National Holiday

I saw my first unicorn at 6:35 am. She walked out of the dark and into the cafeteria to stay warm before school, joining a pack of students who had spent time planning and creating costumes for a big day at Arts & Communication Magnet Academy.

IMG_4894Back in the main office, after a bus duty of watching remarkable creations walk onto campus, I found two pirates smiling at the pumpkin left anonymously the night before and decorated with my name and a llama, a reference to Rojo, the therapy llama, who had visited earlier in the month.

Together we laughed at the parade of costumes that stopped by: The Hulk, complete with green face paint; an impeccably mustachioed gondolier, whose facial hair was as carefully sculpted as it was real; and a body builder toting a giant dumbbell and looking like someone out of a 1920s circus …and those were some of my teachers.

IMG_4897Here at ACMA we begin each day by playing music over the PA in lieu of a bell, and as we were getting ready to cue up the theme from Harry Potter The Cat in the Hat stopped by, joined by a cheetah, and Chuck Norris …more staff.

Students got into the act as well, an outpouring of creativity that captured the outrageous skills our students have in art and performance. Clowns and zombies, Ghostbusters and vegetables, dogs, cats, fairies, and even a skunk, the wild abundance of costumes was overwhelming. Stepping into the hall as the opening strains of Harry Potter filled the school I saw …everything. Herds of unicorns. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. Chefs. Cowpokes.

IMG_4914At lunch I hung out with a seven foot tall satyr.

I must have looked a little overwhelmed at the spectacle of it all when one of my math teachers smiled at me and said: “Here at ACMA Halloween is a national holiday.”

What a glorious thing that is.

I love that ACMA, as strong academically and artistically as it is, is on an average day a school of plush ears, horns, and tails. Our students, and our staff too, know the value of having fun and expressing themselves. Today’s costumes didn’t have to be fancy or expensive; the best were hand crafted celebrations of the creative spirit.

ACMA is a place where students make art and live life artistically, and on the 31st of October …well at ACMA that’s a national holiday.

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You Can Dance

IMG_4841Nick, our custodian, put black lights into the fixtures in the library hallway around noon when the students started putting up spider webs and paper gravestones for the “Haunted Hallway.” Decorations collected throughout the day, rubber rats, black streamers, and miles of yellow caution tape. Pumpkins emerged, small and large, dotting the parts of the school where the masses would gather for ACMA’s Fall Festival Dance.

By suppertime it was a campus transformed; tables for cotton candy, popcorn, and pretzels filled the courtyard. Caramel sauce and paper boats waited for students to take advantage of the local harvest; earlier in the week my assistant, Margaret, who had put in hours helping the kids organize the dance, had poked her head in my office and let me know “I got a great deal and need to go pick up fifty pounds of apples!”

The awesomeness of that statement was in part due to the fact that at ACMA it didn’t feel out of place.

A fog machine crouched in the breezeway between what would be the Haunted Hallway and the entrance to the Quonset Hut set up for dancing.

IMG_4848But dancing… well, for anyone of my vintage who hasn’t had the opportunity to chaperone a dance for a while, school dances look different now. Maybe it’s that the world has changed and people now, from eleven to ninety, expect more variety, more choice, but dancing at a dance is just one sliver of what kids have to choose from.

What that meant this Friday at ACMA was a photo booth stocked with props where groups of students could ham it up and leave with a memory of a night of silliness. It meant free raffle tickets handed to everyone as they came through the front door and a grand drawing for a mini cauldron filled with candy at the end of the night.

Any dance in October invites costumes, and to do that at an art school means wild, abundant creativity. Zombies and superheroes danced with flappers and Disney Princesses. Pikachu shared popcorn with unicorns and Jedi, and my favorite conversation of the night went like this:

Me: “Great antlers.”
Student: “People have been telling me that.”
Me: “They’re right.”

In addition to the Haunted Hallway, the corn hole games (built by our theater tech students), and a steady line for cotton candy, a room had been set aside and stocked with board games for kids who wanted a break from the lights and music.

A witty and wonderful group of students invited me to play Apples to Apples, something that in a quarter century of working in schools I’ve never done at a fall dance, and a great reminder that as much fun as some students were having moving to music and scaring each other under the black light, for others a chance to gather on campus and play games was more their style (at least for part of the night).

IMG_4856This notion that events like a dance might be purposefully crafted to include something that everyone could enjoy, not just those who know how to move to the latest rock and roll tune, is something that strikes me as wonderful. It’s also something that I feel like I see more of every year I’m a principal.

Board games, fresh fruit, and a Haunted Hallway (and all those unexpected delights that students today add to more traditional events to make them friendlier to all) reinforce the optimism I feel whenever I work with kids.

And Friday, you could dance if you wanted to, but if you don’t dance …well, you’re still a friend of mine.

