Making Time for the Central Coast

Leaving at four in the morning meant avoiding LA traffic and settling in for a cup of coffee in Santa Barbara when the cafe opened at seven. It was a difficult trundling of kids into the car, but well worth it when we had Los Angeles in our rear view mirror and the sun was still new in the sky.

photo-2-3A holiday road trip took us to the Bay Area this December, a trip that had us choose highway 101 and a jaunt to Morro Bay along the way rather than push up Interstate 5 to make it one one long day. It wasn’t the most efficient decision, but it was the right one, as we were surprised with weather warm enough for a picnic, a visit to a favorite book shop, and the sight of a Christmas Tree made out of crab nets and fishing gear.

As a high school principal I’m often faced with choices and tempted to use efficiency as a major factor in the decisions I make. Sometimes this is a wise move; sometimes I’d do better to consider a detour.

Recently new construction has given me an opportunity to balance the end result and the process of getting there. Much as I knew we’d spend Christmas with my niece, I know that by the time we end our first semester in January we need to order furniture for the new science and math building, and by spring break we need to have plans for our next building, an arts and humanities extravaganza, to the Department of State Architects.

As simply as we might have driven straight through from San Diego to Oakland, I know I could have talked with the architect, the furniture vendor, and our district bond team and in an afternoon we could have had a viable plan. Done and done. And not done right. Viable and right are not always the same.

Instead, our architect, furniture vendor, bond team, and I met with teachers. Science teachers tested tabletops, scorching circles into the surfaces to see if they could hold up to a chemistry class. Math teachers sampled desks and student work stations to see what worked for them. Our ceramics teacher visited other schools and came back with photos, drawings, and big ideas. Our other art instructors thought about everything from venting to light to where they could store still life subjects from surfboards to bicycles.

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Meeting after meeting over the course of the first term we talked, strategized, dreamed, faced reality together, tested the patience of our architect and the creativity of our furniture guy, and made decisions that were good for kids.

It wasn’t always easy. The building that was designed four years ago would have benefited from being two rooms larger. Getting everyone to agree on tables and desks was trickier than you’d expect. And putting three art teachers, two bond guys, an architect, and a principal in the same room has the coherency of Chaucer’s House of Fame.

Still, just as getting up before dawn on our road trip wasn’t pleasant, the results promises to be. We’ll end our journey where we belong, and we’ll look back at the way we got there with an appreciation for the longer path we would never have chosen if we’d made the decision based only on efficiency.

Every day I’m reminded of how much being a principal is like being a dad. They’re both challenging and wonderful, fraught with pitfalls and prone to spark strong emotion, and when all is said and done they’re both worth all the stress.

Listening to those around me helps me avoid the many of the mistakes I know I’d make if left to my own devices. My wife makes me a better husband; my teachers and my admin team make me a better principal.

photo-3I most certainly don’t always get things right. Emphatically not. But I hope I can always surround myself with people willing and able to look me in the eye as I’m about to make an efficient decision, a decision that might be so much better if I went a different way, and ask: “What do you think about going to Morro Bay?”

Moon Knight

moon-knight-23-cover-bill-sienkiewiczThis one’s about Moon Knight.

If you’re less a geek than me, feel free to stop reading now, or at least be warned that these are the musings of a middle aged educator…about comic books. Dulce est desipere in loco.

Not long ago a tweet floated across my computer screen asking about comics. It came from Gwyneth Jones, a librarian and educator I respect, and asked for help for a teacher. The call: “HS ELA teacher wants straight-up comic books. Any ideas?”

As a former English teacher, now principal, I miss the collaboration I had with colleagues around what books to teach and ways we could help students connect with literature. Our conversations could be spirited, offbeat, and inspiring. This request smacked of such adventure and I fired off a quick response: “This may be a little nutty, but the new Moon Knight (and old) could prompt discussion.”

comic-postThen I got thinking.

The phrase “straight-up comic books” stuck with me. I couldn’t shake the creative bug that buzzed in my brain every week of the thirteen years I taught English.

I’ve written about teaching graphic novels before, and even about one of my favorite comic book heroes, Moon Knight. Fresh off reading the latest collection of “The Fist of Khonshu,” the daring librarian’s tweet got me thinking about what it might really look like to use “straight-up comic books” in the classroom today.

As a first year teacher I used a copy of a Batman comic that reprinted the character’s first appearance and then retold the same story in a contemporary style. Juxtaposing the two versions of the same story prompted a discussion of narrative view and characterization that parlayed into the other literature we were reading. I thought it was a neat lesson, but truth be told, it was a bit of a throwaway.

