The Summer of our Discontent

I keep a copy of Shakespeare’s Henry V by my desk, an inspiration for those days when I need to turn to an idealized vision of a leader boldly striking forth while keeping a human heart. I’ve written about it before, but maybe failed to mention that alongside that little tome sits a matching volume of Richard III, a reference work for days when leadership isn’t quite so noble (Shakespeare’s Richard was a scoundrel, for all you non-English majors).

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I taught English for more than a dozen years, and my most memorable time with Richard III came when a friend of mine and I were the two person English department at a small high school in rural Oregon. We taught a lot of Shakespeare, and the year after I left the school (to move south to California) I flew up one day in the spring and surprised my former students.

My friend was in the midst of a unit on Shakespeare with kids who were seniors and had studied Richard III with me the year before. He had a stage set up in his room, and before class started I hid behind the curtain wearing a gas mask (quiet homage to the Ian McKellen Richard III film). Once the students had filed in I pushed out from behind the curtain and launched into Richard’s opening speech, ripping the mask off as I got to the final line:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings”

Ah, “merry meetings.”

I thought about that long ago morning this week as we got word that we’d be starting the school year 100% remotely. It has been months since I’ve seen my current students face to face and in person, not just through a computer screen. Right now we are living through the “clouds lour’d upon our house” and the notion of hanging up our bruised arms feels miles away. And…

This will end. The time will come when our “stern alarums” will be replaced by something else. We will return to school when safety allows, and that will be a time of merry meetings indeed. Until then, well…

The uncertainty of the fall is heavy on all our hearts. We know that we want to be at school, but that the “at school” we have in mind doesn’t exist right now. The stress we feel is real. The isolation from friends, and as much from the bustle and hum of those around us at school who are all potential friends, is palpable. The worry about what we are missing makes sense. We are, all of us, doing our best to do our best. We are trying to understand a situation that none of us has faced before, and move through it with as much grace as we’re able. It isn’t easy.

It is the summer of our discontent, but seasons change.

And as we move into a fall of adaptation, where we are asked to face our uncertainty and move toward some kind of temporary normal that looks different than anything we’ve know, it helps to know that sometime in the future the seasons will change yet again and we will be able to look back at 2020 as a time that tested us, challenged our system, and a time that we emerged from changed, but whole.

Yehuda Amichai, a more modern poet than Shakespeare, said it well:

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.”

We are living in a world “dug up” right now, but it’s from plowed ground that flowers grow. We’ll make it, together (at a physical distance, for a while), and sometime soon we’ll rip off the gas mask, smile with the joy of recognition that only comes from long absence, and enjoy together a merry meeting.

Opening

Hours of meetings and gallons of ink have disappeared in the planning of bringing students back on campus in September. Meanwhile, COVID-19, a more efficient operator, marched on, the curve sloping up until some school districts, like LA Unified and San Diego Unified, saw no choice but to hit “pause” on those in-person reopening plans.

This seems like the time to take a quiet moment to center ourselves, acknowledge that we all need each other if any of us are to succeed, and get to work on a remote learning experience that actually works.

We know that not all students have equal access to technology, and that many of the students who have the fewest digital resources are the same kids who have the fewest resources (time, money, and safe environments) when we’re educating them in school buildings made of brick and mortar. It’s not fair. It never has been. 

To provide an equitable experience for all students is a charge education needs to meet, education, the system, not just individual teachers. Tech departments, central offices, folks whose job in the system has them a step or two removed from working in classrooms with kids can make a monumental difference now by finding solutions to make access available to all. As a principal I know I’m part of that system, and I want to do my part. We need to ensure access for each of our students. Remote learning is a voyage through wide waters and every student should have a worthy craft to sail. 

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At the school level we know what needs to happen after that; we need to teach kids.

The challenge teachers and counselors and site administrators need to face is how to provide teaching and learning, connections and support, care and community to our kids, and we need to get working on that now.

We need a schedule. For teachers, for students, for families, we need to have structure that allows us to manage the time (so very, very, very much time) we have at home. Not everyone can meet during the same hours, life and sometimes bandwidth get in the way of that, but having some opportunity for synchronous learning is healthy, both academically and socially. I have two kids, and over the three months this spring when they were learning from home my ninth grader met with each of his teachers at least once a week, sometimes more often; my sixth grader saw a teacher from his 6th grade “team” in real time twice. Two times. It wasn’t a mystery which of the two felt more connected.

Almost all of the parents, teachers, and students who reached out to me from March through June commented on the importance of having some schedule to support some sense of familiarity, provide kids a reason to get up before noon, and give families something they could plan for in the week ahead. Some parents talked about filling out mini-dry erase boards with schedules, one student told me about a spreadsheet she used to keep track of logins for meetings, and while many of my teachers came to the realization that flipping lessons using video could be a smart move, most also spoke about the benefits of having a time every other day or so when they could meet with their kids.

