The Aqueduct

There’s a point in Monty Python’s Life of Brian when a group of rebels are discussing plans against the Roman Empire. “What have the Romans ever done for us?” the rebel leader snarls. The group nods and shakes their fists before one masked conspirator quietly raises his hand and says “the aqueduct?”

aqueduct

The men nod begrudgingly and another adds “…and the sanitation.”

By the end of the scene, when the litany has grown to include “sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order,” the Python’s satire is complete. They never mock the passion of the rebels, just the narrow mindedness. It’s a scene I come back to as a principal when I hear people around me ask variations on the question “what has centralized education reform ever done to help us?”

I’m by no means the usual man in the gray flannel suit; by nature I’m more iconoclastic than some, willing to let students and teachers have the freedom they need to innovate and take chances. I’m comfortable with the fact that some of those chances will flop. If you can’t fail, why bother?

That said, when I hear folks start to be single mindedly critical of the notion of testing students, national initiatives, and state standards (as flawed as any of these three things may be), when I hear the “what have they done for us” question, I feel like timidly raising my hand and whispering “equity?”

“Recognizing the achievement gap?”

“Trying to close it?”

I suppose there are other rebels around me who might add other benefits to the list, “a new focus on data to inform decisions,” “supporting English Learners,” and “providing all students with equal opportunities.”

This isn’t to give credit for everything on that list to centralized education reform; any true growth happens at school sites, but the climate of accountability that has come from national initiatives and state by state standards has prompted a heated and valuable discussion about what we do at schools.

I celebrate less testing happening now than it did just a few years ago in my state of California, and at the same time I recognize that the discussion of the achievement gap and the scramble to develop ways to close that gap owes a debt to the data collected in those testing heavy years, data that provided evidence of the depth of the problem.

We won’t test our way out of the achievement gap, but the pressure we feel from the state and federal governments will keep a spotlight on the issue and prompt us to show evidence of the work we’re doing with and for kids.

As much as I loved the freedom I had when I taught, and in the 1990s I had lots of individual freedom, the way to make education all that it can be is not for individual teachers to do great work, but for teachers to connect, share, and do great work together. The reform of the past decade has done much to promote this collaboration and focus on improving education for all students.

It helps me to think of this business of education as a band, with state standards and national initiatives as the drums and bass that provide the steady beat that we individual sites can riff around. We’re the blazing guitars, the acrobatic horns, and the soaring vocals. Teachers and schools are what generate the magic and the magic of change.

With this mindset I accept the reform that I’ve seen in my two decades in education and strive to pay attention to the issues that reform raises. I believe that freedom and responsibility share space in our profession, and that the powerful work done by creative and passionate educators can happen within a system that guides the course of our work.

We are not slaves to reform, but at our best informed rebels working to improve a system that is better today than it was before the Romans.

June, almost July

Summer begins
with a stack of books
a recipe to try
and a long promised trip to a rollercoaster
that does a loop-de-loop

July,
with its trips to the beach
late lazy nights, and
indulgent
freedom from an alarm clock,
waits just a weekend away
for us to clear our heads
of the bells and busy thundering
toward graduation
that has held us
like a mesmerist
since April

712From our hammocks
or chaise lounges
or air conditioned recliners
From our towels on the sand
or inner tubes
or dugout benches
From our picnic blankets
or patio chairs
(ice rattling in our lemonade)
or that shady spot beneath the elm
sometime in July
or the earliest light of August
when summer still owns the calendar
the thought will flutter through our brains
like that dove in the neglected pergola
…I can hardly wait for the first day of school

And in that moment
we’ll look up at the cloudless sky
close our eyes
and think
…soon
…but not too soon
remembering March and April and May
and June
at least the start of June

And we’ll breathe in deeply
the warm air
renewing ourselves with summer
before returning to campus
…not to soon
and changing the world.

“An Old Man’s Thought of School”

whitmanThere’s a line in Walt Whitman’s poem “An Old Man’s Thought of School” that hits home for me as a principal who blogs. He describes “an old man gathering youthful memories and blooms that youth itself cannot.”

Like other poets before him, Whitman looks at childhood and childhood education through middle aged eyes. From this perspective he finds the beauty of learning and the “stores of mystic meaning” in the eyes of the students.

That the pupils in Whitman’s imagined school might see “only the tiresome spelling, writing, ciphering classes” doesn’t stop the poet from recognizing that, just as the church was once described not as a “pile of brick and mortar” but as “living, ever living souls,” so too the school is made up not of lessons or desks or buildings, but of the people who populate it, the instructors and students, the living souls who teach and learn.

