Homework on the Table; Music in the Air

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

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

gift of failureI thought about my daughter’s piano playing when I read Jessica Lahey’s book The Gift of Failure, the subject of our first ACMA Book Club on December 5th. Leading up to that gathering, It’s my hope to share some articles and interviews about Lahey’s ideas and offer a short post for each of the three sections that make up her book. Here’s the first…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of those steps, I’d suggest, is connecting with each other, parents, educators, and students too, to support one another. We’ll connect at 6:30 pm on December 5th in the Arts & Communication Magnet Academy library. See you there!

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“Today you’re a lot stronger…”

Being new is never easy and fitting in at school can be a challenge for anyone.

I know; I’m the new principal.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we welcome students to campus and about how it feels to be new at our school. As the first few weeks of classes roll along, I’ve seen students put up posters celebrating kindness, cheered as our assistant principal and my and secretary created a magical puzzle piece bulletin board to welcome students, and watched teachers go out of their way to make classes friendly and inviting.

IMG_4376Then today at lunch a small act struck me with its simplicity and power.

I was standing alone in the quad supervising lunch when a group of girls walked up and handed me a piece of candy. Taped to the wrapper was a sliver of paper. They smiled and told me to “open it.”

Inside I found a message of comfort and hope:

Smile and let everyone know that today you’re a lot stronger than you were yesterday.”

They left me feeling a little happier, and then, when I stepped into the cafeteria one of my food service workers flagged me down to tell me something important. “Those girls,” she said, “with the basket. Do you know what they were doing?” My first thought was nothing bad, I hope, they were so nice to me. “They’re going around finding anyone eating lunch alone and they’re giving them a piece of candy and talking with them.”

The dad in me wanted to cry at the profound kindness of their action.

IMG_4377Today I’d been that fellow alone. How many others, students new to our school and students simply not yet as connected as I hope they soon will be, felt that same uplift of spirit when they were given a message of hope.

For any who have eaten alone, for any who have been “the new kid,” and for any who felt like they didn’t quite fit in, I offer the sentiment of reassurance given to me by those kind, kind students: “Smile and let everyone know that today you’re a lot stronger than you were yesterday.”

Yes, and tomorrow you’ll be stronger still. Our school will welcome you. And down the road, once you’re comfortable and feel our school is home, maybe you and your friends will get a basket of your own and spread a message of kindness.

Locals

“Dad, are we locals?”

It was the Monday before the first day of school and my nine year old son and I were eating breakfast. I looked at him and answered his question with a confused “Huh?” We’d moved from a place where such things mattered, but we weren’t in the surfing queue at Swami’s; this was our kitchen table in Portland.

“Locals,” he repeated, pointing out or window at a construction sign across the street:

ROAD CLOSED
TO THRU TRAFFIC
LOCAL ACCESS ONLY

I smiled at him. “Yeah, we’re locals,” I assured him. And in the road construction sense we are.

IMG_4132But as the first week of classes unfolded and I watched my own kids adjusting to new schools, wincing at their anxieties and the moments when a drop of kindness could have gone so far, that question from over our cereal bowls came back to me and my answer felt less certain.

As educators we talk a lot about climate and culture, and creating a space where everyone feels welcome. At our best we build systems to support our students, create opportunities for each to feel they are part of the greater school community, and encourage everyone on our campuses to demonstrate kindness to one another.

But… in the hurly burly of the start of the year, how easy it is to let that focus slip. There are classes to start, procedures to review, activities to organize.

That sign and my son’s question echoed in my opening week consciousness, prompting me as a principal to ask (with a sense of paternal urgency): What more can we do to welcome kids to our school?

Certainly we do a few things right: an ice cream social just before the only Back to School Night I know of that encourages students to attend with their parents, particularly those new to our school; silly yearbook photos on registration day; and a “first day” of school (before the whole student body shows up) for every student new to ACMA no matter what grade they’re in.

I also know there is more we can do.

So right now some of our students are filling our hallways with messages of love as part of the Kindness Challenge, our Spirit Committee is working on ideas to make the start of the school year welcoming for all, and classroom by classroom our teachers are getting to know students, perhaps the most important welcome of all.