A decade later I tried to use an Avengers comic to set up The Scarlet Letter, but the less said about that the better. It was not one of my more successful adventures.

As I thought about the notion of using comic books today, not graphic novels (those purposeful volumes that blend text and images and are designed to be book length, not episodic) but “straight-up comic books,” two things struck me as rich with possibility: comic books are serial, and at their best they invite unbridled creativity.

moon-knight-t6f6m1sd_0403151336141Enter Moon Knight.

I grew up on comic books, Fantastic Four, Batman, and the rest, and I remember the first time I saw something that blew apart the standard and felt different: Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Moon Knight.

Theirs were odd and interesting stories, unafraid to vary in length, eschew the mores of superhero monthlies, quote Blake, explore religion, stretch the boundaries of a comic page, and present real issues from child abuse to mental illness. …all under the guise of a comic book.

Like many superheroes, Moon Knight went through phases, the ‘90s and early 2000s turning him this way and that, dragging him closer to conventionality than his earlier incarnations, occasionally sliding him toward ridiculousness, but in 2014 he sprang back with a retro vengeance as Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire brought back the spirit of innovation that had typified the comic in the gritty 70s and experimental 80s.

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As a (recovering) English teacher, it’s both the richness and complexity of this history that adds layers of depth to the possibility of using Moon Knight in an English class.

What then, to do with it?

I’m more than a little out of practice with lesson planning, so for any teacher types still reading, imagine this as my end of a discussion we’re having while on a hike in the woods. We’re walking along a trail, trees reaching up all around, and as we fall into conversation about how we could teach “straight-up comic books,” I suggest that…

start-of-mkI’d start, as all good comic stories do, with brief intro of the character’s origin story, succinctly told. We’d look at the first renderings of Marc Spector’s death and rebirth beneath the statue of Egyptian god Khonshu; his adoption of not one, but three identities outside the white suit: mercenary Marc Spector, cabbie Jake Lockley, and millionaire Steven Grant; and the cast of characters who form the stable of support for the character: Marlene, Crawley, Frenchie, and Gena.

We’d talk about the standards in a superhero story (capes, secret identities, and other expectations) and look at how those expectations can be turned upside down. I’d follow with the class reading “Hit It” to see how that story explodes convention, mirroring perhaps a poet who interrupts the contract with the reader to break a sonnet or upend an established form.

maskBecause comics are visual by nature, a brief foray into art makes sense, and an article on negative space in one of the most recent runs of Moon Knight does a nice job of capturing the importance of the choices illustrators make. As the author of the article notes: “The utilization of all that negative space is not just a brilliant visual concept, it’s also an exceptional thematic choice. Held in a mental institution and informed that his entire life is a fabrication, Marc Spector must reevaluate everything he thought he knew about Moon Knight, Khonshu, his other personalities, and himself.” Thoughtful analysis of a comic book? Yep. And for those young artists in my class, a nice opportunity to talk about the finer points of another discipline.

Armed with this history, possibility, and artistic vernacular, the students would be ready to engage with new texts, and it would be fun to provide different groups with different versions of the silver and jet hero.

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Neatly packaged are the four most recent story arcs of Moon Knight as well as some of the best of the Moench and Sienkiewicz issues in the collection Shadows of the Moon. Six copies of each could provide a half dozen groups of students in (comic) book groups with enough to talk about to make things interesting.

Helping to frame their group reading and discussion, I’d need to come up with some guiding questions and challenges that apply to all the collections.  What this would look like would take some conversation with fellow English teachers. Certainly students would benefit from noting the real-world issues they see reflected in the stories. It would be smart to ask them to look for motifs either visual or thematic. Art. Color. Language.

On our imaginary hike, it’s on this point that I’d listen most and try to capture the ideas beyond my own that raise teaching and learning past what any individual teacher can come up with.

Along with each collection, I’d ask students to read a bit of non-fiction, an interview, or analysis of the work they are engaging with. I could point them toward an overview of the Moench and Sienkiewicz years, an interview with Declan Shalvey, a discussion with Cullen Bunn, or a Q&A with Greg Smallwood.

smallwood-allusionI’d also push them to make connections between the books they’ve read in class and the comics they are reading. I could see students finding parallels between One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the Moon Knight collection Lunatic or between In the Night and Edgar Allan Poe.

