Dishes, Friendships, and Failure

Jessica Lahey drops more than a little wisdom in her infinitely readable The Gift of Failure, the subject of our upcoming ACMA Book Club. In the first part of the book she describes the power of failure as a parenting tool, and in the second section she shifts into particular and poignant examples of “teaching kids to turn mistakes into success.”

Building on her initial argument, Part Two of The Gift of Failure begins with the assertion that kids want to feel capable, and that as the adults in their lives we have the responsibility to give them opportunities to attempt difficult tasks, learn from mistakes, and grow as a result of their experiences.

They’re ideas I look forward to talking about with the parents, students, and ACMA staff who join me for the book club on December 4th. Hearing the points of view of both the adults and the students means the possibility of helping each other, broadening our perspective, and realizing we’re not alone in what can be a challenging time.

IMG_4804

Presented as clearly as it is, the advice Lahey offers is a challenge that I feel up to more often as an educator than I do as a dad. As she notes, often teachers see in their students a greater capability than is seen by their parents. I get this. As a dad.

I felt this particularly when I read Lahey’s question about chores, or as she wisely calls them, “family contributions.” Discussing the importance of kids helping at home, she asked:

What’s more important -that the dishes are immaculate, or that your child develops a sense of purpose and pride because he’s finally contributing in a real and valuable way to the family?”

At the risk of sounding confessional, there are times in this mixed up world that I feel like I need a clean and picked up kitchen.

I suppose the clever reader (or Jessica Lahey, or a parent, or a student, or a staff member) will say: deal with it. Either accept a little messier or come up with a new set of chores. I know that’s sensible; it’s just that after a busy day, after I’ve hurried home from my kids’ soccer practice, there are some days I’m too tired to be the best parent I could be.

…and I want those dishes to end up clean, the kids’ homework to get done, and bedtime to happen before 10:30.

Lahey writes about her own son’s adventures in putting away dishes, noting “since that first day, he has broken dishes in the process of learning how best to carry, stack, and load them, but who cares? I’d trade ten broken plates for his smiles of competence and pride.” I am not yet that parent. Ye gads, I am not.

Maybe the group will have ideas about what works for them in this regard. The students who fill ACMA’s hallways are a responsible, well adjusted bunch. Their parents have done something right. I’m hungry to hear the stories of what that something might be.

Lahey provides the descriptions of more than a few “something rights” as well as touchstones for parents (and principals) like me. One that stuck with me came after the description of a scenario of a student packing her own lunch only to be disappointed by yogurt squashed by an ice pack. “She needs,” Lahey writes, “to be disappointed in her own choices once and a while.” What a beautifully phrased dollop of truth.

In addition to disappointment, Lahey promotes family contributions as a vehicle for learning self competence. Her chapter on “Laundry as an Opportunity” provides a host of rich examples for our discussion, and I look forward to listening to the experiences folks, both student and adult, are willing to share.

As rich may be the discussion of how students navigate the sometimes turbulent waters of friendship. In addition to that potentially polarizing question of “is it okay for parents to snoop into kids’ rooms and social media?” the topic of how much parents should be involved in the “constantly evolving” social lives of their kids promises fodder for interesting conversation.

Yes,” Lahey writes, “kids will make bad choices in friends, and some friendships will fail, but those missteps are what we look back on in order to recognize the traits of a healthy relationship versus a toxic one.”

The truth of that statement gives me pause. As a human I believe it is true; as a dad I wish it wasn’t. At least I think I do. I know that I don’t want my kids, or the hundreds of students I get to work with at my school, to have to make bad choices to learn about toxic relationships …and …and I do want them to grow, to learn, and to be strong. This is a topic I’m excited to talk with the students about. I have a feeling that their perspective will help not just me, but the other adults in the room.

That’s really the point of the whole enterprise of our ACMA Book Club, taking the time to talk together with fellow travelers on this journey of life. Listening, contributing our voices, and connecting with each other, I believe we create the opportunity to help each other and help ourselves.

 

 

The ACMA Book Club meets on December 4th from 6:30-8:00 pm in the Arts & Communication Magnet Academy library to discuss The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey.

Advertisements

Go… !

Here at ACMA there’s talk of finding a mascot. With just over a quarter century of history behind us, the thinking goes that it’s about time we landed on a little more cohesive identity, an easier way for the community around us to recognize that we’re more than just the sum of our parts, and that whether a student is a poet or a painter, dances, makes films, or acts, she is a part of a dynamic creative community where she can be herself and be part of something bigger than any one student or one program.

