The Elephant

Everyone knows the old saw about the blind men and the elephant, each touching a bit of the beast and describing the pachyderm as a rope, a fan, or a tree trunk etc. etc. etc. Each are correct in a way; the tail, the ear, the legs are like those items they compare them to, but without the value of seeing the whole elephant they aren’t able to capture the greater truth of the Herculean animal.

So too, so often, schools.

Ask a student about her school and she is likely to give an accurate and articulate description that reflects her time in classes, with clubs, and on campus. Ask another student and he may very well tell you something completely different, but no less accurate to his own experience.

The student actor sometimes sees the place she attends classes through a different lens than the poet or the dancer. The filmmaker sees her school through a viewfinder, the scientist through a pair of safety goggles. All of these perspectives, and a hundred others, are accurate …as accurate as those fellows with the elephant.

Teachers too, and parents, and all the adults who help make up a school community each have well earned points of view. Recognizing the importance and validity of each is vital if we are going to be able to put together an accurate idea of our school’s proverbial elephant.

As a principal, making room for all these views and helping each see the others’ is one of my most important jobs.

Seeing the big picture and supporting students, parents, and teachers across all the diverse programs and disciplines see the greater whole as well is important if we are to create and foster an environment where every student feels welcomed, valued, and encouraged.

Helping these same individuals, teenager and adult, recognize the tusky, wrinkle skinned behemoth of the school does more than simply broaden their vision; this more complete perspective can helps make real the possibility that we can all work together to nurture the greater good of our school and each other.

Understanding that our elephant is what it is because of the tusk, trunk, and ears, and that its sum is even greater than its fantastic parts, helps all of us know that even as we are able to be ourselves, we are part of something great and greater.

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 7.30.03 AMHere at ACMA we have the deliciously freeing reality of not having a school mascot, a tradition now more than a quarter century old that I have absolutely no plans to change (how marvelous it is when asked what our mascot is to live in the realm of possibility). But for just today, as the 2017-2018 school year stretches out ahead of us like a road from Tolkien, I’d like to imagine that our school is an elephant. Trunk. Tusk. Tail. Ears. Legs. …and so very much more.

Stagecraft

IMG_3757They’re building a set. In another room the actors are doing a read through, talking about characters, and thinking about what they’ll bring to the production, but here in the scene shop the power saws are buzzing, paint cans are being pried open, and the students are working on designs for a ramp, a pageant stage, and a backdrop versatile enough to be a bedroom in one scene and an office in another. When it’s all put together it has the potential to be fantastic.

There’s an old quotation attributed to Abraham Lincoln that I overused years ago and thought of again when I was visiting the theater this July to talk with students in the summer production of Smile. He’s to have said: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Quotations are slippery things, particularly those given to Einstein, Lincoln, and Yogi Berra, but this one always struck me as having enough merit to put into a presentation or a post. The preparation we do ahead of a project, whether it’s constructing backdrops, flies, and flats for a theatrical production or getting ready for the start of school, is some of the most vital work we do all year.

IMG_3689July and early August are a time in the principal’s office when a skeleton staff and a freedom from daily emergencies provide the time and space to reflect, dream, and anticipate. These are not unlike the moments of wild creativity when the theater techs review the script, talk with the director, and start coming up with ideas, wild schemes, and grand visions of what might be possible in service to the story.

A good principal should do the same.

This summer, one of transition for me as I moved across state lines to a be the principal of a new school, has proven to be one that puts that Lincoln adage to the test. So as I watched the theater techs discuss possibilities, collaborate to design sets, and improvise in service of their larger vision, I thought about my own work across campus (in an office still filled with boxes) and what I needed to do to build the proverbial set for the school year.

The first best thing I could do was listen. Just as the tech theater students listened to their director and each other, I needed to pay attention to what those around me had to say. From the many conversations with my classified staff, my assistant principal, parents who stopped by, and students I could talk with, I learned more and more about the strengths, needs, and magic of my new school.

The next step was to internalize those ideas, bounce them off trusted sources and reach out for more information. I reached out to teachers and counselors and got a great email back from one teacher with a strikingly honest and heartfelt perspective on the school and more than a few others with offers of help. The passion I saw from these educators about the students they work with and the school where they work was inspiring. Their energy promised a great start to the year.

