Sock it to Me

I’ve seen “drives” before, canned food, toys, that sort of thing. Holiday sharing, as it’s sometimes called at a school, can be a positive part of our students’ experience, reinforcing kindness, teaching empathy, and helping remind us that as important as learning is, caring matters just as much.

This year at ACMA a spirited counselor took the reigns of a Sock, Hat, and Glove Drive, rallying students to bring in so many warm things that they filled my office. She made witty and wonderful announcements over the PA, stood in front of the school before dawn to collect donations as parents dropped off their kids, and even enlisted an intrepid board member, and ACMA kindred spirit, to join her one morning.

Day by day the sock pile grew. Hats and gloves filled my windowsills. Wool hung from my bookshelves, and every morning more warm clothing arrived.

Giving is something that comes naturally to students, and the generosity of our kids was matched only by the glee with which they presented their gifts.

The difference with ACMA’s Sock, Hat, and Glove Drive this December, subtle as it was, came in the way it reflected the spirit of our students and our school.

In addition to mountains of functional woolen gear were Star Wars socks, rainbow gloves, and hats with ears. Just because someone needs a helping hand doesn’t mean she can’t look fabulous. It was a fact lost on me at first, covered by the sheer quantity of clothing, but then one morning as I walked into my office I saw the pile of socks, hats, and gloves looking back at me!

sock hat

This, I thought, is ACMA.

Also ACMA is the expression of delight on the faces of the students who came by my office every morning to deliver their donations. Student after student, sixth grade through senior, ACMA kids brought smiles as wide as Christmas to my door, leaning in, laughing, and tossing the socks, hats, and gloves onto the ever growing pile.

Over time, and at the invitation of that marvelously mischievous counselor, students were encouraged to throw their stuff at me if I was sitting at my desk. We even made a couple of short videos to promote it, and the playful joy on the students’ faces moved me beyond words.

Then, this morning, the last day of the drive, a student, a huge handful of lavender socks in her hands, said: “I can really throw this at you?”

“Yes,” I answered, “but if I catch it, I get to throw it back at you!” She grinned, threw, and ducked. ACMA magic.

The socks, hats, and gloves will find feet, heads, and hands this winter, and I the warmth our students feel from giving will last for a long, long time.

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A Great Hall of Reflection

“Art … is a great hall of reflection where we can all meet and where everything under the sun can be examined and considered.”
                                  -Iris Murdoch

Just about every morning I take a walk. At 7:30 my amazing assistant, Margaret, and I cue up a song, turn on the PA, and let music fill ACMA. For the next five minutes, as students hurry to classes to the sound of Miles Davis or Ella Fitzgerald, Sharon Jones or David Bowie, Mozart or Edie Brickell and Steve Martin, I walk.

coffeeA cup of coffee in hand, I navigate the front hall by the main office, zigging around the trophy case filled with ceramics, dodging kids wrapped in fleece blankets (a thing at ACMA during these cold winter months) and turn the corner by the door of the dance studio at the mouth of ACMA’s Hallway of Hope and Justice.

Every morning I see teachers standing at doorways greeting students, I see kids carrying projects (a canvas, a sculpture, the makings of a robotic hand), and I find myself surrounded not just by art on every wall, but by the creative student artists who make our school the work of art that it is.

Ours is a school of plush ears, horns, and tails. We are a place that exudes the creative spirit, a place where students create their identities as well as their art. At ACMA we laugh often, dream big, and are comfortable being just a little bit different. Seeing this creativity made manifest every morning is an inspiration.

To walk down ACMA’s hallways first thing in the morning, The Clash, The Bangles, or The Beatles filling the air, is to see hope.

At 7:30 in the morning students are focused on what’s ahead. They’re not performing; they’re preparing. As these artists, writers, dancers, and musicians move together through the hallways, nodding hellos to one another, smiling, and toting instruments, cameras, and portfolios, they seem to me less a disconnected collection of individuals and more the cohesive colors of a creative rainbow. They share a desire to make art and a poetic way of seeing the world.

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My walk takes me to the end of the hallway, past paintings and wire sculpture, past displays about LBGTQ pride and announcements for upcoming productions, beneath student murals reaching back for decades and temporary installations on kindness, body image, and environmental issues.

Each step, to the strains of Mendelssohn or the bounce of Billie Holiday, takes me through a sea of anticipation. The day is about to begin. In the next hours together students will dance, and sing, and draw, and sculpt. They will write, and act, and make films. They will discuss literature and math, debate history, experiment in science (and maybe artistically too). They will support one another, encourage one another, and help each other be the best artists (and people) they can be.

