Failing… Together

The last third or so of Jessica Lahey’s The Gift of Failure takes readers to a place even more intimidating than the dishes in the kitchen sink or the youth soccer pitch; it’s in this meaty final stage of the book that she brings us to …school.

As a principal, and particularly as the principal of a school with sixth through twelfth grade students, I appreciated that while Lahey found some universality in the school experience, she divided her discussion in half, spending time with both middle school and high school (and beyond). While they’re distinctions we minimize here at Arts & Communication Magnet Academy (where we’re a seven year program, like Hogwarts) the reality of the differences between eleven and twelve year olds and seventeen and eighteen year old students is real, and speaking to these differences allows for a clarity that I think will serve us well when we gather for our ACMA Book Club on December 4th to talk about Lahey’s book.


One of these ideas that I’m likely to read verbatim when we meet comes from Lahey’s perspective as a middle school teacher. She writes:

Here’s the ugly and wonderful truth about middle school: it’s a setup. Middle school teachers ask students to succeed at tasks that their half-cooked, adolescent brains are not yet able to master, and therefore, failure is not an if proposition, it’s a matter of when.”

Lahey breaks down this contention with the more reassuring perspective that while the challenges and responsibilities students face in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade push them to their limits (and beyond), eventually they do get it and the result of this newfound control over their own lives can be amazing. “So fear not,” she writes. “Failure is a fact of life in middle school, so embrace it. Everyone is doing it, even the cool kids. Even the kids who look as though they have it all figured out. …jump in and take advantage of all those learning experiences in the guise of everyday failures, littering the middle school landscape.”

Beyond acknowledging the “landscape” of positive failure, Lahey offers suggestions for both parents and educators on how best to support students through these years of challenge and change. From organization to time management, from schedules to a sense of humor, she lays out practical and possible supports for anyone living and working with these baby giraffes.

Lahey also acknowledges that things shift around ninth grade, speeding up as students make a running start to break out of their parents’ orbit.

That Lahey calls high school students “emerging adults” helps to underscore the message of the book and the importance of supporting our students as they move beyond high school and into adult lives of their own. These are the years students have more safety and support in which to make mistakes. So often as a principal I’ve had conversations with kids and parents about the difference between the choice they made as a sophomore or junior and what that same choice would look like if they were over eighteen. Our society is more forgiving of minors and our school system, at its best, is a place where support and education is the priority over punishment.

Lahey takes this farther, discussing the importance of parents shifting into a new role for their high school aged students. Quoting a high school teacher and administrator, she writes:

When parents take the supporting role, but balance it with the ability (and it is a learned skill for parents) to step aside and watch and welcome and expect the student to choose his/her way, students seem to make the better choices relatively quickly  if not automatically. Students want to do well. They want to make the right choice … but they also want to have the ability to choose.”

What struck me, in addition to the truth I see in the statement, is the parenthetical reality that is so seldom explicitly stated: the ability to step aside and watch “is a learned skill.” How, the principal I am asks, do we do this? If we see this patient parental support as learned behavior, what are we doing to help parents (and students) learn and value it?

It’s a point I look forward to asking the parents and students at our book club about.

One of the parts of The Gift of Failure that I could see being tough to talk about is Lahey’s systematic dissection of grade levels nine through twelve. In this section she takes on the sacrosanct idea of an achievement laden college resume. Quoting a college president she writes:

…the expensive trips to far-flung poverty? Fifty-two activities scattered across the seven days of the week? Honestly. It doesn’t help. Give me a kid with a passion for learning, a kid who has demonstrated some measure of autonomy and motivation. Give me a kid who knows his or her mind. But these things are harder to come by if the child has been tutored and handheld from birth.”


But true to form, Lahey doesn’t abandon her readers at the revelation; she spends time unpacking opportunities for students to build their independence and demonstrate the “autonomy and motivation” that college president was talking about.

…and she throws in a marvelous checklist for parents of new college students.

