“You know, for kids…”

photoThere a point in The Hudsucker Proxy, a Cohen Brothers movie about, among other things, hula hoops, where Tim Robbin’s character holds a drawing of a circle up to a coworker whose puzzled expression prompts the explanation: “You know, for kids!”

It’s a circle, so simple as to be ridiculous, and combined with Robbins’ wonderfully earnest expression reminds me of the biggest why of our profession. In the busy or stressful times, when it’s easy to make things more complicated than they need to be, we could all do ourselves a favor by repeating Robbins’ line, maybe even with that goofy grin.

This year we took about a quarter of our opening day staff meeting to underscore this perspective by having students take our faculty through a series of activities to build community and prepare for the year ahead. More than symbolic, though that too, the experience of students leading adults, of those kids being listened to and seen with such respect, brought into focus both the reason we educators do what we do and the great good that can come from providing students the opportunity, encouragement, and responsibility to engage with the adults at the school we share.

photo 1That morning, three intrepid students led us through a series of challenges and games, and had our teachers, counselors, administrators, and classified staff smiling, talking earnestly, really listening to each other …and even playing tag.

Throughout the activities, the students emphasized how important it is for us to know each other, know ourselves, and work together for a greater good. They encouraged us to open up, to take chances, and to be proud of the work we do.

When they ended our half hour outside by telling us: “We can hardly wait to see you on the first day of classes!” no one doubted their sincerity and everyone seemed to share their sentiment.

What these three students did was astounding. With poise and purpose (and infectious smiles) they had a group of nearly a hundred adults following their every direction, suspending adult inhibitions, and playing together.

faculty plays

That our faculty was so willing to embrace this experience was further proof of the priority they place on students. I’ve worked where some people say they value and respect students; the educators I had the pleasure to spend time with at that first meeting showed how much they live that truth.

We educators get into this profession to make a difference, and often the most powerful impact comes when we inspire and empower, expect great things, believe in our students, and remember that truth, as simple as a circle, that what we do is, you know, for kids.

Building

When our admin team gathered to take our obligatory pre-school year photo, the choice of backdrops was obvious: construction.

We trotted out past the Mustang sign in front of the school, walked by the iconic bell tower, and positioned ourselves in front of an enormous hole in the ground.

photo (2)

My assistant hopped up on a low wall to snap the picture, being sure to get not only the bioretention basin and trenches in the photo, but also the expanse of dirt, emerging cement, and a corner of the hulking metal skeleton of the classroom building that will open in the fall …of next year.

Construction is more than a rumbling reality at San Dieguito; building for the future is a metaphor for our work as a school.

Our teachers are amazing builders, their daily work with students in classrooms  the mortar that holds together the edifice of learning. Other adults contribute as well. The watchful eyes of campus supervisors, the organization and heart of an army of classified staff, and the overflowing support of our counselors all help to create an education that can be a shelter in the storm of growing up.

Parents, through their love and involvement, buttress their students, providing strength and support when the pressure gets to be great.

And in the midst of it all, students swing their proverbial hammers and build.

They build the memories they will take with them for a lifetime. They build the friendships that will enrich and nourish them. They build their knowledge and character, their passion and wisdom, brick by brick constructing what their lives will become.

This year, like every other, will be a year of construction. The most important work will take place inside each of our students, the new building rising and the bulldozers moving earth reminding us that it is always our responsibility as educators to build.

The Dog

There’s a photograph from 1936 that hangs in our library and shows the collected students and faculty of San Dieguito standing together near their interim campus and a collection of tents that served as classrooms as the school was being built.

1936-37 SanDieguitoHighSchool Pacific View

I love the juxtaposition of the stern, bespectacled, and dark suited principal and the fact that just to his left are the hindquarters of a large, black dog.

It’s this jarring reality, something that wouldn’t happen organically in a school photo today, that strikes me as emblematic of the long running spirit of our school. At San Dieguito the unexpected is never far away.

photo (1)Mr. Main, that first principal, was shown the door after just four years at San Dieguito, pressure put on him to leave by a staff who felt too “circumscribed in their activities” by their frowning leader. This spirit of freedom is another part of the San Dieguito DNA. We’re a school that values academics, of course, but also has fostered the independent spirit of students and faculty for almost eighty years.

The result of this expectation of the unexpected and culture of creativity has led to a list of alumni that reads like a who’s who of diversity. Professional musicians, actors, and athletes have learned their craft at San Dieguito. Surfers, scientists, and school teachers began their careers while Mustangs.

photo (1)As we enter our 80th year as a school, it’s amazing to hear the range of stories of the alumni who visit campus. Some are funny (sitting along 101 to watch 1950’s celebrities caught in the traffic jam between Hollywood and the Del Mar Racetrack). Some are moving (1945 Mustangs petitioning to allow an interred Japanese student to return to walk in graduation). Some are patently fantastic (the time the seniors, with a little help from the art department, built a life sized zoo of animals and surprised everyone by putting them up around campus).

