Spring Soccer

Reading TS Eliot outside
beneath a bright translucent sky
the April wind against my face
blows dark clouds and certain rain
toward the folding chair where I read
tall grass dancing around me
my daughter’s soccer team kicking and
laughing nearby
a thermos of tea
now brewed too dark
for a sunny day
but just about right for today’s storm
rests on the damp ground beside me
an umbrella
no match for the wind
beside it, and my son
sleeping in the warm car
just on the other side of the chain link fence.

Tom (and like so many I believe, honestly believe,
that my English degree qualifies me to call Eliot by his first name)
tells me that Midwinter Spring
is its own season
and as the drops begin
to hit my yellow legal pad
the ink melting beneath the rain
seems to prove his point.

This will be a good Oregon deluge
a fine day for soccer
a day made for poetry
and deep, dark, bitter tea.

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A Little World Made Cunningly

April, with with his shoures soote, is National Poetry Month, and in this increasingly complicated world that’s as good an excuse as any to spend some time away from the prose of contemporary events in the company of a little verse.

Whether it’s Donne’s Holy Sonnets, Ginsberg’s Howl, or Dickinson’s Final Harvest, there is room for everyone in the house of poetry, Plath and Hughes, Bishop, Pope, and even some Leonard Cohen.

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That 18th century philosopher (that some kids today know only as Mary Shelley’s mom) Mary Wollstonecraft wrote: “The generality of people cannot see or feel poetically.”

How I hope that isn’t true.

…but if it is, how nice that April, to some the cruelest month, has arrived with the inspiration to pick up a sonnet or ballad, a daring sestina or bit of free verse.

Across the US, librarians are sharing poems this month, English teachers are reciting poetry aloud, and a few of us who no longer fit either of these categories are making the time to dip into volumes of Stafford, Sexton, Rumi, and Walker. Some of us are looking for a new quotation from Mary Oliver, hoping for a little inspiration, or allowing ourselves an afternoon with old friends like Keats, Atwood, or Borges.

IMG_6437As a fellow who has made a professional life out of working with young people, I know the possibilities that exist if we can get past the prosaic hang ups of everyday life and, to steal a line from Blake, break free of our mind-forged manacles to see the world as it is, infinite. Young students can do this, particularly before they’ve been conditioned to “do school” adeptly, leaving learning as a kind of bonus.

So as April encourages each of us to wander lonely as a cloud, I hope that in addition to finding some poetry we might enjoy reading (Leaves of Grass, Nine Horses, or Where the Sidewalk Ends), we might also try our own hands at jotting out some well chosen words on a page. This doesn’t have to be Paradise Lost or The Faerie Queen; maybe it’s a haiku, one of those little ditties just three lines long.

Just five-seven-five
a haiku is as easy
as tapping out words”

…at least a simple one.

Or if that isn’t your answer, I’d challenge anyone still reading this post about poetry to defy the marvelous Mary Wollstonecraft and choose to use this month when “proud-pied April dress’d in all his trim/ Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing” as a catalyst to see and feel poetically.

One of my favorite Oregonian poets (not born here, but damp and moss covered in spirit …in a good way!) Floyd Skloot wrote:

Without speaking, moving together,
we power ourselves out of the calmer dark
and stroke hard for the water’s bright center
where the spring tide will carry us back upriver.”

Like the kayakers in Skloot’s poem, many of us leave winter a little downstream of where we’d like to be, and it is with April’s emerging sun, celebrated in the chorus of poets from across the ages, that we can dip our proverbial paddles into the water and find that magical balance and sense of hope that so often comes with spring.

…but…

I was returning from my successful search to find a student who had gone “wandering” on his way to the bathroom, hurrying back to my office to make a quick parent call and grab my coat before afternoon bus duty, when one of my middle schoolers passed me in the hallway and in return to my “hello” asked me: “Is it hard to be the principal?”

“No,” I answered. Huh? I thought. “It’s fun,” I told her, and she nodded and continued down the hall.

Screen Shot 2018-03-23 at 3.40.13 PMThat exchange has stuck with me for a few days. I wish I’d have stopped to ask why she’d asked. Had I looked stressed out? It had been the afternoon of the Friday before spring break, so… Had she been holding on to the question for a while, or was it a spur of the moment kind of thing? I know that what I do is a bit of a mystery for some kids. Heck, I couldn’t have told you what my principal did when I was a student.

As I got back to the main office, I thought about my answer, unrehearsed and unfiltered, and felt good. Even if it isn’t quite true.