How true this is today, just as it was when Whitman penned the lines in 1874. The gift that is education comes not from any of the objects one might purchase, then a slate, now a chromebook, nor any of the initiatives that reflect the current zeitgeist, but from the connections students make with each other and those who teach them.

photo 1 (3)Whitman ends his poem with two questions and an answer, lines worth reflecting on beneath today’s summer sun:

Cast you the real reckoning for your present?
The lights and shadows of your future—good or evil?

To girlhood, boyhood look—the teacher and the School.”

As a principal well past his own schooldays, I see in the students at my school great opportunities and amazing support. I watch them, class by class, choice by choice, create their own present realities and paint their diverse futures with all they experience, all they attempt, and all they achieve, and I see those experiences of building “mystic meaning” happen here at school.

What’s the Score?

photo 3When the little league game is 24 to 13, the adults should stop keeping score.

To the kids, it’s still a game, even if spectators want to classify it as competition. Runs, hits, throws and catches are all part of the game; the score only happens when the need for some sort of outcome means more than the process of playing.

Playing.

Playing, which is different than winning or losing. Playing, which is what kids do.

A hundred years ago, when I dedicated the summers of my elementary school years to the art and science of wiffleball, my friends and I took the game seriously. I grew up on an untamed acre that had been an orchard before my parents bought the land and built a house. In the space between the back of house and a towering black cherry tree was enough room to build a ball field.

We scrounged bases, mowed foul lines into the tall weeds, and fashioned the remainder of a stout wooden fence post into a permanent ballplayer who stood in shallow right field, a mitt attached to the diagonal two by four we’d nailed there are arms. We pulled a cap over the top of the post, painted on a face, and took to calling him Cool Hand Luke.

My dad became a hero when he brought home a length of mesh fencing that we turned into an outfield wall and an actual home plate salvaged from the college where he worked.

It was a labor of love, and a stadium as grand in our minds as Wrigley Field.

All of us played little league as well, and loved baseball, but wiffleball was something different. This was ours.

No adults were ever involved in our wiffleball obsession, except when my mom would bring out snacks or occasionally pick up a bat while I honed my curveball and slider.

We certainly kept score, played tenaciously, and took what we were doing as seriously as Pete Rose did an all star game, but it was also a childhood world of “ghost runners” and quirky home field rules (hit Cool Hand Luke and you got a home run).

I know my memories of those summers are tinted with the sepia tones of nostalgia, but even so, it was wiffleball that I thought about when I sat at my son’s little league game last week and watched a parent from the opposing team assiduously keep score.

Earnest in her work, she tromped up to the scoreboard she’d brought with her every time a six or seven year old crossed home plate and flipped the plastic number to show the crowd the score.

The crowd, not the players. The players didn’t seem to care.

photo 2 (1)It reminded me, in its way, of a parent who once came up to me at a student award ceremony. She carried her son’s certificate and held it up to me as she made eye contact. “This doesn’t have a date on it,” she said. “Some of the other people’s do,” I assured her that it was okay; these were department and teacher awards, nothing overly formal. “But,” she frowned, “what about colleges?”

Her son, who had stayed behind, might have been happy to have his teacher recognize that he’d done some good work. She was keeping score, or worried that Stanford was.

I’m not bemoaning the world today, or suggesting that there was something uniquely magical about my own growing up. What does strike me, however, is the parallel between the parent keeping score in a lopsided little league game and the adult attitude that everything that can be measured, recorded, and put on a college resume should be.

Sometimes play is play.

Sometimes good work earns congratulations and nothing more.

Sometimes it’s the experiences of childhood that matter more than the accomplishments of childhood.

photo 1I’m certain that a week after the fact my son does not know whether it was his team that scored 24 or 13 runs, though I’ll bet he could describe what it felt like to hit the ball out of the infield.

As an educator and a dad, I celebrate the times when our kids -both youngsters like my son and high school students like those I work with- don’t keep score.

I love it when we adults get out of the way and allow them to play for play’s sake, learn for the love of learning, and experience life not because it will look good to a college admissions officer, but because those experiences are theirs.

I don’t fault the parent who brought the scoreboard to my son’s game, but a part to me wishes she could have stopped flipping numbers and enjoyed watching the kids play.

Optimists

She asked “What are teenagers like today?” And I must have looked fluxummoned because she added “I mean are they optimistic? What do they think about?”

As a high school principal it isn’t unusual that I’d be asked about my job or my school, and I keep a raft of stories on hand to help explain why I like both what I do and where I get to do it, but that question, delivered so earnestly by a friend’s wife, caught me off guard.

“They are optimistic,” I answered, “and they think about all kinds of things.”

“Things like…?”

I shrugged. “College and what comes after high school.” I answered, “and what’s going on at school too. Just like we did, they talk about prom and classes and the school activities they do.”

She nodded, not sure.

