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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Doodling

At one of our school information nights, after we’d talked to the crowd of potential ACMA students and families, a panel of current students took questions from the audience. Most of what they asked could have been expected: What are your favorite classes? Can sixth graders try out for plays? How much homework do you get a night? The kids answered them marvelously, of course; given an opportunity to talk about their school, students have the ability to show the poise and passion, intelligence and good humor that defines them.

Toward the end of the Q&A, a little girl raised her hand. She was a fifth grader, curious if ACMA was for her, and when one of our current students nodded toward her outstretched hand, she asked her question: “Do teachers let you doodle in class?”

“What?” One of our students asked her, uncertain if she’d heard it right.

“Doodling,” the little girl answered. “Can you doodle during class. My teacher now won’t let us.”

As an educator and the dad of two kids, my heart broke a little.

And then our student laughed, kindness in her voice. “Of course,” she reassured the girl with a smile. “This is ACMA. You can doodle.”

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That question and answer stuck with me throughout the week.

I found myself in a painting class alongside the girl who had provided the answer. She and her teacher were chatting as she sketched and I brought up the exchange. “I suppose I should have said you can doodle in math class as long as you’re willing to do math in painting,” she said to her teacher. He grinned. “You remember last year when you did that?” She looked puzzled. “Seriously, you were doing math one day in Drawing II.” How very ACMA, I thought.

At the end of the week we had an all school assembly, and because of a mix up in communication, the video that was to anchor the day came in at just over two minutes, not just over twenty minutes. Oops. It was time to improvise and that girl and her question echoed in my mind again. I asked for a flip chart of paper, a pen, and an easel.

The crowd collected, I shared the story about Information Night’s doodle question.  Beyond cute or whimsical, it struck me as something more.

Doodling is creativity run wild. It is what grows outside the planter boxes of learning. These scribblings are imagination circling around structure, our unconscious self appearing next to the information we have to record.

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There are those who believe that doodling can enhance our life and learning, helping us be more productive, or freeing our emotions when words are not enough. Judy Blume, an author that fifth grader might have read in school, admitted that “I doodle a lot and often get my best ideas with a pencil in my hand while I’m doodling.” 

The spirit of an artist appears through her doodles.

So I talked with our students about the importance of exuberant creativity and allowing ourselves the freedom to keep open our imaginations. I confessed to being a doodler myself, and took the time to sketch a pirate on the paper on stage. While it was nothing fancy, I hope that the act of seeing their principal draw in front of them and praise the act of putting pencil or pen to paper will stick around as long as that girl’s question has for me.

I hope that when they’re sitting in class, or when my teachers are sitting in a meeting, they won’t feel a stigma for drawing lines or flowers, robots or leaves, caricatures or boxes and arrows. Who knows, maybe the result will be something that moves discussion in that classroom or that meeting forward. Maybe they too will get some of their best ideas with a pencil in their hand.

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A Great Hall of Reflection

“Art … is a great hall of reflection where we can all meet and where everything under the sun can be examined and considered.”
                                  -Iris Murdoch

Just about every morning I take a walk. At 7:30 my amazing assistant, Margaret, and I cue up a song, turn on the PA, and let music fill ACMA. For the next five minutes, as students hurry to classes to the sound of Miles Davis or Ella Fitzgerald, Sharon Jones or David Bowie, Mozart or Edie Brickell and Steve Martin, I walk.

coffeeA cup of coffee in hand, I navigate the front hall by the main office, zigging around the trophy case filled with ceramics, dodging kids wrapped in fleece blankets (a thing at ACMA during these cold winter months) and turn the corner by the door of the dance studio at the mouth of ACMA’s Hallway of Hope and Justice.

Every morning I see teachers standing at doorways greeting students, I see kids carrying projects (a canvas, a sculpture, the makings of a robotic hand), and I find myself surrounded not just by art on every wall, but by the creative student artists who make our school the work of art that it is.

Ours is a school of plush ears, horns, and tails. We are a place that exudes the creative spirit, a place where students create their identities as well as their art. At ACMA we laugh often, dream big, and are comfortable being just a little bit different. Seeing this creativity made manifest every morning is an inspiration.

To walk down ACMA’s hallways first thing in the morning, The Clash, The Bangles, or The Beatles filling the air, is to see hope.

At 7:30 in the morning students are focused on what’s ahead. They’re not performing; they’re preparing. As these artists, writers, dancers, and musicians move together through the hallways, nodding hellos to one another, smiling, and toting instruments, cameras, and portfolios, they seem to me less a disconnected collection of individuals and more the cohesive colors of a creative rainbow. They share a desire to make art and a poetic way of seeing the world.

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My walk takes me to the end of the hallway, past paintings and wire sculpture, past displays about LBGTQ pride and announcements for upcoming productions, beneath student murals reaching back for decades and temporary installations on kindness, body image, and environmental issues.

