It’s in the name of the school…

The first performance I saw was the dance show last June. My family had flown to Portland to look for a place to live and I got to take a day to hang out at ACMA, my new home to be, ending the evening in the performing arts center watching ridiculously talented dancers show the magnificent power of art.

“That was high school?” my wife asked me at the end of the night. “That was ACMA,” I answered.

bowieEarlier in the day I’d visited art classes, seen students glazing ceramics, making music, and working on the “Senior Painting,” a larger than life David Bowie that now hangs outside my office.

I’d done my best to follow Arts & Communication Magnet Academy online, peeking in on Art is My Voice and a few Senior Capstones, but still not sure just how much art drives everything we do here at ACMA. The truth, from The Ballpoint literary anthology to the spectacular productions in our PAC, from the packs of students carrying musical instruments through the hallways to flocks of dancers in leotards hurrying to studios after lunch, from the raw energy of Open Mic Night to the polished performances of Senior Capstones, ACMA lives up to the descriptors in its name ARTS & COMMUNICATION.

Screen Shot 2018-02-06 at 9.50.21 AMThis year, like so many in ACMA’s quarter century of existence, was an explosion of creativity, and I had the privilege of watching it from the best seat in the house, as ACMA’s principal.

All the hard work of rehearsing, revising, rebuilding, of trying and failing, failing and trying again, working hard and succeeding brilliantly, manifested itself across the artistic spectrum. One of the strengths of our little school, in addition to being a home to students from 6th to 12th grade, is that it is a place where creativity of all kinds finds a home.

Our actors stretch their craft to include everything from Shakespeare to silliness. This year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Aesop’s Falables, and The Spitfire Grill showed audiences what can happen when amazing students are given the opportunity and support to plan, produce, and perform challenging material. From costumes to sets, music to marvelous performances, ACMA thespians brought down the house.

spitfireSome of those same students joined other student authors at this year’s Pinwheel Writing Celebration, and published stories and poems in the ACMA anthology, The Ballpoint. Our writers don’t always step on stage, but in the spring a trio of intrepid authors joined professional storytellers for this year’s Story Slam. Our winner moved on to a second round in Portland on the same night as prom. She performed that night in her formal dress, another example of what it means when we say “So very ACMA.”

Photographers, painters, ceramicists and more filled the foyer gallery of the performing arts center with “very ACMA” work at this year’s Art Is My Voice, where the variety of art was mind boggling.

faceSome ACMA musicians played at Art Is My Voice, filling the gallery with a little Brubeck as the crowd walked past giant cardboard objects, a miniature gallery, and hundreds of framed drawings, paintings, photos, and prints. It was just another example of the way ACMA students support each other and each other’s art. Some of these same musicians were on stage the next week, visual artists in the audience, playing one of many shows that filled our school with music this year.

Those concerts ran the gamut from profound to profoundly playful, often juxtaposing those two ends of the spectrum in one set. This spring, when I brought my reluctant nine year old to hear a show, he told me as we walked into the PAC: “Dad, I’m not going to enjoy this unless they play Star Wars.” Cue the Cantina Theme. He looked at me as if I’d worked magic. It wasn’t me, but a couple of conductors who filled their show with Beethoven, Brubeck, and even a little Soft Cell. If you haven’t heard the orchestral version of Tainted Love, you haven’t visited ACMA.

dance copyFor some who haven’t yet visited ACMA, our students brought their passion on the road, and this year in addition to Art Day, a wonderful tradition of inviting elementary students to our school, they added Art Day …on the Go! Student artists, dancers, and musicians loaded up on busses and traveled to elementary schools where they led students in making art, learning to dance, and then performing with the high schoolers. Magic is the word to describe it. ACMAgic.

That exuberant magic, blended with a sense of purpose, was also on stage in this year’s Dance West concert, Walk with Me. Honoring ACMA alum Haruka Weiser, the show was an amalgam of heart and soul, highlighting the passion and professionalism of this dedicated group of artists. It was every bit as moving as the show I saw last spring, and for me maybe even more so this year; I knew these kids.

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On stage and page, through music and movement, student artists capture the uncapturable in the work they create. In many cases the immediacy of hearing an author read or a musician sing, see a sculptor talk about her work or a dancer express feelings in her craft is profound. For one group of ACMA artists, their calling is capturing this magic through the eye of a camera.

I have a fondness for film, because even though it was visual artists whose work I first saw on my visit last June, and dancers whose work wowed me and my family even before I arrived permanently on campus, my very first taste of ACMA’s creative spirit was a movie.