I took those ideas and began to plan for our first meeting as a staff. With the help of those who were around me, I began building the agenda for our first days together, incorporating the ideas from the staff and the “must dos” of the district plan. I invited students to come speak at our first staff meeting, and tried to think of some ways to make our time together as fun as it was informative.

I jumped at the opportunity to join a team of teachers on a week long AVID Summer Institute, arranged a pizza lunch for any staff members around this summer, and have done my best to keep myself open to hearing everyone. Interviewing for a new counselor gave me a great day of connecting with my counseling team, who joined me and my AP for the process. Person by person, drop in visit by drop in visit I got to meet many of the members of my new school community.

A great message from another teacher reminded me that in my first year on campus listening was important, but articulating who I was mattered as well. As he said in a beautifully eloquent note, “we are all impatient to get to know you better.” Me too. I’ve been sharpening for a long time now, and I’m ready to swing the axe.

Back to those students in the theater…

techs

Over my first weeks on the job I watched them move from planning to preparation to putting nails into boards. The ideas that they’d bandied about at the start of July manifested themselves in a nearly completed set within a few weeks, a set that was ready for actors to inhabit by August. Bit by bit they built the world on which the action of the production would take place. Their mindful construction literally set the stage for the great things to come.

My work, I hope, paralleled theirs.

And now… the paint on the sets is almost dry, the lights are ready to dim, and the curtain is about to go up. The stage is set; next comes the grand production that is our year ahead.

Let’s Dance

Three cats,” he confirmed, looking up at me from across the ancient front desk of the motor lodge in Yreka.

“Yep.”

Tired from a full day’s drive that had started before sunrise, I hoped I didn’t sound rude. He nodded, squinted past me toward where I’d parked in the shade of the lobby overhang. “Twenty one dollars more.”

I smiled (as much as one can after twelve hours of driving) and got out my credit card wondering again how exactly they’d come up with $7 per cat. $7?

photoThe cats hadn’t been thrilled at the start of the drive when, needing to keep myself awake and inspired by the ACMA senior painting I’d seen when I visited campus in June, the soundtrack for our journey began with David Bowie.

This shapeshifting singer, always changing, always true to his artistic spirit, struck me as a nice image for coming to ACMA, a place of creativity, artistic daring, and openness, a school community where Ziggy Stardust is as welcome as the fellow in the suit who sang “Modern Love.”

So with “Let’s Dance” filling the car, the cats and I pulled out of the driveway and into the night. Driving north beneath the serious moonlight, I thought about what was waiting at the other end of I-5.

Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, soon to start its 26th year, is a place vibrating with creativity. On my visit in June I’d been struck by the student art filling the hallways, the energy in the sculpture studio, and the discussion in classrooms. I was moved by the light in the eyes of the students who showed me the garden on campus, wowed by the passion of the filmmakers I talked with, and amazed by the talent of the dancers who made the spring recital so engaging that my nine year old son, mesmerized by what he saw on stage, surprised me when he wanted to stay well past intermission.

The teachers and staff I met, friendly, funny, and student focused, were marvelous too, and I could tell from our conversations, the give and take with students I saw in classrooms, and their questions when we all got together after school that this was a group of professionals who took their work seriously and themselves a little less so. Kindred spirits. I was eager to join this professional family, working side by side, learning together, and supporting kids.

And what kids.

The students I got to talk with were creative, clever, and kind. They struck me from the start as curious and comfortable in their own skins. We talked about art, and Pikachu, and even cats. I faced the age old question: “Dogs for arms or arms for dogs?” My answer, the sensible choice, sounded as ridiculous as it should have as I said it.

bowieAnd I got to witness the students’ creativity.

In addition to jawdroppingly great dance, I watched students mold clay, make music, and collectively paint the David Bowie portrait now hanging outside the office at ACMA, the same painting that inspired my song choice on the drive north.

From the Hall of Hope and Justice to the classrooms and studios filled with passion and purpose, the spirit of ACMA is a beautiful tune of acceptance and artistry. I’m so excited to heed the call of that patron saint, answering yes when I hear that invitation: “Let’s Dance.”