A Good Tired

For the first time in months I saw most of my students on campus yesterday. Well, saw them drive through campus, peeking at me from over masks as we passed out textbooks, ACMA t-shirts, and hundreds of pounds of clay. As an art school the drawing and painting materials, sculpture tools, instruments and sheet music occupied as much of the day as calculus, biology, or French textbooks, and sometimes inspired a slightly different reaction from the students as we reached over the (overly cute) dogs and gave them the stack as they sat in the back seat.

It was so good to see so many students and parents, and even though it was really only seeing their eyes and the top of their noses, it was enough to remind all of us just how important a part of our lives the people are who make up our little art school, our ACMA family.

For hours an intrepid group of classified staff and a handful of teachers, counselors, and I dashed from cars to tables to pick up supplies, did our best to solve problems, and reveled in the opportunity to make brief, but meaningful connections.

I don’t know about everyone else, but I ended the day tired. A good tired.

This distance learning model, as safe and sensible as it is —and right now I know it’s the right choice— still feels so strange. I love talking with students and staff. I miss full hallways and impromptu conversations. Being able to visit classrooms is a highlight for me every day, at least it was when I could slip in through an open door and sit down next to a student studying Spanish, or dissecting a pig, or painting a still life. 

How much I missed that was brought home yesterday as I saw face after face (well, mask after mask) drive by. I could see the smiles in those eyes, and I hope they could see the smile in mine.

And while my legs are sore and I can feel it in my back, I can honestly say that yesterday was more than just me and our school team distributing supplies; it was all of us getting something precious back in return, connection, hope, and a touch of joy.

Five Jobs

I’m a dad as well as a principal, with the perspective of both during this time of pandemic and comprehensive distance learning. When other parents share their concerns about their kids’ social isolation, depression, and loneliness I get it, and I share that parental anxiety about how all this is impacting the young people I love. 

Last spring was hard, a complete shift to online learning without much time to process or prepare. We all did our best to learn how to support our students, but without grades, or attendance, or a fully developed system in place, very often it felt more like crisis management than online learning.

Summer was tough too. So many of the usual activities we enjoy were off limits, smiles were hidden behind masks, and so much of the joy of summer, like spending time with friends, was limited by the reality in which we live. The kids felt it at least as much as the adults, maybe more, and while I saw more than a few packs of middle schoolers on bikes in July and August, the truth is that the most socializing I saw this summer happened in the world of Minecraft. 

And now fall. This week we’re diving into classes, albeit 100% remotely, and once again parents and kids are gathered around kitchen tables, on couches, and corners of bedrooms where they are least likely to be interrupted by whatever else is happening at home, attempting to “do school” in some way or another. That’s stressful.

But as separate as we all are, parents and educators share the goal of helping our students succeed. There are lots of ways we do that, and one idea I shared from a teacher a couple of weeks ago that seemed to resonate with a few parents, was to take the pressure of teaching off the parents and encourage them to see themselves in a role of facilitation and support.

That teacher used the language of parent as assistant principal, certainly an eye-catching image, and boiled the task down to “five jobs.”

  • Establish an appropriate balance between work and free time
  • Minimize distractions during work time and persist through challenges
  • Make the most of free time 
  • Verify completion of assignments
  • Formulate questions for kids to ask their teacher

These are worth unpacking, and to start that conversation I offer a few modest thoughts.

Many of us have seen our work/home balance blur during these months at home. Too often since last March I’ve looked up from my work computer, often sitting at a TV tray out of the way of my family, and been surprised that it’s already dark outside. Unlike before, there is less delineation between being at home and being at work, and I know (from experience with my own kids) that isn’t different for our students. While comprehensive distance learning will have asynchronous elements, helping our kids step away from the computer will be vital to their mental health and success. Whether it’s making sure they unplug from 11-12 every day, the time our district has set aside for a lunch and stretch break, or monitoring to be sure that they don’t get sucked down the rabbit hole of never being done with schoolwork, it is a challenge worth meeting to help our kids see that some time has to be down time.

Complicating that balance will be the fact that for most of us, teachers and students and families, this is our first foray into full online learning, grades and attendance included. We didn’t sign up for this; if we had, we’d know it was for us and we’d already have an understanding of how to navigate these waters. 

Teachers will be learning as we go, answering questions like: how much work is appropriate? How do students best get answers to questions? How can I support the kids, assess the kids learning, and reach them when I only see them through a computer screen? Students, who so often are so earnest in their desire to do well, will be learning too. It’s already tough to know how much time an assignment should take to complete, but now… Open communication, clear expectations, patience, and grace will all need to be on display now more than ever.

