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?”


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.

…on a chalkboard

On my final day on Diegueño’s campus I cut through a narrow storage room to deliver an apple fritter to my head custodian. More a hallway than a real room, it’s a place to store PE clothes and old files that aren’t confidential. A couple of TVs gather dust beneath the last remaining chalkboard on campus.

I’d been through here a hundred times, but on this morning, tinged with the emotions of leaving a school I care deeply about, I saw something that hadn’t been there before: a pirate.

photo 2 (2)For a couple of days, since finding out I’d be principal at San Dieguito High School Academy, I’d been wondering what, if any, my legacy might be at Diegueño.

I know that I am proudest of the people I helped to hire. The true positive difference I’ve contributed to at the school is the amazing teachers working with kids who came to the school on my watch.

But these educators’ legacies are their own, and my thoughts turned to what contributions I’d made in my year on campus. Certainly I’d done my best to nurture a sense of family within my staff and school, encouraging connections, valuing relationships, and celebrating kindness. The roots of community are deep, and I believe the tree will continue to grow, but as with so many things, I was just one gardener. The legacy of the Diegueño Family is its own.

I worked hard to have fun, and to bring an attitude of whistling at work to Diegueño. This meant playing badminton on the lawn with teachers and parents, bringing ice cream sandwiches to teachers in rooms without air conditioning, and teaching students how to draw a pirate. With a rumbling “Arrr!” that sketch on the chalkboard suggested some of it had stuck.

At least for a little while.

photo 1 (2)Ultimately Diegueño continues without me just as well as it had before me. My time as steward to the school changed me more than I changed it. For a few people: students, teachers, and parents, I hope I made a difference, an act of kindness or support, something that helped make their lives a little better. In the end it’s often those small and true acts that matter most.

Legacies are funny things. I don’t look to have my name on a plaque; I simply hope that I’m thought of, when I’m thought of, as a person who made a positive difference in someone’s life. I move through the world with the goal of helping, and if I’m remembered (with fondness or frustration) I’m at peace with the fact that many of those memories will disappear with time as surely as a pirate drawn in chalk.

They’ll never put my name on a bench…

photo 1I have lunch from time to time with Marilyn Pugh, a former principal, who has always been generous in her time, giving me her ear when I need it, and advice when I ask. She was the principal of Diegueño for a decade, and is so loved and respected that she has her name on a plaque on a bench in front of campus.

I’ll repeat that: They named a bench in her honor and she’s alive.

In my first year at Diegueño, I loved my meetings with Marilyn, and seeing the faces of my staff light up when she entered the room. “MARILYN!” they’d shout, arms above their heads, zeroing in for a hug. She had the reputation of a tough administrator, and one who cared immensely about her teachers, her staff, and her kids. Her legacy is more than that plaque; she is seen as the high water mark for administration at Diegueño, something principals like me strive to emulate.

And I did keep Marilyn’s work in the back of my mind as I went about becoming part of the Diegueño family. I knew I’d be different; it’s right that I’m me, but I always had it in my head that I’d work hard and be true, and that after a few years there might even be a couple of teachers who would at least remember my name when a future principal brought me to visit campus sometime around 2040.

Last week I realized that they’ll never put my name on a bench.

Last week the opportunity to become the principal at San Dieguito High School Academy galloped into my life, snorting and stamping its hoof, and waiting for me to saddle up. It was an invitation to adventure that I could not pass up, not at least without a heaviness of regret that would haunt my work at Diegueño.

The pain of leaving, real and heart-rending, stood in contrast to the joy of expectation, of knowing that this was the right decision.

Like Rick at the end of Casablanca, I knew knew that I needed to put Diegueño on the plane bound in one direction, while I began a beautiful friendship with unknown promise in another. If not, I’d regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of my life.

Okay, that last paragraph was too melodramatic, but truth be told, I feel a touch melodramatic right now. I’m really excited to be going to SDA, and have also been in the business long enough to know just how much I’ll miss the people of Diegueño every day.

I’ll lean on Jorge Luis Borges, who captured this twin feeling of hope and loss in his poem “We Learn.”

…you learn to build your roads on today
Because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans
And futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.

After a while you learn…
That even sunshine burns if you get too much.

So you plant your garden and decorate your own soul,
Instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.

And you learn that you really can endure…

That you really are strong

And you really do have worth…

And you learn and learn…

With every goodbye you learn.”