Well, once they’ve wiped the sleep from their eyes; 7:30 am is awfully early for artists.

To help them wake up we may cue up some Prince or Buckshot LeFonque, Pink Martini or Johnny Cash. Whatever the soundtrack for the morning, the feeling is the same: gratitude for being at ACMA, excitement for the creative process, and a belief that today great things may happen.

I never take that morning walk for granted. Never. It’s a time to connect with students and staff, absorb the inspiration of our vibrant school, and witness first hand the profound power of creativity.

Thank You

It took my breath away.

I saw the envelope in my box and, it being December and all, thought: Holiday card. How nice. How wrong.

IMG_5405Inside was a beautiful Thank You covered in so many messages from students that all I could do was be overwhelmed by gratitude. I’d had the chance to teach a little poetry lesson a couple of weeks ago and this was in response.

The explosion of colors and variety of handwriting, the little drawings, the creativity, this was a window into the world of the amazing students who fill ACMA. They are truly independent and creative spirits and this kindness was in keeping with the spirit of goodwill that I have come to realized helps to define our school.

Then I slowed down and started reading. My goodness.

And hidden amongst the student messages was a line from Rumi jotted out with a message from their teacher.

Everyone has been made for some particular work,
And the desire for that work has been put in every heart.”

Thank you for sharing your heart with us.

To every student, and particularly to that generous teacher who was willing to give me the keys to the car for a couple of marvelous days, I say thank you. I’ve long believed that there is nothing in the world like the give and take of conversation in a classroom. The energy teachers and students share when they are discussing ideas can’t be replicated, it is, like poetry, music, and art, magical. It is why we do what we do.

IMG_5407As a principal that’s an important reality for me to keep at the front of my mind as I do all I can to support the work going on in my school. Often the day to day reality of being an administrator is much more mundane than Rumi or Cavafy, but the motivation for what I do should always be that “particular work … put in my heart.”

That thank you card is proudly displayed on my bookshelf now, and the appreciation will live in my heart longer than this school is standing. Those students gave me a treasured gift, both during my time in the classroom and this afternoon when I opened an envelope filled with kindness and perspective.

(Robotic) Hands On Learning

“Mr. Paige, come look what I did!”

I’d just stepped into a sixth grade science classroom, prompted by the knowledge that they were in the building phase of a cool project involving robotic hands, and she was the first student who looked up and made eye contact. The class was so busy, so focused, so when this young scientist invited me to check out her work I threaded through the groups of students standing around tables talking, tinkering, and engaging with each other, and hurried to where she was standing.

IMG_5349When I got to the table this student shared with her group I saw pure delight in her eyes. Proudly she explained the intricacies of the mechanical glove she and her peers had been working on. “Biomechanics,” she called it, as she talked about the “anatomy of the hand.” This young scientist explained the project to me, nodding at the open Chromebook on the table and pointing across the room where their teacher was working with another group to test some fingers.

This is a project championed not only by our amazing ACMA science folks, but also by our district’s TOSA team (Teachers on Special Assignment). It’s a nice example of what can happen when educators work together, teachers open their classrooms to new ideas, and everyone puts student engagement first.

At an art school like ACMA it’s not unusual to see students engaged in activities that mean much to them. Potters, poets, and performers spend hours both in class and out creating works that demonstrate their creativity and artistic ability. Musicians, dancers, and painters practice, problem solve, and innovate as part of what they do every day. Filmmakers, theater techs, and graphic designers know all about trying one approach, revising, adapting, and doing something different. In all those artistic fields I see passionate and purposeful students determined to create something amazing …the same qualities I saw in that robotic hand.

Similar too was the pride in that student’s voice when she invited me to come over and see what she and her group had done. That hand, all wires and cardboard, showed the results of that same curiosity and creativity so familiar in art studios and performance spaces across campus.

It’s in these moments of creation that real learning flourishes. As students make, from clay or musical notes, or words, as they build, with movements, code, or even wires and cardboard, they create connections that bring understanding to life. The students who are making maps in history class, building court cases in English, or applying math to real world problems all have a chance to find relevance in what they are learning.

IMG_5354This week’s robotic hand could be next week’s Sphero challenge or next month’s cigar box guitar build. The joy I saw in that student’s eyes, and the focus that filled the whole sixth grade science classroom, could be echoed in choir, or theater, or Spanish class.