Can we do more? Of course. Every school does well when it makes the decision to embrace new students wholeheartedly and recognize that very real feeling Maya Angelou captured when she wrote: “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

As a principal it’s my job to look for the good in people and keep a firm vision of the best school my school can be. This is never more important than when students step on campus for the first time and find themselves in the freefall of figuring out their place in a new world. It’s at these times that a smile or “hello” can mean so much, when going out of one’s way to help can make a difference for a student’s whole experience. This is the time to let them know that they are safe and cared for and can be themselves.

It’s my goal, and a hope I have for the amazing students and staff around me, to do all we can to make the answer “yes” when a new student finishes her first week at ACMA and asks: “Am I a local?”

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Kitty Litter

I was in a scriptwriting class on Monday and heard the teacher delight his class with the truth that as a writer and filmmaker there were times a young auteur would be given the challenge to “make kitty litter sexy.” The class laughed, of course, and he went on to lay down the truth that part of what good storytellers of any medium can do is take something simple and make it interesting. It was later that day that I found myself looking at the proverbial box of litter.

I knew where to turn.

My kitty litter was explaining the concept of ACMA’s “Access” period to students new to our school as well as how they can use our online system to sign up to visit teachers and get help. A schedule adjustment had made it so that the time we’d originally set aside to do this task would take place after the first Access. Gulp.

I turned to my student filmmakers.

Tromping out to my film teacher’s classroom I hoped I could coax a couple of students to help put together something informative we could share with new students. I had in mind something modest, and I had a deadline of just over 24 hours.

Screen Shot 2017-09-14 at 8.49.59 AMAs students do when we believe in them, they more than rose to the occasion.

We talked briefly about the task at hand, they nodded and said they could do it.

By the next morning a student stopped by my desk to film my cameo in the short, her patience and smile reassuring me that things were going to be just fine.

Tuesday afternoon two inspired students swooped into my office with a rough cut that they adjusted as I watched. Witty, short, and clear, what they’d created did more than I expected to make the topic accessible to new students and provide not only what Access is, but also how the students could sign up for it.

Screen Shot 2017-09-14 at 8.50.16 AMWe sent it out to all new families that night, and Wednesday morning, as Access rolled out for the first time this year the result was students, veteran and novice, in classrooms getting help from the teachers they needed to meet.

The student filmmakers received no “points” for making the short, nor did they even add their names to the credits (though I hope to persuade them to do so on the next short I ask them to make). They stepped up, however, to do something for their school and for the students new to our ACMA family. They brought humor and polish to their work, and even enlisted a real life new-to-ACMA student in the starring role of “new student.” They were, not to put too fine a point on it, the kind of inspiration that led Emerson to say “Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.”

Every week I am inspired by the young people I have the privilege to work with. Wednesday that inspiration came in the form of a minute and five seconds of kindness and creativity.

First Things

The kids spoke first. Before we talked about mission or vision, before the new principal, me, did his best to introduce himself, and before we ticked through the “to do” list of the first week back, four intrepid students stood up in front of the staff, looked all of us in the eye, and reminded us what really mattered.

IMG_4070 (1)Truth be told, only three were able to be in the library that Monday morning, the first day back on campus for teachers still wearing shorts and summer tans. Four had met with me over the summer and we’d talked about what makes our school special, the anxiety and stress students face, and the messages they would share with the adults in their lives if given the opportunity.

They were messages of hope, honestly told, and stories about their own first days at ACMA when their anxiety was high and the biggest reassurances came from their teachers.

So on that first day back, as the staff settled in after a pancake breakfast, the first speakers of the morning were the kids. They were awesome.

As one student stood up and told the staff, “Some students face problems beyond being new to ACMA, though- difficult home lives, troubled interpersonal relationships, life changes like divorce or moving, or even something as simple as applying for colleges, and everything else that comes with that. For these students and all students, you’re something we can count on every single day we show up. This may be the most stability they’re getting at this point in their lives. And undoubtedly, many count on you for that whether they show it or not. Students are always listening. Not always when we want them to, but they are. Things that you say, even offhanded or trivial things can change a student’s entire perspective, for the better or the worse. And that’s a powerful thing, knowing that our relationships can change someone’s day, their year, their life.”

Another empathized with his teachers, explaining, “I’m actually also a teacher. I’m a gymnastics coach at the Oregon Gymnastics Academy. Now, I’m not trying to say that i’m on the same level as you guys, I mean, the most education that I have is sophomore year of high school. However, in other ways, our jobs are pretty similar. I grade them on their drills, and I make progress reports for them to take home. And according to them, I’m also in my 40s. But above all that, they see me as a role model. They reflect the energy that I put out there all the time. If I’m positive and I’m being a good cheerleader, they catch on, and they see that since I love what I do, they should love it too. And when you guys show that we should respect and trust the people around us, we begin to to do the same with our peers.”

