Take A Chance on Me

It’s March.

Teachers know what that means. Principals too. Most of the students can feel it. Just about everyone I know who makes education their world understands that March is one of the most stressful times of the year. Winter break far behind us, summer still miles away, the pressures of grades, graduation requirements, and the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” It’s the Act III of a Shakespearean story complete (at least this year in Oregon) with thunder and lightning. I’m just waiting for the three witches.

In the face of this, creative sorts push back creatively. Sure they still feel more tense than they will in May, but even so there are those who come up with ways to add levity and whimsy to the hardest month of the year.

In classrooms I’ve seen Rube Goldberg machines giving middle schoolers hands on experiences with physics; debates, some with costumes, providing students a chance to argue both sides of challenging issues; and a most delightful math teacher showing up in a kilt on exam day. Laughter and learning, together as they should be.

Outside the classroom, our seniors have just finished their capstone presentations, three weeks of reflections culminating in a day of performances and art that was jaw dropping, even by our high ACMA standards. The passion students brought to this work was as inspiring as it was diverse. Actors, artists, dancers, writers, musicians, filmmakers, photographers, and techs all showed off what matters most artistically to them. The results were awesome.

ABBAThe staff has been pretty awesome too, coming up with creative ideas to help March act more like a lamb than a lion. A salsa tasting at a staff meeting and a chocolate tasting after a professional development day showed the spicy and sweet nature of the adults on campus. A couple of days later a teacher heading out on paternity leave brought in doughnuts for the staff, and just to show that we do try to boost morale in ways other than eating, we took a week in March and began every morning by playing ABBA over the PA rather than a first bell.

You should have seen the kids and adults singing along.

And while our 1950s era boiler has been going out lately, and while it literally snowed on Friday, we all know that the two most delicious words in education are waiting on the other side of the weekend: Spring Break.

Yeah, I capitalized it. Spring Break deserves that.

To use Shakespeare again, this time from All’s Well that Ends Well:

I have seen a medicine
That’s able to breathe life into a stone,
Quicken a rock, and make you dance canary
With spritely fire and motion; whose simple touch
Is powerful to araise King Pipin, nay,
To give great Charlemain a pen in his hand
And write to her a love-line.”

Some of us need such medicine. Some of us need a love-line. Some of us just need a nap.

Spring break offers to be that medicine that might quicken a rock, and make us dance canary.

So, to all my friends in education, I wish you a great pause in this grand play of the school year. I wish you renewal, perspective, and rest. I wish you a marvelous Spring Break!

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Robots, Finger Puppets, and The Imperial March

“Will you be our robot?”

The students asked so earnestly I couldn’t say “no.” It was a sixth grade science class and they were studying programming with a couple of guest instructors from Intel. The task was to identify and clearly articulate the steps to take a robot from one part of the room to another and then make a sandwich. Simple? Not exactly. What it was, however, was a great (and not unusual) example of a creative teacher willing to challenge his kids with an activity that pushed them to think beyond the textbook. They gathered around tables, laughed, learned, and leaned in to work together on a task that made them think. The lesson had a community connection, a hands on approach, and put the ownership of learning with the students.

It was not straight rows, primers, and bored students. But…

An image of just that had prompted one of my teachers to exhale sharply earlier in the day. A tweet had been shared with her that suggested something static in our profession. She read that message of discouragement, thought about what she’d been doing with her social studies class that day, and sent me a screenshot and a video.

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“I’m not on twitter,” she wrote, “so I can’t share with her the video of my 8th graders doing a sing-a-long of one of their classmate’s original “The Ten Bill of Rights” (set to “The Ten Days of Christmas”) or the attached puppet show video… but I thought you’d enjoy these examples of public school being anything but “sit down, don’t talk…”

Screen Shot 2018-03-15 at 8.56.17 AMThe video was as delightful as you might imagine, and the next week when I stopped by her classroom the students who had created the show, funny, smart, and fabulous, were even more so. They had been given a creative opportunity to show what they knew and share that knowledge with their class. Far from the images in the tweet, this was learning.

Both of these were examples of the kind of activity that happens in classrooms every day. A little fun, a lot engaging, these are opportunities for our students to engage with the subjects at hand, celebrate curiosity, and actively do.

