No Philosopher King

The looks I get when teachers and students hear that I have a degree in philosophy range from bemused to noddingly impressed. What was he thinking? Some seem to be wondering. What a great foundation to be a leader! I imagine others thinking to themselves. Well, I imagine it anyway.

I’m a high school principal, hardly Plato’s philosopher king, and as kooky as it sounds, in my workaday world of running a school I consistently lean on the background and perspective my philosophy major provided to me.

A part of that perspective, of course, is critical thinking and the ability to logically parse out arguments, two skills that serve me well as I work in a profession filled with decisions to be made and answers to be found. Inundated with data and opinions, provided a range of “facts” that don’t add up, evaluating situations for validity is a part of what I do every day. Years with Carnap and Quine taught me to be careful with my thinking and left me confident in my ability to put my mind to problems and be able to see the clearest way.

IMG_5346But education, and particularly the role of principal, isn’t always clear or logical, and I’m also thankful for the ability to suspend disbelief and hold various and contradicting points of view that comes from my study of philosophy. So often the right choice comes only after walking a labyrinth, a task made easier by some comfort in the world of the unknown. Paradox may be too strong a word for some of what I see, but as I work to find solutions to the puzzles of my work an understanding that sometimes Zeno’s arrow is staying in the air for a while helps put things in perspective.

Also helping with perspective are the ethical arguments I learned studying philosophy. More often than one might expect issues in education are issues of equity, fairness, and justice. Beyond those logicians or playful puzzlers, social philosophers like Rousseau and Foucault, who helped to inform my professional self, also provide a certain perspective that I use to help navigate the turbulent waters of educational policy. I’m not saying that I break out Aristotle when I need to decide if a kid should get a free bus pass or we ought to suspend a student for smoking in the bathroom, but I do believe my time as a philosophy major helped me lay a foundation from which I’ve built the approach I take to my work.

Finally, and as important as any of the other impacts I’ve mentioned, I find that studying philosophy inspired in me a profound curiosity, a desire to keep learning, to question, and to always strive to know more. This pursuit of knowing and love of learning help to define who I am as a principal and an educator. They’re qualities I hope I model for my students and school community.

While those students may or may not know what to make of my degree in philosophy, it’s a part of who I am, and that, I think, makes a difference they can feel.


Words, Words, Words

IMG_5722“Are otters artists?”
“Our otters are artists.”
Tongue twisting bursts
of shared creativity.

My daughter came up with the otters
and as we refined the couplet
laughing in our kitchen
the world felt good.

Words have the magic
of connecting

No new idea there, but
a simple appreciation
for the times poets spun
“morning morning’s minion”
“sibilant penumbra”
or “man’s first disobedience and the fruit…”

And for those instances
in kitchens
and in poems
when we ourselves
turn something
of an artistic otter.


Being (more) Human

“The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through vast forests, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”
-James Baldwin

We are, as a school, a community that can. We can create art with wild abandon. We can create connections with real purpose. We can create community with a clear conscience.

IMG_5668What we can’t do is rely on reputation, no matter how well earned. That ACMA is a place that is welcoming to all, that we are a school that honors and celebrates students of diverse backgrounds, cultural heritages, gender identities, and points of view is a reality we need to continue to build day by day, interaction by interaction, and purposeful choice by purposeful choice.

I see this choice of kindness every day as I walk through our halls. A commitment to kindness, and to each other, manifests itself in activities like the Kindness Project that some of our students took on earlier in the year, the boards of affirmations in our hallways, and the support I see in classrooms across campus as students strive to create and refine their art.

As a school we’ve made the choice to hang banners in the hallways celebrating more than just upcoming events and school spirit. A quotation from Martin Luther King hangs above our front door, another from Henry James reminds the students:

Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”

Just outside our main office two displays celebrate the sense of belonging we hope all our students and staff feel here at ACMA. One, with silly yearbook photos of our staff against a backdrop of puzzle pieces leaves one spot for the observer; a mirror at eye level hangs next to the words “You fit right in.” I see students look at this every week.