For parents “establishing an appropriate balance between work and free time” could involve some argument, anxiety, and tears. Any parent who has tried to get her son to unplug from Fortnite knows what that’s like. But knowing our kids and helping them understand when a walk is more important than another half hour typing an essay about poetry is going to make a big difference this school year.

A schedule might help this. It’s always easier to point to something agreed on and in writing when stress is filling the air. When I was an assistant principal one of the best things my school did was install signs around campus stating obvious things like “No Dogs” or “No Smoking on School Property.” It was always easier to confront a community member who was breaking one of these rules if we could literally point at a sign. This could also help reinforce that “free time” is as valuable in the greater scheme of things as “work.”

Even when we get that balance right, when we’re on, we’re on, and the students who succeed most have the ability to focus on the matter at hand, particularly when they’re Zooming with it. Learning from home brings different challenges than learning in a classroom. Whether it’s trying to type with a dog on your lap or interruptions to online meetings from siblings, cats, or Amazon deliveries, finding a way to overcome the distractions is a job that parents can certainly help their kids with.

There is lots of good advice about how to create a learning space for kids, but the truth of it is that not everyone has a table, desk, or quiet space for kids. It’s not fair, but it is. As a school we’re trying to help; we offered a greenscreen (well a big green sheet of paper) to each of our kids, so they could have a bit more privacy when they did video conferencing, and as parents we can support our kids if we help them in whatever way we’re able to have the privacy they need for school.

That privacy, however, is complemented by an extra pair of eyes checking to see that things get done. My experience has been that this is best accomplished when a parent or guardian sits down with a student and asks her to show them what they did for school. There is a big difference between a parent checking a student’s grades or that they did the assignment that the teacher gave them and a student showing that same adult what she did and learned. The second can empower a student; the first can sow seeds of distrust.

So I would offer that a conversation between a parent (or grandparent or aunt or caring adult person) and student can be one of the best ways we can support learning. In that conversation you can learn what’s happening, how the student is feeling, and talk about what kinds of questions it might be smart to ask in class or in an email to the teacher. These follow up questions not only show that a student is invested, but can help build a strong foundation of skills on which to build future learning.

It’s that learning that is the primary job of all of us, students, teachers, and families. We can do this, to the best of our ability, if we do this together. Will it be perfect? No, but it can be positive. And when we return, which we will, the habits of supporting one another may help us even as we readjust to life after the pandemic.

Stay positive, stay strong, stay connected. We’re partners in this.

“I can’t imagine not being there…”

The five am wakeup felt familiar. The day teachers come back to campus after summer vacation is (for me as a principal) my first day of school. I still get butterflies, and probably always will, before the year begins. That’s normal, I suppose; I want so much to get things off to a good start. 

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But this year the teachers didn’t come back to campus proper. My early trip to my office, pausing for a predawn selfie, was followed not by my usual pancake breakfast for the staff and gathering in the library, but by a Zoom meeting where teacher faces looked back at me from kitchen tables, extra bedrooms, and makeshift offices from Portland to Forest Grove.

More than a few cats and kids joined us for the morning, and the playful banter in the chat was a nice reminder that even though we were discussing what is an unusual (and unusually stressful) start of the school year, we’re all friends here and ready to support one another.

That caring and support was a highlight of the morning. People were real when they talked about what made them anxious, what was keeping them up at night, and what they were feeling about the year ahead, and when someone suggested the importance of each of us helping each other (with new technology, planning for distance learning, and how best to connect with kids) the avalanche of volunteers who put their cell phone numbers into the chat to make it easy to connect was profound.

We’ll be okay, better than okay really, because we honestly care for each other and are there to help everyone succeed. And when we don’t succeed I’m convinced we’ll be there to help each other pick up the pieces.

It was this spirit of professional generosity that moved me most on this “first day of school” and reminded me of the very special school community that I’m so fortunate to be a part of. 

I never take that for granted, but after a couple of months away from campus to see my staff together, even in boxes on a screen, felt really, really good.

It was a perfect follow up to the email I received from an incoming student the night before:

I am so excited for this year at ACMA! Obviously this is not how I imagined my first day of 6th grade going but we all are making the best of this situation. I worked so hard to get into this school and am looking forward to my experience. I have heard nothing but positives about ACMA and I can’t imagine not being there. I have wanted to go to this school for as long as I could remember. I am so excited to meet you and the teachers and excited to work with all of you. Can’t wait to start ACMA in two weeks!”

I’m looking forward to the year ahead too, and to all the people —staff, students, and families— I get to spend time with. We may not be in the same building, at least not for a little while, but we’re still here for each other. 

Let the wild rumpus start.

Buggles

I hear that video killed the radio star, and (if the kids today are to be believed) that if any principals like me want to capture the attention of our school communities we need to do more than churn out long winded blog posts like mine and get about the business of making movies. Well, short videos anyway, that just might be more appealing than a short reading assignment.

