No Problem

Board games, homemade pretzels, and a couple of good books, Winter Break, that oasis in the middle of the year of public education, is winding down, and as it does I look back over the mounds of crinkled wrapping paper, the soot in the fireplace, and more holiday dishes than anyone should ever have to wash up, and I’m overcome with gratitude.

…and…

Cleaning the garage, taking the elderly cat to the vet, and the car to the shop, Winter Break is more than just hot chocolate and gingerbread. These two weeks away from work offer the obligations of life a chance to get resolved. They’re an opportunity to go to the gym, catch up on laundry, and whittle away at the to do list that has spent the fall growing from a seedling into a stout tree.

Both relaxing and getting work done is a balance as tough to find (for me anyway) as the missing bulb in a string of lights, and it’s something to strive for during these short days and cold nights. For the kids, the freedom from homework, the luxury of late wake ups, and ample time to go to the movies or read a novel for fun have made the two weeks heaven. For us over forty crowd, just having time to connect, whether going for a walk around the lake or covertly wrapping presents in the bedroom, is time to be savored.

This year my folks visited us here in Oregon. In their eighties, they brought a very grounded energy to the house. While the rain fell and a fire popped and flickered in the fireplace, we played King in the Corner (a card game my own grandma had taught me), watched the cats explore new laps, and listened to music.

Screen Shot 2018-12-29 at 8.01.13 PMOn this winter’s playlist was No Problem, a 1980 album by the Chet Baker Quartet. Listening to Baker’s horn, Norman Fearrington’s deft drumming, Duke Jordan’s piano, and the heartbeat of Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen’s bass is a lesson in cool. No Problem is no Kind of Blue or Take Five, but the album’s easy sound felt perfect this December.

As comfortable as the quartet sounded together, I know that to make music that swings with such a relaxed gate doesn’t happen easily. Their work in the practice room, the years of experience each musician brought to the sessions, and the confidence that comes from knowing that preparations are complete are the ingredients needed for such a success.

To sound as relaxed as No Problem only happens after hours and hours (and hours and hours and hours) of anything but relaxed preparation. Gold from sweat, that sort of thing. Kind of like being an educator.

I hope my fellow teachers, counselors, administrators, and staff are preparing to return to school renewed and rested, ready to embrace the opportunities that 2019 will offer. What those will be is anybody’s guess.

Some, I’m sure, will conform to that old Edison quotation: “opportunity is missed by most people because it comes dressed in overalls looking like hard work.” The peace that comes from Winter Break may just provide the space I need to welcome that overall clad possibility when it walks into my office.

Other opportunities will, I hope, come from some of the seeds planted this fall, as the fruits of early labors begin to appear in the spring thaw. Good friends and creative colleagues, students, and families will present other opportunities, and I’ve been in the business long enough to know that these personal invitations to make a difference often matter the most. A few may come about out of tension and stress; these opportunities to solve a problem or turn something around are often the hardest and most rewarding.

Like a good jazz album, for any results to be positive I understand that I need to bring the right mindset to my work, an openness to improvisation, and a willingness to work hard. This isn’t easy, not always, but …Winter Break.

I return to school in a different mental space than I when left campus a couple of weeks ago. Will the second half of the year be without challenges or heartbreak? I’d be foolish to promise as much. Will the new year bring stress, and tears, and lots of hard work? Almost certainly so. But looking ahead, to the start of a new semester, a spring of unexpected adventures, and on to graduation in June, I feel buoyed by Winter Break and ready for what is to come.

And my answer to those inevitable difficulties, that hard work, and the surprises that don’t bring good news, I hope will be delivered with the ease and optimism that comes only after lots of preparation and the right state of mind, the kind of practice that Chet Baker et al. brought to the album of my season. I enter the year with confidence (but as little hubris as I can muster) and my answer to those challenges of 2019, said with hope, a belief in good, and quiet determination will be: no problem.

Movement

The elf is not on the shelf. He was a minute ago, but my son moved him. Earlier this morning the elf was hanging from the light above the kitchen table, around lunch I spotted him in a ceramic container in the living room, and I just tucked him into the nerf basketball hoop that hangs on the inside of the door out to the garage.

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There was a time that my wife and I joined the ranks of so many parents, swearing quietly on the nights we were snug in bed and had forgotten to hide the scrappy little doll our kids expected to magically move from one place in the house to another overnight.