I love the acknowledgement that we are an all encompassing haven for artists of many kinds. There is a tremendous and unifying power to the creative process, and whether we sculpt, write, make music, or make sets, the very nature of creating art gives us all a common point of view and shared sensibility. Art unites us.

Now, that mascot.

The truth is… and I may be in the minority… I love the fact that we haven’t ever limited ourselves to just one mascot. There is a delicious possibility in the notion that on any given day we could be anything we choose. Van Gophers? Could be. Therapy Llamas? Could be.

As I explained to a friend the other day, we’re the David Bowie of schools, some days Ziggy Stardust, some days wearing a suit and singing about getting to the church on time. Try to tie us down and we’ll slip right through your expectations.

Screen Shot 2017-11-08 at 1.32.41 PMGo Chameleons?

Could be.

Or today we might just be the Spiders from Mars.

But such nonsense may not be the unifying reality best for our school. Maybe we would benefit from a single image to rally around, a metaphoric melody we could riff on. Heck, it could be fun.

So it’s with a smile and an open mind that as we move toward winter the discussion of how best to celebrate and communicate our school begins to take shape.

Over the next few weeks we’ll reach out to students and alumni, teachers and staff, and ask for ideas about how we might best articulate ourselves to the world beyond our campus. What, we’ll ask, can we do to clearly present who we are and what we do?

We’ll always be ACMA. We’ll always be a place where creativity abounds and creative souls are honored, encouraged, and challenged to make art. We’ll always think just a little differently and not be afraid to create works that show that spirit.

And as we begin our second quarter century we will take the time we need to connect with each other and articulate our own artistic identity. No matter what the outcome, this is a process that is good for us as a collection of artistic individuals.

Past graduates, current students, and staff from every year, ACMA is your school and it always will be. If you’re a little unsure about the notion of a mascot, I invite you to join me in suspending disbelief, knowing all will be well, and believing in the power of art to guide our adventure at ACMA and beyond.

Takeover

It all started with brownies, specifically the question of whether an ACMA counselor, Jill, and I would consider baking brownies for an event and letting students judge them. Sure, we agreed, both always game for a little adventure and unlikely to say “no” when students ask us to play.

IMG_4984Yes, and…

What if we filmed it? We asked. You know, like The Great British Bake Off. Here at ACMA we have a robust film department, and it took all of about five seconds to coax three intrepid filmmakers into shooting the contest on a non-student day.

“The Great Brownie Bake Off” we called it. Good. Clean. Fun.

About the same time, our yearbook staff, a creative collection of students, came up with the idea of promoting their social media presence by inviting a series of ACMA folks to “take over” their Snapchat and Instagram ACMA Yearbook accounts. Wild as it sounds, I got the nod for a day. …the same day as The Great Brownie Bake Off!

As the principal a large part of my job is communication. I once worked with a superintendent who liked to say that the principal was the “chief communication officer” of the school. It’s a role I take seriously, putting a priority on parent coffees, keeping our Facebook page up to date, and even tweeting a bit. But those are (mostly) parent communications. The kids? They live elsewhere online, in ranges (mostly) not conquered by those over thirty. My marvelous yearbook students had given me a one day pass into that online student world, something to be appreciated, even embraced with a spirit of play.

IMG_4983My “takeover” took place on a day when students didn’t have classes, an overcast Friday at the end of the quarter set aside for teachers to grade. The brownies would take part of the day and I’d need to figure out a few other fun posts I could share with the kids about what life was like when they weren’t on campus.

Earlier in the week a student had shown me how to post to both Snapchat and Instagram, and left me with the advice: “We like video.” So, early on Friday morning I started with an announcement of my “takeover” and the hope that today would be fun and end with them buying a yearbook.

IMG_5034I visited classrooms to find teachers grading, sharing pictures of our Spanish teacher at her desk, a senior English teacher and his student teacher grading stacks of essays, and then a clip of an amazing math teacher answering another teacher’s grading question with his fart gun. When in doubt, go for the middle school laugh.

Brownies followed, with a series of posts celebrating the playful contest that started it all, and I realized just how hard it is to capture life on social media at the same time it’s being lived. That our kids do this every day astounds me, and maybe makes me a little nervous too.

IMG_5033When I blog or tweet, or even when we celebrate our school’s story on Facebook or our website, a built in time delay takes the urgency off putting something online. This delay slows us down and gives us the opportunity to think about things like merit and message (and spelling). Instagram and Snapchat, at least in my unskilled thumbs, felt hurried and immediate. This, I thought as I hurried to post between melting chocolate and stirring flour, is my students’ reality.