I’m taking that call for video to heart, particularly in this time of physical separation prompted by the ongoing pandemic. Even if I can’t see my students and families face to face every morning at least I can put my face out there to help keep the connection between home and school.

To do this I’m aiming for short hellos every Monday as a part of our ACMA Monday Message, a one page update with what to look forward to that week. In addition I’m filming some silly little shorts with specific topics (Zoom, support, stress reduction), and plan on a couple of “Fireside Chats” every month while we’re away from campus.

Screen Shot 2020-08-09 at 9.22.29 PMI know that seeing someone’s face, hearing their voice, and watching them as they communicate can help make the message clear. Sure there’s a bit of theatricality to it all, but at the end of the day I work at an art school and a little theatre is just fine.

It also means that I may be building a catalogue of buffoonery that I’ll look back on in a few years and shake my head about. That’s okay. Sometimes it’s okay to play the fool, particularly when it’s done with an open heart and desire to do the right thing.

Will anyone watch? We’ll see. If they do I can promise information, a window into ACMA, and a face that was made for radio.

Dog Days

I wonder what the dog will think when, eventually, I go back to work full time …outside my house, I mean. 

It’s August and I’m going to campus now several days a week, but I’m home more than I usually would be at this time of summer, plugging away on my laptop at the kitchen table, in the family room, or back in the bedroom when I have a meeting that the family doesn’t need to hear. As a principal those meetings are more and more frequent these days; the pace seems to be picking up (as it usually does in August) though preparations for the upcoming school year are now accomplished (mostly) through a computer screen. 

Right now, as I type, the dog is sleeping underneath the chair by my desk. She seems happy enough, though I know she’ll nose my ankle in a minute or two to prompt me into a walk. That will be good for both of us. We’re getting to know each other’s routines now, and while I’m still frustrated by not being able to go back to school, my canine friend seems just fine with the lay of the land. 

The lay of the land at school, however, is something more complicated.

Ankle nudge.

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…and now we’re back from a walk. So many interesting trees.

That hope of getting back to school is very real, but not something that is likely to happen before the rains of winter begin. Which means we’ve got to invest the time and commitment to making our remote experience as good as it can be. Not perfect, but as good as it can be.

To help with that I’m working with my staff to develop the best instruction we can. They come back in earnest in less than two weeks (though a great many of them have been preparing ever since June for this fall’s opening) and when they log in for our first preservice meeting one of the most important topics will be the alchemy involved in making teaching and learning meaningful, positive, and productive in this age of COVID-19. I know practices will evolve as we all find our rhythm, but as we start the school year we will do so with as much preparation, collaboration, and dedication as we can.

Beyond the classroom we’re already ramping up communication. In addition to our monthly Hello from ACMA… we’ll add Monday Messages with video, upcoming dates, and information families need for the week ahead. Our first is slated for next week and I’m hopeful students and parents will find them both useful and a point of connection with our school.

I’ll keep up coffees with the principal, even after our last installment was Zoom bombed we don’t want to let go of this important two way communication. I love hearing parent questions in real time and doing my best to give answers that can help.

We’ll also start scheduling student events like Open Mic Night. Our theater department is planning online shows, our dance department is developing ideas for remote recitals, and the creative artists who fill our school are thinking about the ways we can keep students engaged in this time away from campus by capitalizing on the passion for creativity that brought them to ACMA.

Will there be successes? Yes. Will there be missteps? I’m certain there will. Is all this effort worth it? It has to be. The kids, the staff, the entire enterprise of education is so important.

In An Oregon Message poet William Stafford wrote about his craft, saying: “I must be willingly fallible in order to deserve a place in the realm where miracles happen.” This fall is a little like that.

And if miracles don’t happen every day, well, then I’m very, very lucky to have a dog to come home to.

This was supposed to be…

Commencement looked different this year. No bagpipes echoing in the performing arts center, no lines of graduates in robes, faculty packed shoulder to shoulder on stage, or flowers in front of a podium. With COVID-19 keeping us distanced from each other we had to find new ways of doing things: a drive through experience where graduates could decorate their cars and motor through the parking lot to the physically distanced cheers of the staff, delivering balloons to the valedictorian, and signs to every senior. But commencement… that’s a different story.

IMG_5304We planned for a drive-in experience, but the curve wouldn’t flatten and good sense meant we ought to put together a celebration of the Class of 2020 on film, which we did, complete with amazing student speakers, a heartfelt message from the teacher they’d chosen to address the class, and the obligatory few words from the principal.

I’ve made it through two years without giving a conventional speech at graduation. My first year at ACMA I read C.P. Cavafy’s poem “Ithaca” and last June I opted for a nine word address, well three words repeated three times. This year, with such uncertainty in the air, it felt like I ought to be reassuring, not too goofy, so I opted to record some remarks straight from the heart.