And then, from time to time, bigger projects present themselves…

I wrote recently about the cigar box guitar build in one of our precalculus classes, and couldn’t let that experience pass without mentioning one magical moment shared with me by a student. She and her partner had been working on a guitar, and after the first day’s sawing and drilling had decided that before the last build day they would add their own creative approach to the instrument.

guitarPainting the box as a lightsaber and the neck as a glowing red blade, they returned to the second day of the build with the elements of a guitar that would look as impressive as it might sound. As I moved from group to group in the workshop these girls saw my amazement at their project, and as they posed for a photo one smiled and said: “Just wait until you hear me play The Imperial March on this!”

Learning looks different from classroom to classroom, but for anyone who thinks it’s all straight lines and hands raised waiting to be called on I’d invite you to my school to be a robot, watch a puppet show, and listen to an amazing student play you a tune of the guitar she built in math class.

Empathy and Action

They gathered in the inner courtyard, more than five hundred strong, held hands, and stood silently for seventeen minutes. Some wore shirts expressing their point of view, #NEVERAGAIN or March for Our Lives, others simply looked the part of who they are: students, grades six through twelve, thoughtful, artistic, a little nervous, and more informed than some would expect. In a word, they were inspiring.

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The event was one of three student responses to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida a month ago. The first, one of empathy, was suggested by two seniors who put up a stretch of poster paper where students could record their words of support for the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In the days after the tragedy it provided a place for students to process their own feelings while focusing on others. We’ll roll this up in a few days and send it to the school, our small voice of support in the chorus of the national conversation.

The next response suggested by students came from our student representative to the school board’s Student Advisory Committee. That group discussed what they could do to express what they were thinking and feeling in the wake of what happened in Florida, and how they could have their voices heard on the issue of school safety. The result was the idea of a letter writing campaign by students to elected officials. Our rep got right to work.

At the assembly we held to discuss school safety, our student representative stood in front of the student body and explained the importance of action alongside empathy. She deftly answered questions about the project, and ended with an invitation to join her in writing to members of congress to share their perspectives as young people who come to school every day to learn, feel safe, and become the kind of adults some of us still aspire to be.

IMG_6199There were a great many students near the table that held that letter box on March 14th, and knowing our student body, I’ll wager the perspectives and ideas shared will be as diverse, thoughtful, and articulate as our students.

But for seventeen minutes there was unity in our diversity, those seventeen silent minutes when students stood together, holding hands, thinking their own thoughts about the day, the world, and the future. When the time ended there were hugs, a few tears, and a great gathering up of teens who headed back into the schoolhouse to learn. The orderliness of it all might have astounded some, though those of us who work with students were less surprised.

The students’ poise and purpose was inspiring too, though as a dad and a principal I want to temper my genuine appreciation with a nod to the reality that these are young people who have more on their minds and a wider future than any single issue. That they will make a difference I have no doubt. That they have a vision of the future that is kinder and more inclusive than my own generation’s I believe. That this takes away the collective responsibility of anyone older than twenty I do not accept.

Just as it is unfair to paint teachers as heroes in waiting, pursuing their noble cause with inadequate pay and unreasonable expectations, because they are so selfless …which somehow makes it okay, so too it is unfair to see in our youth saviors who might take away our own responsibility to contribute to making the world what we want it to be.

Teenagers today have done much to bring a message to our national consciousness, and a part of that message seems to me to be an call to engage with our communities. Wherever folks find themselves emotionally and philosophically in the wake of the tragedy in Florida, or in fact the decades in which school names like Sandy Hook and Columbine have become synonymous with violence, I think we can take inspiration from our students today, and hear them when they invite us to put our empathy into action.

Fine Young Cannibals

Art is about taking chances, learning from failure, and being willing to try something unexpected. In those ways it’s a lot like being a principal. The two pursuits converged this week when some intrepid student filmmakers asked me to be in their movie.

They guarded the script like it was a Star Wars film. I got my three pages without more context than I could put together from stage directions like:

The cannibal storms out of the room leaving behind her binder and the therapist grabs them and pulls out the sketches/drawings inside and looks through them, he fans them out and looks at each one until he comes to the last one, he holds it up so the camera can’t see it and it cuts to the next scene.

Intriguing.

My two short scenes, two voice overs, and single costume change set me up as the straight man, a mercifully unimportant and plausibly vegetarian character in a film titled Meat (An American Cannibal Film).