I remember sitting in my office, hundreds of miles away, and getting an email from ACMA’s fantastic film teacher. In addition to the most heartfelt welcome to our school I could have imagined, he shared some links to films made by ACMA students. One stood out to me, Time a moving reflection on family and love. When the credits rolled I knew that I was coming someplace special.

Funny. Heartbreaking. Glorious. Real. Art at ACMA is all that and more. For the students and the staff at our amazing school, art is a way of life.

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Rock, Paper, Scissors

RPSIn the interest of fun…

More descriptions of what educators do should begin with those five words. Teachers, counselors, classified staff, administrators… we work hard, care deeply, and sometimes wear our emotions on our sleeves. As busy as we are, it’s easy to forget to take time to laugh, a topic I’ve written about a bit lately, and something that the staff at my school has embraced changing.

Lately we’ve seen lightsaber fights and a crazy good game about culture lifted from the Peace Corps. We’ve eaten chocolate and sipped coffee, batted paper around like kids, and enjoyed a salsa cook off. Sometimes the activities that the staff came up with involved preparation or a trip to the store; today there was magic in the air as we boiled our collective activity to one word: fun.

Well, actually, our social studies department chose three words: Rock. Paper. Scissors.

Dimming the lights at the start of a staff meeting, they played the theme song to Rocky and brought up a video introducing the grand art of roshambo.

Anticipation rose.

Would we be pausing our discussion of Senior Capstones to pair up and play Rock-Paper-Scissors? Could the day have taken a cooler turn?

The lights came back on and our grinning history teachers brought out a work of art.

As they explained that over the next two weeks we’d have an opportunity to compete in the greatest Rock-Paper-Scissors competition every, two intrepid teachers rolled out a bracket that would put March Madness to shame.

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Every staff members’ name was on the huge rectangle of butcher paper, and as we leaned forward and squinted to see who we’d be matched up against, our organizers explained that every two days we’d report our winners and watch as staff moved through a sweet sixteen, elite eight, and final four on their way to a final showdown at our next staff meeting.

It was awesome.

Inevitable side conversations arose: Was it Rock-Paper-Scissors or Rock-Paper-Scissors-Shoot. (It’s Rock-Paper-Scissors.) How many rounds was each match? (Three. Duh.)

Two math teachers spotted that they were matched up, and we had our first victor on the bracket. A science teacher asked if when we got to the sweet sixteen we could pause and fill out our own brackets with predictions.

IMG_7043And as we laughed, a history teacher explained that behind this grand scheme was a hope that we would all get out of our rooms and talk with each other. At least for three rounds every couple of days we would leave our silos and find our friends, or those who may be our friends.

Without spending a dime this group of teachers spun gold.

We went on to our planned discussions at the meeting, and we’ll all come back tomorrow ready to do the hard and meaningful work of education, but even as we do, for the next two weeks we’ll all have one eye on the bracket, and be thinking about what a great group of teachers started today …in the interest of fun.

School Cultures …with an “s”

My grandmother was Swedish. She came to the United States when she was sixteen and had her name Americanized from Selda to Zelda.

My other grandmother was the first child born in a little town in the heart of the Canadian plains, the daughter of immigrants from England who struck out to a new land before the First World War. My great grandfather returned to fight at Vimy Ridge as a part of the Canadian Corps.

IMG_7015I grew up hearing their stories.

My own red hair, redder as a child than it is today, reminded those on my father’s side of the family of my great grandmother’s fiery locks, which according to family legend she used to attract customers to her father’s London barbershop by sitting on the steps out front as a child.

My mom liked to say that my stubbornness, like her own, came from Grandma Zelda, a righteous Swede who always said that a Norwegian was nothing but a Swede with his brains kicked out. Later in life when she found a branch of Norwegian in her family tree, family stories have it that she said “Well maybe that’s why I’m so stubborn.”

My folks showed me old photos of Abby and Father, that London barber and his wife, who were early members of the Salvation Army. They were positively Victorian, and look back at me from the old photos with expressions I recognize in my own family and myself.

A painting by my grandmother, finished with a little help from my Uncle Rod, a gifted artist, of her childhood home in Sweden hangs in my parents’ guest room. I’ve stayed in that room with my own kids and showed them the scene from my grandmother’s memory.

All of their stories inform my story. Who I am is, in part, a continuation of who they were.

I thought about that after a wonderful conversation two gifted teachers and I shared about the importance of culture last week.

As an educator I know the importance of creating an accepting and welcoming school, and I’ve had the great fortune to be a part of more than one school community where students know that they can be themselves, and know they are valued and cared for who they are.

I love that I get to go to work every day at a school where plush ears, tails, and horns are a regular part of the established dress, where a student in a top hat or a unicorn onesie is a student, not a student seen as acting out. I’m proud to be a part of a community where skirts aren’t limited to those born biologically female, and where the study body values, as they say, “hearts, not parts.”