To live this awareness felt different than reading about it. I’ve done book groups on teens and social media, talked with countless kids about the importance of their digital lives, and engaged in meaningful conversation with teachers, parents, and students about the promise and peril of a phone in every hand, but living the reality of feeling the pressure to post something right now was a healthy thing for me to experience as a principal. I’m not sure I liked it, but I believe it made me a more thoughtful educator.

IMG_5031Returning to school, brownies in hand, I took up my tour of campus once again. Along the way I found lots more grading (sensible on a grading day) as well as an art teacher setting up a student display case, my assistant principal setting out rubber coyotes to scare off the migrating geese, and a science teacher’s youngster discovering joy in a pottery wheel. Even on a “day off” ACMA can’t help but inspire young artists.

I ended with a post about what a principal does when students aren’t on campus, remembering my tutor’s advice that students love video, and recording the opening of the Prologue from Shakespeare’s Henry V.

O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention
My kingdom for a stage …or an Instagram account that kids follow!”

IMG_5032Shakespeare’s Prologue got it right when he trumpeted the value of clear communication and embraced his role as “cipher to this great accompt.” Schools, like history, are collections of stories, and if we don’t embrace the opportunity to tell our own someone else will.

Telling these stories on Twitter or in this blog is comfortable to me. I feel like I know what I’m doing more often than not, and the feedback I get from my audience lets me know when I’m able to communicate something that matters. Snapchat and Instagram are still unfamiliar to me, even though they’re a natural part of the world my students live in. If I really want to connect and communicate with my kids, if I really want to tell the story of my school, our school, then I’m wise not to neglect these in favor of the familiar.

My “takeover” taught me more than just how to use a couple of types of social media (though I still don’t know filters, stories, and a thousand other possibilities about them); it reminded me of the value of seeing the world, even on the online world, of my students from a different point of view. It reinforced the importance of breaking out of my own comfort zone and trying something different, and doing so publicly and with an optimistic mindset.

Will I use Snapchat or Instagram in the future? Truth be told, not as often as I’ll go back to my more established social media venues, but they don’t scare me, and I do see how partnering with students to use these and other tools can help me be a better cipher to this great accompt. As the chief communication officer for my school, that’s as sweet as a good brownie.

National Holiday

I saw my first unicorn at 6:35 am. She walked out of the dark and into the cafeteria to stay warm before school, joining a pack of students who had spent time planning and creating costumes for a big day at Arts & Communication Magnet Academy.

IMG_4894Back in the main office, after a bus duty of watching remarkable creations walk onto campus, I found two pirates smiling at the pumpkin left anonymously the night before and decorated with my name and a llama, a reference to Rojo, the therapy llama, who had visited earlier in the month.

Together we laughed at the parade of costumes that stopped by: The Hulk, complete with green face paint; an impeccably mustachioed gondolier, whose facial hair was as carefully sculpted as it was real; and a body builder toting a giant dumbbell and looking like someone out of a 1920s circus …and those were some of my teachers.

IMG_4897Here at ACMA we begin each day by playing music over the PA in lieu of a bell, and as we were getting ready to cue up the theme from Harry Potter The Cat in the Hat stopped by, joined by a cheetah, and Chuck Norris …more staff.

Students got into the act as well, an outpouring of creativity that captured the outrageous skills our students have in art and performance. Clowns and zombies, Ghostbusters and vegetables, dogs, cats, fairies, and even a skunk, the wild abundance of costumes was overwhelming. Stepping into the hall as the opening strains of Harry Potter filled the school I saw …everything. Herds of unicorns. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. Chefs. Cowpokes.

IMG_4914At lunch I hung out with a seven foot tall satyr.

I must have looked a little overwhelmed at the spectacle of it all when one of my math teachers smiled at me and said: “Here at ACMA Halloween is a national holiday.”

What a glorious thing that is.

I love that ACMA, as strong academically and artistically as it is, is on an average day a school of plush ears, horns, and tails. Our students, and our staff too, know the value of having fun and expressing themselves. Today’s costumes didn’t have to be fancy or expensive; the best were hand crafted celebrations of the creative spirit.

ACMA is a place where students make art and live life artistically, and on the 31st of October …well at ACMA that’s a national holiday.

You Can Dance

IMG_4841Nick, our custodian, put black lights into the fixtures in the library hallway around noon when the students started putting up spider webs and paper gravestones for the “Haunted Hallway.” Decorations collected throughout the day, rubber rats, black streamers, and miles of yellow caution tape. Pumpkins emerged, small and large, dotting the parts of the school where the masses would gather for ACMA’s Fall Festival Dance.

