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 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.

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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.

Bustling Ducks

Spring in Oregon means that it was sunny and 89° when I took my daughter to soccer practice on Thursday afternoon and a rainy 57° when she played in her game on Saturday morning. The blossoms are on the trees, the grass is growing at a rapid rate, and the world around campus feels like it’s speeding up as we rush headlong through April showers and May flowers toward graduation in early June.

It means that students are hurrying to keep (or get) their grades where they want them, teachers are rushing to get in the lessons they want to before the end of the year, and everyone is thinking about what needs to get done before mortarboards take to the air and the bustle of spring is replaced by the quiet drone of a bee in summer.

At an art school like ours, spring also means performances, exhibitions, and celebrations of creativity. In the past four weeks alone, our performing arts center has played host to a musical, a visiting German piano quartet, a story slam, dance recital, jazz and classical performance, and huge art exhibition. We’ll add a choir concert, film night, and another dance show before the month is out, and cap it all off with commencement in June rich in student performances.

But we are a school that likes applause, and as crazy busy as the last few weeks have been, I don’t think there is one of us who would want it any less so.

It was against the backdrop of this frenzied springtime that Mother Nature provided us a moment of pause and reflection. On a warm Thursday morning, ahead of a hot afternoon, I got a call on my radio that I needed to go to the courtyard near the rear of the PAC. I was still on my first cup of coffee, but thought I heard the word “visitors,” which in the nomenclature of school walkie-talkies means trouble as often as it announces welcome guests.

I grabbed my sunglasses (springtime invites optimism) and headed out, hurrying past students who seemed to be drifting eagerly toward the alley between the performing arts center and the Quonset Hut that serves as our cafeteria.

I picked up my pace, doing my best to keep that sense of calm a good principal should as I turned the corner and saw them.

My head custodian had arrived first, so our guest was hissing a him as students watched and a few took video with their phones.

But he kept his cool, gesturing the smiling kids back and whispering loudly to give the mother and her ducklings room to waddle out of the student walkway and onto the neighboring grass.

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For an instant we were, all of us, caught up in the lives of these ducklings. And I thought that no matter what character in this story that we are in the moment: fuzzy youth, hissing mama duck, or shepherding custodian, for us spring is a season of surprises, action, and (as when those ducklings stepped onto the green, green grass) applause.

“Fare Forward, Voyagers”

I’m thinking about a poem. We’re elbow deep in plans for graduation and a part of most ceremonies is the guy in a tie addressing the class. In my time as a principal, and on the pages of this collection of thoughts (tagged “graduation”), I’ve wrestled with what to say, weighed and reweighed the importance of the event, and relished the approach one deliciously iconoclastic school took to the commencement ceremony. This year, at the helm of a wildly creative school filled with wonderfully curious students, the prospect of a speech, and more specifically what words to offer these artistic souls, is heavy on my mind.

So on an April afternoon when I was reading Eliot’s Four Quartets I found myself moved by a passage that made me think about graduation. Sentimental by nature, and made even more so by the approach of the end of the school year, I found resonance in the lines:

When the train starts, and the passengers are settled
To fruit, periodicals and business letters
(And those who saw them off have left the platform)
Their faces relax from grief into relief,
To the sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours.
Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you;
And on the deck of the drumming liner
Watching the furrow that widens behind you,
You shall not think ‘the past is finished’
Or ‘the future is before us’.
At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,
Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,
The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)
‘Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.”

Our students are like those passengers on Eliot’s poetic train. They stay suspended in the moment of graduation, separated from their past years at a familiar school and the wide opening of the future before them. In these moments, as they listen to speeches, hear music made by peers, and sit in robes they’ll wear on only this one occasion, they are invited to consider the past and future with “equal mind.”

EliotAs I look out at them from the podium on stage I know I’ll think: “You are not the same people who left the station…” They are, in fact, pure possibility. They are our voyagers, embarking on new adventures, even as they have traveled so far together. They are faring forward.

I’m thinking about a poem.

Emily Dickinson, that poet of slanted light and buzzing flies, in a moment steeped with spring described:

Two Butterflies went out at Noon—
And waltzed above a Farm—  
Then stepped straight through the Firmament  
And rested on a Beam—  
  
And then—together bore away
Upon a shining Sea—  
Though never yet, in any Port—  
Their coming mentioned—be—  
  
If spoken by the distant Bird—
If met in Ether Sea
By Frigate, or by Merchantman—
No notice—was—to me—”

How like those butterflies our graduating students are, waltzing, resting, bearing away. As they prepare to step “straight through the Firmament” what more can we do than watch and wonder, hope and celebrate, and see in them the future?

I’m thinking about a poem.

That day of commencement, a day when I’ll step to the mic and after three or four other speakers, many of whom will have grand advice and relevant anecdotes for the graduates, it will be my turn. Any big ideas or semblance of wisdom I’ve wanted to pass on the students will have already heard.

My “Art unites us” speech? Check.

My “Three things matter in life: to be kind, to be kind, to be kind” speech? They’ve heard it.

My fatherly advice about being safe and looking out for one another? I’ve given them that too.

DickinsonSo I think about what I might add to a ceremony rich with student performances, pomp, and pageantry, and I keep coming back to the brevity, beauty, and power of verse.

I won’t go with TS Eliot, though his voyagers were the ones to first inspire the notion of a poem. I’ll leave Emily Dickinson for them to find on their own when they get to college. But I have something in mind that might just work, a short piece that captures the swell of emotions that typify graduations and offers the sort of advice an older generation should offer the young.

Who knows, maybe it says something right that graduation day sees the principal walk in with a volume of poetry tucked under his arm. We’ll see.

I can almost hear the whisper in my ear: “Not fare well,/ but fare forward, voyagers.”

Octopus

I was having a day. Not a bad day, but a day when it felt like the surprises that were coming brought more challenges than smiles, and a string of opportunities to make a difference left me feeling like a slowly unclenching fist.

As I walked through the counseling department, having safely escorted a couple of students to a person who could help them out, I looked up and spotted one of my amazing teachers sitting at her desk in a common planning room.

She smiled, as she always does, and asked me if I had a minute. Clench. “Sure,” I answered, always attempting to be a gentleman. And then she surprised me.

Screen Shot 2018-04-18 at 1.47.49 PM“I had my kids do this in class,” she said, lifting a pile of manilla folders from her desk and bringing them over to the table where I’d sat down. “It’s about organization.” She sat down next to me. “Here.” She opened the top folder and took out a stack of photographs of sea creatures: a translucent squid, an octopus, an anemone or two.

For the next three or four minutes she led me through a sorting exercise that had us sitting shoulder to shoulder looking at the pictures and answering a series of questions, captured in a table created by a group of students. Does this creature have legs? If so, go to row “C.” If not, go to row “D” etc. etc. At the end of each trail of questions the creature in the picture got a silly name.

My teacher and I laughed. The photos moved from one stack to another. The weight of the day floated away like a brine shrimp on a rising tide.

It was a little thing that wasn’t a little thing.

Here was a teacher who spotted her principal not whistling, brow furrowed, having …a day. Rather than simply think I’m sure glad I’m not him she thought I wonder if I can help?

The truth: she did.

The inspiration that teacher provided went well beyond making my day better. Her small act (that wasn’t a small act) reminded me of the value of looking out for one another, the importance of not just identifying a problem, but rolling up our sleeves and doing something about it, and the profound impact of genuine kindness.