I started with a poem, nothing fancy, just a few lines I jotted out on a yellow legal pad as I thought about what my seniors had been through, and were still going through now.

I thought about them as people and as artists, as important members of our school community, and as a collective force for change. The poem I wrote to read to them this year went like this.

This was supposed to be
a graduation speech, but…

You’ve seen behind the curtain
and it’s different now.

You saw disarray.
You saw a stage
without room to dance
or make music
or maybe even read a poem.

So you looked around
and took a deep breath
and struck out to the world beyond
our little stage.

You’d probably gotten tired of the
over thirty crowd
telling you about “the real world”
you know you’ve already been living in
the real world.

So you stepped outside
our school and saw

Things were different there too.
Torn up.
Chaotic.
Changing
and…

You realized that there is still art to be made
films to shoot, songs to write, plays to perform.

And it’s up to you to do that.

I’ve often said “ACMA isn’t a building”
…boy the universe took me up on that one.

But I hope that ACMA can be a beacon,
a place of memories,
and of inspiration.

I hope ACMA can always be home.

Because you are ACMA,
and just because you’ve seen behind the curtain
to that world of chaos and disorder,
(or maybe because of it)
doesn’t mean you’ve been robbed;
it means you’ve been catapulted into a world
that needs you.

Needs you.

And you’re up to the task.

So go out and make art
make friends
and make a difference.

We’ll be here, wherever ACMA is, cheering you on.

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I filmed myself delivering the poem, using a green screen to toggle between our current campus (at an unused middle school while they’re building our new school building) and our established performing art center, a place that all of us miss very much.

I will miss the students who made up ACMA’s Class of 2020; in fact, I’ve been missing them since we left campus on March 13th. I know I’ll see many of them again, whether on campus or off, once all this is over, but that only goes part way in softening the blow of losing them too soon.

But I believe what I said to them in that video: they are up to the task of making art, making friends, and making a difference, and we here back at home will be cheering them on.

 

Three Sparks of Joy

These past few weeks of sheltering at home I’ve felt the same sort of isolation that so many others have. I’m fortunate to be sequestered with a family I love and pets who keep things interesting. I’m in a neighborhood green with spring and the summer sun seems to be poised to make an appearance after the rainy cool weather than helps grass grow, but even so the reality of not being able to see friends and family, do the normal things (like take my son to the comic book store or eat falafel at our local kabobery) is disconcerting at best. That said, from time to time throughout this quarantine kind messages have found me from friends, art has sparked joy, and the powerful caring of my school’s artistic community has reminded me that hope is always just around the corner.

For anyone needing a bit of a boost today, I want to share three of those instances that brought me a bit of comfort and a smile to my face.

The first came by way of an email bcc’d me by a site administrator at my previous school. He reaches out to the departments he oversees every week (and sometimes shares those emails with me) and his messages of hope are always inspiring. I was pleasantly surprised to be quoted in this recent message, and then knocked off my feet by the video he shared of a poem that I didn’t know.

Good Morning, Folks:

Our former principal Bjorn Paige, himself a former English teacher, used to joke with me at the start of each school year by quoting Where the Wild Things Are. “Let the wild rumpus start!” he would say, as the first bell rang and the school year commenced. I bring this up because this past week, and the changes and challenges we have faced, felt just like that: a wild rumpus. While concerning, time-consuming, and a host of other adjectives, the week is over and the wild rumpus will go silent… at least until next Monday.

I hope this email finds you well… or as well as can be. Again, I turned to poetry this week with a poem I first encountered last night during my normal 2:00 am anxiety attack. I logged on to Twitter to find Andrew Scott, otherwise known as “Hot Priest” reading “Everything is Going To Be Alright” by Irish poet Derek Mahon. I must have listened to him read the poem three or four times and then read it four of five times more before I fell back asleep. I read it again this morning. It is moving. I share it because I share the sentiment. And Andrew Scott’s reading of the poem is fantastic. The text of the poem is below. Everything is going to be all right. I swear.

Everything Is Going to Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
― Derek Mahon, Collected Poems

I miss you all. I hope you are well. I hope you are finding peace. Hang in there– we have just a few weeks left… and then the wild rumpus will go silent. For now.

I am here if you need anything. You will always find it here.

Cheers.”

This is an administrator who cares deeply, is willing to be vulnerable, and has a poetic spirit that can elevate those around him. I didn’t know the Mahon poem until I read his email, but am richer now for having read it, and even more for having Andrew Scott (that marvelous Moriarty) perform it.

Another flavor of performance that I’ve found myself turning to in this time of COVID-19 is music, and I realized when I was driving to the store this week that I’ve had one CD blaring in my car a lot lately: Swagger by the Irish band Flogging Molly. Admittedly, I like my rock and roll a bit more punk than pop, and song after song Swagger feels like the right balm on the wound that is Coronavirus. 