I’m learning from this most recent goodbye, as I’ve learned from difficult farewells from years past. Time, I’ve found doesn’t always dull the loss, but good work helps, and new opportunities are the foundation of a meaningful life.

So as I say goodbye to a school family who I care deeply about and who treated me so well, and put my foot in the stirrups and swing into the saddle of something new, I know that Diegueño is a part of who I am, and that the excitement I feel about the road ahead in no way diminishes the beauty of the memories I keep in my heart.

borges campus

Planning in Short Pants

There’s a line in Robert Frost’s poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time” that flutters through my brain from time to time. It’s a powerful poem about passion and purpose, love and fear, poverty and expectation, and near the end the poet writes:

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.”

I’m reminded of that verse as I prowl Diegueño’s campus this summer.

Three summer programs fill classrooms on campus in July and August: a math bridge, English and math support classes, and an English Learner program. Add to that the fact that Diegueño is a hub of math curriculum writing and revision, and I see a summer vacation filled with teaching and learning.

The nice part about summer school is the more relaxed atmosphere and shorter school days. There’s something about knowing that I can come to work in shorts and be out in time to take my kids to the pool that changes the tenor of school.

Working in that relaxed space has benefits to the kind of school Diegueño will be in from September to June. Being on campus, but not consumed by the enormity of school year work, provides perspective. Diegueño is a blank canvas, ready for bold strokes and nuanced scumbling. That painting starts in earnest in the fall, when teachers and students return, but in the time of preparation, sketches for the next year’s work can be completed with creativity and optimism guiding the pencil.

This was true for me as a teacher too. Not unlike a Broadway show running a few preview performances, I used summer school to pilot new curriculum, new approaches, and new ideas. I knew that if I could get something to work in July, I could get it to work anywhere.

It’s something true of our teachers this summer as well, where students are engaged, challenged, and celebrated, and learning is something done both by teachers and kids.

I see that learning particularly in the collaboration our math teachers are engaged in around the curriculum begun last year and being refined for next. They are focused and find ways to make adjustments they know will be good for kids. This work will pay off in the fall, in the winter, and next spring. The foresight to imagine how students will best learn is a profound strength of our teachers.

As a principal, being on campus in summer allows for the mental and physical space to envision changes that can benefit the school. It’s a time when the daily stressors of working with a thousand tweens and teens ease enough that what’s ideal can get an upper hand on what will work. In that space, I see my best opportunity to live Frost’s aspiration.

I find that I’m at work in the mornings at the same time I was during the school year, ready to go, happy to be spending time with teachers who really care about students, and who show it in the work they do. I’m inspired by them to merge vocation and avocation, encouraged beneath this summer sun to use both eyes to see one clear vision for Diegueño.

Summer Planning

“Do you have the first day inservice planned?” She asked. One of my best teachers, a powerful educator and true teacher leader at Diegueño, her eyes wide, she really thought I might.

“I know I’m starting by feeding you pancakes,” I stumbled, “and…”

And I was thankful for her kindness, and the good humor of the other gifted teachers sitting around the table. “…and you know today is the first Tuesday of summer.”

We were together at a district achievement summit, a great way to cap off the school year, revisiting our progress on district initiatives and looking ahead to the start of the next school year. After a full morning, our Diegueño team broke off, finding a space where we could talk about how we could organize the first two days teachers were back in August.

With passion, candor, and an energy that suggested it was September, not June, the five teachers who joined me at the summit brainstormed ideas, spoke honestly about what would work and what wouldn’t, and helped craft a plan that will bring people together when we all return from a few weeks of vacation.

As I walked away from the meeting at the end of the day I was struck by three things: first, I work with some amazing teachers. Smilingly passionate about educating kids, they brought a spark to this summer planning that astounded me. Willing to help lead the August work, curious about how to improve their own practice and move our school forward, and ready to do the hard work needed to help kids, they are, like so many teachers, the reason education continues to adapt and really matter for kids. In this world of abundant information, it’s teachers who help provide perspective and wisdom.

Second, I was reminded of how important it is that I continue to push myself to be at my own best. That question about the first inservice that I bumbled, albeit honestly, was asked with the expectation that as the leader of the school I was thinking months ahead. I am, but hadn’t thought that I’d need to articulate my August plan on June 16th. I did, and having a group of teachers patient enough to let me find my answer made this a real opportunity for me to continue to grow into the leader I want to be.