Hygge

This Saturday my kids and I made a pie. I peeled the apples that my son washed and handed to me, in turn handing them to my daughter who cut them into slices and stirred in sugar and cinnamon. They worked together on the crust, one rolling out the bottom layer, the other the top, each careful to wrap the dough loosely around the rolling pin and spin it smilingly first beneath and then atop the mound of apples.

After we wiped the flour from the kitchen table, preheated the oven, and tucked the red checkered cookbook back on the shelf, the three of us brewed tea and lit a fire.

IMG_4651My wife was out of town and we’d agreed to fill the day with simple things: two early soccer games, my daughter’s in a frigid fog bank and my son’s so wet spray flew off the ball with every kick; a trip to the library, where a librarian scowled at me when I asked to pick up a book my wife had on hold, “You do not have her card,” she pointed out, “we should not do this,” and then, we did, like naughty children, so easily bending the rules; a visit to the library book sale, where for three dollars I left with a book of William Stafford’s poetry and two paperbacks by Stephen King that I remember buying during my freshman year of college; and an hour of housework (laundry, dishes, vacuuming) interrupted by conversation.

It is so easy to get so busy.

Obligations, responsibilities, legitimate, persistent, real, all vie for our attention.

But with my wife away, the immediacy of parenting pulled me away from work and the world beyond our family. I’m so thankful it did.

The book relinquished to me by today’s librarian (who should feel no guilt in sending it home with me) was about Hygge. It’s a Danish concept that defies easy translation, but might be captured in part by the feeling of enjoying a book from a window seat on a lazy afternoon, the feel of a warm blanket looking out over a snowy day, or a cup of cocoa as your mittens dry by the wood stove. I’m told that in Denmark it’s a way of life.

If that’s true, then Saturday at our house felt pretty Danish.

And while I know that the hustle and bustle of work and home is waiting on the other side of tonight’s sleep, and while (if I’m honest with myself) I’m looking forward to the unexpected adventures and breakneck pace of being a principal, it helps me with perspective, priorities, and patience to have a day like today with the sweetness of baked apples and cinnamon.

The weather turning cooler is a nice reminder to slow down, and my kids did a great job of unplugging and really connecting today. Not every day can be a weekend. Not every meal can end in pie. But savoring these Danish days can be such an important balance to the hurly burly, necessary ballast in our ship of life.

Wordsworth captured the feeling I ended the day with in his poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.”

…here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.”

I will carry that tea and fire and apple pie with me for weeks. Finding our renewal is worth a few neglected emails or projects postponed. I’m so thankful for my kids, the rain, and a librarian willing to bend the rules.

Homework on the Table; Music in the Air

My daughter taught herself how to play the Stone Temple Pilots tune “Truce” on the piano, finding the sheet music online, listening with a musician’s ear to the song on her iPod, and practicing in the quiet of her own time to produce a haunting tune so heavy with emotion that hearing it float from our family room makes me want to cry.

She’s taken piano lessons for years because she likes playing the piano, and the songs she comes back to, “Misty” and “Georgia” and a handful of pieces whose composers I’m not sure of (but with melodies now familiar) are the ones she enjoys hearing. For the most part they’re songs from the piano books her teacher gave her, but “Truce,” that’s hers.

gift of failureI thought about my daughter’s piano playing when I read Jessica Lahey’s book The Gift of Failure, the subject of our first ACMA Book Club on December 4th. Leading up to that gathering, It’s my hope to share some articles and interviews about Lahey’s ideas and offer a short post for each of the three sections that make up her book. Here’s the first…

As a dad and an educator I picked up The Gift of Failure looking for ideas that might help me help the kids in my life. From the title and a handful of reviews I’d read, I supposed this would mean finding ways to get them to see that failure was a natural part of learning and that hard work and a growth mindset could go a long way in supporting eventual success.

Part one begins with a nod to two iconic parents: Ma and Pa from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, two stalwarts in the tradition of serious and steady parenting. So glowing with nostalgia as to be almost parables, Wilder’s stories of Ma and Pa show parents in traditional and familiar roles raising kids to be resilient, (mostly) obedient, and ready for the 19th century world they would be living in. She juxtaposes this with the pressure on today’s parents, for whom the role of “ma” or “pa” feels very different.

Those differences felt very real to me, and while Lahey certainly didn’t have me longing for any “good old days” (of starvation and hardship), her perspective on the changes to what is expected of parents (and what we expect of ourselves) was rich with wisdom.

Next, Lahey offers a parenting history lesson from Locke to Spock, making meaningful connections to her own parenting and the contemporary examples she chooses to include. The immediacy of her own journey helped me connect with what she was saying, even as she spent considerable time on self esteem and narcissism and I found myself uncertain of her strongest criticism of the “self-esteem movement.” That said, the concept of making decisions as a parent, and an educator, with a focus on “long term learning” resonated with me as did the idea of “parenting for tomorrow.”