I’m looking forward to our Founder’s Day reception in October and all the events this year that will give our alumni a chance to come back to San Dieguito and to share their stories. When they do, I hope they’ll find me so I can listen. I’ll be the fellow wearing a tie, and wishing that just beside me was a big, black dog.

 

A Fish Story

My son is excited about learning.

At eight years old, his passion for knowing more about fishing is matched only by his excitement to go to Lake Dixon with his grandpa in a few days. They’ve been planning the trip for weeks, and as a result I’ve seen my son’s taste in bedtime stories take a turn from the Hardy Boys to a paperback his grandma got him called Incredible and True Fishing Stories.

Out back I found a tree branch with a string tied around it that he has been using to practice, my own Huck Finn, missing only a straw hat and corncob pipe. Saturday morning I came downstairs to find him binge watching Monster Fish. He knew everything about the piraiba catfish and tiger sharks …and wanted to tell me about them.

DSC04212My dad is excited about teaching.

At eighty, the light that I’ve seen in his eyes as he talks with his grandson about casting and catching fish inspires me to believe that no matter what our age there is always something to look forward to.

This week he brought a fishing pole to our house that he used to teach me to fish with forty years ago. To see him talking my son through the basics, sharing everything about drag and bobbers brings a wave of nostalgia that takes me back to shores of my childhood.

I wish my son was excited about school.

We were at the grocery store yesterday and found ourselves in line behind a teacher from my kids’ elementary school. She smiled at him and asked, on this week before classes resume: “Are you excited for school to start?” He shrugged and looked at the ground.

All of us knew the answer behind that shrug.

That he has a capacity for curiosity and a love of learning is apparent in the catalog of fishing facts and string of library books he’s checked out over the summer with titles like Saltwater Angling and The Freshwater Fisherman’s Bible. From Monster Fish he’s accumulated more information about African rivers than anyone this side of Dr. Livingstone, I presume. He took time last weekend to explain to his sister the difference between a Nile perch and an alligator gar.

photoHe has patience too. As I watched my dad show him how the reel worked, my son’s eight year old hands soon discovered the Gordian capabilities of fishing line. The tangles profound, his teacher allowed him to experiment to find a solution, and stepped in to offer patient advice when that was the right thing to do.

That most of his first casts didn’t go too far didn’t seem to bother him. He tried and failed and tried and failed and tried and threw one that bounced off the wooden fence. The sound of that red and white plastic bobber hitting the wood could not have been more satisfying if it had come with a cash prize.

Through it all, he stayed captivated. Watching, trying, learning, he wanted to know more.

When Papa took a turn at the tangled fishing line, my son took the opportunity to read aloud from Incredible and True Fishing Stories and explain to him the difference between a marlin and a tarpon.

This inspiring learning was so unlike that shrug at the grocery store.

I know I’m sentimental, and so moved as to be almost teary watching my son learn on that familiar fishing rod. I understand that my own memory of fishing for bonito out of Long beach and trout in the Santiam River make me prone to romanticize things, but…

…but I wish so much that my son, and my daughter, and every son, and every daughter gets a teacher this year who inspires in them the same feelings of curiosity, joy for learning, and imagination.

Great teachers do this, and I can say from the experience of a dozen years of teaching, it’s not easy. Creating a classroom that validates, celebrates, and inspires students is hard work, and even the best intentions aren’t enough; it takes effort, and energy, and optimism. It takes a love of learning and love of teaching kids.

We stand on the shore of a new school year, ready to push our proverbial boats into the water. Will our kids get that teacher who connects with and inspires them? Will those of us who are educators be those teachers?

DSC04206Fishing, like education, is about hope.

And as I watched my dad and my son wrestling with that reel, I hoped that a day would come when he was as excited about going to school, and every teacher was as excited about helping each student learn, as he was about learning to cast.

Eight and eighty, these two showed me much about teaching and learning, or maybe love and curiosity, fish and fun, which may after all be what the best education really is. Well, minus the fish.

I don’t know if we’ll catch anything when we go to Lake Dixon, but I don’t think that matters anywhere near as much as the learning that has already taken place.

And this school year? This one could be the best yet. I hope.

Eighty Years Ago

In an article from The Coast Dispatch dated August 6, 1936, Arthur Main, San Dieguito’s first principal, wrote: “The proposed new San Dieguito Union High School is more than a group of school buildings, it is the embodiment of a definite educational program.” Accompanying the article, a map of campus shows the first dream of a school that looks familiar to the legions of those whose lives have passed through our breezeways.

818

This campus has been the home to students for nearly eight decades, and as I look around my office, the same office principals have been sitting in since the Roosevelt administration, it’s with a feeling not unlike what I imagine sea captains experience as they step into the cabin of an august sailing ship, appreciating the rich history around them, even as they plot a course toward the future.

photo 3Over the next few months I’ll spend some time celebrating this deep history of our school. If the walls that architect Lilian Rice designed could talk, the stories they would tell.

It’s my hope to tell a few.