But that checklist wouldn’t feel significant if it wasn’t so necessary. Backing up a step, Lahey ends the book with a section devoted to “succeeding at school.” Wisely beginning the section with a brief history lesson about home and school relationships from the Colonial era through the choppy waters of the seventies and eighties, and the introduction of new measurements and standards of the current day, Lahey educates before moving into an informed discussion of positive and proactive steps parents might take to promote parent-teacher partnerships that benefit students. A partial list directed toward parents includes:


For each of these, as well as the others on the list, I see corollaries for teachers, counselors and administrators like me. For all of us, the last item on the list holds a special truth we’re wise not to ignore: SUPPORT THE STUDENT-TEACHER PARTNERSHIP, EVEN WHEN IT’S CHALLENGING.

As a principal I’d add: especially when it’s challenging.

Lahey ends the book with frank and honest discussions of homework and grades, the twin bugbears of education, and topics I’m sure will support rich discussions on Monday night. In her final pages she turns back to the tough but true message of The Gift of Failure:

If the unpredictability of our own journey is frustrating, the suspense that parents experience as we watch our children’s stories unfold is downright unbearable. Because we can’t possibly know how their stories will end, their failures are the more acute, immediate, and treacherous; more Shakespearean tragedy than quaint anecdote.”

How can we help our kids, and each other, navigate these uncertain and stressful times? Together.

For those interested in being a part of that “together” here at ACMA, our Arts & Communication Magnet Academy Book Club will meet on Monday, December 4th from 6:30 to 8:00 pm in ACMA’s library.



We believe in things that will give us hope
Why shouldn’t we? Why shouldn’t we?
                    -Mary Chapin Carpenter

Much of what I do as a principal is look for hope. I walk the halls, listen to students, ask questions of adults, and seek out those corners of the school where good gathers. When I find it, like a cat, I pounce.

Then I thank.
I share.
And I celebrate the hell out of it.

Because as much as I want to believe Emily Dickinson and cling to the notion of Hope as a thing with feathers that perches in the soul, the more prosaic world has taught me that as often Emily Brontë is right and…

Hope, whose whisper would have given
Balm to all my frenzied pain,
Stretched her wings, and soared to heaven,
Went, and ne’er returned again!”

That doesn’t mean you give up. As a principal it means you put on your walking shoes and go birding.

Today hope looked like this:

With just a week left in November, rain forecast every day for the next two weeks, and a mandatory fire drill hanging over our heads, my amazing secretary, intrepid AP, and I looked up at a break in the clouds and considered the possibility of evacuating and getting the kids back in the building before rain returned.

We needed to wait until the end of the period for the drill to count (requirements mandate a drill that takes place at least partly at lunch), so with an eye toward the clouds I sent an email to my staff:

RE: Blame it on the rain…
Hello all,
Put simply, it’s not going to get better, so we’re going to take advantage of what is supposed to be 18 minutes of not-rain to do our mandatory fire drill in just a few minutes. It will start at the end of this period and nudge into first lunch. We’ll get them out and back in as quickly as we can.
Margaret will ring the bell very soon.
Let’s do this,


Principals always hope humor helps.

It started to rain, not hard, just enough. We looked from the sky to the clock. Another ten minutes before our drill.


Five minutes later I put on my coat. I would not bring an umbrella. Not every teacher would have one for this unexpected drill and I’m a gentleman after all.

Clouds moved above me when I stepped outside. Rain fell, but not hard. The alarm rang and students flooded out.

I whistled a little Milli Vanilli. This might not be too bad.

Kids squinted up at the dark clouds blowing across the sky. Someone was barefoot. Someone else didn’t have a coat. A teacher, hood framing her face, looked at me and said “really?”

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all -“

And then the rain stopped.

We all looked up.

A student said “look,” pointing, and my momentary relief at feeling the rain stop disappeared, replaced by the wonder inspired by the most perfect rainbow I have ever seen.

It could just as easily have begun to pour.

