Empathy and Action

They gathered in the inner courtyard, more than five hundred strong, held hands, and stood silently for seventeen minutes. Some wore shirts expressing their point of view, #NEVERAGAIN or March for Our Lives, others simply looked the part of who they are: students, grades six through twelve, thoughtful, artistic, a little nervous, and more informed than some would expect. In a word, they were inspiring.


The event was one of three student responses to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida a month ago. The first, one of empathy, was suggested by two seniors who put up a stretch of poster paper where students could record their words of support for the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In the days after the tragedy it provided a place for students to process their own feelings while focusing on others. We’ll roll this up in a few days and send it to the school, our small voice of support in the chorus of the national conversation.

The next response suggested by students came from our student representative to the school board’s Student Advisory Committee. That group discussed what they could do to express what they were thinking and feeling in the wake of what happened in Florida, and how they could have their voices heard on the issue of school safety. The result was the idea of a letter writing campaign by students to elected officials. Our rep got right to work.

At the assembly we held to discuss school safety, our student representative stood in front of the student body and explained the importance of action alongside empathy. She deftly answered questions about the project, and ended with an invitation to join her in writing to members of congress to share their perspectives as young people who come to school every day to learn, feel safe, and become the kind of adults some of us still aspire to be.

IMG_6199There were a great many students near the table that held that letter box on March 14th, and knowing our student body, I’ll wager the perspectives and ideas shared will be as diverse, thoughtful, and articulate as our students.

But for seventeen minutes there was unity in our diversity, those seventeen silent minutes when students stood together, holding hands, thinking their own thoughts about the day, the world, and the future. When the time ended there were hugs, a few tears, and a great gathering up of teens who headed back into the schoolhouse to learn. The orderliness of it all might have astounded some, though those of us who work with students were less surprised.

The students’ poise and purpose was inspiring too, though as a dad and a principal I want to temper my genuine appreciation with a nod to the reality that these are young people who have more on their minds and a wider future than any single issue. That they will make a difference I have no doubt. That they have a vision of the future that is kinder and more inclusive than my own generation’s I believe. That this takes away the collective responsibility of anyone older than twenty I do not accept.

Just as it is unfair to paint teachers as heroes in waiting, pursuing their noble cause with inadequate pay and unreasonable expectations, because they are so selfless …which somehow makes it okay, so too it is unfair to see in our youth saviors who might take away our own responsibility to contribute to making the world what we want it to be.

Teenagers today have done much to bring a message to our national consciousness, and a part of that message seems to me to be an call to engage with our communities. Wherever folks find themselves emotionally and philosophically in the wake of the tragedy in Florida, or in fact the decades in which school names like Sandy Hook and Columbine have become synonymous with violence, I think we can take inspiration from our students today, and hear them when they invite us to put our empathy into action.


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.


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.


The Horse, of Course

The horse did it?

In an increasingly complicated and logic defying world, there is something magical and more than a little healing about the acts of teaching and learning.

Over the past couple of weeks some kind and welcoming English teachers have been generous enough to allow me to step into the classrooms they share with students and teach. It’s the fulfillment of a promise I made to myself when I became a principal: I would make a point to teach every year.

Teaching allows me to connect to my students in a way beyond being just a guy in a tie. It puts me in the position of seeing first hand the challenges and rewards of being n instructor at my school and helps to keep me grounded in the reality that what really matters at a school is what happens in the classroom. I once worked with a superintendent who liked to say: “There are two kinds of people in a school, teachers and people who support teachers.” I’m proud to be the latter, and thankful when I get to step back into the former category.

IMG_5918This winter, as the news of the day read like something out of Orwell or Huxley, I traveled with scores of sixth and seventh grade sleuths across the heath of Dartmoor in search of the “first favourite for the Wessex Cup,” the distinguished Silver Blaze. It was amazing.

I’ve long held that there is no feeling to compare with the give and take of a classroom discussion, and my time with these curious young scholars proved that point to me again. Talking about the way clues in a mystery are like the details readers might find in a close reading of any text, discussing Sherlock Holmes and our short story of the day, and being in their company when the students realized that the equine title character had committed the murder of a despicable man (in self defense, no less) was as renewing as it was delightful.

This isn’t to say that The Adventure of Silver Blaze was chosen only as literature of escape; I’m proud of the Holmes lesson I used (and adapted as I got better at teaching it from period to period) and felt like we ended each class having discovered a thing or two, including that an author from more than a century ago could still wallop them with a surprise ending.

