiration that comes from a teacher, and the interaction between a student and a teacher, is unique. It happens in classrooms and art studios and science labs. It happens in the gym and the theater and the auto shop. It happens in those thousand human moments that make up a school.

I certainly don’t want to discount the truth that learning takes place outside of a classroom, with or without a teacher, and I think Godsey is right when he notes that “There is a profound difference between a local expert teacher using the Internet and all its resources to supplement and improve his or her lessons, and a teacher facilitating the educational plans of massive organizations.”

I’d also add that there is a profound difference between a video of a teacher lighting a match after twenty minutes of darkness and a teacher surprising a class in person with that theatrical demonstration.

I don’t worry that technology will transform public education; I accept it, smilingly. I also maintain that while there are certainly times that teachers are freed from the obligation to lecture on facts, and while students are increasingly given opportunities to collaborate and solve problems of complexity and relevance, the magic that is teaching (and by that I mean connecting, provoking, and inspiring) is as strong, and as necessary, now as ever.

robot matchI believe teachers do this best when freed to engage their own creativity, using all the resources available, to light that fire with students.

I loved that Godsey’s article made me think, and that it prompted some fantastic conversations with teachers, parents, and students at my school.

The only folks I didn’t talk with were the robots.