By suppertime it was a campus transformed; tables for cotton candy, popcorn, and pretzels filled the courtyard. Caramel sauce and paper boats waited for students to take advantage of the local harvest; earlier in the week my assistant, Margaret, who had put in hours helping the kids organize the dance, had poked her head in my office and let me know “I got a great deal and need to go pick up fifty pounds of apples!”

The awesomeness of that statement was in part due to the fact that at ACMA it didn’t feel out of place.

A fog machine crouched in the breezeway between what would be the Haunted Hallway and the entrance to the Quonset Hut set up for dancing.

IMG_4848But dancing… well, for anyone of my vintage who hasn’t had the opportunity to chaperone a dance for a while, school dances look different now. Maybe it’s that the world has changed and people now, from eleven to ninety, expect more variety, more choice, but dancing at a dance is just one sliver of what kids have to choose from.

What that meant this Friday at ACMA was a photo booth stocked with props where groups of students could ham it up and leave with a memory of a night of silliness. It meant free raffle tickets handed to everyone as they came through the front door and a grand drawing for a mini cauldron filled with candy at the end of the night.

Any dance in October invites costumes, and to do that at an art school means wild, abundant creativity. Zombies and superheroes danced with flappers and Disney Princesses. Pikachu shared popcorn with unicorns and Jedi, and my favorite conversation of the night went like this:

Me: “Great antlers.”
Student: “People have been telling me that.”
Me: “They’re right.”

In addition to the Haunted Hallway, the corn hole games (built by our theater tech students), and a steady line for cotton candy, a room had been set aside and stocked with board games for kids who wanted a break from the lights and music.

A witty and wonderful group of students invited me to play Apples to Apples, something that in a quarter century of working in schools I’ve never done at a fall dance, and a great reminder that as much fun as some students were having moving to music and scaring each other under the black light, for others a chance to gather on campus and play games was more their style (at least for part of the night).

IMG_4856This notion that events like a dance might be purposefully crafted to include something that everyone could enjoy, not just those who know how to move to the latest rock and roll tune, is something that strikes me as wonderful. It’s also something that I feel like I see more of every year I’m a principal.

Board games, fresh fruit, and a Haunted Hallway (and all those unexpected delights that students today add to more traditional events to make them friendlier to all) reinforce the optimism I feel whenever I work with kids.

And Friday, you could dance if you wanted to, but if you don’t dance …well, you’re still a friend of mine.

Hygge

This Saturday my kids and I made a pie. I peeled the apples that my son washed and handed to me, in turn handing them to my daughter who cut them into slices and stirred in sugar and cinnamon. They worked together on the crust, one rolling out the bottom layer, the other the top, each careful to wrap the dough loosely around the rolling pin and spin it smilingly first beneath and then atop the mound of apples.

After we wiped the flour from the kitchen table, preheated the oven, and tucked the red checkered cookbook back on the shelf, the three of us brewed tea and lit a fire.

IMG_4651My wife was out of town and we’d agreed to fill the day with simple things: two early soccer games, my daughter’s in a frigid fog bank and my son’s so wet spray flew off the ball with every kick; a trip to the library, where a librarian scowled at me when I asked to pick up a book my wife had on hold, “You do not have her card,” she pointed out, “we should not do this,” and then, we did, like naughty children, so easily bending the rules; a visit to the library book sale, where for three dollars I left with a book of William Stafford’s poetry and two paperbacks by Stephen King that I remember buying during my freshman year of college; and an hour of housework (laundry, dishes, vacuuming) interrupted by conversation.

It is so easy to get so busy.

Obligations, responsibilities, legitimate, persistent, real, all vie for our attention.

But with my wife away, the immediacy of parenting pulled me away from work and the world beyond our family. I’m so thankful it did.

The book relinquished to be by today’s librarian (who should feel no guilt in sending it home with me) was about Hygge. It’s a Danish concept that defies easy translation, but might be captured in part by the feeling of enjoying a book from a window seat on a lazy afternoon, the feel of a warm blanket looking out over a snowy day, or a cup of cocoa as your mittens dry by the wood stove. I’m told that in Denmark it’s a way of life.

If that’s true, then Saturday at our house felt pretty Danish.

And while I know that the hustle and bustle of work and home is waiting on the other side of tonight’s sleep, and while (if I’m honest with myself) I’m looking forward to the unexpected adventures and breakneck pace of being a principal, it helps me with perspective, priorities, and patience to have a day like today with the sweetness of baked apples and cinnamon.

The weather turning cooler is a nice reminder to slow down, and my kids did a great job of unplugging and really connecting today. Not every day can be a weekend. Not every meal can end in pie. But savoring these Danish days can be such an important balance to the hurly burly, necessary ballast in our ship of life.