IMG_5662Across the hallway another set of puzzle pieces decorate the wall just inside the front door. Surrounding a hand crafted “Welcome to ACMA,” the ACMA set against a rainbow, are connected puzzle pieces made by every new student to our school. On the first day of classes new students each decorated a puzzle piece and now every day they can see how they fit together to form the colorful mosaic of Arts & Communication Magnet Academy.

But kindness isn’t as simple as a jigsaw puzzle. Human nature can be cruel as often as it is kind. Stress, fear, and anxiety can make us careless, inconsiderate, or even mean. Teenagers aren’t immune to the thoughtless word or inconsiderate remark that escapes from the best of adults.

And in the face of this reality, art.

In his 1962 essay “The Creative Process” James Baldwin described the challenges and opportunities of being an artist. As he writes about the “battle” societies have all had with “the incorrigible disturber of the peace – the artist” he lands on the idea that it is the power of art that illuminates the truth and has the possibility to make change.

Baldwin describes the tension between artists and society as necessary, art providing the questioning that allows society to transform; society providing the structure needed for such institutions as education. As vigorous as this tension can be, he maintains that:

Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.”

That freedom he writes about it more than a freedom to do, but also a freedom to see clearly the possibilities for societies to be their best, to confront injustice, to heal divisions, and to practice hope.

Through art, we have the potential to “make the world a more human dwelling place.”

Writing of the particular place of American artists, as true in 1962 as 2018, Baldwin suggests:

We are the strongest nation in the Western world, but this is not for the reasons that we think. It is because we have an opportunity that no other nation has in moving beyond the Old World concepts of race and class and caste, to create, finally, what we must have had in mind when we first began speaking of the New World.”

Locally, here at ACMA we have the possibility to transform ourselves through art in a way that Baldwin imagines for the greater world. Beyond puzzle pieces and vinyl banners, in addition to posters and projects, through the art our students create we can question, challenge, and celebrate the world we live in.

IMG_5672In ACMA’s Hallway of Hope and Justice our students share thoughtful and thought provoking pieces that ask our student body to question, reflect, and act. Posters celebrate the diversity of our community and show that as a school we value each student, each person, who is a part of our community. That there are many voices in that hallway is a result of Baldwin’s belief that the role of artists is to “drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.”

If we believe in Baldwin’s assessment of the role of the artists, it is through our creative spirit that we can “illuminate that darkness” and “blaze roads through vast forests.” Here at ACMA it is through paint and movement, ink and music, clay, cameras, and creativity that we can reinforce the goodness we want to see in our world.

In the weeks ahead I look forward to working with our artists to think about this social aspect of the work they create. What opportunities do we have? What truth do we want to tell? How can we, each of us, make our world a more human dwelling place?

Reading Weather

IMG_5480The winter is proving wet. After flirting with a white Christmas ‒just enough snow on the 24th to dust the lawn and allow a few determined snowballs‒ gray rain has settled in, a reminder of the true nature of the Pacific Northwest. Oregon is a place of warm drinks, flannel shirts, and independent bookstores.

Beyond prompting the purpose of a new coat and some sensible shoes, the winter weather hasn’t dampened life in Portland or in any way drowned the creative spirit at ACMA.

Art students look longingly out windows, poets feel a touch more like Thomas Hardy, and dancers find it easy to stay inside the studio. Student filmmakers are pushed inside more often, I suppose, but return to the out of doors with every parting of clouds and seem to enjoy the coziness a January chill gives to the gathering audience at a film night.

Winter in a world with seasons reminds me of what I missed in my decade or so spent in Southern California. As Kim Whysall-Hammond, a poet I dig, describes it:

Not a light soaking rain
Squalling, hailing and sleeting
Flooding, flowing, swamping
A deluge chucking it down

There’s a joy, sure, to sunny and seventy-five, but for an invitation to contemplation, a prompting to open a book, there is no better landlord than Oregon in the opening of a new year.