We need a sense of proportion, an understanding of how much is too much, how much is not enough, and how much work is just right. If we were (collectively) Goldilocks this spring, not all of us had found our way out of Mama Bear’s bed when we ended school in the second week of June. We need to find the right fit sooner than that this fall. To do so we’ll need to work collaboratively, look to others with expertise, and agree that not only is remote learning different than learning in classrooms, but the workload is different too. I certainly do not have the answer as to how much work a remote learning situation should have in comparison to a classroom in the schoolhouse, but I do know that for our kids’ sake we need to find out the answer (which might be different in English and history and theater and math) and help our kids find success academically, even as they’re doing school from their kitchen tables.

And no, not every student has a kitchen table to call their own, certainly not at specific times of day when we say school is in session, so we need to acknowledge that too and find ways to support both the students, all of them, and the families as learning migrates from one big building to thousands of homes across our town. 

We need clear communication. As a principal I need to prepare for a remote Back to School Night. I need to provide ways for my school community to ask questions (my twice monthly coffees with the principal over Zoom worked well for this last spring) and give feedback (through surveys and such, where we can get even more information from our students and families). I need to help provide the context for the important work that is happening in classes.

And in those classes, well, we need to figure out how to present information, provide inspiration, ensure accountability, and be relevant.

Lots of folks have written more eloquently and with more information than me about remote learning. We need to learn from them, talk to our teachers, and come up with the plan that will work for our school.

This fall is not, and should not be, a repeat of the spring. In March and April we had to react to a crisis and rebuild our ship at sea. In September we’ve had weeks in dry-dock to make the needed repairs. 

Some of that shipbuilding should include clarity on how students and families can find assignments, an easy way for kids to manage meetings, ways to adequately assess learning, and opportunities to connect meaningfully with teachers and peers in class.

Classes look different, and that’s okay; a dance class, a science lab, orchestra, ceramics, calculus, each subject has nuances that mean there’s no way one size can fit all, and… we can still figure out ways that kids can find the class meetings, assignments, and content in a more uniform way. We can still help families organize time (and perhaps internet related resources like bandwidth and devices) in a way that there is room for all those classes, and maybe also room for a walk around the block.

I’m optimistic that we’ll all be back in our school building this year, I really am, but I’m even more certain that we’ll be learning remotely (whether full time or in some kind of hybrid model) sooner than that.

A couple of weeks ago I hosted a virtual picnic for students. We chatted about summer, looked at photos of the construction at our new campus (opening with fanfare in the fall of 2021), and talked about this upcoming start of school. 

They want to be on campus, but they want it to be safe. They know that some of our artistic pursuits, some of the very reasons we exist as a school at all, like music, and theater, and dance, bring with them added challenges. “Remote poet” has a different ring to it than “remote trumpeter.” And…

The students, like the adults, are so ready to be back. Safely.

So we plan. We plan for 100% remote learning. We plan for the day we can all be back on campus together. And we plan for some kind of in between, where we might gather safely, even if not all at once.

I wish I knew for certain what the 2020-2021 school year would look like. I don’t, at least not right now, but I do believe that we can make something positive out of this fall. Imperfect, yes, but positive.

Because we have the ingredients: students, teachers, and caring. No obstacles, not stress, not physical separation, not uncertainty can overcome the power of teaching and learning. With planning, preparation, and the ability to meet mistakes with grace we can sail forward in the best boat we can fashion for these stormy seas. 

Summer at Home

IMG_5814This summer COVID-19 and a series of Friday furlough days have conspired to keep us at home more than usual Julys, lots of dog walking in the neighborhood, some journeys to the park. We still slip away for day trips into nature, and we’ve mastered the art of drive through ice cream cones, but we won’t be on a plane or road trip any time soon, and while that’s okay (we do want to be safe and there is still lots to be done to have fun as a family unit at home), the summer sun still stokes an itch to travel. 

In years past I’ve used those trips as inspiration for summer blogging: hiking with a friend in the Bay Area, visiting my old haunts at Hood River Valley High (the first school where I taught), and this summer, in lieu of any kind of travelogue of posts inspired by contemporary summer ramblings, I offer this look back at a trip to Canada from a couple of summers ago. I like the posts and if you’re in the mood for a sentimental principal talking about British Columbia, look no further than…

A flight delay reminded me that I am not patient, and reflecting on that now I see the connection to the sometimes frustrating time we’re in right now as educators (trying to plan for a very uncertain fall). At some point in the next few weeks, I may even find myself  saying to my students and families: “Thank you for your patience…”

The trip to Oh, Canada reminded me of the importance of balance and the complicated dance of boundaries.

More now than ever, as we navigate school closures, remote learning, and our students’ mental health, I’m reminded that being a principal very often feels like I’m on a Two Way Traffic/One Lane Road

Trouble exists, even in paradise, as evidence when I overheard a woman shout: “I’m not paying for someone else’s meth habit!”

Acrobats unnerve me. I assume they do you too.

I wish all my readers a good summer, safe, different, but good.