Each step, to the strains of Mendelssohn or the bounce of Billie Holiday, takes me through a sea of anticipation. The day is about to begin. In the next hours together students will dance, and sing, and draw, and sculpt. They will write, and act, and make films. They will discuss literature and math, debate history, experiment in science (and maybe artistically too). They will support one another, encourage one another, and help each other be the best artists (and people) they can be.

Well, once they’ve wiped the sleep from their eyes; 7:30 am is awfully early for artists.

To help them wake up we may cue up some Prince or Buckshot LeFonque, Pink Martini or Johnny Cash. Whatever the soundtrack for the morning, the feeling is the same: gratitude for being at ACMA, excitement for the creative process, and a belief that today great things may happen.

I never take that morning walk for granted. Never. It’s a time to connect with students and staff, absorb the inspiration of our vibrant school, and witness first hand the profound power of creativity.

Go… !

Here at ACMA there’s talk of finding a mascot. With just over a quarter century of history behind us, the thinking goes that it’s about time we landed on a little more cohesive identity, an easier way for the community around us to recognize that we’re more than just the sum of our parts, and that whether a student is a poet or a painter, dances, makes films, or acts, she is a part of a dynamic creative community where she can be herself and be part of something bigger than any one student or one program.

I love the acknowledgement that we are an all encompassing haven for artists of many kinds. There is a tremendous and unifying power to the creative process, and whether we sculpt, write, make music, or make sets, the very nature of creating art gives us all a common point of view and shared sensibility. Art unites us.

Now, that mascot.

The truth is… and I may be in the minority… I love the fact that we haven’t ever limited ourselves to just one mascot. There is a delicious possibility in the notion that on any given day we could be anything we choose. Van Gophers? Could be. Therapy Llamas? Could be.

As I explained to a friend the other day, we’re the David Bowie of schools, some days Ziggy Stardust, some days wearing a suit and singing about getting to the church on time. Try to tie us down and we’ll slip right through your expectations.

Screen Shot 2017-11-08 at 1.32.41 PMGo Chameleons?

Could be.

Or today we might just be the Spiders from Mars.

But such nonsense may not be the unifying reality best for our school. Maybe we would benefit from a single image to rally around, a metaphoric melody we could riff on. Heck, it could be fun.

So it’s with a smile and an open mind that as we move toward winter the discussion of how best to celebrate and communicate our school begins to take shape.

Over the next few weeks we’ll reach out to students and alumni, teachers and staff, and ask for ideas about how we might best articulate ourselves to the world beyond our campus. What, we’ll ask, can we do to clearly present who we are and what we do?

We’ll always be ACMA. We’ll always be a place where creativity abounds and creative souls are honored, encouraged, and challenged to make art. We’ll always think just a little differently and not be afraid to create works that show that spirit.

And as we begin our second quarter century we will take the time we need to connect with each other and articulate our own artistic identity. No matter what the outcome, this is a process that is good for us as a collection of artistic individuals.

Past graduates, current students, and staff from every year, ACMA is your school and it always will be. If you’re a little unsure about the notion of a mascot, I invite you to join me in suspending disbelief, knowing all will be well, and believing in the power of art to guide our adventure at ACMA and beyond.

National Holiday

I saw my first unicorn at 6:35 am. She walked out of the dark and into the cafeteria to stay warm before school, joining a pack of students who had spent time planning and creating costumes for a big day at Arts & Communication Magnet Academy.

IMG_4894Back in the main office, after a bus duty of watching remarkable creations walk onto campus, I found two pirates smiling at the pumpkin left anonymously the night before and decorated with my name and a llama, a reference to Rojo, the therapy llama, who had visited earlier in the month.

Together we laughed at the parade of costumes that stopped by: The Hulk, complete with green face paint; an impeccably mustachioed gondolier, whose facial hair was as carefully sculpted as it was real; and a body builder toting a giant dumbbell and looking like someone out of a 1920s circus …and those were some of my teachers.

IMG_4897Here at ACMA we begin each day by playing music over the PA in lieu of a bell, and as we were getting ready to cue up the theme from Harry Potter The Cat in the Hat stopped by, joined by a cheetah, and Chuck Norris …more staff.

Students got into the act as well, an outpouring of creativity that captured the outrageous skills our students have in art and performance. Clowns and zombies, Ghostbusters and vegetables, dogs, cats, fairies, and even a skunk, the wild abundance of costumes was overwhelming. Stepping into the hall as the opening strains of Harry Potter filled the school I saw …everything. Herds of unicorns. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. Chefs. Cowpokes.

IMG_4914At lunch I hung out with a seven foot tall satyr.

I must have looked a little overwhelmed at the spectacle of it all when one of my math teachers smiled at me and said: “Here at ACMA Halloween is a national holiday.”

What a glorious thing that is.

I love that ACMA, as strong academically and artistically as it is, is on an average day a school of plush ears, horns, and tails. Our students, and our staff too, know the value of having fun and expressing themselves. Today’s costumes didn’t have to be fancy or expensive; the best were hand crafted celebrations of the creative spirit.

ACMA is a place where students make art and live life artistically, and on the 31st of October …well at ACMA that’s a national holiday.