Working roughly chronologically, I’ll draw stories from the opening of San Dieguito in 1936 through the decades to today. I’ll interview graduates from every decade, share highlights from yearbooks, and delve into some of the hidden corners of our school’s story.

photo 2That said, I’m no historian; I’m a principal, accused of being more poetic than any good chronicler should be, and the more I looked at the history of San Dieguito, the more I realized that every year had enough stories for a book and every student’s life could fill a library. My small contributions to the celebration of our school are mere snapshots in the greater album of San Dieguito.

For those looking for a more formal history of our school, I’d point to our Foundation, whose alumni website has great links to historical articles and even a digital archive of student newspapers. I talked at length to Bonnie Wren in the Foundation office and through her have met some of the most amazing alumni in the universe.

I’m shooting for a post about our school’s rich history going up at the end of every week or so, but then again I’ve got a school to run, so if that pace isn’t kept please know it’s because this beautiful place (in its present incarnation) has my attention.

Arthur Main started writing about San Dieguito in 1936; I’m just keeping up that tradition.

Start With the End in Mind

It’s easy to get caught up in the bustle of the start of the school year, planning, preparing, and making sure that when students arrive on the first day of classes everything is ready to go. It was in that busy state of mind that I found myself attending our annual parent foundation planning retreat on Saturday, and it was in a moment of zen that I was reminded to pause and, like a good teacher planning a lesson, start with the end in mind.

SDA GraduatesOur foundation president had invited former San Dieguito parent, author, and speaker  Robert MacPhee in to do some work with the board. As he ended his portion of the morning he invited us to a guided meditation that took as its focus our graduation ceremony.

I realized, as I listened to Robert take us through the relaxation and visualization process, that as the principal the graduation I pictured looked a little different from everyone else.

At San Dieguito we do graduation in a way unlike I’ve seen before. Students sit in four quadrants of chairs on the field, standard enough in itself, but rather than simply read names and have them tromp across a stage, students each write twenty-five words that are read as they walk to the center of the field to receive their diploma. We don’t have a stage; it’s just me and a basket, and it’s in the unpredictability and realness of the simple act of getting that roll of paper that the magic happens.

Eyes closed, remembering June’s commencement, I realized just how special the experience was, and how much I wished every parent could see graduation through my eyes.

The perspective I’m blessed to have is seeing each student walk from her place in line across the ten yards or so up to the middle of the field. Without steps to mount or a row of hands to shake along the way, this short walk takes on an immediacy and otherworldliness.

graduation b

Time slows down, and as their principal, I feel a paternal pride. These are young adults on the doorstep of the great unknown.

Once they’ve shaken my hand and gotten their diploma they turn to the crowd and begin celebrating, but on those steps between their seat and center field, their last seconds of high school, their expressions are overwhelmingly filled with something like hope sweetened by uncertainty, not quite joy, not quite anxiety, but an emotional weightlessness that is difficult to describe.

Taking time to picture this moment that will end our school year helped me put into perspective the privilege and responsibility we have to these students, and the value of the work being done to prepare for the year ahead.

That short meditation brought me out of the busy moment and helped to renew my focus on the “why” of what we do. We have months to go and adventures innumerable before we get to that graduation ceremony, but every day we have opportunities to make our students’ school experience magical.

Expedition Unknown

We’ve been watching a lot of Expedition Unknown at our house lately. With an eleven year old girl and eight year old boy, this Travel Channel show that follows an engaging adventurer as he searches archaeological sites for answers to historical mysteries is one of the few programs everyone can agree on.

Over the summer we’ve sat together on the couch and learned about Viking sunstones, Mayan cenotes, and Henry Morgan’s attack on Panama City.

expedition unknownThe kids watch, wide eyed, curious about worlds they never knew existed, my wife and I chuckle at host Josh Gates’ humor, and we all learn a little together.

As a high school principal, and teacher of more than a dozen years, I appreciate Expedition Unknown’s ability to craft an entertaining hour that keeps my kids’ attention while teaching them to appreciate the grandness of human history.

Josh Gates brings a boyish energy and smiling charm to the adventures, as we’re led through caves and up mountains, across deserts and into jungles, and entertained with pinch of archaeology and dollop of wonder.

This concept of wonder has the potential to be one of the most powerful motivators in education today. I’d argue it has been a cornerstone of education since before Socrates.

Good teachers are able to help students understand the context of what they’re learning and see science, or history, or math, or any subject as a part of the greater human story. Students sparked to be curious are students who will learn; teachers able to inspire this desire to know more are the heroes who make our world a better place.

In a culture so focused on testing and accountability, so concerned about college applications and building academic resumes, I find inspiration in the teachers who follow Socrates’ advice: “Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds…”

This might be building rockets or throwing pottery, designing buildings or designing t-shirts, egg drops, one act plays, Pi Day, or poetry. At its best, this kind of learning takes place in an environment where students of diverse interests learn, laugh, work, and wonder with teachers who care deeply about them.

Kind of like Expedition Unknown and our couch.