It is fun to be a principal. I love my work with and for the kids. I love supporting and celebrating teachers, and the opportunities I have to make a difference in the lives of those around me. I love the energy of a school, the feel of a classroom when learning is in full swing, and even the jostling of a busy hallway. At ACMA, I love that we start each day with music, have a lunchtime where students eat in the halls, play basketball at our single hoop outside, and are quick to burst into applause as they sit in groups laughing and talking with each other.

…but…

It is hard.

Principaling, to make it a verb, isn’t easy and shouldn’t be.

Poet Billy Collins captured the truth of it when, speaking of poetry, which is more like principaling than some might suspect, said: “There are interesting forms of difficulty, and there are unprofitable forms of difficulty.” Being a principal is certainly interesting.

The hard conversations, the problems to be solved, the opportunities to be meaningful, these aren’t easy or simple or fun. The nights out add up, and while I enjoy everything I get to attend (seriously, when I’m there I dig talking with kids and parents and seeing my students act, sing, dance, and show their true passions), more often than not those nights are nights I’m away from my wife and kids.

Being a principal means more time away, more stress, and more independence. It means the ability to help to determine the chart the course you and your school will travel, and the time, stress, and responsibility are simply the cost of that journey.

To steal part of that line from Collins, being a principal is difficult in a way that is not unprofitable. It is a difficult that is worth it.

And like poetry, being a principal takes balance. Wearing a tie (or not, as the school demands) doesn’t require strict adherence to some artificial structure, but invites creativity; there are times to write a sonnet and times to live in free verse. Knowing when to do each, as a poet or a principal, matters much.

IMG_6359Years ago that necktie was a requirement for a principal, usually accompanied by a jacket and frown. The trappings of the office helped reinforce roles and responsibilities. Who could you lean on? The guy in the tie. Today that artificiality isn’t the case.

Knowing students, staff, and parents matters today in an indispensable way. We’re past road maps in this wildwood of education and need to lean on compasses. It’s in the care we show our schools, the respect we give those around us, and the relationships we grow that we can make a difference, particularly when the road ahead has so many corkscrew turns.

To return to Collins, whose thoughts on poetry might be stretched to cover the principal’s office:

The basis of trust for a reader used to be meter and end-rhyme. Now it’s tone that establishes the poet’s authority. The first few lines keep giving birth to more and more lines. Like most poets, I don’t know where I’m going. The pen is an instrument of discovery rather than just a recording implement. If you write a letter of resignation or something with an agenda, you’re simply using a pen to record what you have thought out. In a poem, the pen is more like a flashlight, a Geiger counter, or one of those metal detectors that people walk around beaches with. You’re trying to discover something that you don’t know exists, maybe something of value.”

I love that notion of discovery as it applies to my job as much as a poet’s and I work hard believing that I might, through my actions, my attempts, and tone help to create line by line “something of value.”

So I lie when I’m asked if it’s hard to be a principal, and I work hard to make a difference, and that’s the truth.

Take A Chance on Me

It’s March.

Teachers know what that means. Principals too. Most of the students can feel it. Just about everyone I know who makes education their world understands that March is one of the most stressful times of the year. Winter break far behind us, summer still miles away, the pressures of grades, graduation requirements, and the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” It’s the Act III of a Shakespearean story complete (at least this year in Oregon) with thunder and lightning. I’m just waiting for the three witches.

In the face of this, creative sorts push back creatively. Sure they still feel more tense than they will in May, but even so there are those who come up with ways to add levity and whimsy to the hardest month of the year.

In classrooms I’ve seen Rube Goldberg machines giving middle schoolers hands on experiences with physics; debates, some with costumes, providing students a chance to argue both sides of challenging issues; and a most delightful math teacher showing up in a kilt on exam day. Laughter and learning, together as they should be.

Outside the classroom, our seniors have just finished their capstone presentations, three weeks of reflections culminating in a day of performances and art that was jaw dropping, even by our high ACMA standards. The passion students brought to this work was as inspiring as it was diverse. Actors, artists, dancers, writers, musicians, filmmakers, photographers, and techs all showed off what matters most artistically to them. The results were awesome.

ABBAThe staff has been pretty awesome too, coming up with creative ideas to help March act more like a lamb than a lion. A salsa tasting at a staff meeting and a chocolate tasting after a professional development day showed the spicy and sweet nature of the adults on campus. A couple of days later a teacher heading out on paternity leave brought in doughnuts for the staff, and just to show that we do try to boost morale in ways other than eating, we took a week in March and began every morning by playing ABBA over the PA rather than a first bell.