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As they set up the camera and lights in my office. The director, a senior whose easy smile helped put his two actors -me and a student whose artistic focus is drawing and painting- at ease, chatted with his sound man about verisimilitude and budget.

“It’s set in 1996,” he explained. “So I got an almost working answering machine at Goodwill for $9.” “Your budget for this is $9?” “Well, I spent $22 on fake blood.”

This was sounding increasingly like something I might regret more than my turn at Carpool Karaoke or the time I dressed up as one of the Blues Brothers and sang in front of the student body. Still…

These were great students. This mattered to them. My scene was relatively tame, a therapist and his patient. All that, along with some gentle reassurance from my film teacher who had seen the rough cuts, let me stay true to one of the tenets of my philosophy of being a principal: When students ask me to participate in something that is meaningful to them, even (or especially) if it is nutty, I do my best to say “yes.”

We shot after school on a Friday, a three person crew, the actor playing the cannibal, and me, filling my office for an hour or so, laughing, talking about art, and books, and movies between takes. That conversation, that opportunity to connect with some fantastic young people, was worth any embarrassment about my clunky acting abilities.

Because it isn’t really about my acting; it’s about being present for my students, participating in what is important to them, and allowing myself to play (and sometimes play the fool) in service of a spirit of fun that is important at a school, and indeed in life.

Our schools are stronger, safer, and better for all when students and adults are able to learn, laugh, and play together.

A willingness to start with “yes” has led to some of my favorite experiences and most meaningful connections with students, and I firmly believe that nurturing this more playful side helps to make me a better principal when the stressful realities of the work require gravitas, a clear head, and a commitment to doing right. Silly, serious, sanguine, it’s about making students the priority.

So my first entry in IMDB will read “Dr. Monroe” in Meat (An American Cannibal Film). It may turn out to be this generation’s Night of the Living Dead or a silly footnote to the illustrious director’s future fame, but whatever shows up on screen I’ll carry with me fond memories of a great afternoon shared with artists and creative souls, fine young cannibals.

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The Horse, of Course

The horse did it?

In an increasingly complicated and logic defying world, there is something magical and more than a little healing about the acts of teaching and learning.

Over the past couple of weeks some kind and welcoming English teachers have been generous enough to allow me to step into the classrooms they share with students and teach. It’s the fulfillment of a promise I made to myself when I became a principal: I would make a point to teach every year.

Teaching allows me to connect to my students in a way beyond being just a guy in a tie. It puts me in the position of seeing first hand the challenges and rewards of being n instructor at my school and helps to keep me grounded in the reality that what really matters at a school is what happens in the classroom. I once worked with a superintendent who liked to say: “There are two kinds of people in a school, teachers and people who support teachers.” I’m proud to be the latter, and thankful when I get to step back into the former category.

IMG_5918This winter, as the news of the day read like something out of Orwell or Huxley, I traveled with scores of sixth and seventh grade sleuths across the heath of Dartmoor in search of the “first favourite for the Wessex Cup,” the distinguished Silver Blaze. It was amazing.

I’ve long held that there is no feeling to compare with the give and take of a classroom discussion, and my time with these curious young scholars proved that point to me again. Talking about the way clues in a mystery are like the details readers might find in a close reading of any text, discussing Sherlock Holmes and our short story of the day, and being in their company when the students realized that the equine title character had committed the murder of a despicable man (in self defense, no less) was as renewing as it was delightful.

This isn’t to say that The Adventure of Silver Blaze was chosen only as literature of escape; I’m proud of the Holmes lesson I used (and adapted as I got better at teaching it from period to period) and felt like we ended each class having discovered a thing or two, including that an author from more than a century ago could still wallop them with a surprise ending.

Literature has the power to inspire, delight, and provide perspective. I felt that truth every day that I taught English and am reminded of the fact when I get to visit classes (and even teach them myself). The Adventure of Silver Blaze not only gave students an instance of good coming out on top, a bully being humbled, and cleverness overcoming evil, it also set the stage for students to work together to solve a problem, practice critical thinking, and talk with peers about their methods of thinking about literature.

Sure, having the principal teach was a novelty (though I hope over time and with repetition it feels increasingly less so), but ultimately the lessons were something as simple as they are commonplace in education: humans coming together to make sense of the world, talking, looking back over old stories, and connecting with each other.

…well, and shaking our collective head when the bad guy gets kicked in the head by a horse.