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.

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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.