But today it didn’t.

Today it didn’t.

As beautiful as that rainbow was, reaching over our students and reminding all of us of the artistic beauty of nature, tomorrow’s hope will be just as important. That found hope, seen in the kindness of a student, the caring of a teacher, or any of a thousand things there to be seen by someone looking for them, will have the power to inspire. If I can capture it, celebrate it, and remain thankful I will have done right by my school and those around me.

Life has the capacity and the inclination for greatness.

Sometimes it rains, sure, and sometimes there are rainbows.

Dishes, Friendships, and Failure

Jessica Lahey drops more than a little wisdom in her infinitely readable The Gift of Failure, the subject of our upcoming ACMA Book Club. In the first part of the book she describes the power of failure as a parenting tool, and in the second section she shifts into particular and poignant examples of “teaching kids to turn mistakes into success.”

Building on her initial argument, Part Two of The Gift of Failure begins with the assertion that kids want to feel capable, and that as the adults in their lives we have the responsibility to give them opportunities to attempt difficult tasks, learn from mistakes, and grow as a result of their experiences.

They’re ideas I look forward to talking about with the parents, students, and ACMA staff who join me for the book club on December 4th. Hearing the points of view of both the adults and the students means the possibility of helping each other, broadening our perspective, and realizing we’re not alone in what can be a challenging time.


Presented as clearly as it is, the advice Lahey offers is a challenge that I feel up to more often as an educator than I do as a dad. As she notes, often teachers see in their students a greater capability than is seen by their parents. I get this. As a dad.

I felt this particularly when I read Lahey’s question about chores, or as she wisely calls them, “family contributions.” Discussing the importance of kids helping at home, she asked:

What’s more important -that the dishes are immaculate, or that your child develops a sense of purpose and pride because he’s finally contributing in a real and valuable way to the family?”

At the risk of sounding confessional, there are times in this mixed up world that I feel like I need a clean and picked up kitchen.

I suppose the clever reader (or Jessica Lahey, or a parent, or a student, or a staff member) will say: deal with it. Either accept a little messier or come up with a new set of chores. I know that’s sensible; it’s just that after a busy day, after I’ve hurried home from my kids’ soccer practice, there are some days I’m too tired to be the best parent I could be.

…and I want those dishes to end up clean, the kids’ homework to get done, and bedtime to happen before 10:30.

Lahey writes about her own son’s adventures in putting away dishes, noting “since that first day, he has broken dishes in the process of learning how best to carry, stack, and load them, but who cares? I’d trade ten broken plates for his smiles of competence and pride.” I am not yet that parent. Ye gads, I am not.

Maybe the group will have ideas about what works for them in this regard. The students who fill ACMA’s hallways are a responsible, well adjusted bunch. Their parents have done something right. I’m hungry to hear the stories of what that something might be.

Lahey provides the descriptions of more than a few “something rights” as well as touchstones for parents (and principals) like me. One that stuck with me came after the description of a scenario of a student packing her own lunch only to be disappointed by yogurt squashed by an ice pack. “She needs,” Lahey writes, “to be disappointed in her own choices once and a while.” What a beautifully phrased dollop of truth.

In addition to disappointment, Lahey promotes family contributions as a vehicle for learning self competence. Her chapter on “Laundry as an Opportunity” provides a host of rich examples for our discussion, and I look forward to listening to the experiences folks, both student and adult, are willing to share.

As rich may be the discussion of how students navigate the sometimes turbulent waters of friendship. In addition to that potentially polarizing question of “is it okay for parents to snoop into kids’ rooms and social media?” the topic of how much parents should be involved in the “constantly evolving” social lives of their kids promises fodder for interesting conversation.

Yes,” Lahey writes, “kids will make bad choices in friends, and some friendships will fail, but those missteps are what we look back on in order to recognize the traits of a healthy relationship versus a toxic one.”