That said, it was a quieter Flogging Molly that I happened upon a few weeks ago, Dave and Bridget, two married members of the band, who are doing fireside sessions, two songs per week, from their home in County Wexford, Ireland.

Intimate, unplugged, and inspiring, these weekly reminders of the power of art have been something to look forward to. To hear a fiddle, pipe, and guitar played by two talented musicians, drinks on the table in front of them, fire in the hearth behind, is a reprieve from a world crazier than any of us could have expected. 

A little closer to home, and maybe a bit less Irish, a couple of weeks ago the staff at my little art school banded together (remotely) to put on a show for our students. Teachers, counselors, and classified staff sent in performances and messages for the kids, and we packaged it all under the title ACORN (Arts & Communication Online Revue Night). Just about every week we’ve tried to do some kind of all school activity, a scavenger hunt (for items in their houses), a Kahoot (about ACMA history and trivia), an open mic night for the students, and it felt right to have the adults in our students’ lives pick up the mic and perform. 

Screen Shot 2020-05-28 at 7.16.39 AMAnd perform they did: a math teacher who has been learning accordion over the quarantine, a science poem, a counselor with a tutorial on how to sew masks, some songs, juggling, photography, and a bit of performance art masquerading as a long story about pink ping pong balls. Along the way the heartfelt messages of love from everyone were reassuring, inspiring, and just what many of our students needed.

One of the happiest surprises during ACORN was a host of incoming students, who have yet to step foot on our campus, who joined us for the live viewing of the show. We know how disconcerting it can feel moving to a new school in the fall, particularly when what that fall will look like is still uncertain, but I like to believe that our playful ACORN gave these new to ACMA students a sense of who we are and some reassurance that coming to a new school will be okay (thanks in no small part to the awesome kindness of some of the comments from established ACMA students in the Zoom chat room). The incoming students even got to see that they’re not alone in their love of Gravity Falls, anime, or cosplay. As one of our juniors said in the chat: “We’re all a little weird here. Welcome!”

Art can spark joy. Homegrown or from Ireland, creativity can and does make a difference. It invites us, in the face of tragedy and stress, to contemplate “the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window / and a high tide reflected on the ceiling,” and even what might happen if we “ever leave this world alive.” Making art makes an even bigger impact, and as we allow our own creativity to be inspired (from an acorn grows an oak tree) we might even find that that joy is already within us.

I’m thankful for artists like Flogging Molly, Andrew Scott, and Derek Mahon, and to my friend Bobby for sharing his inspiration with me. I’m grateful for the creative spirits I get to work with, and to the art and kindness they share with our students, even across the miles during this time of sheltering at home.

At some point we’ll be back on campus preparing for the wild rumpus of school. Until then, inspired by art and by friends, I know in my heart that “everything will be all right.”

Three (nice) Surprises

It’s my job to look for silver linings. As a principal one of the most important things I do (along with working hard to help my school continue to improve, addressing concerns, and supporting teachers and students) is keep fixed in my mind a vision of my school at its very best. Some days that’s tougher than others, particularly in this strange COVID-19 spring, when the challenges seem to outweigh the celebrations, at least in my in-box. And… 

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Even though we can’t be together on campus (a place where magic is commonplace), this past week saw three very happy surprises, beacons of hope in these uncertain times. Sharing them here makes me happy, and I hope can be a modest reassurance that even though there is much to be stressed by in the world around us, there is always the chance that very, very soon we might just get an unexpected surprise that doesn’t involve coughing.

Surprise #1: We are a school that makes things. Music, paintings, poems, stories, ACMA is a creative cauldron where students and staff support each other, applaud often, and encourage artistic risk taking. We love the polished performances we see on stage, whether a dance recital, play, or concert, and we love gathering together to entertain each other at more casual affairs like Open Mic Night (or Open Mic Afternoon during this pandemic). This leads to a real challenge for some of our classes, and has seen our art teachers offering to bring paint and sketch books to students, our staff finding ways to get musical instruments to kids, and most recently one of our art teachers to go the extra mile to help a class work that really shouldn’t during this time of sheltering at home: Ceramics.

I came to campus last week to find our ceramics teacher cutting and bagging clay for her advanced ceramics students. She filled ziplock bags with clay, put student names on them, and placed them in the shade in the front of campus. She’d reached out to her students and every one who wanted to create with clay at home had a package waiting for them. It wasn’t something she had to do, but it was something she wanted to do for her students. Kind, inspiring, creative, a surprise provided by an amazing teacher.