Finally, the day underscored the importance of being purposeful in all we do. Whether it’s community building or academic initiatives, to make lasting change and a real difference, we must be both systematic and determined in what we do. This means working together, being honest in our assessment of where we are and ambitious in our determination of where we want to be.

I’m back at my desk in the morning doing the work I know will pay off in a couple of months, planning in June and July, inspired by those I work with, and excited about the difference we can make in August!

photo 1 (2)

…and when we get back in August, we’ll have the best staff shirts around!

Packed House

Standing at the podium looking out over the crowd of parents, students, teachers, and families, I had second thoughts about the importance of promotion. I’d been dubious.

A friend had asked me what a promotion was. “Like a mini graduation?” he asked. “Sort of,” I answered. “But without reading all the names.” Others I know have been critical of the practice, arguing that commencement ceremonies marking the completion of high school or a college degree carry with them a justified weight, while elementary and middle school promotions lack the necessary gravitas (or fail in attempting it), and seem forced, cheapened by social promotion, and incomplete as they recognize the class, not individual students by name.

photo 2 (6)There, however, looking down at my speech, a brief page, I had the distinct feeling that promotion mattered.

Sure, it’s an invented affair. Thirty years ago the transition from 8th to 9th grade meant your mom saying “I think those jeans will make it another year.” And yes, the most meaningful celebrations are throughout the year and for specific accomplishments, academic and social. But…

When I saw the collective pride packed into our quad, and tightly packed at that, I realized that an event like this is special too.

There was some talk about where to hold our promotion ceremony. In the past few years it’s taken place, sensibly, on the lower athletic field, where wide open spaces are the trade off for scrubby grass, ugly vistas, and a long walk for the elderly and disabled. This year we moved the celebration onto the heart of campus, building the event around the permanent stage where our ASB holds lunchtime activities, and spreading parent seating out into every nook and cranny of the quad. At Diegueño parents have traditionally brought their own lawn chairs, keeping the atmosphere casual and the costs low.

Moving to the quad meant rolling the dice on how everyone would fit, but the payoff of a pretty backdrop, better disabled access, and collective intimacy was worth the risk. What I didn’t realize until I got up on stage and looked out over the crowd, was just how perfectly the scene served as a metaphor for Diegueño.

We were together. We were there to celebrate kids. We were close, closer than some might think they wanted, but only for a short time, and looking back on that time together we’d forget the discomfort and remember what it was like to be part of something greater than ourselves in service to kids and academic success.

After a quartet of 8th graders sang the national anthem, and did so with such talent that the crowd let out a collective gasp, six student speakers took to the podium. These students, so thoughtful, passionate, and honest, reminded us all that our hope in the future is well justified. Their speeches alone were proof a ceremony like this was important. Student voices, publicly acknowledged and heard by our school community, were the star of the show.

At a promotion, as opposed to the diploma distribution that drives a high school graduation, the focus can be on celebrating the hard work, the play, and the community built over our two years together. We can sit next to each other one final time, and as a school family we can acknowledge the tick of time that marks some kind of changing of the hour in the lives of the kids.

…and the lives of the moms and dads.

It’s for the families that this gathering together means the most. Students carry their own memories forward, and few, beyond those students who sang or spoke, will be of the ceremony itself. For the kids it’s the selfie on the bus ride to Disneyland, or the poem written to describe 8th grade with an extended metaphor that will mean the most when, a decade or two from now, they’re uncovered cleaning out the spare bedroom to make a nursery.

For the grandfather who walked into our office after the promotion ceremony searching for a program, however, it was something else.

We were able to give him a program, and as I think about that folded piece of paper hanging by a magnet on the fridge beside a photo of his thirteen year old granddaughter, I know that I’ll do everything in my power to make each of the promotion ceremonies I get a hand in feel special to the parents, grandparents and kids too.

For that grandfather, promotion mattered. He was there to celebrate his student, and to support her as she began the transition to high school. This was a day for him, for her, for her parents, and for the families of all our 8th graders. It was real. It was heartfelt. It wasn’t just a mini graduation.

Gathered together in Diegueño’s quad, the packed house felt more like a full home. Our collective school family was there together to honor the kids we’d spent two years together preparing for the next step in their young lives. We wouldn’t have another opportunity to all sit shoulder to shoulder, and for a little less than an hour, we could.