Nurturing this fireside reflection, a slew of books have piled up beside the chair in my living room, some of merit amongst the gingerbread of popular fiction.

untangled.pngI work at an arts rich school with an almost 75% female student body, and found Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood by Lisa Damour to be a book rich with examples and strong with advice. Written for parents, Untangled presents a real and reasonable perspective on how best to support the young women in our lives. As an educator, and a dad of a teenager, I appreciated Damour’s organization of the transition from childhood to young adulthood and her explanations of distinct stages that I see the students in my life going through, particularly as the principal of a 6-12 grade school.

An example of Damour’s rich and memorable perspective comes early in the book as she uses the analogy of a swimmer in a pool to describe the relationship between daughter and parent.

Consider the metaphor in which your teenage daughter is a swimmer, you are the pool in which she swims, and the water is the broader world. Like any good swimmer, your daughter wants to be out playing, diving, or splashing around in the water. And, like any swimmer, she holds on to the edge the pool to catcher her breath after a rough lap or getting dunked too many times.”

Knowing our role as pool edge is as difficult as it is important, particularly when “like a swimmer who gets her breath back, your daughter wants to return to the water, and she gets there by pushing off the side of the pool.” Those pushes away hurt, or can, but Damour’s book helps to put the value of that stress into perspective.

In addition to helping parents see the challenges their daughters are going through as they navigate adolescence, Damour does a nice job of helping parents see the challenges they are going through themselves. Being a mom or dad isn’t easy, but Untangled is a resource for parents (and educators too) that can help us all help our daughters thrive.

this is a book for.jpgMore focused in scope than Untangled, but just as important and powerful is Dannielle Owens-Reid and Kristin Russo’s book This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids. Written with heart, insight, and humor, this book provides information that could make a difference for parents of LGBTQ kids and would be on my required reading list for educators entering the field today.

Owens-Reid and Russo acknowledge the challenges faced by LGBTQ students, but never get mired in the stress that students identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning confront in the minefield of adolescence.

Written, as the title implies, for parents, this book addresses parental concerns and provides strategies parents might use to overcome those concerns. The honest and caring tone the authors strike not only makes their answers to the series of questions they use to structure their book accessible, but adds a reassurance to parents that while the struggles may be real, all will be well. I finished the book feeling informed, reassured, and better able to support and understand the LGBTQ students I know.

As Untangled and This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids begin with students in mind, All Joy and No Fun starts with the topic of parents. Subtitled “The Paradox of Modern Parenthood,” Jennifer Senior’s book takes an unflinching look at the stresses parenting takes on the moms and dads (and uncles and aunts, grandparents and guardians) who take on the important job of raising kids.

all joySenior takes a historian’s eye to parenting, nodding to the utility of children on farms and then juxtaposing that with what she sees as the current reality of kids being “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.” This emotional pricelessness comes, of course, at a price, and Senior writes in real terms about the tremendous pressures parents face as they do their best to give to their children and maintain at least a part of themselves.

This challenge, Senior argues, is real not only because of the stresses put on marriage, relationships, and self by the overwhelming act of parenting, but also in light of “the dirty secret about adulthood is the sameness of it, its tireless adherence to routines and customs and norms.” Senior acknowledges that kids can “liberate” parents from routines, but doesn’t shy away from the difficulty of managing the beautify chaos of kids and the responsibilities of adult life.

Often as I read All Joy and No Fun I felt a sense of melancholy appreciation for her spot on observations, and a desire to transcend the challenges, even as I wrestled with the doubt that comes with adulthood in general and parenthood in particular. I believe that the parents I know, like me, would see themselves in Senior’s book, living the quotation from William Blake she cites: “Joy and woe are woven fine.”

In the end, however, All Joy and No Fun is a hopeful book. As hard earned as it is, the “Joy” of the title is profound and the “Fun” might be had (at least in bits) if we as parents are able to have the perspective this book aims to help us find.