Surprise #2: Once a month ACMA students gather at lunch for an ACMA Student Forum. A pair of students run the event, an open conversation about what’s happening on campus and what we all ought to do about it. I’ve written about ACMA’s Student Forum before (a new tradition at our school inspired by a longstanding student forum at a fabulously funky school a thousand miles south of here), and when we left campus in March I wondered if we were done for the year. We weren’t.

The two moderators reached out to me a couple of weeks ago and we set an online version of the ACMA Student Forum for Friday. Students from 6th to 12th grade showed up and talked art, coping with the separation from school, and things they were doing to stay sane. Kids shared ideas, and positive words, and afterward one moderator told me “This student forum was great! I am glad we got to hear from the younger grades, and looking at participation, an online format is almost better than when we had it in-person.” Now I will never discount the thousand benefits of being in the same room with students sharing their voices, but that moderator was right: this was a pretty great event.

Surprise #3: At our little art school we have a “Sixth Grade Wheel” where our youngest students get to sample a mix of creative pursuits from instrumental music to theater to art. Since we left campus before the final rotation of the wheel, some students only got three flavors of ACMA this year rather than the usual four, and one family reached out during one of my (online) coffees with the principal to ask if there was any way her student could get the syllabus for the fourth and final spoke of the wheel, visual art, that he’d be missing since we opted to keep students in their third quarter classes to minimize disruption and not ask them to meet a new teacher and subject only through Zoom. It was a fair request, and one we said we’d follow up on, so after an email to the art teacher I figured we were about done. I was wrong.

The art teacher, so student supportive that I want to burst with pride, wrote back: “I could send the syllabus but what would be more helpful for them is if they could maybe get access to the class on Canvas as an observer. That way they could access and do the assignments and activities.” She didn’t know how to do this, she went on, since she had never met the student, but she hoped we could help make the connection. Our Canvas master, a middle school science teacher, hopped on the challenge right away. He found a solution and talked us through how to add the student to the class, so the student could see more than a list of topics, but get some instruction if he wanted it, and participate as much as he’d like. 

In a world where some choose to do the very minimum, to see a student and parent reach out asking for the opportunity to learn, a teacher willing to support them, and another teacher quick to help out gave me hope that as rocky as sometimes things can be, we’re going to be all right.

Those are just three of the many good things that happened last week. More did, and more will this week as well. As we navigate these waters, the final four weeks of the school year, I encourage all of us to look for those nice surprises. Celebrate them. Don’t ignore the frustrations, or swallow the angst that has a natural place in this situation, but allow yourself to see beyond the stress, breathe in the positive, and appreciate when things happen that bring us a smile. We will get through this, and if we look for the good in the world we might just be surprised.

Real Seniors; Virtual School

They were a subdued bunch, my seniors, as we held an online meeting for the Class of 2020. Nearly all of them joined in, some asking follow up questions to the shared doc we’d started the week before when the governor sent out word that students would not be returning to campuses this school year and that seniors would receive grades of “Pass” rather than any particular letter.

They are an exceedingly talented group of young adults, creative, curious, and today, quiet.

When my dog, Luna, hopped onto my lap, caught a buzzing fly out of the air, ate it, and then licked my face, only a couple managed a chuckle. These are serious times.

Earlier in the day I’d gotten an email from a senior teacher. He told me that for his class he had “a discussion board up since the day after we were sent home. I asked for four thread responses from each participating student. The Senior thread has nearly 300 responses. This suggests that [nearly] the entire Sr class has responded.”

These are young people who want to be connected, and while state guidelines have now removed grades from senior transcripts, many of the students want to keep that tether to learning, classmates, teachers, and school. It’s not that all of them care about English or history or math or science (though many do), but many do want to stay a part of the larger community that is our school. 

Beyond classes, we know that staying connected is important.

A CNN article came out that same day suggesting that “in the time of coronavirus, traditional hallmarks of the high school experience have all but disappeared. And as everyone settles into new routines inside, at home, teens are feeling angry, anxious and reticent. Their identities are fracturing in isolation, and the people who love them, teach them and study them fear they’ll wear the effects of the pandemic for years to come.” 

We do worry about them, but that’s nothing new, and we understand the need to support all our students, particularly right now our seniors. 

The article goes on to say that “It’s hard enough being a teenager on a good day. But the conditions that accompany social distancing may exacerbate the painful parts of adolescence to the point of crisis. Adolescents typically have a heightened reactivity to stress, thought to be the result of hormonal fluctuations and changes in brain development.”

And these are times of stress.

We talked during that first senior meeting about some of the losses of the spring: prom, performances, and commencement. Particularly commencement.