We rightly celebrate individuality and nobly honor differences, even as we encourage the choices each of us make every day to be the people we want to be. We are actively in the business of making culture, school culture.

…but this is different than honoring the cultures each of us carry with us.

All of those wonderfully welcoming and inclusive attitudes; the value placed on kindness; the celebration of artistic spirits, not just works of art; and the belief that everyone can become who they want to be …and then change their mind …and then change their mind again, all of those attitudes, it struck me, were not about the same sort of culture I’d been talking about with my teachers.

They had been talking about countries, traditions, and heritage.

If my history includes a London barbershop and a Swedish painting, then what about the stories that each of us bring to our creative collective present? If I am not only defined by the choices I make for myself, but also by the rich cultural heritage that I’m right to honor and embrace, then isn’t part of creating a welcoming school community also developing ways for each of us to share our own family’s stories as well as writing our own?

That was what my teachers had been talking about. Like me, their family stories and cultural heritages were foundational to who they are. What might we do, they asked, to invite, articulate, and celebrate our students’ family stories? What could we as a school do to give the artistic souls who fill our school both the invitation and encouragement to share their cultures with each other?

For anyone noticing, I’ve used more than a couple of questions in this post …so far. That’s not clever rhetoric; it’s that I’m still figuring this out. Being the principal doesn’t mean you always have the right answers. Done right, it often means you try to ask the right questions.

I took some of my questions to Sho Shigeoka, a sage in the realm of equity and honoring cultures, cornering her at a district meeting with the swirl of thoughts I’d been wrestling with throughout the week.

She smiled at me and said: “Ask the kids.”

I walk the halls every lunch, sit in on classes often, and chat with students all the time, but I’ll confess that in that moment with Sho I couldn’t remember a single time this year when heritage came up as a topic of discussion.

“Gather a group,” Sho said patiently. “Ask them how they think they could celebrate their stories.”

I will.

Over the next few months I look forward to hearing my students (and staff too) answer those questions. I’m excited to work with those two caring teachers who started this line of thought and the diverse and creative students to find ways for each of us to share who we are.

This post promises to be the first of a few looking forward and joining others to look back on family, culture, and the stories of our lives. I want to help create a healthy school culture for all of us that honors the cultures each of us. It’s time to start asking, and time to start listening.

August Opinions and May Truths

I’ll confess to being one of those people who read more than one book at a time. Some books read faster than others, you see, so that collection of Raymond Carver short stories came and went from my nightstand faster than Conan Doyle’s The Edge of the Unknown, and a few slim volumes of poetry hurried through April, outpacing a book about John Milton I started back at the end of summer. I picked up that biography this week, opened it to find my page, and discovered that the bookmark was a business card, the same rectangle of card stock on which I’d written the notes for my opening speech at back to school night.

IMG_6921At ACMA we do back to school night on the week before students start classes. It’s an unconventional approach in keeping with the creative spirit of our school. Students are encouraged to join parents and guardians as they meet the teachers and see the classrooms where they’ll learn in the year ahead. It’s earlier than early, and it provides us all with a chance to connect before we start the wild rumpus that is a school year.

The principal’s welcoming remarks to the evening follow right after an ice cream social. “So very ACMA,” some might say. They’d be right.

So naturally I paused from my biography and read through my notes for the welcome speech. I’ve long been a person who would rather speak from the heart than be tethered to a script, but this had been my first speech at ACMA, and I remember scribbling out ideas I didn’t want to miss.

“Happy New Year,” the card read, and “Thanks.”

The start of a school year does warrant that celebratory exclamation, and one can never go wrong opening with an appreciation.

This was especially true for me this August, as I stepped into a school new to me, hoping to earn the respect and live up to the kindness ACMA’s school community had already shown me. In May that “Thanks” is heartfelt, said with real appreciation for an almost completed school year that has been filled with creativity, kindness, and more than a few surprises.

IMG_6918Present too were the to be expected challenges of being a part of something greater than oneself, participating in a community of diverse opinions, powerful perspectives, and creative souls.

“Challenges,” the card read beneath “Renewal” and “Fresh Start,” but “Challenges faced together.” I’ve long held that we should not try to avoid the difficult choice or crucial conversation, we should not hide from what is difficult, but face it collectively. Thinking about the hard work that has been a part of this school year, and of the amazing staff, students, and parents I get to work with, those three words carry a truth I’m proud to be a part of.

“Challenges
Faced Together”

And then a reason why, an articulation on the back of that business card of who we are as a school community. I knew, even in those first nervous notes, that ACMA is here to:

“Support our kids
Artistically
Academically
and as people.”