Literature has the power to inspire, delight, and provide perspective. I felt that truth every day that I taught English and am reminded of the fact when I get to visit classes (and even teach them myself). The Adventure of Silver Blaze not only gave students an instance of good coming out on top, a bully being humbled, and cleverness overcoming evil, it also set the stage for students to work together to solve a problem, practice critical thinking, and talk with peers about their methods of thinking about literature.

Sure, having the principal teach was a novelty (though I hope over time and with repetition it feels increasingly less so), but ultimately the lessons were something as simple as they are commonplace in education: humans coming together to make sense of the world, talking, looking back over old stories, and connecting with each other.

…well, and shaking our collective head when the bad guy gets kicked in the head by a horse.

Sweet Music

I’d been wanting to get the bus to my campus since I first got the job. More than a year ago, when I was the principal elect waiting to begin my tenure at ACMA, I spent my free time scouring online for scraps of information about the district and school I would be moving to. I found amazing photos of performances and fine art, information about award winning student films and the major bond project changing the face of the district, and…

6E70358E-A38F-4AB8-80DB-113A8E2AC243The bus.

It intrigued me, this rainbow painted school bus, Beaverton School District’s “Future Bus,” a rolling collection of innovation filled with tool benches, building materials, and a sense of adventure. I knew that I wanted to get it on my campus as soon as I could.

Today, a cold day in February, the bus arrived.

It brought with it saws, rasps, hardwood, and cigar boxes. We’d ordered the strings and bridges, and this morning students packed into the Blue Box Theater, a great open space we could commandeer for a couple of days, to build cigar box guitars.

86AA441A-02A8-41DB-9FF8-9D066BD6280BThe build was the Future Bus Team’s first at a high school, and rather than gather a collection of stage builders or set designers, it was a precalculus class who stepped up to talk about the math and physics of sound as they drilled, cut, and built instruments. Math applied, creativity in building, learning by doing. It was awesome.

We started the day, as we always do, with a song played over the PA in lieu of an opening bell. Today we sensibly chose BB King. By the time “The Thrill is Gone” finished echoing through the hallways, our build team was ready to talk tools, safety, and sound to a group of young mathematicians.

2A300AD5-D5A4-46D8-BD03-14A18EC2BB2FCigar box instruments date back to the 1800s, with images of cigar box fiddles and banjos in the hands of soldiers from the Civil War. The simple design uses the wooden cigar box as the resonator, providing an inexpensive way to create an instrument with the potential for surprising good sound. Today’s versions often add a pick up for an amp, and offer musicians a creative and personal way to make a guitar of their own in just a few hours.

For ACMA’s build, those hours began on Sunday afternoon when the Future Bus drove up to the bay door of our performing arts center and we unloaded half a dozen workbenches, a collection of tools, and an impressive stack of wooden cigar boxes. In about 90 minutes the performance space had been transformed into a workshop, complete with a portable record player loaded with a little Led Zeppelin. We were ready to go.

IMG_6053Then today, they got to work.

For three hours the Blue Box was abuzz with activity. Students used Japanese pull saws to carve guitar necks, clamped, sanded, and drilled. They listened to our two guest instructors, collaborated with peers, and watched as their math teacher joined in on the building. To see his enthusiasm was as inspiring as witnessing the students’ engagement.

Beneath the stage lights they constructed musical instruments, learning as they went (about tools, and sound, and the application of mathematics). They talked about the project at hand, they took pride in explaining to me what they were doing, and they laughed. So often laughter is a harbinger of learning.

What will the students learn from building cigar box guitars? I hope a little about the math behind the measurement, chords, and sound. I hope a lot about the joy of creation and the possibilities of applying the theoretical knowledge they spend a lifetime in classrooms acquiring.

IMG_6055The process of creating is transformative, and bringing that hands on building experience into the classroom has the potential to make learning real.

Seeing students crafting their guitars today, laughing, talking, and working together was a culmination of what we’d discussed earlier in the year when the Future Bus Team came to campus to talk with our math teacher about a learning. To see the three of them in my office, sharing stories and plucking a finished guitar, was inspiring. To see them with students, guiding, encouraging, and connecting, was profound.

B760E6E1-9F73-4C44-8D5F-20B3CF74406FThe build finishes this Friday, coincidentally the day of my coffee with the principal. I plan on taking the parents who join me on a walking tour down to the Blue Box and letting them see the kids put the finishing touches on their guitars. We are ACMA after all, a school that digs having an audience, and I’m looking forward to sharing the good work happening on campus.