“I think they talk more about their interests than what jobs they want to do, which makes sense I suppose when you look at all those studies about how many career changes this generation will have over the course of their lives.”

My friend and I looked at each other at that point, reflecting aloud on the fact that we’d both been in our specific careers for about two decades. The world was different then and the skills and attitudes we developed reflected an age now gone.

“A lot of the students at my school are more comfortable with adults than we were,” I added, “though I think the attitudes of the adults have a lot to do with that. And at San Dieguito the students really seem comfortable in their own skins. They’re figuring out who they are, and you see it reflected in what they wear: capes, suits, t-shirts handmade in our screen printing shop. It may not be the norm everywhere,” I acknowledged, “but at SDA the kids seem accepting and really kind.”

“Kinder than we were?” My friend’s wife asked.

A torrent of 1980s teen movies rushed through my mind. How similar was my own growing up to a film by John Hughes. Well, maybe not so dramatic, but the setting always felt familiar.

“I think so.”

Even with this culture of kindness, however, the usual teenage angst exists. Asking someone to go through their high school years without anxiety and self consciousness would be like asking a marathoner not to sweat, but…

I think teenagers today are more optimistic and better balanced today because they think more about who they are becoming than what they want to do for work.

The students I know seem to understand that line from Sartre: “We are what we are becoming.” They know that what they do at school helps to create who they will be in life beyond school. They think about all the petty dramas of the teenage years, as we all did in our time, and also seem to have a greater collective understanding (than my generation, anyway) that they can make a difference.

What are teenagers like today? The ones I know aren’t just optimistic about their own futures; the young adults in my life make me optimistic about our future.

SDA Graduates

 

Reading

“A million candles have burned themselves out. Still I read on.”
-Edgar Allan Poe

No one gets to the end of their life and says “I wish I’d read more Nietzsche.”

I was a philosophy major, taught English for a dozen years, and get kidded today for reading Sartre for fun. “Who reads Sartre anymore?” Evidently just me. And yet I know the truth that for most, Nietzsche is more a phase than a philosopher.

I’ve also reached a point in my life when rereading some books stems less from a desire to really understand them and more because I simply don’t remember as much about their content as I do have memories of them being good.

Tess of the D’urbervilles is on my list to reread, The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch too, and Haruki Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle. It will be interesting this summer to see how the tastes of my undergraduate years have changed.

In the first draft of that last sentence I put “if” instead of “how,” though I know that there is no way those tastes (a way of summing up perspective, attitude, and understanding) haven’t developed as a result of the varied experiences of an adult lifetime.

I thought of this last week when my assistant principal, himself a former English teacher, mentioned to me that as he was walking with a student from his office to her Creative Writing class he asked her who her favorite writer was.

photo (5)“Poe,” she answered.

When he told me the story, he and I both had the same response: That will change.

And it will, and that’s okay. Heck, I still keep a couple of old copies of Poe on my bookshelf, some essays and Eureka, and while I don’t consult them for wisdom or guidance, their presence, like some kind of talisman, reminds me of the person I was when I read them back in my younger years.

Working at a high school means that I get to be around students who are actively engaged in developing their own tastes. They’re in the process of reading Hamlet and Heart of Darkness for the first time and they get pushed in their four years before graduation to think critically and creatively about science, and history, and math.

Some might pick up Siddhartha or Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and whether they agree with the author or not, they may find their minds stretched in ways that help them become the people they are becoming.

It’s our job as educators to nurture this.

And if some of the titles or authors who so inspired their teenage selves feel flat or flawed by the time they reach thirty, all the better. If that’s the case, they’ve continued to grow and learn.

We oughtn’t mock the stones we step on as we cross the stream, but thank them, imperfect as they are, for giving us the footing to walk to the other side.

On a high school campus that means nodding when a student tells us about the merits of Edgar Allan Poe or asks us to think about an maxim they’ve discovered in Beyond Good and Evil.

While we do, we might mention James Baldwin or Zora Neale Hurston, or even Jean Paul Sartre. Well, probably not him. And all the while I’m convinced that it’s right to celebrate these authors our students connect with, these authors they may even find themselves rereading some summer when they’re in their forties.

Words Fail Me

At San Dieguito our seniors each submit twenty five word personal statements that get read at commencement when they get their diplomas. They can say anything, and often do, and the result of this cacophony of student voices provides a tangible example of the way our school values what students have to say, gives them the freedom to say it, and is willing to do things just a little differently.

As I finish my first year as principal here, I thought I’d try for my own twenty five words, a prose haiku of sorts, to capture my feelings at the end of this fabulous year. It’s no easy task to distill the San Dieguito experience like this, but I came up with…

I came to San Dieguito knowing stories about how special it is here.
What surprised me was that they were all true. And more.”

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Thanks to George Stimson for taking this photo at one of our Student Forums.