Graduations are about individuals reaching individual goals; promotions are about the passing from one phase of life to another. They’re about parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and students realizing that the awkward childhood of promotion’s wobbly wedges and ill fitting suits is too soon gone, and the future of mortarboards in the air is only a heartbeat away. It’s a final opportunity to hold our kids tight, embrace hope, and look collectively to the promise ahead.


Leaning Toward The Finish

photo 1 (3)As a teacher I was always proud that my students worked all the way through the end of the year. We read, wrote, and thought whether it was September or June. I gave finals. We had fun, September or June, and we also knew that school meant school, which was more than a search for that elusive clownfish, Nemo.

Walking around Diegueño this final week of the school year, I’ve been blown away by the academic activities I’ve seen. Hands on, active, and rigorous, these are lessons that would have been rich enough for any time in the school year, and yet here they were, piled up against the promise of summer, filling the students’ days with learning, even on the proverbial eve of vacation.

I saw this from where I stood, atop the dumpster in the back of campus, where I’d climbed up to get a tweetable photo of the larger than life sized grid an intrepid math teacher had his students plotting lines on in a friendly (but hard fought) mathematics competition. Were the kids invested? Some teams had coordinated uniforms. Laughing, learning, and building community, this was the kind of lesson that they’ll remember forever.

photo 2 (3)And, I would find as I walked campus, this was not out of the ordinary.

The next day I went to a science classroom at the invitation of a student who wanted me to see how his bridge held up against the stress that would test his application of engineering principles. Truth be told, it snapped beneath the weight, joining a pile of others in a graveyard of bridges on a nearby lab table, but the effort he put into the structure impressed me. The pride these 8th grade scientists and builders brought to their work couldn’t help but inspire.

photo 3 (2)And then I smelled something burning.

It turned out to be a boat.

Actually, it was a boat lab in the adjoining science room. When I stepped outside I found a cluster of students igniting the candles that powered their paper and metal boats. These creations shot down the watery course, a testament to combustion and motion. Only a few caught fire.

photo 4 (1)From Renaissance presentations to student blogs about the extended metaphors for 7th grade, teachers and students are learning. Sure a few more of the kids are a little distracted, but more than most are engaged: in book clubs, in performance tasks, in building and doing.

I’m proud to work where teachers lean in to the finish. Summer looms, and the smell just around the corner will be a barbecue …in a week.

Until then the smoke is coming from a paper boat.


cougar headAt Diegueño we have a history teacher who has taught in the same room since the school opened in 1985. One year he moved his desk. He’ll be back in 2015-2016, an island of constancy in a sea of change.

Truth be told, that “sea of change” business is hyperbolic; we have many folks on campus who have been here for more than a decade, and almost every one of the dozen new teachers we hired last year are coming back. Still, Diegueño is similar campuses to across the state and nation in the sense that change in the adults on campus is a common occurrence.

Some years the changes are big.

Last year we added new teachers in every department, a new counselor, and a new principal. Midway through spring, our principal’s secretary, a fixture at Diegueño for more than ten years and our classified employee of the year, embarked on a late career adventure as she left to open a new middle school in our district. At the award ceremony to give her the EOY certificate she was flanked by her new principal and me. If she lacked the grace and humor she has, it might have been awkward.

More changes loom for the next school year. My attendance secretary will join her longtime office companion at the new middle school, my rock star assistant principal is excited to have earned a promotion to a high school in our district, and my 2014-2015 teacher of the year will take a full year leave to be with her new baby. Someone joked that I needed to stop giving out staff of the year awards.

They’ll all be missed, daily and deeply. And…

As we bid them goodbye, we prepare to welcome new teachers, office staff, a new counselor, and AP. A year from now these folks will be as dear as those who are moving on , but as change fills the air of May, it’s easy to feel, well… a little off balance.

“Lots of changes,” noticed my campus supervisor while we were out on lunch supervision. I could tell his thoughts were on the great people who won’t be here next year. There’s a legitimate tinge of concern whenever strong folks leave; a math teacher waved to me as I walked with my AP this morning saying “congratulations” to him and a smiling “my condolences” to me. But even as I recognized that his thoughts were about those going, I realized that mine were of those people who will be coming to Diegueño in a couple short months.

“Lots of changes,” he repeated, and I answered: “Yeah. It’s exciting. We’ll be okay.”