A third told the teachers, “You change our lives, and not always with what subject you’re teaching but with how you support us. I want to thank you for the influence you’ve had on me, and I hope that you will continue to have a positive influence on each student who comes to school next week.”

The staff listened.

This was the reason we do what we do: students.

…and then they invited us outside to play.

The almost fifty adults followed our student leaders out to the quad where they circled us up and invited us to join in on a theater game called “Freeze!” As one student explained, this was a game that invited us to avoid the word “no” and concentrate on embracing the idea of “yes, and…” as we extended the impromptu scene.

IMG_4064Laughing together, we did our best to do just that, teachers tapping in to perform scenes from ACMA life and relishing the opportunity to have fun with each other.

When we finished, the students brought us back inside and reminded us that that feeling of nervousness that we felt before we jumped into the game, those butterflies in our stomach, were not unlike what so many of our students would be feeling the next week when they arrived for classes. We, the adults who would welcome them, could make a difference.

We got it. Yes, and…

I said that only three of the four student were able to come to our meeting, but that’s not quite the truth. At our last summer planning session the fourth, a young filmmaker, realized that she had to be out of town that morning, so she made a video we could play for teachers. Her earnestness and caring, projected on the screen in the library that morning, captured the essence of what is right about “kids today.”

Looking out from that screen and into our hearts, that fourth student spoke her truth.

Don’t underestimate your influence,” she told the teachers. “You have the power to potentially change a student’s life.”

I think that starting our school year together as a staff by listening to students helped to set the tone for the months ahead. Laughing and interacting with kids and colleagues reminded us that we are all in this together, a professional family working toward the same goal: supporting our students and each other.

Silly

One of the best gifts a new principal can get is a copy of the most recent yearbook. Beyond seeing what matters most to a school (the football team gets two pages; the drama club gets one) it’s the rows of school photos that help the most by providing a cheat sheet by which to learn names.

How happy I was then when last June I visited ACMA, my new home, and not only did I get to spend a full day on campus, but on my way out the yearbook advisor presented me with a copy of The Spectrum. I would know every teacher’s name by the first staff meeting, I thought. So prepared.

Now at ACMA the unexpected is expected, the unconventional is commonplace, and as if to underscore that fact, when I got back to my hotel after an amazing ACMA dance recital, I saw that like so much of what we do here, the faculty mug shots were just a little different.

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These were not going to help me learn names.

What the staff photos were, however, were perfect windows into the playful soul of a place with an imagination large enough to contain professional quality art, profound learning, and an unapologetic sense of whimsy.

IMG_4022Fast forward to this fall, and our registration day before the start of the year. We had all the usual stations: paperwork, bookkeeping, class schedule pick up, and ID card photos, and then, at the end of the line, tucked in a dressing room in the back of the theater, two yearbook students with a pile of props and a camera welcomed every soul coming to ACMA with a smile and the invitation to do something out of the ordinary.

Anxiety melted from many of our incoming sixth graders’ faces as they heard from two smiling teachers and the yearbook kids: “Here at ACMA we take silly yearbook photos!” Some of our returning students grinned as they pulled out their own props. Two girls took their yearbook photo holding their pet pug.

Never in my life have I laughed so much on registration day.

The next week that laughter returned as we ended our staff meeting with a photo shoot and a baby shower. Unrelated, except for joy.

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Like the kids, our staff grabbed hats and glasses, wigs, buckets, and clown noses and created their own bit of silliness as we posed for the yearbook photographers. One of my favorite parts of that day was seeing the kids taking the pictures laughing at the teachers, just big kids themselves.

When we stepped out front of the school to take our staff photo, a brand new baby and a few little kids joined us. Unapologetic whimsy.

In this serious world, and in a profession that matters so very much, I am thankful every day that I work at a place that makes room for the ridiculous.

It’s true that we can take what we do (art, teaching, learning) seriously and ourselves a little less so.

And if our yearbook makes it harder to learn names, then the playfulness inside does something else, something maybe more important. It serves as a reminder that laughter and fun have a place in everything we do. To forget that would be silly.

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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.