With social distancing in place, a traditional graduation ceremony isn’t possible in June. We know that, we mourn it, and we have to find a way to carry on. As a district, a district determined to support our seniors, every high school originally agreed to do a virtual commencement in June and then some kind of senior celebration in July or early August, as soon as pandemic restrictions ease enough for us to get together in person. And…

The notion of graduating online was filled with frustration for many. Me included. We want so much to have that celebration together, and hearing it can’t happen in June is a rocket of disappointment in an already pockmarked battlefield of emotion.

A couple of follow up emails captured that emotion the next morning. They were passionate, honest, and thoughtful, and showed a maturity nestled in alongside the exuberance of youth. My response to one earnest message, as limited in comfort as it might be, was from the heart. I wrote:

I share your disappointment in not being able to have a traditional commencement ceremony in person in June. It feels frustrating that after all the class of 2020 has done to reach graduation we aren’t able to celebrate together …at least not yet. 

Our hope with the virtual commencement ceremony is not to replace an in person ceremony; we know we couldn’t. To do nothing, however, felt even more wrong, as it would deny seniors a chance to have some of the good things that come from a ceremony, like student performers, student speakers, and a message from one of the staff the class has chosen. That, I believe, is why every high school and option school in the district is committing to some online event for June, and then for some in person (or as in person as we are allowed by state social distancing rules) in July.

We have another senior meeting on 4/29 about how we can make an online event as positive as it can be, and if we know more about what the lay of the land might be in later summer we can talk about that as well. Pandemic allowing, July’s celebration of seniors might be one that can have more of a commencement feel, but right now, as you mentioned, it could be limited in how many could gather. As soon as we know more we’ll work with the seniors to develop what that in person activity could be.

And if July sees us all still at home, then we’ll figure out something for August. We want the students together on campus, we want to celebrate them robustly, and we are all a bit heartbroken right now as we see the semester and end of the year slip away from us without seeing their faces except through a computer screen.

I do appreciate you reaching out. I hope you and all your family are well. I’m sorry for the disappointment, and hope that it’s not an “or” but an “and” with regard to the end of the year celebrations: a virtual commencement as every other school is doing and a meaningful (and ACMA spirited) celebration as soon as we can all be back together.”

True, maybe, but even rereading it now, my response can only go so far in reassuring seniors in these strange days. 

Discussions continued at the district level; we have six big comprehensive high schools and four smaller options schools, like ACMA, and the desire was to have everyone on the same page. The merits of simply postponing  commencement to July were championed by more than a few: students want to be together, they want the experience of walking across the stage, they want that celebration that many of them have been thinking about since the realized what a graduation was all about.

We’d like that too, and…

I’d like to be 6’3 with a full head of hair. On a more serious note, I’d like to be saying good morning to my students every day at school. I’d like to be visiting classes, watching performances, hosting open mic nights, and all of the things that right now we just can’t do. This pandemic has brought disappointment to so many of us, as well as frustration, isolation, and a feeling of missing out.

We are missing out, and disappointment about that is natural and appropriate. So too is doing what we have to do to help protect those for whom disappointment is less a worry than falling ill to COVID-19. For the health care workers, the elderly, and people with compromising preexisting conditions, this pandemic is life threatening. Every day.

Social distancing measures aren’t meant to be an inconvenience; they are meant to save lives. As a school system, an organization where we see thousands of students shoulder to shoulder every day walking to classes, we know a thing or two about germs and viruses. We know too that as much as we’d like to be on campus together, the risks of that enterprise (right now) are great. So too, commencement. Right now.

And a reality, in these days when there seems to be no agreement on how or when social distancing will loosen, is that an in person commencement still might not be able to happen by July, or even August. Add to that that teachers aren’t working in July, and some (in what look to be difficult budget times) may not even be working in the district at all, and things get more complicated still. But challenges don’t define us as much as our response to them. This experience should help us understand that. So…

In the end a lot of discussion the district decision was to shift gears away from any virtual commencement and postpone graduation ceremonies until later in the summer, July or early August. There are lots of detail still to be figured out, but if we’re able the plan is that we’ll do something in person outside, under the summer sun.

When I told my seniors about that change at our meeting this week they seemed happy about the idea. Happy-ish, anyway. These are serious times.

They are such a great group and I want, like all of the adults at ACMA, to give them everything we can give them. Seeing their faces (so many of them on our video call) reminded me of how much these students mean to me, to our school, and how much they mean to each other.

Some of our performers even performed (bringing more smiles, even muted) than almost anything anyone who wasn’t in the Class of 2020 could have done.

These are unprecedented times and as a result the unsettled sense of uncertainty is great. And, to quote Robert Frost, we still have miles to go before we sleep, so…

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Over the next few weeks many of us adults at ACMA will do our best to connect with and support our seniors. Counselors are making calls now, teachers continue to reach out to students, and my admin team will host opportunities for the seniors to get together to talk.