Looking back on that conversation, I realize that I didn’t quite capture the truth. We’ll be more than okay. We’ll be different, certainly, but in those differences come surprises, new friends, and perspectives we’ve never thought of before. Welcoming new staff to campus is part of what keeps our school vibrant. Articulating who we are and why we do the best things that we do helps us stay thoughtful about our practices and slow down long enough to prevent the “we’ve always done it this way” mindset. Listening to new points of view helps us question what we’re doing and improve.

A certain amount of change is built in to the structure of a middle school. Students are here for two years, which means every June we lose literally half of our student body, and every August we add 500 new students to our Diegueño family.

739580_proof_proportional_redraw (1)Schools do best when there is enough continuity to provide a sense of security, and enough change to prompt open mindedness and growth.

I would have done better in responding to my campus supervisor’s mild concern if I’d had the presence of mind to remember that line from Aristotle: “Change in all things is sweet.”  Sometimes it takes some time for us to recognize that sweetness, but as we allow ourselves, we do.

What remains constant isn’t the individual faces at a school, but the culture that is an accumulation of all those individuals, of what each has brought to the school community, and how the interactions between them has seasoned the salmagundi of the site.

Those who are leaving Diegueño this spring, students and adults, will be missed, even as they leave to make the places they’re going better because of who they are, formed in part by their own Diegueño experiences.

The people coming to Diegueño bring with them energy and excitement, questions and perspectives, passion and purpose. We’ll be different in ways, though some students will walk into that history classroom on campus and see the same teacher in the same room that their parents saw in 1985. The world that is Diegueño certainly isn’t spinning off its axis.

No, the changes that are coming will be as sweet as our attitude toward them. I look forward to the 2015-2016 edition of Diegueño and the surprises the year has in store for us. “Lots of changes,” you might say. I’d answer: “Yes! Let’s go!”

Creative Council

Lincoln did it right, surrounding himself with people who would question his opinion and provide passionate and sometimes contrary perspectives of their own. He didn’t call it a “mastermind group,” as Andrew Carnegie would a few decades later, or a “creative council” as Thomas Edison would dub the diverse personalities in his inner circle. Many of us have our own group of people we bounce ideas off, either publicly through social media, formally in a professional learning community, or informally through phone calls, emails, or meetings over coffee. I’m blessed to have all three, and use them weekly as I navigate the waters of being a middle school principal.

plnMy Professional Learning Network (PLN) isn’t anything formal or particularly unified. Not unlike the ragtag fugitive fleet of the 1978 Battlestar Galactica show, it’s the Twitter feeds and blogs of educators from across the globe that I travel with …in pursuit of that glittering planet of progress. As different as we all are (some working in small schools, some big, some without brick and mortar schools at all), the educators I follow and interact with online each provide me with perspective that helps me be the best I can be. Some I’ve met only a time or two, at an EdCamp or conference; some are people I work with every week, colleagues from other schools and our district office; and some I’ve never met in person, but consider professional colleagues (and even kindred spirits) who I hope to sit down with someday face to face.

There’s a saying that PLNs are like friends and PLCs are like family. We choose our Professional Learning Network, but our Professional Learning Community is usually the result of proximity with others at our school. At Diegueño, I’m fortunate to have a great professional family. Creative, collaborative, and curious, the teachers and others who make up my PLC have the courage to speak honestly, disagree with respect, and stay focused on finding solutions. I’m a fellow of discretion, so I won’t name names, but when “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” the voices I seek out for advice always give me much to think about. The common denominator of my onsite creative council isn’t credentialing or position; it’s a passion for helping kids and a commitment to speaking the truth …even if the boss doesn’t share that opinion. Maybe especially then.

Three GoonsAnd for the times I need advice, consolation, or just an ear to hear, a constellation of educators fill my night sky, always pointing true north. Some have never been in the same room: the teacher from Richmond, the assistant principal from LA, the EL Coordinator from San Rafael. Some know each other well: my first admin team consisted of me, Lars, and Justin, and while we can’t see each other every day as we once did, I still lean on them when it matters. Physical distance doesn’t mean as much as it once did, and I know that someone to talk with is just a text, phone call, or email away.

I’m thankful for this interconnected world. Unlike Lincoln, Carnegie, or Edison, my creative council is always there. My mistakes are my own, and I try to use every one to get better, but my potential to succeed is improved by the many, many people and perspectives I have the privilege to know and draw wisdom from every day.