At its best education provides students with opportunities to succeed, to create, and to engage. When that best arrives, as it did this week in the form of the robotic hands, the power of learning is profound.

Our challenge as educators is to build our lessons and our schools with the potential to inspire students to want to know more, to work together to understand, and to come up with a product (be it something written, built, or performed) that inspires them to turn to us when we enter the room and say proudly: “Come look what I did!”

Riffing with Cavafy

“It does not bother me if outside
winter spreads fog, clouds, and cold.
Spring is within me, true joy.”
          -CP Cavafy

Last week I got to teach.

It has long been a promise I’ve made to myself that every year of being a principal I will set aside time to step back into classrooms and embrace the reason I got into education in the first place: to teach. Over the past few years I’ve had the pleasure of working with middle schoolers and high schoolers, walking the foggy streets with Sherlock Holmes, talking hope with Emily Dickinson and Emily Brontë, and even teaching a little cartooning. This engagement with students is far more than magical; for me connecting with kids is a fundamental reminder of the reason I do what I do, the rationale behind my decisions as a principal, the “why” of my work.

Last week that work brought be to the plains of Troy and five classes of juniors and seniors who had just finished reading Homer’s Iliad. I’d taught the epic a lifetime ago, or at least large swaths of it, in a unit I called the ALIliad, a mashup of Homer’s heroes and Muhammad Ali. It was rollicking fun, perfect for spring term Senior English, and I had fond memories of those busted brain-pans and ancient heroes. For my return to Troy, however, I opted for something more …traditional: CP Cavafy.

Cavafy is an early 20th century Greek poet who lived and wrote in Alexandria. His work, seemingly simple and certainly powerful, captures ideas political, passionate, and personal, and his ability to discuss history and epic in very human ways suggested him as a nice follow up to the hard work the students had already done with Homer. Cavafy builds on the traditional as well as anyone, and I figured some of the students might dig making connections, juxtapositions, and discoveries between and about the two poets.

IMG_1359As rain battered the classroom windows, we started with a little music. To set up the notion of a modern artist riffing on something grand and established I’d given the students the homework of listening to “My Favorite Things,” first the recognizable Julie Andrews version from The Sound of Music film and then John Coltrane’s take on the tune in all its modal glory.

The students, particularly those ridiculously talented student musicians brought amazing perspective to a discussion of the two versions of the tune, juxtaposing Coltrane and the Rodgers and Hammerstein original like professional critics. They led us to where I’d hoped they would: the idea of an artist, to use Coltrane’s line, “looking back at the old things to see them in a new light” and creating something new, something different, something meaningful.

That ACMA is filled with passionate student artists made our discussion richer than I’d imagined.

We followed this Coltrane preface with two essential questions and dove into Cavafy with aplomb. After reading “Trojans” together, students broke into groups and wrestled with four of Cavafy’s poems: “The Horses of Achilles,” “The Funeral of Sarpedon,” “Night March of Priam,” and “When the Watchman Saw the Light.”

I wanted the students to see not only a different take on Homer, but also understand the humanizing Cavafy does to the familiar characters, even immortal ones, and dig how this more modern Greek poet looked “back at the old things and [saw] them in a new light.”

Discussion sparkled, creative students applying their intelligence and spirit to Cavafy’s texts. That they brought insight I hadn’t thought of when planning the lesson shouldn’t have come as a surprise; some of the best things about teaching are those moments when students startle you with an unexpected perspective and creative approach.

We talked about art and grief and love and beauty, and class after class I found myself more and more thankful for the opportunity to spend this time with the students. Classrooms truly are where the magic of education happens.

We ended with “Ithaca,” of course, because, well, Cavafy.

And in that poem of appreciation I heard echoes of last week’s teaching journey.

…do not hurry the voyage at all.
it is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way…”

Last week’s lessons were best when they were unhurried, a luxury limited to the first day and compromised on the second by a shortened schedule and looming assignment justifiably on the students’ minds. But even then, even when the minute hand pushed me forward like a Trojan into an Achaean spear, the experience of connecting with students is one that I am profoundly thankful for.

I walked out of the classroom tired, energized, and happy. For a principal to step back in front of a classroom is a reminder of what an exhausting and exhilarating job being a teacher really is. It is a reminder that the interaction between students and teachers is unique, magical, and (sometimes) profound.

It was raining outside, but my spirit was there on the plains of Troy with Homer, Cavafy, and some of the best students I’ve ever known.