Wordsworth captured the feeling I ended the day with in his poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.”

…here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.”

I will carry that tea and fire and apple pie with me for weeks. Finding our renewal is worth a few neglected emails or projects postponed. I’m so thankful for my kids, the rain, and a librarian willing to bend the rules.

Homework on the Table; Music in the Air

My daughter taught herself how to play the Stone Temple Pilots tune “Truce” on the piano, finding the sheet music online, listening with a musician’s ear to the song on her iPod, and practicing in the quiet of her own time to produce a haunting tune so heavy with emotion that hearing it float from our family room makes me want to cry.

She’s taken piano lessons for years because she likes playing the piano, and the songs she comes back to, “Misty” and “Georgia” and a handful of pieces whose composers I’m not sure of (but with melodies now familiar) are the ones she enjoys hearing. For the most part they’re songs from the piano books her teacher gave her, but “Truce,” that’s hers.

gift of failureI thought about my daughter’s piano playing when I read Jessica Lahey’s book The Gift of Failure, the subject of our first ACMA Book Club on December 4th. Leading up to that gathering, It’s my hope to share some articles and interviews about Lahey’s ideas and offer a short post for each of the three sections that make up her book. Here’s the first…

As a dad and an educator I picked up The Gift of Failure looking for ideas that might help me help the kids in my life. From the title and a handful of reviews I’d read, I supposed this would mean finding ways to get them to see that failure was a natural part of learning and that hard work and a growth mindset could go a long way in supporting eventual success.

Part one begins with a nod to two iconic parents: Ma and Pa from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, two stalwarts in the tradition of serious and steady parenting. So glowing with nostalgia as to be almost parables, Wilder’s stories of Ma and Pa show parents in traditional and familiar roles raising kids to be resilient, (mostly) obedient, and ready for the 19th century world they would be living in. She juxtaposes this with the pressure on today’s parents, for whom the role of “ma” or “pa” feels very different.

Those differences felt very real to me, and while Lahey certainly didn’t have me longing for any “good old days” (of starvation and hardship), her perspective on the changes to what is expected of parents (and what we expect of ourselves) was rich with wisdom.

Next, Lahey offers a parenting history lesson from Locke to Spock, making meaningful connections to her own parenting and the contemporary examples she chooses to include. The immediacy of her own journey helped me connect with what she was saying, even as she spent considerable time on self esteem and narcissism and I found myself uncertain of her strongest criticism of the “self-esteem movement.” That said, the concept of making decisions as a parent, and an educator, with a focus on “long term learning” resonated with me as did the idea of “parenting for tomorrow.”

To do so Lahey lays out a compelling argument against the control we sometimes grasp for in both parenting and education. “Just about anything humans perceive as controlling,” she writes, “is detrimental to long term motivation, and therefore to learning.”

That line is one I’m excited to talk more about with parents, teachers, and especially students when we get together in December.

Lahey goes on to discuss the benefits of “desirable difficulties” and the addictive nature of success (when that success is the student’s own). “Truce,” I thought. Or my son’s adventures in Minecraft. Or the hundred works of art I’ve seen in studios and classrooms at ACMA.

Part one of The Gift of Failure continues with a practical example of controlling versus autonomy supporting parenting that reads like the example from a textbook on ethics.

The scenario: kid forgets to take completed homework to school and parent spots it on the kitchen table with enough time to drive it in before class.

Lahey fleshes out the example in ways both philosophical and personal. Her honesty and empathy, coupled with her dedication to “parenting for tomorrow,” shine through in this section of the text. She challenges readers to put themselves in the situation, something she makes as easy to picture as it is difficult to process.

One joy of reading Lahey’s book as a part of a greater school community will be listening to the diverse perspectives of our teachers, parents, and students. This homework on the table question is one we’ll be sure to discuss.

A shout out to Carol Dweck and her book Mindset ends the first section of The Gift of Failure. Cautioning us not to sacrifice credibility on “the flimsy altar of acclaim,” Lahey provides a succession of short lessons applicable to any of us who work with kids.

Being an educator, like being a parent, brings equal parts anxiety and angst. At best, however, it those emotions pale in comparison to the hope and anticipation our kids inspire.

The Gift of Failure, while acknowledging our challenges, suggests that there is much we can do, and allow our students to do, to support that hope.

One of those steps, I’d suggest, is connecting with each other, parents, educators, and students too, to support one another. We’ll connect at 6:30 pm on December 4th in the Arts & Communication Magnet Academy library. See you there!