Tunnel of Love

It would be a lie to say I love it, but there is a part of me that will miss San Dieguito’s “tunnel” when it’s gone in a just a few days.

early tunnelThe demolition of two buildings and construction of a new two story science and math building in the center of our campus ushered in my first year as principal at San Dieguito with the crash of a wrecking ball and rumble of heavy machinery. Bulldozers and cranes have been a part of my school ever since it became my school, and with a tight squeeze along a major north/south walkway, construction prompted a creative solution to student safety: building a massive wooden wall with a ceiling to separate students from construction.

It is, I realized, one of the few things about San Dieguito that is entirely mine. There was no “tunnel” (as it came to be called) before I was principal, and the wall will be gone before another principal arrives on campus. In its way, the tunnel captures some of the spirit of my time as principal at San Dieguito.

tunnelI arrived to construction and its attendant challenges, and found that the school, the students and adults who make up the San Dieguito family, are greater than any adversity, particularly that prompted by shovels and jackhammers.

The existence of the tunnel was a necessity; the students’ response was unexpected and beautiful. Seeing wood, they brought out paint.

They started with pictures: a horse, a peace sign, hearts, and even the Death Star.

Soon an art teacher and her painting class brought some cohesion, adding wheels, windows, and the concept of a train. More images appeared: fruit, animals, and a painting of a mountain that looked like it could be framed and put in a gallery.

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This was a creative solution to an immovable challenge, functional first, but soon a place for students celebrate their diverse artistic voices.

Was everything perfect? No. Life isn’t, but on this imperfect, evolving, and unpredictable canvas our school got to see the kaleidoscopic spirit of our student body.

The tunnel filled with color, originality, and whimsy.

Images grew, vibrant, beautifully silly, and sometimes profound.

They are, by the nature of the tunnel, transitory, “very SDA,” and (soon) gone.

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Giving a construction tour of our rainbow colored “tunnel” to board members, the SDUHSD Prop AA Citizens’ Oversight Committee, and local press.

At the Bower Museum

photo 1 (2)Today I looked into the eyes of a two thousand year old man. His expression, serious and enigmatic, looked back at me from across centuries and I couldn’t help but think that in another two millennia I’ll be dust and that terra cotta figure from a Chinese tomb will still be gazing out at museum goers through an inch of protective glass.

The power of art never ceases to astound me. Whether a piece of music, a play, or poem, the products of creativity offer humble humans like us the opportunity to transcend time.

Some works -those chiseled in marble or carved into mountains- offer the illusion that they will outlive any others. Some -sculpted in movement or performed onstage- seem more transitory, their lives lived in those magical moments shared between artist and audience. But art scoffs at these distinctions. Remember “Ozymandias.”

…Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains…”

That recent archaeologists have dug up something they could link to Shelley’s description matters little; it is the words of the poem that people remember, not a statue. Thank art for another good reminder not to pin our ambitions on a single work, no matter how solid, but rather to revel in the act of creating.

The product of this creation matters far less than the action of imagination. A song can be forgotten, a canvas scraped clean to make way for another painter, a statue shattered. The feeling of writing, painting, dancing, or digging fingers into clay, however, stands a chance of being transformative.

What this transformation means could be far ranging: seeing the world through the eyes of another, maybe finding beauty in the unexpected, or inspiration in the struggle of life.

For students there may be no more important kind of lesson than art.

clayEncouraging students to make our, both in their comfort area and beyond it, is a privilege and challenge for all of us who make education our life’s work.

Arguing for science or math education is an easily justified endeavor. Statistics abound that show how a strong course of study in the hard sciences can lead students to careers that make a difference.

The humanities also matter much; good communicators with a sense of history and proportion are not only a vital component to our civil society, but sometimes are the only voices capable of helping us put into perspective the complicated world we live in.

photo 4 (2)Painting? Poetry? Dance?

Without veering into a speech from Dead Poet’s Society, I’ll simply argue that the students who make art create for themselves a richer world.

The same four year old who moves to “The Wheels on the Bus” may find a similar release at fourteen when she choreographs a dance to something by Branford Marsalis. The six year old so proud of his work with crayons and construction paper may find, at sixteen, that through oil on canvas or pen and ink scribblings in a sketchbook he is able to make sense of the strange and wonderful journey into adulthood.

photo-2-2Beyond these very personal relationships with creating art, students benefit from the process of goal setting, the productive struggle of bringing vision into being, and the focus required to make art.

I once worked with a gifted sculpture teacher who called these “soft skills,” though truth be told I don’t see anything soft about them. Successful artists, as well as successful humans, develop a vision, create a plan, and work extraordinarily hard to make this art take shape.

Ballet or ballad, triptych or tragedy, the product these young artists create and the process by which they create it as as important as anything they learn in a lab or a lecture hall.

Why art? Because it matters.

It matters to artists and to audiences.

Art makes a difference in individual lives and in the lives of communities. At its best it transforms spirits and might, just maybe, reach across generations and connect with a stranger, terra cotta eyes inspiring reflection.