We’ll collaborate with our seniors to make sense of a commencement of sorts, look ahead to the time we can be together again, and do our best to understand that it’s natural to be working through the stages of grief right now. 

We also have a few surprises we hope will bring them a smile, like the yard signs our staff delivered last week, and a senior awards not-quite-ceremony we’re plotting for June.

I wish I could give my seniors a prom in May, an in person graduation ceremony in June, and the normal joy of a normal spring. I can’t. And…

We will do what we can. We will do what we can together.

The conversation during our second senior class meeting suggests to me that “what we can” might just be really good.

I keep a copy of Shakespeare’s Henry V on my desk at work. It may be the corny former English teacher in me, but I refer to it far more than you’d suspect, particularly when I need a pinch of leadership inspiration. After our senior meeting I turned to act three, scene six and the line:

We would not seek a battle, as we are;
Nor, as we are, we say we will not shun it”

None of us would have chosen to do school from our kitchen tables. None of us prefer to wrestle with the emotions of crisis without the human contact of friends and school. None of us particularly want to be facing the situation as we are, but as we are, we will not shy away from the challenges. Together we will find our voices, our community, and our laughter again.

Three Kindnesses

In these times of stress, and even for those of us who are still working, like those we’re sheltering at home with, and are able to watch the blossoms opening for spring there is stress, last week brought three acts of kindness into my life that I am so thankful for I almost cried. They’re personal, so I’ll keep my descriptions brief and my nostalgia briefer still, but the emotion runs deep and the boost each of these three gifts of kindness was profound.

IMG_4511The first came in the mail, the US Postal Service, when an oversized envelope arrived at my door containing a quilt square with the design of a pirate. It was a marvelous (m-ARRRRRR-velous) gift from a generous colleague I’d worked with when I was a middle school principal. Robin ran the library, and not a day went by when after I’d tucked kids into classes after the opening bell I didn’t find myself leaning on her circulation counter having a conversation. It was a new building at the time, but I can imagine now that there are two grooves from the elbows of leaning teachers and kids worn into the top of that counter where countless others like me asked for advice, listened to wisdom, and laughed together as friends. 

It was at Diegueno that my staff, knowing I like pirates, surprised me one Halloween with an act that I will never forget and at that special little middle school that I left a piece of my heart. Reading the note that accompanied Robin’s gift brought back a flood of memories and a sense of gratitude that someone so kind would reach out to me. She explained that she started the project soon after I’d left the school, then life got in the way, and now quarantine gave her the time to finish. There is much to bring us down in times like these, but as Leonard Cohen sang “There is a crack, a crack, in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” And that quilted swashbuckling square was light indeed.

Screen Shot 2020-04-19 at 7.47.50 AMThe second act of kindness came in response to my advertisement for a (virtual) coffee with the principal. It would be my second of this quarantine, and I included a photo of myself in my backyard with a coffee mug given to me a lifetime ago by a ceramics teacher. The mug was familiar to a bundle of teachers I’d worked with in California, and not long after I posted it on Twitter I started seeing a string of responses.

One, from a gifted teacher I miss working with more than I can say, made me laugh aloud. “I just want to check in” he wrote, “to see this scene (slowly lifts mug and takes a sip, speaking with a steady, paternal tone) “all will be well, all will be well.” I could use that!” The comments from these Mavericks made a huge difference in the way I did everything last week. Yes, I believe that “all will be well” and I’ve been kidded for the phrase for decades (though it is true, honest), but even optimists need a little inspiration, and Jim, Danielle, Kari, and Gwen gave me that and more.

Then, Scott, another friend from a high school I’d worked at a thousand miles from here, actually showed up the morning of my coffee. He was on the Zoom, quietly smiling and wearing the baseball cap of my favorite team (not his own). Magic, that.

These COVID-19 restrictions have taken us away from our daily routines, our daily lives, our daily companions, but even as they have, at least at times they’ve brought some of us together in ways that might not have happened, or happened in the same way before.

The third act of kindness last week came from a more recent and local source. With campuses closed through the end of the school year we find ourselves needing to clean out student lockers and return belongings to the kids. I posted the date for students to pick up their stuff on Instagram (where the kids live) letting them know when they could pick up their notebooks and miscellany. A couple asked questions about art or dance gear, and then, tucked in the comments, was a response from a recent grad that melted my heart. “I left all my favorite teachers and principal there,” she wrote. “Can I come pick those up?”

IMG_4555Kindness.

And all three of these acts of kindness did inspire me. They inspired me to stay positive and look for the best in the world, and they inspire me now to find ways that I can show kindness to others. As we all wrestle with the emotions of being separated from so many who mean so much to us, I would encourage everyone to take inspiration from the little acts of kindness like this. And then, being the light that gets in, find ways to show kindness to those around us, both near and a thousand miles away.