Truth be told, I think moving the elf was always my job. Perhaps that speaks to the dynamics of our relationship. But one way or another, my kids bought in to the notion that this red clad embodiment of holiday surveillance was in the house from December 1st through Christmas Eve. They’d find him in the mornings, not touch him (that was one of the rules), and see him show up in a new location the next day.

Magic. For them. And some cold nights a pain in our parental figgy pudding.

I hope not to sound too curmudgeonly when I say that this went on for years. Yes, it was magical to have two youngsters who believed in, or at least allowed us to think they believed in Santa, elves, and the whole festive shooting match. I’d be fibbing if I didn’t admit that those Christmas mornings when the kids’ eyes were wide with amazement at what was under the tree weren’t some of the happiest of my life, and…

About a week ago we realized that the elf was moving.

My clever hiding places weren’t enough. He was getting some help from my son.

At first my wife thought this intrepid ten year old was prompting us to be sure we moved the elf; I’ll admit that not every night did I remember to move the damned thing, but then we realized that my son was having a ball.

There was a certain life altering delight in the notion that he could pick up the elf. He could find a spot that he wanted to see those beady eyes looking out of, and he could tuck that elf there for us to find.

As an educator that struck a chord.

I taught high school English for a dozen years before becoming a principal, and I saw that same gleam in my students’ eyes that I saw this December in my son’s when they realized that they could have some control over what they were learning. It could be as simple as letting them pick the book they wanted to read, or as daring as asking them to take responsibility for teaching lessons to their peers. It was in those moments when I asked the class what direction they wanted to take that they came most alive.

How much like placing an elf was my choosing to teach Jack London’s The Sea Wolf. Fun for me, sure, but not for every student. (Former students reading this, please don’t bombard me with “Yes The Sea Wolf sucked emails; it really is a kooky and delightful adventure!)

I think that maybe there was a time when my control over the process was appropriate and could lead to positive results. I’m convinced that some of my students wouldn’t have found Haruki Murakami, CP Cavafy, or Zora Neale Hurston on their own, but I’m also convinced that if I had always continued to insist that I was the only one who knew where the magic was hidden I would have deprived them of a magic all its own.

The power to take life in our own hands, and for students to take learning in theirs just as my son made the decision to pick up that elf and walk across the room, is or should be an important part of education.

It also gets easier the more we allow our students to do it. The first time I gave up control in my classroom, allowing students more voice in what they were studying wasn’t easy for all of them, nor was is particularly easy for me. So too, when she saw her brother moving the elf this week, my teenage daughter confessed that when she was little she once moved the elf herself and them moved it back where it had been, so no one would notice and she could see what would happen.

A step toward independence, I’d argue is what happened, accompanied by a pinch of rebellion and delight.

In a classroom there is a certain approval that goes along with being the master that disappears when students take the wheel. This can be tough, particularly for those of us who want so much to make sure things “go well,” and it’s something I know I’ve felt as a principal too.

Just before winter break I came to my staff with a decision to be made about when to deliver several lessons (as part of Erin’s Law) to our students. I had an idea of how to do this, and opened up discussion for others to share their thoughts. We discussed our plan for a bit, and afterward used a survey to get a sense of where people were landing. My idea came in second from last.

The result will be a decision that is better for my school than if I’d made it myself. Like a classroom teacher who gives the gift of decision making to her students, I know that listening to my staff’s voice benefits us all. The road ahead isn’t mine alone to navigate; I’m with good company, fellow travelers I’m wise to trust.

In addition to the community building that shared choice contributes to in a classroom, there is also a feeling of freedom and sense of adventure that comes with watching students take ownership.

I understood today that this student ownership brings the same mix of pride and surprise, acceptance and delight that I felt when I realized that the elf was no longer on the shelf.

Gallery

An art school needs an art gallery. That makes sense. In 1995, for an art school housed in a building that was constructed as an elementary school almost fifty years earlier, having an art gallery meant making an art gallery. And that meant work.

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In the fall of 1995 it was Arts & Communication students who rolled up their collective sleeves and transformed a space that had been an office and switchboard room in another life into something special. Debbie Teeter, an A & C staff member at the time, recalled that “the walls were wood and we primed and painted them white. That primer was noxious!”

Fumes didn’t slow down the students.