You should have seen the kids and adults singing along.

And while our 1950s era boiler has been going out lately, and while it literally snowed on Friday, we all know that the two most delicious words in education are waiting on the other side of the weekend: Spring Break.

Yeah, I capitalized it. Spring Break deserves that.

To use Shakespeare again, this time from All’s Well that Ends Well:

I have seen a medicine
That’s able to breathe life into a stone,
Quicken a rock, and make you dance canary
With spritely fire and motion; whose simple touch
Is powerful to araise King Pipin, nay,
To give great Charlemain a pen in his hand
And write to her a love-line.”

Some of us need such medicine. Some of us need a love-line. Some of us just need a nap.

Spring break offers to be that medicine that might quicken a rock, and make us dance canary.

So, to all my friends in education, I wish you a great pause in this grand play of the school year. I wish you renewal, perspective, and rest. I wish you a marvelous Spring Break!

Robots, Finger Puppets, and The Imperial March

“Will you be our robot?”

The students asked so earnestly I couldn’t say “no.” It was a sixth grade science class and they were studying programming with a couple of guest instructors from Intel. The task was to identify and clearly articulate the steps to take a robot from one part of the room to another and then make a sandwich. Simple? Not exactly. What it was, however, was a great (and not unusual) example of a creative teacher willing to challenge his kids with an activity that pushed them to think beyond the textbook. They gathered around tables, laughed, learned, and leaned in to work together on a task that made them think. The lesson had a community connection, a hands on approach, and put the ownership of learning with the students.

It was not straight rows, primers, and bored students. But…

An image of just that had prompted one of my teachers to exhale sharply earlier in the day. A tweet had been shared with her that suggested something static in our profession. She read that message of discouragement, thought about what she’d been doing with her social studies class that day, and sent me a screenshot and a video.

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“I’m not on twitter,” she wrote, “so I can’t share with her the video of my 8th graders doing a sing-a-long of one of their classmate’s original “The Ten Bill of Rights” (set to “The Ten Days of Christmas”) or the attached puppet show video… but I thought you’d enjoy these examples of public school being anything but “sit down, don’t talk…”

Screen Shot 2018-03-15 at 8.56.17 AMThe video was as delightful as you might imagine, and the next week when I stopped by her classroom the students who had created the show, funny, smart, and fabulous, were even more so. They had been given a creative opportunity to show what they knew and share that knowledge with their class. Far from the images in the tweet, this was learning.

Both of these were examples of the kind of activity that happens in classrooms every day. A little fun, a lot engaging, these are opportunities for our students to engage with the subjects at hand, celebrate curiosity, and actively do.

And then, from time to time, bigger projects present themselves…

I wrote recently about the cigar box guitar build in one of our precalculus classes, and couldn’t let that experience pass without mentioning one magical moment shared with me by a student. She and her partner had been working on a guitar, and after the first day’s sawing and drilling had decided that before the last build day they would add their own creative approach to the instrument.

guitarPainting the box as a lightsaber and the neck as a glowing red blade, they returned to the second day of the build with the elements of a guitar that would look as impressive as it might sound. As I moved from group to group in the workshop these girls saw my amazement at their project, and as they posed for a photo one smiled and said: “Just wait until you hear me play The Imperial March on this!”

Learning looks different from classroom to classroom, but for anyone who thinks it’s all straight lines and hands raised waiting to be called on I’d invite you to my school to be a robot, watch a puppet show, and listen to an amazing student play you a tune of the guitar she built in math class.

Empathy and Action

They gathered in the inner courtyard, more than five hundred strong, held hands, and stood silently for seventeen minutes. Some wore shirts expressing their point of view, #NEVERAGAIN or March for Our Lives, others simply looked the part of who they are: students, grades six through twelve, thoughtful, artistic, a little nervous, and more informed than some would expect. In a word, they were inspiring.

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The event was one of three student responses to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida a month ago. The first, one of empathy, was suggested by two seniors who put up a stretch of poster paper where students could record their words of support for the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In the days after the tragedy it provided a place for students to process their own feelings while focusing on others. We’ll roll this up in a few days and send it to the school, our small voice of support in the chorus of the national conversation.

The next response suggested by students came from our student representative to the school board’s Student Advisory Committee. That group discussed what they could do to express what they were thinking and feeling in the wake of what happened in Florida, and how they could have their voices heard on the issue of school safety. The result was the idea of a letter writing campaign by students to elected officials. Our rep got right to work.