To do so Lahey lays out a compelling argument against the control we sometimes grasp for in both parenting and education. “Just about anything humans perceive as controlling,” she writes, “is detrimental to long term motivation, and therefore to learning.”

That line is one I’m excited to talk more about with parents, teachers, and especially students when we get together in December.

Lahey goes on to discuss the benefits of “desirable difficulties” and the addictive nature of success (when that success is the student’s own). “Truce,” I thought. Or my son’s adventures in Minecraft. Or the hundred works of art I’ve seen in studios and classrooms at ACMA.

Part one of The Gift of Failure continues with a practical example of controlling versus autonomy supporting parenting that reads like the example from a textbook on ethics.

The scenario: kid forgets to take completed homework to school and parent spots it on the kitchen table with enough time to drive it in before class.

Lahey fleshes out the example in ways both philosophical and personal. Her honesty and empathy, coupled with her dedication to “parenting for tomorrow,” shine through in this section of the text. She challenges readers to put themselves in the situation, something she makes as easy to picture as it is difficult to process.

One joy of reading Lahey’s book as a part of a greater school community will be listening to the diverse perspectives of our teachers, parents, and students. This homework on the table question is one we’ll be sure to discuss.

A shout out to Carol Dweck and her book Mindset ends the first section of The Gift of Failure. Cautioning us not to sacrifice credibility on “the flimsy altar of acclaim,” Lahey provides a succession of short lessons applicable to any of us who work with kids.

Being an educator, like being a parent, brings equal parts anxiety and angst. At best, however, it those emotions pale in comparison to the hope and anticipation our kids inspire.

The Gift of Failure, while acknowledging our challenges, suggests that there is much we can do, and allow our students to do, to support that hope.

One of those steps, I’d suggest, is connecting with each other, parents, educators, and students too, to support one another. We’ll connect at 6:30 pm on December 4th in the Arts & Communication Magnet Academy library. See you there!

Oregon October

The pewter skies
and perpetually wet blacktop
harbingers of fall
announce sweatshirt weather
cold ears
and clouds
of exhaled breath

Until an October sun
bright
unexpected
perhaps the most
wonderful possibility of the season
allows us to turn our faces to the sky
and feel
the taste of apples
rustle of leaves
and smell of the earliest fireplaces.

At school, students
grown accustomed to the rhythm of the year
daydream spring
textbooks whispering winter
summer so far away

And teachers too
hunkering toward December
right themselves from leaning into autumn

Dig hands into pockets
and smile up at the sun.

IMG_4452

Leaving the Din of Trifles

So, Emerson.

He is my dad’s favorite American author and as such was a constant presence in the literary landscape of my childhood. I came to him on my own terms in college: I was a double major in literature and philosophy, just Ralph Waldo Emerson’s kind of guy I suppose.

Truth be told, Emerson isn’t one I’ve spent lots of time with since I was an undergraduate, but every once in a while I dip into an anthology and am reminded of why my dad likes him as much as he does.

This weekend was one of those once in a whiles.

As a principal ushering in the start of the school year, I turned to “Education,” a posthumously published essay cribbed from notes and commencement addresses and filled with ideas as challenging and thought provoking as any in today’s education landscape.

With a mix nineteenth century circumlocution and New England bluntness, Emerson begins by praising the value of school, writing:

Humanly speaking, the school, the college, society, make the difference between men. All the fairy tales of Aladdin or the invisible Gyges or the talisman that opens kings’ palaces or the enchanted halls underground or in the sea, are any fictions to indicate the one miracle of intellectual enlargement. When a man stupid becomes a man inspired, when one and the same man passes out of the torpid into the perceiving state, leaves the din of trifles, the stupor of the senses, to enter into the quasi-omniscience of high thought–up and down, around, all limits disappear.”

This idea of disappearing limits, of “intellectual enlargement,” of expanding horizons is as worthy a goal in this present century as it was in the nineteenth. Today we talk about education being the gateway to success, and spend much time justifiably focused on equity, knowing that helping every student leave the “din of trifles” and step onto a path of growth will help foster a life enlarged by opportunity.

Emerson’s essay marches through a series of nineteenth century ideas as antiquated in concept as they are in language, and emerges from the intellectual weeds of his time, stumbling into the bright sunlight of the grand and timeless notion: “Education should be as broad as man.”

IMG_4616What he means by this, he explains, is that “the great objective of education should be commensurate with the object of life.” This coupling of grand notion and practical application, similar to contemporary notions of a pedagogy beyond regurgitation, challenges educators to push students to learn, understand, and apply that learning and understanding.

Are we doing this today?

Were educators doing this in Emerson’s time?