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 1.52.43 PMThey prepped and painted, set up space to hang paintings, drawings, and photographs, and built plinths to hold sculpture. By its opening, the gallery smelled better, and the folks who came in to see the student art witnessed something special: a big step forward for the little art school that could.

When it came to naming the gallery, and all good galleries should have names, the choice was easy.

Tom Marsh was a member of Arts & Communication’s original core staff, and his student centered approach to education helped shape the school. Before his time at A & C he’d worked on staff at Beaverton’s Community School and taught Social Studies at Sunset High. With a perspective on governance learned in part as a member of the Oregon House of Legislature from 1975 to 1979, he didn’t just teach government and civics, he lived them, and he encouraged in his students to have a voice.

IMG_9290Those voices sometimes manifested themselves in art, like the clay masks that hung above the black stencil reading: TOM MARSH GALLERY.

You can spot Tom Marsh in student films from his time at A & C, usually playing the heavy in a parody of some kind (advising James Bond, counseling Luke and Darth Vader). There’s a playfulness there that one can imagine was a part of his teaching life as well.

If we describe those early 1990s students as the founding mothers and fathers of our school, Tom Marsh might be thought of as ACMA’s guiding grandfather.

Today the masks that those students put on the wall above the Tom Marsh Gallery are still there, and they’ll be brought with us to our new building and reinstalled exactly as they are now in the fall of 2021. Art schools need art galleries, and ACMA needs the Tom Marsh.

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Listening Session

The conversations were never light, though we allowed ourselves to laugh together, leaning in to listen as we did the hard work. It was a “Budget Listening Session” and I put the title in quotation marks because it is not my own; every school will host a similar event sometime in December or January, using the district’s presentation to share budget facts with our school communities before diving in to an activity that asks us to prioritize spending in the event we see a gap between our projected expenditures and 2019-2020 revenue. I was the evening’s host, but not its master.

budget 1Knowing how challenging it can be to talk about big issues like budget, particularly when our control over the topic is limited and the impact on our work is profound, I decided early on to enlist some of the best voices I know: students.

I went to our National Honor Society, which at my school does so much service for our students, parents, and school community, and asked if a half dozen or so would join me on the night to be table leaders for our budget activity. I met with them the day before, outlining the information I’d be sharing and giving them a heads up about what we’d be doing. They listened thoughtfully, asked good questions, and said they were happy to have their voices heard.

On the night parents and staff members arrived, curious and (unless I’m projecting) a little nervous. I did my best to share the rows of statistics, the history, and the process of budgeting in Oregon, and then introduced the activity.

We divided into tables, I handed out the materials, and they got to work.

Three things struck me as I walked from table to table listening and answering questions.

First, the students, staff, and parents all seemed comfortable talking to one another. They listened, considered what others had said, and worked together to look at the budget at hand. My student table leaders allowed all voices to be heard, including my staff members whose understanding surpassed most in the room, and my parents, both those who had been through lean budget times and those for whom this was the first discussion of this kind they’d had outside their kitchen table.

budget 2Next, everyone cared so much, and for how the suggestions they were making impacted everyone. Students, some of whom will have graduated before next year’s budget is approved by the state, talked about choices from a point of view that was anything but checked out. They cared deeply, both for their school and for their peers, and as I heard them speak, I could tell that their perspective extended to include those children not yet in school. One teacher of seniors went out of his way to emphasize the importance of early childhood education. One parent talked with her table about the budget’s impact on everyone in the state.

Finally, they recognized the budget box we were working within, but didn’t accept staying there entirely. Yes, they understood the limits an individual, school, or even district could have on the process, and they articulated the importance of each person there had in making their voice heard. They imagined school and community partnerships to help bridge some gaps. They talked about political action they might take to help lawmakers see how much this matters. They connected with one another over a difficult conversation, and left, I believe more bonded than they’d been coming in.

I left with a hope in our future, inspired by those students who care, imagine, and will solve problems in ways few of us can even imagine. I left with resolve, knowing that no one needs to be a passive member of our society, but we all can make a difference if we work together to be heard. And I left with appreciation for the school community I have the privilege to be a part of. These parents, students, and staff members inspired me more than I can say. It was an evening that none of us named, but all of us owned, together.