I know not every day can look like a cigar box guitar build, but I see in experiences like this exemplars that we might all do more to keep in mind as we develop lessons and encourage our students to engage, create, and apply what they are learning. Math class never looked like this when I was in school, but seeing the work today helped underscore that when it’s done right, learning can be sweet music.

Snow Day

IMG_5984The snowball fight is over, my teenage daughter the clear winner, the banana muffins are on the cooking rack, and the kids are quietly playing Minecraft in the family room. It’s cold outside, though sunny, and I’m sitting at my desk reading about Columbine.

Outside, in the real world, the world not paused by snow, more than a hundred teenagers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are addressing the Florida legislature. As one headline read: “Florida Students Began With Optimism. Then They Spoke to Lawmakers.” There are those in politics questioning if the students are really actors, or whether because they’re teens they’ll lose interest and be sent away once they hit resistance. The people with those questions must never have spent much time with students.

As a principal and former teacher, I have seen first hand the power passionate and purposeful students can bring to the issues that inspire them. That this group of teenagers will change the world is something I would certainly not bet against.

How different this is than the tragedy in 1999 that saw fifteen students lose their lives to two shooters at Columbine High School. Today, reading journalist Dave Cullen’s thorough and heartbreaking descriptions of the tragedy in Colorado is as difficult emotionally, both as an educator and a parent, as it is important to my understanding. It is, for me, one step in the direction of trying to be the best principal I can be for my students, teachers, and families, a person with perspective, if not answers, and some kind of conception of how horrors like the one we saw happen last week come about.

I see in Cullen’s historical view of Columbine a society, particularly educators and law enforcement, still learning how to deal logistically with a new reality of students with access to high powered guns, an abundance of rage, and a mindset bent on hurting others. Reading about what happened I can’t help but see in the stories of the students and staff at Columbine parallels to the people I have worked with for the past quarter century.

In the years between Columbine and Sandy Hook the responses to school shootings, both in the way they are treated by law enforcement and educators have evolved, even as the horror and heartbreak of each subsequent event have remained just as profound. Every year we practice how to “lock down” and “lock out,” we invite police to speak to our staff and students, and we learn more how to protect our schools from events like this.

And Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

As a principal I struggle at what to tell my kids, my staff, myself about what more we can do to prevent tragedies like we have seen.

So I read. Today Columbine by Dave Cullen. Tomorrow, on the recommendation of another principal, Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings by Katherine S. Newman.

They will not have all the answers.

IMG_5962So I will talk with our school resource officer, serious, earnest, and determined; my fellow administrators, so many so talented and caring; and look for understanding and inspiration wherever I can find it.

Today I find that inspiration in those students from Florida who have transformed their wail of grief into a cry for change. I see in them hope, spring shoots rising through the cold snow, and I am inspired.


I began teaching five years before Columbine. It’s not that schools were perfectly safe then; one of my students lit the mascot on fire at an assembly during my first year of teaching, and in my third year another student tried to burn down the school. He brought gasoline and splashed it around the front doors before lighting a match. The front doors were metal, set into concrete. They power washed it the next day and arrested the student. But the reactions of students to acts of violence perpetrated on school campuses was different then.

When my students heard about the shooting at Columbine High School, thousands of miles from the small, rural, Oregon high school where we were, they wanted to honor the students who had been killed by planting a rose. If they’d kept up this tradition over the past nineteen years, that campus would be a massive tangle of thorns and flowers.

But that didn’t keep up. Reactions changed.

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Columbine wasn’t the first mass school shooting to happen in my teaching career. Just a year earlier, and much closer to home, Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon saw 24 students shot and two killed by a recently expelled former student, and it certainly has not been the last. Since Columbine the number of tragedies on campuses has grown, and while debating the exact number is as foolish as it is distracting, the truth remains that schools today have a different relationship to gun violence than they did at the end of the last century.

We are better protected, with more thoughtful school designs, key card doors, and more secure campus perimeters; and better prepared, by safety drills of all sorts and dedicated inservices to inform teachers and school staff about what to look for and how to help keep our kids safe, and…

When students today hear about a school shooting, the disbelief their parents might have felt when they were in school has been replaced by something else: the view that this is a just part of their world.

That feels strange.

When word came from Parkland, Florida about the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School the adults in my school and district responded with grief, empathy, and concern. We drafted messages for our school community, prepared our counselors to be ready for students, and were visible and welcoming the following morning. My assistant principal and I visited classrooms, I shared a message of support with my staff, and we as a family of caring educators got ourselves ready to be there when students wanted to talk.