Alongside these important (to me, anyway) books are piled some volumes clearly not chosen directly for my work. As lovely as winter is for contemplation, there’s a place too for poetry and a ripping good yarn. Seamus Heaney’s Field Work has inspired me this winter, as has Jane Goodall’s A Reason for Hope, and I’d be fibbing if I didn’t say that The Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor wasn’t one of the most moving experiences I’ve had with a book in a long while. I remember a teacher once telling me that her principal liked to say that “the best teachers teach from a full life.” That’s true of bookshelves too.

So as the rain falls and the students dream of spring, I’ll pour another cup of tea and scan the shelves in search of a good book.

A Couple of Jedi

I’m proudest that at the end of the visit my son insisted that the sandspeeder stayed with Papa.

IMG_5521It started as a Christmas present from my folks to my nine year old son, a Lego set that made his eyes widen. Sitting at the dining room table assembling his Jakku Quadjumper, my son seemed as happy as the proverbial clam. Midway through the big project my dad sat down next to him, looking from the visual directions to my son’s nimble hands dancing over the plastic blocks.

For the past few months, remembering has been a bit tougher for my dad, familiar things sometimes unfamiliar, and while his memory of people is unflagging, some of the complexity of life that he has always enjoyed wrestling with seem to be taking an upper hand.

But as he watched my son build, the expression on his face was a mixture of delight and curiosity. Bit by bit this spaceship was taking form, my son so focused on his work. I went into the kitchen for a cup of tea and by the time I got back something wonderful was happening: they were building together.

They’ve always been pals, but watching them now I saw something different. My son, patient and positive, helped guide my dad’s hands to the right blocks, put them together, and snap them into place. My dad, concentrating, listened to my son and smiled as they completed each step.

IMG_5581They stayed at it for the better part of an hour, leaning in to talk about the emerging spaceship, my son offering “great job!” after they finished each page.

Teaching. Learning. Collaborating. Creating. The principal I am saw something to admire.

The expression of happiness on both their faces as they presented the completed Jakku Quadjumper to my mom, my wife, and me was marvelous. That Lego set provided a path to something magic.

It’s the sort of magic that a principal like me longs to see in classrooms at my school, teaching and learning led by love and followed by building, the process of working together to construct something to be proud of. At its best learning is creating, making something (from robots to meaning) in an environment that is supportive, focused, and can be transformative. When that happens, lives change.

The next morning, a trip to the store for toothpaste and dental floss brought me near a toy aisle. I couldn’t resist.

By the afternoon our two Jedi were at it again, not Padawan and Master, just two noble knights working together to build a sandspeeder, the pile of Legos around them building blocks of memories.

About ten minutes into the build my dad looked up and said: “He’s a good foreman!” Then he smiled and they went back to building.

IMG_5572When we were ready to leave town the next morning, my son told me that we should leave the sandspeeder for Papa. “He might want to play with it,” he said. The perspective of a nine year old. “You bet,” I answered. “He might.”

And it was in this last kindness, on top of the patient collaboration I’d seen earlier, that I felt an overwhelming sense of joy.

As we begin a new calendar year I wish for every student a teacher with passion and patience, and for every teacher students with curiosity and a pinch of awe. For all I wish kindness and connections, the chance to build, the chance to learn from each other, and the chance to be proud, together, of a job well done.

18 for 18

No, not eighteen New Year’s resolutions; that would be silly. But, being a goal setter presented with a brand new year, I’ll set out these three things that I’d like to accomplish in 2018.

pencilsEighteen meaningful classroom visits every week. I know that’s a lot, if they’re more than poking my head in the door, and I also know that as a principal I’m at my best when I’m chin deep in the hurly burly of school, not at my desk.

No more than eighteen minutes in a row in my office during the school day. Sure I’ll have meetings that go longer than that, and I’ll take them, but from the start of school until bus duty at the end of the day I’m shooting for less time away from students, teachers, and staff.

Eighteen calls home to celebrate students before the end of the year. As a teacher I was good about this, often meeting my goal of calling home with a positive message to a third of my kids before back to school night. It’s different as a principal, but if I can share positive messages home with more parents and guardians I think it can make a positive difference in the world of my students.

So welcome 2018 and a renewed focus on spending time with the most important part of education: the people who share this grand adventure.