We do. We have. We will.

I closed that first speech by pointing to the heroes. Back to school nights are not about the principal’s welcome; they are about the professionals who have the greatest impact on our students’ lives: the teachers.

I remember standing there in August, in front of the ACMA community for the first time, and looking out at the parents and students, some still finishing their ice cream, and seeing teachers scattered throughout the crowd wearing their staff shirts, smiling. They were, and are, inspirations to me as much as they are to the kids.

That night I ended my remarks by glancing down at that wrinkled business card, now a bookmark, and saying proudly what I know was the most important part of the night. The teachers, who play a huge role in our students’ lives, are here, I said.

“Tonight you’ll meet them.”

Those teachers, so passionate and purposeful about the work they do with students, are more than just the best part of back to school night. Looking back at my notes scribbled on the back of that card, I recognize that anything I am as a principal is empty without all those truths behind it. The front of my metaphoric business card may be professional, but it matters because of the truths written behind it:

The optimism of “Happy New Year.”
The appreciation of “Thanks.”
The valuing of “Renewal” and “Fresh Starts.”
The acknowledgement that Challenges must be Faced Together.
The focus of Supporting our Kids in all ways.
And the understanding of the importance of those I work with every day.

It feels even truer now than it did in August.

Jedi Academy

IMG_6774What if we hit each other with pool noodles?

It seemed like a sensible question.

A few weeks back a couple of my teachers got to talking about morale. It ebbs and flows at every school, even the best of them, as the demands of the day pile up and the pressures of making a difference in a job that matters so much grow and grow until very good people find themselves sleeping too little, eating too much, and not taking time for themselves.

The educators I know sometimes need to be reminded to give to themselves as much as they give to their students. They need to be encouraged to breathe and relax, go for a walk, laugh at something silly. Play.

So these intrepid teachers fell into conversation about what we could do at work to make our professional lives …happier.

They weren’t talking about a swelling soundtrack and larger than life event, just adding more of a sense of fun to what we do.

And then, like angels, or middle school teachers (and I believe the terms are very often interchangeable), they did something about it.

It started with crumpled paper, a couple of books, and a trash can. Making a game of it, they got together to bat a ball of paper back and forth, racing another team of hastily gathered teachers, to see who could get the paper in the can first. No double hitting! No catching the ball! Rules piled up to add a little challenge to the game.

And they laughed.

Hard.

IMG_6069Later that afternoon they came into  my office with a suggestion I couldn’t refuse.

After school a week later the empty halls echoed with the laughter of teachers playing. Our staff meeting paused long enough for us to break into teams, choose our own books, and get to slapping a ball of paper back and forth as we rushed toward garbage cans and victory.

Being the amazing organizers they are, those angels/middle school teachers ended the meeting with a chart inviting departments to sign up on to do “something fun.”

IMG_6733Since then we’ve had a salsa contest during a staff meeting and a chocolate tasting extravaganza that ran all day. One morning our counselors turned their office into a coffeehouse.

…and then…

The day arrived when our staff gathered in the theater, the lights dimmed, and the words appeared on the screen: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away…” Cue music (we did). Roll yellow words (we did). Welcome the staff to a day of lightsaber duels (heck, yeah).

We called teachers to the stage by random numbers, three at a time, each handed a pool noodle decorated to look like a lightsaber. They positioned themselves within small squares of blue tape situated onstage in front of the screen displaying scenes from Star Wars movies, sized up the opposition, and on the count of three-two-one started whapping each other.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 4.52.45 PMThe goal was to stay in the blue squares. Some did.

And on the way they laughed. The audience cheered, chomping on red vines as if they were watching a summer blockbuster, seeing their colleagues, now intrepid Jedi, wailing away.

After the first round we brought in double sided lightsabers and let them have at it again.

At the end of the afternoon, just fifteen minutes out of a busy day, applause.

The staff took time to appreciate our receptionist and my secretary, who had put so much effort into the event, and whose Princess Leia hair buns were one of the stars of the show.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 4.32.49 PMThey left smiling.

Those last three words matter so much. In a profession that can be taxing (important, life changing, rewarding, but difficult) to create opportunities for the adults who work with students to play, to laugh, to connect is vital to the health of a school.

To care for our schools we must care for our teachers.

This means many things: Teacher Appreciation Week, thank you notes, lunches provided by the parent organization, and more. It also means opportunities to be silly.

Morale will ebb and flow, that’s the world we live in, and it’s also the challenge we’re given to face those emotional highs and lows by supporting one another, taking the time to be kind, and doing our best to see the best in ourselves and each other.

…and sometimes it’s fun just to whap fellow Jedi with pool noodles.