Most didn’t.

Two teachers visited my office, as emotional as I was, and we processed what we’d read about the Florida shooting. We talked about where we were when we heard about Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and some of the other tragedies that rocked our profession and our world. We remembered our own high school experiences, and wondered aloud the reason our current students seemed less interested in talking about it than students had back when my high schoolers had wanted to plant that rose.

Why is it, we asked ourselves, we adults are so shaken and our students seem to be responding so much more quietly, if at all?

I had a long conversation with our school resource officer, a caring soul who stopped by our campus to see how we were doing. He was quick to point out the importance of being proactive and focusing on how we can prevent these tragedies. I’m hopeful he’ll join me when I address the student body at a pair of assemblies next week.

The responsibilities of an educator in 2018 feel different than they were when I started teaching a quarter century ago. The conversations we need to have with our kids extend beyond the familiar topics that lured us to this profession; they include today matters of life and death, safety and security, and so much more.

I’m still reeling from the horrors reported from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, and steeling myself to talk with students more deeply next week. As a principal I want to do all that I can to keep my students and staff safe, my campus secure, and my school a positive place to learn. It’s work that won’t end in my lifetime, and work so important that I tend to it as I would a rose.


Pirate Week at Twenty

photo 1 (2)Quietly passing next week, like a rowboat of buccaneers sneaking out of a hostile harbor, is the twentieth anniversary of something meaningful to me and maybe a few students I had the pleasure of sharing a classroom with: Pirate Week.

It started as a lark, a fellow English teacher and myself looking up at the gray winter sky and recognizing that everyone in the state seemed to be in a bad mood. It was January 1998 and we wondered what we could do to cheer up our school. Pirates, we thought. Everyone likes pirates. Right?

Ah, to be young and foolish.

We set the date of “Pirate Week” for the short week after President’s Day; four days seemed more manageable than five, and we had no idea what we’d do.

photo (43)I grew a beard. It came in an inspiring red; my last beard showed far too much gray.

My students found a long forgotten wooden replica cannon in the theater’s prop room and somehow managed to install it in the front of my classroom. They plotted costumes, devised activities, and planned adventures for the week ahead.

That first week was an experiment. A treasure hunt, the occasional raid of my fellow English teacher’s classroom, a bit of hardtack, and lots and lots of “ARRRRRing!” We ended the week exhausted.

…and folks seemed in a better mood.

tl doorPirate Week continued every other year after that (every year would be too much, so we added Space Week in 1999, another post for another time). It followed me to two new schools, at one my students put on a pirate themed craft day for a local elementary class, and at another an intrepid student painted my classroom door with a swashbuckling mural (with a winking nod to Space Week too).

One year a band of teachers joined me in a pirate choir who toured the school singing “A Pirate’s Life.” We were loud, if not too much in tune, and as with the first Pirate Week, shanties and such seemed to bring smiles to the midwinter blues.

Over time kids started bringing me pirate things: a flag, a cookie jar, a peg legged statuette, and when I transitioned from the classroom to being an administrator that buccaneering spirit continued on thank you notes, the occasional Halloween costume, and an amazing ceramic wall hanging given to me by my secretary.

Captain TeeInspired by Pirate Week, when my niece was young I even wrote a seafaring story, Pirates Plunder, that I could read aloud to her at bedtime, scribbling sketches in the margins to make her smile. She chuckled at the drawing of Captain Tee wearing a lei. I kept my day job.

My life as an administrator has contained a few fabulous piratical moments, no raids or singing, but more kindness than a flotilla of ships and a spirit of fun whose memory brings me joy.

And today, twenty years later, I look back at Pirate Week and think fondly of every eye-patched and hook-handed student I ever taught. I appreciate the teachers who joined me in some scurvy fun, and the administrators who put a second eye patch on long enough not to see the shenanigans happening on their ships. It was all in good fun, after all, and no one got hurt.

IMG_5848I keep a copy of Treasure Island near my desk these days, the bookmark a collection of photos from that faculty pirate choir. On my wall is that ceramic skull and crossbones, and on the back of the clipboard I carry around a sticker given to me by a student who had visited the Caribbean. This President’s Day week will go by more quietly than 1998’s, but with no less of a sense of adventure.

To all those kind souls who sailed with me during a Pirate Week, I say thanks. To them, and to any I haven’t met under a black flag, I wish a fair wind, a box of gold, and pinch of that pirate spirit every single day!