Books, Badminton, and Beautiful Conversation

You know it’s a good meeting when a majority of the parents and teachers are barefoot.

It was our final gathering of the year for the Diegueño Book Club, and laughter filled the grassy area in the center of campus. We threw foam horseshoes without much success, if success is measured in ringers or leaners. If, however, the yardstick for accomplishment is having a good time, we were wildly successful.

The laughter continued as we batted a birdie to one another, our badminton skills inversely proportional to the amount of fun we were having.

There in the quad, beneath the flagpole, parents, teachers, and I were playing. Our smiles and talk of what we’d been like as kids brought us closer together, and the heart pumping lunges to reach that birdie made me feel happy to be at Diegueño, surrounded by great people, and having fun.

photo (7)After our most successful volley of the night, seven continuous bounces of shuttlecock against badminton rackets (it was windy; volleys were tough), we sat down in the shade of one of Diegueño’s trees and shared a jug of water one of our teachers brought from her classroom and a plastic container of chocolate chip cookies. Circled on the grass, we brought out our copies of Stuart Brown’s book Play and started to talk.

We talked about the importance of play, both structured and unstructured, and how different school was today than when we were students. Discussion led to play as it happens on our campus, both in big events like Spirit Day and in classes every week, as students enjoy time and space to be creative, collaborative, and come up with their own approaches to the challenges they face.

Two parents mentioned the “POM” or “problem of the module” that has entered the lexicon of the Diegueño Math Department. Not open ended so much as “open middled,” a math teacher explained, the POM encourages students to notice and wonder, to bring critical thinking to a purposeful challenge, and to work together to find an answer. The result is different than run of the mill “homework,” though the POMs are done outside of the classroom.

I’ll save the homework discussion for another post, but suffice it to say that we all could speak to the difference between daily assignments and more complex opportunities for students to apply the skills they are learning and have learned in class.

The kind folks in our book group listened as I yarned a bit about some of the things I did as a teacher, including Pirate Week and Space Week. Beyond the fun of talking about times when I got to play in the classroom (and beyond), this discussion blossomed into talk of a more academic success we’d seen just a couple of months ago at Diegueño: Pi Day.

Pi Day is really a misnomer; here at Diegueño we celebrated math for a full week in March. Beyond the thoughtful and student driven activities, for me the anticipation, the brainstorming, the excitement to create something fun (and Pi related) were as important as the flashier successes of the event. In the fortnight before the celebration I saw kids engaged, inspired, and showing the sparks of creativity that brought to life unexpected accomplishments.

Acknowledging that not every day can be Pi Day, we talked about everything from PE classes to History, and the value of engagement, hands on activities, and opportunities for the kids to have a voice in how they demonstrate what they are learning. As Brown suggests, “play isn’t the enemy of learning, it’s learning’s partner.” Our group agreed.

Conversation ranged from how we as parents play with kids to the importance of family and community. I won’t tip my hand on all the ideas flying around that tupperware container of diminishing cookies, but as we talked about balance, building community, and helping everyone feel at home, I was inspired by the specific suggestions about how we could do even more to bring parents, students, and all of our school community closer together.

This balance, especially in a world increasingly competitive, and a society that puts extreme pressure on students (as well as moms and dads) around grades, high school classes, and college acceptance, is important, and part of the answer to the question “How can we help families?” comes in the word: play.

I know that as the principal I might raise an eyebrow or two with this next line from Brown’s book, but it resonated with me, and I think with the other folks who were with me on the grass. “Play, by its very nature,” Brown writes, “is a little anarchic. It’s about stepping outside of normal life and breaking normal patterns. It’s about bending rules of thought, action, and behavior.” Within in the safety of school, and under the guidance of adults who care about them, a little unstructured play might just be the balm some kids need to ease the stress they face every day.

This isn’t to say that school should only be games, or that structure is anathema to learning. As our Diegueño Book Club talked, however, we recognized that how we frame what we do on campus (and in the work we assign beyond the schoolhouse walls) matters a lot.

A teacher in our group remembered aloud a quotation from Tom Sawyer: “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” I thought about what that meant to me as someone who has chosen to be an educator. It’s a topic I’ll continue to discuss with my staff and school community.

Reading a book and talking about it at school… I guess I could see how someone might consider that work, but for me, that evening on the lawn, it was most certainly engaging, enlightening, and enjoyable play.