The truth of that statement gives me pause. As a human I believe it is true; as a dad I wish it wasn’t. At least I think I do. I know that I don’t want my kids, or the hundreds of students I get to work with at my school, to have to make bad choices to learn about toxic relationships …and …and I do want them to grow, to learn, and to be strong. This is a topic I’m excited to talk with the students about. I have a feeling that their perspective will help not just me, but the other adults in the room.

That’s really the point of the whole enterprise of our ACMA Book Club, taking the time to talk together with fellow travelers on this journey of life. Listening, contributing our voices, and connecting with each other, I believe we create the opportunity to help each other and help ourselves.



The ACMA Book Club meets on December 4th from 6:30-8:00 pm in the Arts & Communication Magnet Academy library to discuss The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey.

Go… !

Here at ACMA there’s talk of finding a mascot. With just over a quarter century of history behind us, the thinking goes that it’s about time we landed on a little more cohesive identity, an easier way for the community around us to recognize that we’re more than just the sum of our parts, and that whether a student is a poet or a painter, dances, makes films, or acts, she is a part of a dynamic creative community where she can be herself and be part of something bigger than any one student or one program.

I love the acknowledgement that we are an all encompassing haven for artists of many kinds. There is a tremendous and unifying power to the creative process, and whether we sculpt, write, make music, or make sets, the very nature of creating art gives us all a common point of view and shared sensibility. Art unites us.

Now, that mascot.

The truth is… and I may be in the minority… I love the fact that we haven’t ever limited ourselves to just one mascot. There is a delicious possibility in the notion that on any given day we could be anything we choose. Van Gophers? Could be. Therapy Llamas? Could be.

As I explained to a friend the other day, we’re the David Bowie of schools, some days Ziggy Stardust, some days wearing a suit and singing about getting to the church on time. Try to tie us down and we’ll slip right through your expectations.

Screen Shot 2017-11-08 at 1.32.41 PMGo Chameleons?

Could be.

Or today we might just be the Spiders from Mars.

But such nonsense may not be the unifying reality best for our school. Maybe we would benefit from a single image to rally around, a metaphoric melody we could riff on. Heck, it could be fun.

So it’s with a smile and an open mind that as we move toward winter the discussion of how best to celebrate and communicate our school begins to take shape.

Over the next few weeks we’ll reach out to students and alumni, teachers and staff, and ask for ideas about how we might best articulate ourselves to the world beyond our campus. What, we’ll ask, can we do to clearly present who we are and what we do?

We’ll always be ACMA. We’ll always be a place where creativity abounds and creative souls are honored, encouraged, and challenged to make art. We’ll always think just a little differently and not be afraid to create works that show that spirit.

And as we begin our second quarter century we will take the time we need to connect with each other and articulate our own artistic identity. No matter what the outcome, this is a process that is good for us as a collection of artistic individuals.

Past graduates, current students, and staff from every year, ACMA is your school and it always will be. If you’re a little unsure about the notion of a mascot, I invite you to join me in suspending disbelief, knowing all will be well, and believing in the power of art to guide our adventure at ACMA and beyond.


It all started with brownies, specifically the question of whether an ACMA counselor, Jill, and I would consider baking brownies for an event and letting students judge them. Sure, we agreed, both always game for a little adventure and unlikely to say “no” when students ask us to play.

IMG_4984Yes, and…

What if we filmed it? We asked. You know, like The Great British Bake Off. Here at ACMA we have a robust film department, and it took all of about five seconds to coax three intrepid filmmakers into shooting the contest on a non-student day.

“The Great Brownie Bake Off” we called it. Good. Clean. Fun.

About the same time, our yearbook staff, a creative collection of students, came up with the idea of promoting their social media presence by inviting a series of ACMA folks to “take over” their Snapchat and Instagram ACMA Yearbook accounts. Wild as it sounds, I got the nod for a day. …the same day as The Great Brownie Bake Off!