Beyond links to fiction or nonfiction texts, Moon Knight comics have a long tradition of addressing real-life issues, and prompting students to make connections between the story arcs they read and issues like mental illness, political crises, or fanaticism would be a worthy adjunct activity. Dead Will Rise, for instance, takes on issues suggested by homeland security and Guantanamo Bay. In the Night covers a range of topics, providing rich catalysts for discussion and thought provoking hooks on which to hang research into everything from religious belief to animal cruelty.

ghostsAny of the collections, particularly From the Dead provide a good source of allusions, and just as I’d pair up the Bunn and first Smallwood groups, I’d have the Moench team work with those reading Ellis to see the many connections drawn between the two.

Much as I ran “Bistro Days” as an English teacher, a day of tablecloths, croissants, and conversation, during which students had an opportunity to talk about independent reading books that shared common themes (as they sipped coffee and listened to accordion music), I’d invite students to take a class period and cross pollinate, explain their reading to others from other groups, and find the connections between the various versions of the lunar avenger.

Each of these slim volumes has enough story, characterization, and innovation to spark discussion and prepare the students to make one last literary jump, to the present.

crazyComics are our twenty first century version of serial stories. Read “live” they force readers to finish a segment and wait a month to see what happens next. Like Dickens’ or Collins’ Victorian audience, the contemporary comic book reader has time to mull over what has happened and anticipate what will happen next. With the 2016 run of Moon Knight, prediction is nearly impossible.

The current run of Moon Knight, as of me writing this today, is a whirlwind of storytelling, part homage, part fever dream, all unexpected fun. Following the issues collected in Lunatic, the story of Moon Knight has veered into a mashup of religion, mental health, and unreliable narration.

moon_knight-22After our collective introduction to the character, their group interaction with a specific Moon Knight text, and the discussions that brought them up to date on the character’s story, we’d be ready to take a look at the current story as it is being written. A lesson or two could catch us up with issue #9, which sees the various personalities of Moon Knight and his alter egos in confrontation. Some might notice that this isn’t the first time such a thing has happened in the Moon Knight canon; back in 1982 the fellows in Moon Knight’s head scrapped a bit; meet the new boss same as the old boss.

But the new boss isn’t simply reworking old stories. Even as he pays homage to the legacy of the character, writer Jeff Lemire is fashioning a story as trippy as it is innovative. For old Moon Knight fans like me, who appreciate the nods toward the past, and for new readers alike the question of “what happens next?” looms large over every panel.

Taking the students up through the story arc so far and then allowing them a few months to experience the dynamic storytelling of a monthly comic would be a nice way to extend our discussion of narrative, perspective, and author (and illustrator) voice.

9It would be fun to teach a living text as it was being written, a text that could be downloaded every month and shared with the class. Discussing what we anticipate will happen, while none of us (even the teacher) can know what that will be, would be energizing and (it seems to me) have that tightrope feel that good teaching and learning often does.

Maybe all this is dreamier than it is possible. I honestly don’t know. It’s days like today that I realize how long I’ve been out of the classroom and how invigorating it can be to be a part of a dynamic teaching community.

That kind of professional and creative connection really is, in its twitterish way, what the tweet that started this all invited. That, and it invited the inner comic book nerd in all of us to come out.

Are there lots of comic books that would be great in the classroom? Sure, and I’d wager that teachers far, far more insightful than I am have a thousand ideas of comics that would work brilliantly with students. I wish I had a few hours with each to talk capes and masks and teaching over a pot of coffee. Thanks, Gwyneth Jones for your question, and thanks teachers everywhere willing to acknowledge their inner geekiness, try new things in the classroom, and swing into action like a superheroes!

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For only the nerdiest of us…

Seriously, deep geek here…

I’ll note that I’d ignore the earliest versions of MK, back in his werewolf fighting days, when his cape was still connected to his wrists. I gloss over his time wearing armor, carving moons into foreheads, and living in LA. West Coast Avengers? Nope (though I dug those comics as a kid). There’s something to be said for some sort of discretion after all …though for that one student, and there’s always one intrepid soul, who digs a little deeper, I’d be ready for a lively, old school discussion of The Committee, The Slasher, and Stained Glass Scarlet!

Unselfie with Friends

cover-unselfie-by-michele-borba-500x750It feels like a good time to think about empathy.

As an educator and a dad, I’ve found that the times I’m most impressed and inspired by kids is when I see in them kindness and caring and that quality that Shakespeare claimed was not strained, mercy.

With an eye toward encouraging our campus community to practice this kind of generosity of spirit and inspiring conversation about empathy amongst students, staff, and parents, our San Dieguito Book Club is scheduled to discuss Michele Borba’s book Unselfie on Monday, February 2, 2017.