The Sequels

Every movie that gets a positive response seems to end up with a sequel these days, and after a nice reaction to the three student shorts from the mid 1990s a couple of weeks ago it seemed natural to go back to the vault and find another handful of student films to share from Arts & Communication’s past.

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Watching these is a reminder that audiences bring their own perspectives to any viewing. Grads from around the time might spot themselves in the videos. Current students notice the walls that haven’t yet been covered with murals. A sentimental principal like me sees just how much the students from a couple of decades ago seem like the kids who walk the halls now. I see in the joy and daring, the humor and pathos, the laughter and hijinx, a commonality between A&C students from 1996 and ACMA students from 2018. …and it is wonderful.

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 9.00.49 AMThis quartet of films captures that madcap spirit of the time and some of the energy student artists brought to our school. With haunting imagery, a vintage telephone booth, and a look at campus (complete with giant greenhouse), the first student film is both familiar and otherworldly. In it you can see the techniques Mr. Bennett, their film teacher, helped the young Kurosawas learn and employ.

Mr. Bennett shows up in the second film, Mr. Bennett’s Pain. As electric guitars wail, a wig clad student steps into film class and proceeds to make mischief at the expense of what one supposes was precious technology at the time. Mr. B’s extended reaction shot (84 seconds …wow!) alone is worth the price of admission.

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Another dreamy entry in the mid 90s pantheon of A&C films comes in an untitled exploration that is an experiment in angles and contrast. It’s hard to be sure what exactly you’re seeing, though the wainscoting and some corners of campus feel familiar.

The longest of these four films is God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, a sprawling epic of close-ups and expressions. Watching God Bless… is like peeking at an Arts & Communications home movie. More than perhaps any student film I’ve seen from the time, this adventure in images and sound seems to snare the school’s zeitgeist, and the result is beautiful.

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 9.37.10 AMFrom the PLAY that occasionally shows up in the upper corner of the films from time to time to the unapologetically poetic sensibility shared by so many of the movies, these time cinematic capsules are a precious reminder of what life was like at that creative school where kids made art, made connections, and made sense of their world.

Only one of these films had any credits (at least on the cut found in that box in the film room), though the filmmakers and their peers would certainly be able to assign credit (or blame) pretty quickly. From my view so many years later, I choose to see them all as the manifestation of the spirit of creativity, brought to existence by the collective effort of student artists who lived life artistically.

Art is magical, and finding treasures like these is a treat for all of us, whether A&C was our school in the 90s, 00s, or today. My appreciation goes out to the students who helped to create this art, the current student who helped save it from the dangers of time, and everyone watching who give it new life again.

Unlock the Piano

We have a piano in the cafeteria. For years it was locked up, safe until it was needed for choir practice or the jazz band rehearsing for an upcoming show. It’s not a fancy instrument, just a simple upright that we get tuned often enough to stay relevant and got used just enough to justify keeping around. This fall, at the prompting of one of our amazing food service folks, we took off the lock. It has transformed lunch.

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As an art school we know that the students (and staff) who fill our halls are creative sorts. They sing and dance and act out scenes from Shakespeare, and that’s just between classes. It’s not unusual to find students sitting in the hallways at lunch reading something they’ve written to each other, hunched over a chromebook to watch a film one of them has shot and is editing, or practicing some of the steps they’ll use in tap class that afternoon.

We’re a school that loves applause, both giving and receiving, and bursts of clapping are common at lunch, during passing periods, and even sometimes in class.

Being a principal at a place like this brings more unexpected joys than I can articulate, it also brings the challenge of balancing opportunities for students to express their own creativity while building a positive community and running the day to day operations of a school.

To me this means not just promoting the established performances, but also inviting more impromptu opportunities for the creative souls who make up my school.

Screen Shot 2018-12-05 at 11.47.24 AMOnce we unlocked that piano in the cafeteria we saw students use it. From the most talented seniors, students who have gigs in Portland on weekends and can hold their own with professionals, to youngsters plunking out Für Elise, our kids sat down and played.

All this fall we’ve heard songs familiar and strange. Some days the cafeteria is filled with a sing along, other days it’s jazz or a cover of a Twenty One Pilots tune. Pop, classical, moody student compositions, we’ve heard them all. Last week I walked through the bustling lunchroom and it was the Harry Potter theme.

And something else happened too.