As the principal a large part of my job is communication. I once worked with a superintendent who liked to say that the principal was the “chief communication officer” of the school. It’s a role I take seriously, putting a priority on parent coffees, keeping our Facebook page up to date, and even tweeting a bit. But those are (mostly) parent communications. The kids? They live elsewhere online, in ranges (mostly) not conquered by those over thirty. My marvelous yearbook students had given me a one day pass into that online student world, something to be appreciated, even embraced with a spirit of play.

IMG_4983My “takeover” took place on a day when students didn’t have classes, an overcast Friday at the end of the quarter set aside for teachers to grade. The brownies would take part of the day and I’d need to figure out a few other fun posts I could share with the kids about what life was like when they weren’t on campus.

Earlier in the week a student had shown me how to post to both Snapchat and Instagram, and left me with the advice: “We like video.” So, early on Friday morning I started with an announcement of my “takeover” and the hope that today would be fun and end with them buying a yearbook.

IMG_5034I visited classrooms to find teachers grading, sharing pictures of our Spanish teacher at her desk, a senior English teacher and his student teacher grading stacks of essays, and then a clip of an amazing math teacher answering another teacher’s grading question with his fart gun. When in doubt, go for the middle school laugh.

Brownies followed, with a series of posts celebrating the playful contest that started it all, and I realized just how hard it is to capture life on social media at the same time it’s being lived. That our kids do this every day astounds me, and maybe makes me a little nervous too.

IMG_5033When I blog or tweet, or even when we celebrate our school’s story on Facebook or our website, a built in time delay takes the urgency off putting something online. This delay slows us down and gives us the opportunity to think about things like merit and message (and spelling). Instagram and Snapchat, at least in my unskilled thumbs, felt hurried and immediate. This, I thought as I hurried to post between melting chocolate and stirring flour, is my students’ reality.

To live this awareness felt different than reading about it. I’ve done book groups on teens and social media, talked with countless kids about the importance of their digital lives, and engaged in meaningful conversation with teachers, parents, and students about the promise and peril of a phone in every hand, but living the reality of feeling the pressure to post something right now was a healthy thing for me to experience as a principal. I’m not sure I liked it, but I believe it made me a more thoughtful educator.

IMG_5031Returning to school, brownies in hand, I took up my tour of campus once again. Along the way I found lots more grading (sensible on a grading day) as well as an art teacher setting up a student display case, my assistant principal setting out rubber coyotes to scare off the migrating geese, and a science teacher’s youngster discovering joy in a pottery wheel. Even on a “day off” ACMA can’t help but inspire young artists.

I ended with a post about what a principal does when students aren’t on campus, remembering my tutor’s advice that students love video, and recording the opening of the Prologue from Shakespeare’s Henry V.

O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention
My kingdom for a stage …or an Instagram account that kids follow!”

IMG_5032Shakespeare’s Prologue got it right when he trumpeted the value of clear communication and embraced his role as “cipher to this great accompt.” Schools, like history, are collections of stories, and if we don’t embrace the opportunity to tell our own someone else will.

Telling these stories on Twitter or in this blog is comfortable to me. I feel like I know what I’m doing more often than not, and the feedback I get from my audience lets me know when I’m able to communicate something that matters. Snapchat and Instagram are still unfamiliar to me, even though they’re a natural part of the world my students live in. If I really want to connect and communicate with my kids, if I really want to tell the story of my school, our school, then I’m wise not to neglect these in favor of the familiar.

My “takeover” taught me more than just how to use a couple of types of social media (though I still don’t know filters, stories, and a thousand other possibilities about them); it reminded me of the value of seeing the world, even on the online world, of my students from a different point of view. It reinforced the importance of breaking out of my own comfort zone and trying something different, and doing so publicly and with an optimistic mindset.

Will I use Snapchat or Instagram in the future? Truth be told, not as often as I’ll go back to my more established social media venues, but they don’t scare me, and I do see how partnering with students to use these and other tools can help me be a better cipher to this great accompt. As the chief communication officer for my school, that’s as sweet as a good brownie.