In Unselfie Borba, an educational psychologist and prolific author, sets out to demonstrate that “empathy -rather than being a nice ‘add-on’ to our kids’ development- is in fact integral to their current and future success, happiness, and well-being.” To do so, she outlines nine “essential habits” that she suggests parents and educators can cultivate in their kids and in themselves.

As with all the books we’ve read in our book club, Unselfie is a great starting point for discussion. Do we need to agree with her blueprint for “cultivating” empathy? No, though much of what she writes resonates with me and compliments who we are at San Dieguito.

The strength of Unselfie is its clear argument for, and outline how, empathy matters, and how we might understand the difference it makes to be a part of an empathetic society.

I’ll put together another post soon with a few more tangible observations about Borba’s book, but with Winter Break upon us, a great time to find a chair, a cup of tea, and a book to read, I wanted to be sure that anyone in our Mustang family who enjoys good conversation has a chance to get started on what looks like it might be a great book to talk about.

 

The San Dieguito Book Club meets on Monday, February 2, 2017 from 6:00-8:00 pm in our Media Center. Feel free to join us to talk about Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.

Human Stories

A few months ago I set out to capture some of the stories from across San Dieguito’s eight decades. Talking with graduates from as far back as 1940, I heard marvelous tales of a school filled with youthful energy, creative spirit, and a truly magical history of closeness and caring. I also heard stories that had nothing to do with campus life, remembrances of what happened next to the alumni, stories of life after high school.

maryThese stories of life after San Dieguito were moving and just as real as what I heard about the graduates’ high school years. They were stories about love and loss, stumbling early adulthood, purposeful middle age, and, in some cases, parenthood and retirement.

Hearing Norm describe falling in love with a beautiful soprano from Nebraska, of taking her out five nights in seven days and then asking her to marry her at the end of the week (to which she replied: “If you hadn’t asked me, I was going to ask you!”) reminded me of the reality of romance. Listening as he described their fifty-four years of marriage put all his youthful shenanigans in perspective. Here was a man who had fun in high school and lived an adult life just as rich.

photoGage talked about his ten year reunion and the connections he keeps with classmates, including the woman he went to college with who as a girl starred in a play at San Dieguito and was so “intriguingly good” that he began a life of performance, writing, and directing that still helps to define him today.

Tak’s description of a prejudiced and Kafkaesque Naval recruiting center showed midcentury racism at its most diabolical and disheartening, and yet his balanced demeanor as he recounted the labyrinthian process of the Navy denying him entry because of his ethnicity, and his unflagging positive attitude toward his life and his community, showed the wisdom he as gained over 89 years of life. Tak is a truly remarkable man, defined not by the injustice he has faced, but by the grace he brought, and brings, to all he encounters.

Whether it was Mary talking about growing up in Encinitas in the 1920s or Thelma and Len describing what it was like in the 1960s, all of these stories, not exactly San Dieguito stories, but human stories, form the historical and multifaceted world of which we are all a part.

Every day we pass people on the street, wait in lines with people at the grocery store, and encounter people whose stories are just as moving and whose experiences are just as profound as those Mustang alumni I have had the pleasure to meet.

photo (3)The experience of talking with Mary and Tak, Gimpy and Gage, Jennifer, Monica, Len and Thelma, and so many others has taught me to appreciate the heroism and humor, the strength and soul that exist in every person. Their stories, both from high school and from life, illustrate the complexity, joy, sorrow, and humanity of our world.

These amazing individuals, so kind in sharing their memories, have inspired me and might, I hope, inspire a few people reading along to take the time to sit down with a parent or a grandparent, an aunt, an uncle, a son, or a daughter and ask them about their story.

That story doesn’t have to be about our school, but like this San Dieguito experiment it may inspire something astounding.

Community, part one

We’re talking about community.

It’s one of the things about San Dieguito that means the most, and as we strive to nurture a campus culture that continues to live up to the reputation our school has of being an accepting and open place for all students to learn and be themselves, we recognize that a community like ours doesn’t happen without some work.

Some of those efforts come in the weekly and monthly activities that are part of the way we do business at San Dieguito. Every month our student forum offers an opportunity for all voices to be heard, and more often than not the word “kindness” shows up somewhere in the conversation.

Our ASB builds activities that build a caring and connected community. Even the competitions at school assemblies are organized to bring us together, not divide us with false labels. The teams that participate in games at assemblies each include freshmen, sophomores, juniors, seniors, and staff members. We are all part of SDA.