More and more I’ve heard music that isn’t just a piano. In addition to those students who gather around the pianist to sing, outside the cafeteria I’ve seen more kids strumming ukuleles in the hallway, and on a particularly sunny day I heard an impromptu violin concert outside.

violinI want to foster an environment where students are encouraged and inspired to make music in the hallways, the courtyard, and the cafeteria. My poets and painters, animators, ballet dancers, and photographers all benefit from being in a school where music fills campus. It’s not something I could or should legislate; my job as a steward to this magical school is to create opportunities, open spaces where students can bring their own art alive.

Listening to one of the most beautiful renditions I’ve ever heard of that old jazz standard “Body and Soul” the other day at lunch got me thinking about the other ways I can give my students the chance to overflow with artistic exuberance. They could be big ideas like adding a stage to the commons area of the new building that starts construction this summer, or small ones like putting up the wide swaths of paper for students to draw on in the Quonset Hut that serves as our cafeteria. It could be encouraging open mic nights, stopping to really listen when I hear students playing ukulele in the hallway, or posting images of student artwork and links to student films online.

At some schools it could be setting aside times and places that students can fill with their own voices. Some places have grand traditions, like Exhibition Day, others are ready to introduce new opportunities both big and small. At my little art school it might be as simple as giving license to extemporaneous artistic expression, or joining in on the applause I hear at lunch.

All of these are ways to support students and nurture creativity, ways of unlocking our pianos.

1000 Words

In my quest to gather stories from Arts & Communication’s past I’ve been fortunate to meet and correspond with a number of amazing alumni, fabulous former staff members, and folks whose paths have led through the C.E. Mason building over the past seventy years. Digging around some storage rooms on campus, a campus that is slated for demolition this summer (only to rise again like a Phoenix in the fall of 2021), I’ve found old yearbooks, VHS tapes, some CDs, and DVDs of what the world at ACMA was like back in the day.

I think my favorites are the most antiquated: the browning paper of the photo albums from the 1990s; the old issues of the student newspaper, The Savant; and the cache of slides, at least two batches from the middle part of the 1990s.

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A few weeks ago some intrepid students located an old slide projector, loaded up the single carousel we could find, and took a photo off the wall in my office for journey back to Arts & Communication High School circa 1994.

The trip was fantastic.

slideshowIt was so fun, in fact, that I took the show on the road and shared the images with current students during a couple of lunches.

They dug it, marveling at the walls of their school not yet covered by murals, noticing fashions of the time, and laughing at the faces so much like their own. We didn’t have lots of context; we didn’t know who everyone was for example, so the unifying elements were campus, creativity, and the universally teenage expressions of artistic youth.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, this slideshow was mid-90s Dickens novel.

We’ll work on capturing a higher quality version of the slideshow we can share online, but in the meantime I wanted to make something available right now. So…

I did something as simple as turning a camera toward the wall, putting a little music on the hi-fi, and letting the slide carousel turn in it’s 20th century way. It’s not high tech or polished, not the kind of official presentation you might see in the corporate world, heck, a couple of slides are in backward, but our school has never been constrained by conventionality or burdened by patience.

Click on the slide here and take a peek, if you’d like!

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I love seeing the faces in this show and knowing that our school was their school, and their A&C shares many of the good qualities I’m proud to see in ACMA today. While the world changes, and schools do too, there is something both familiar and inspiring in these photographs.

On February 1st we’re going to open our Quonset Hut (or “Cafegymnatorium” as one alum called it with a smile) for alumni to come to campus and share stories. This won’t be a formal affair; we really just want to provide an opportunity for folks who love this school to come back and spend some time together. On that night some of our current students will try to capture (on film, sound recordings, or interviews) some of the stories that help to make up our collective history. I’ll do my best to have some slideshows then, as well as some other photos and memory prompters from our school’s history.

As ACMA looks ahead at a bright future for the artists and free spirits who do and will call our little school home, it’s important to look back at the stories of those founding mothers and fathers on whose shoulders we stand. Some of those stories captured on little squares of cardboard and plastic.

 

 

Our Artsy Alumni gathering will take place on February 1, 2019 from 6:00-8:00 pm in the “Cafegymnatorium.” We welcome A&C and ACMA students and staff from any years of our school’s history, and look forward to some laughter, stories, and maybe even a little art. (And yes, I’ll walk you through the school, so you can see the murals, wainscoting, and smell that C.E. Mason old school smell one more time!)