Three (nice) Surprises

It’s my job to look for silver linings. As a principal one of the most important things I do (along with working hard to help my school continue to improve, addressing concerns, and supporting teachers and students) is keep fixed in my mind a vision of my school at its very best. Some days that’s tougher than others, particularly in this strange COVID-19 spring, when the challenges seem to outweigh the celebrations, at least in my in-box. And… 

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Even though we can’t be together on campus (a place where magic is commonplace), this past week saw three very happy surprises, beacons of hope in these uncertain times. Sharing them here makes me happy, and I hope can be a modest reassurance that even though there is much to be stressed by in the world around us, there is always the chance that very, very soon we might just get an unexpected surprise that doesn’t involve coughing.

Surprise #1: We are a school that makes things. Music, paintings, poems, stories, ACMA is a creative cauldron where students and staff support each other, applaud often, and encourage artistic risk taking. We love the polished performances we see on stage, whether a dance recital, play, or concert, and we love gathering together to entertain each other at more casual affairs like Open Mic Night (or Open Mic Afternoon during this pandemic). This leads to a real challenge for some of our classes, and has seen our art teachers offering to bring paint and sketch books to students, our staff finding ways to get musical instruments to kids, and most recently one of our art teachers to go the extra mile to help a class work that really shouldn’t during this time of sheltering at home: Ceramics.

I came to campus last week to find our ceramics teacher cutting and bagging clay for her advanced ceramics students. She filled ziplock bags with clay, put student names on them, and placed them in the shade in the front of campus. She’d reached out to her students and every one who wanted to create with clay at home had a package waiting for them. It wasn’t something she had to do, but it was something she wanted to do for her students. Kind, inspiring, creative, a surprise provided by an amazing teacher.

Surprise #2: Once a month ACMA students gather at lunch for an ACMA Student Forum. A pair of students run the event, an open conversation about what’s happening on campus and what we all ought to do about it. I’ve written about ACMA’s Student Forum before (a new tradition at our school inspired by a longstanding student forum at a fabulously funky school a thousand miles south of here), and when we left campus in March I wondered if we were done for the year. We weren’t.

The two moderators reached out to me a couple of weeks ago and we set an online version of the ACMA Student Forum for Friday. Students from 6th to 12th grade showed up and talked art, coping with the separation from school, and things they were doing to stay sane. Kids shared ideas, and positive words, and afterward one moderator told me “This student forum was great! I am glad we got to hear from the younger grades, and looking at participation, an online format is almost better than when we had it in-person.” Now I will never discount the thousand benefits of being in the same room with students sharing their voices, but that moderator was right: this was a pretty great event.

Surprise #3: At our little art school we have a “Sixth Grade Wheel” where our youngest students get to sample a mix of creative pursuits from instrumental music to theater to art. Since we left campus before the final rotation of the wheel, some students only got three flavors of ACMA this year rather than the usual four, and one family reached out during one of my (online) coffees with the principal to ask if there was any way her student could get the syllabus for the fourth and final spoke of the wheel, visual art, that he’d be missing since we opted to keep students in their third quarter classes to minimize disruption and not ask them to meet a new teacher and subject only through Zoom. It was a fair request, and one we said we’d follow up on, so after an email to the art teacher I figured we were about done. I was wrong.

The art teacher, so student supportive that I want to burst with pride, wrote back: “I could send the syllabus but what would be more helpful for them is if they could maybe get access to the class on Canvas as an observer. That way they could access and do the assignments and activities.” She didn’t know how to do this, she went on, since she had never met the student, but she hoped we could help make the connection. Our Canvas master, a middle school science teacher, hopped on the challenge right away. He found a solution and talked us through how to add the student to the class, so the student could see more than a list of topics, but get some instruction if he wanted it, and participate as much as he’d like. 

In a world where some choose to do the very minimum, to see a student and parent reach out asking for the opportunity to learn, a teacher willing to support them, and another teacher quick to help out gave me hope that as rocky as sometimes things can be, we’re going to be all right.

Those are just three of the many good things that happened last week. More did, and more will this week as well. As we navigate these waters, the final four weeks of the school year, I encourage all of us to look for those nice surprises. Celebrate them. Don’t ignore the frustrations, or swallow the angst that has a natural place in this situation, but allow yourself to see beyond the stress, breathe in the positive, and appreciate when things happen that bring us a smile. We will get through this, and if we look for the good in the world we might just be surprised.

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