At the assembly we held to discuss school safety, our student representative stood in front of the student body and explained the importance of action alongside empathy. She deftly answered questions about the project, and ended with an invitation to join her in writing to members of congress to share their perspectives as young people who come to school every day to learn, feel safe, and become the kind of adults some of us still aspire to be.

IMG_6199There were a great many students near the table that held that letter box on March 14th, and knowing our student body, I’ll wager the perspectives and ideas shared will be as diverse, thoughtful, and articulate as our students.

But for seventeen minutes there was unity in our diversity, those seventeen silent minutes when students stood together, holding hands, thinking their own thoughts about the day, the world, and the future. When the time ended there were hugs, a few tears, and a great gathering up of teens who headed back into the schoolhouse to learn. The orderliness of it all might have astounded some, though those of us who work with students were less surprised.

The students’ poise and purpose was inspiring too, though as a dad and a principal I want to temper my genuine appreciation with a nod to the reality that these are young people who have more on their minds and a wider future than any single issue. That they will make a difference I have no doubt. That they have a vision of the future that is kinder and more inclusive than my own generation’s I believe. That this takes away the collective responsibility of anyone older than twenty I do not accept.

Just as it is unfair to paint teachers as heroes in waiting, pursuing their noble cause with inadequate pay and unreasonable expectations, because they are so selfless …which somehow makes it okay, so too it is unfair to see in our youth saviors who might take away our own responsibility to contribute to making the world what we want it to be.

Teenagers today have done much to bring a message to our national consciousness, and a part of that message seems to me to be an call to engage with our communities. Wherever folks find themselves emotionally and philosophically in the wake of the tragedy in Florida, or in fact the decades in which school names like Sandy Hook and Columbine have become synonymous with violence, I think we can take inspiration from our students today, and hear them when they invite us to put our empathy into action.

Fine Young Cannibals

Art is about taking chances, learning from failure, and being willing to try something unexpected. In those ways it’s a lot like being a principal. The two pursuits converged this week when some intrepid student filmmakers asked me to be in their movie.

They guarded the script like it was a Star Wars film. I got my three pages without more context than I could put together from stage directions like:

The cannibal storms out of the room leaving behind her binder and the therapist grabs them and pulls out the sketches/drawings inside and looks through them, he fans them out and looks at each one until he comes to the last one, he holds it up so the camera can’t see it and it cuts to the next scene.

Intriguing.

My two short scenes, two voice overs, and single costume change set me up as the straight man, a mercifully unimportant and plausibly vegetarian character in a film titled Meat (An American Cannibal Film).

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As they set up the camera and lights in my office. The director, a senior whose easy smile helped put his two actors -me and a student whose artistic focus is drawing and painting- at ease, chatted with his sound man about verisimilitude and budget.

“It’s set in 1996,” he explained. “So I got an almost working answering machine at Goodwill for $9.” “Your budget for this is $9?” “Well, I spent $22 on fake blood.”

This was sounding increasingly like something I might regret more than my turn at Carpool Karaoke or the time I dressed up as one of the Blues Brothers and sang in front of the student body. Still…

These were great students. This mattered to them. My scene was relatively tame, a therapist and his patient. All that, along with some gentle reassurance from my film teacher who had seen the rough cuts, let me stay true to one of the tenets of my philosophy of being a principal: When students ask me to participate in something that is meaningful to them, even (or especially) if it is nutty, I do my best to say “yes.”

We shot after school on a Friday, a three person crew, the actor playing the cannibal, and me, filling my office for an hour or so, laughing, talking about art, and books, and movies between takes. That conversation, that opportunity to connect with some fantastic young people, was worth any embarrassment about my clunky acting abilities.

Because it isn’t really about my acting; it’s about being present for my students, participating in what is important to them, and allowing myself to play (and sometimes play the fool) in service of a spirit of fun that is important at a school, and indeed in life.

Our schools are stronger, safer, and better for all when students and adults are able to learn, laugh, and play together.

A willingness to start with “yes” has led to some of my favorite experiences and most meaningful connections with students, and I firmly believe that nurturing this more playful side helps to make me a better principal when the stressful realities of the work require gravitas, a clear head, and a commitment to doing right. Silly, serious, sanguine, it’s about making students the priority.

So my first entry in IMDB will read “Dr. Monroe” in Meat (An American Cannibal Film). It may turn out to be this generation’s Night of the Living Dead or a silly footnote to the illustrious director’s future fame, but whatever shows up on screen I’ll carry with me fond memories of a great afternoon shared with artists and creative souls, fine young cannibals.

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