Writ large, the answer is “no” or at least not always. The many and frequent measures of academic success: grades, tests, and benchmarks complicate the free acquisition of knowledge and thorough engagement, but Emerson counters with an argument for optimism that is timeless: “I call our system a system of despair,” he writes, “and I find all the correction, all the revolution that is needed and that the best spirits of this age promise, in one word, in Hope.”

Hope, that thing with feathers that perches on the soul, as transformative then as it is now, is something that fills the best educators I know. It allows us to see beyond despair, or the more common annoyance, and focus on the important work of helping support every student in our schools.

Emerson suggests that the answer needed, the “revolution” in education he would like to see to help students become “great hearted” adults, is in transcending what he calls “neat and safe uniformity” and seeing students for who they are.

He suggests that students bring a “variety of genius” to school, and that they are motivated by different passions and purposes. He recognizes, in his very nineteenth century vernacular, two kinds of learners, introvert and extrovert, whom he describes as “obscure youth” learning in “solitude” and the “young giant, brown from his hunting tramp” lustily engaging with life. For both he praises the value of imagination, writing: “the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil.”

For the introvert this means being allowed to learn “the literature of his virtues; and, because of the disturbing effect of passion and sense, which by a multitude of trifles impede the mind’s eye from the quiet search of that fine horizon-line which truth keeps- the way to knowledge and power has ever been an escape from too much engagement with affairs and possessions.” Don’t make the kid read aloud. As Emerson says later: “There is no want of example of great men, great benefactors, who have been monks and hermits in habit.”

For the happy hunter, learning true to “nature” is a rumbling of “stormy genius” and Emerson suggests that “if he can turn his books to such picturesque account in his fishing and hunting, it is easy to see how his reading and experience, as he has more of both, will interpenetrate each other. And every one desires that this pure vigor of action and wealth of narrative, cheered with so much humor and street rhetoric, should be carried: into the habit of the young man, purged of its uproar and rudeness, but with all its vivacity entire.” Let the kid talk. Let her tell stories. Guide her to less uproar and rudeness, but not at the expense of that pure vigor that makes her who she is.

For both types of learners Emerson argues that “the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil,” an idea not so far from much of educational theory today.

This isn’t to say, acknowledges Emerson, that we should “throw up the reins of public and private discipline [or] leave the young child to the mad career of his passions and whimsies, and call this anarchy a respect for the child’s nature.”

“Respect the child,” he advises, “respect him to the end, but also respect yourself. Be the companion of his thought, the friend of his friendship, the lover of his virtue, but not kinsman to his sin.” Teachers matter much, and that balance of respect and guidance is as real today as it was when Emerson was writing.

Put simply, Emerson’s focus is on allowing the natural wonder, the “perpetual romance of new life,” to exist side by side with instruction around how to learn. A student “can learn anything which is important to him now that the power to learn is secured; as mechanics say, when one has learned the use of tools, it is easy to work at a new craft.”

That learning how happens step by step, and according to Emerson should never lose the “mutual delight” of teaching and learning. I’d add to that the delight of reading folks like Emerson.

I do my best to read books relevant to my work as a principal, Couros and Dweck, Brown and Lythcott-Haims on the shelf by my desk, but it’s important too not to ignore poetry, philosophy, and even a good kids book when as an educator I set my sights on leaving the din of trifles.

The Gift of Conversation

In the wild rumpus of modern day life one of the things educators, parents, and students do too little of is talking with one another about ideas. Sure we pull together to discuss particular crises, talk grades when the topic comes up, and address immediate challenges, but more seldom do we take a step back and talk about how we got to those situations, or how best we can work together to meet our greater collective goal of helping each of our students learn.

One modest way to confront this challenge of building collective perspective is to carve out time to gather and discuss a topic, inviting diverse points of view to speak, listen, and connect. Bookish as I am, I see a great catalyst for this kind of conversation as books.

To that end, we’re going to try something here at ACMA that I hope might get people talking with one another about how we best support each other and our students. On December 4th we’ll host our first ACMA Book Club.

IMG_4513In the couple of months between now and then, I invite students, parents, guardians, teachers, counselors, staff members, grandmas and grandpas, to read The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey. It’s an immensely readable book, with much to agree (and maybe even disagree) with, lots of real examples, and a spirit of hope that I think helps the very serious messages resonate.

As a principal and as a dad I found in Lahey’s book ideas to challenge my practice, inform my decisions, and get me to think about how I was supporting (or maybe even hindering) the kids in my life.

Does everyone need to agree with everything Lahey says? Heck, no, but I honestly believe that The Gift of Failure has the potential to spark some amazing conversations, and what better gift can we give each other in this busy world than an opportunity to talk with each other about how we might make a difference?

 

The ACMA Book Club will meet in the Arts & Communication Magnet Academy library on Tuesday, December 4th from 6:30-8:00 pm.