Clubs help too, and at this year’s Club Fair new student groups joined well established clubs like our GSA and PALs as beacons of positivity.

The students who form these clubs, like those teachers, counselors, and administrators who advise and support them, recognized and acknowledge that times can get tough. Stress rolls through our world in waves, and the answer isn’t trying to ignore or minimize the reality of those challenges, but to work together to address them, to support one another, and to emerge, together, stronger.

This truth drives us to stay thoughtful about what we do as a school to promote a community that can bring empathy to our interactions. This means community events like our upcoming San Dieguito Book Club, when we’ll discuss Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in our All-About-Me World by Michele Borba. It means really listening to each other when we have different political points of view, as the students did recently during an event just after the November election. And it can be celebratory too, as it was last year when the student body all held hands and encircled our campus in a show of San Dieguito unity.

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This fall that same thoughtfulness manifested itself in a group of students interested in developing a week of activities to promote a unified campus community. Organized and passionate, these students spoke with our administrative team, presenting the skeleton of a plan that sought to help students listen to each other and see in one another both the differences that make us unique and the commonalities that make us human.

We realized after about an hour that to support this plan to build and celebrate community our best next step was to involve a bigger community in the planning. We prepared the invitations.

Our first meeting brought a wide range of people to the table: students from ASB and PALS, our faculty adviser and representatives from our fledgling NAMI Club, and a sprinkling of teachers who care deeply about our school and the people who form it.

We talked big picture and we talked specific ideas. We discussed vision, purpose, and need. We agreed on the importance of the enterprise and some of the steps we’d need to take to reach the results we hope to achieve. The clock finally told us that we needed to wrap things up, but a follow up meeting is in the works now, and the way ahead looks more like a clear path than a dark forest.

This post carries the words “part one” because it really is just the first step of a longer, meaningful journey. I’m so fortunate to work a school ready to travel forward …together.

1976

photo-1-1Ben Franklin on a skateboard?

“Ye olde check out wall?”

An assembly with a hypnotist who made a student think he was naked?

Welcome to the 1976 San Dieguito yearbook.

Most editions of the Hoofprint carry a classy veneer of professionalism, covers decorated by classic Mustangs, dramatic photographs, or clean graphics. In 1976, things looked just a bit different.

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We keep copies of every San Dieguito yearbook going back to 1936 in the locked vault in the principal’s office. Why do we have a walk in vault? That’s a question for Lilian Rice and the team from the Roosevelt years, but the volumes it houses are a treasure trove of Mustang history, and the 1976 Hoofprint stands out, a delightfully cartoonish relic from the year of the nation’s bicentennial.

photo-4We talk a lot today about “Keeping SDA Funky.” This yearbook lived funky.

Inside, the pages of the 1976 Hoofprint reveal a school of iconoclasts. Alongside the usual images of programs (the girl posing with her cow as part of Future Farmers of America) are the unexpected (the young woman looking at the camera, a cigarette poised between her fingers). Next to the standard photos of athletic teams are pictures of donkey basketball. Sure the Senior Class Officers show up in the yearbook, but so too does a beautifully artsy skateboarding picture.

photo-3-1The late 1970s saw individualism abound at San Dieguito, the arts flourish, and students find the freedom to be themselves. Pictures from student bands, clubs such as The Fencing Club, Backpacking Club, and even the “Schmeggegis Club” (who “limited membership to those who wanted to join”) show that students were having a ball on campus, and that the school embraced the spirit of fun that prompted the Hoofprint to eschew traditionalism and opt for something zany.

Today’s political correctness (and maybe common sense) is absent from this year of the Hoofprint; students posed with liquor bottles for the yearbook staff photo, cartoons depicted the freewheeling 70s, and one page dedicated to seniors shows a line of boys using the urinals. It takes exactly two pages before the first joke about a keg. The golf team posed without shirts. I’m not suggesting 1976 was a better time, but it was certainly a different time at San Dieguito.

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Yet some things are very much the same. Students then, as now, joined clubs like the Thespians and the Speech Team, and the expressions of glee on the faces of the homecoming court aren’t that different from students today.

photo-1-6Candid photographs show what it must have been like to walk across the quad in 1976, students lounging on the lawn and laughing beneath palm trees. The students we see in the yearbook look happy and fun loving, the kind of teenagers our teenagers today would like to spend time with.

1976 was a very funky year at San Dieguito. Just ask Ben Franklin …if you can get him to stop jumping the San Dieguito ten step.