Invited In

“Imagine with me a place where eccentricity is encouraged, where struggles are acknowledged, and people are supported. Imagine a place where people are celebrated for their differences and brought into the fold to collaborate and create something beautiful.” -Isaac Rosenbaum

Screen Shot 2018-11-13 at 8.20.50 AM

 

His passion around Exhibition Day was profound, as was his exuberant approach to building community. The time since graduation has only added perspective to his inspirational work, and power to his message of hope, care, and the importance of inviting others to share in the community we help to create.

I watched Isaac’s TEDx speech this week and recognized in it the powerful voice for kindness and inclusion that I’d known when he was a student at my high school (or I was a principal at his school) (or we shared a school together).

So often in administration the thousand tasks, the pressing needs, and the unceasing obligations fill our days and run the risk of clouding our vision for creating the best school we can. For me this week, Isaac’s words were a warm wind, blowing those clouds away.

Talking about his school as a “chaotic collaboration” of students celebrating one another, and of each contributing to a greater mosaic of school culture was a reminder of what school can be.

photo-1-8His feelings of belonging, and of creating culture, are something parents, educators, and students themselves want for our kids. We know that at its best, school can be a haven, a place of inspiration, and a grand opportunity to belong and make a difference.

As a school we can’t eliminate the very human cruelty that sometimes infects us all. We can’t make every teenager, or every adult, embrace the better angels of our nature, or always choose the kind word. We are human, all of us, and we stumble sometimes in our interactions with others. At best we can look at these times as opportunities to show ourselves and each other the other very human possibility of forgiveness.

But as a school we can do much to nurture the attributes Isaac mentioned in his talk. We can build in opportunities for our students to tell their own stories, celebrate the people who make up our school, and make it easy to give thanks often and publicly. Schools, busy and bustling, can open their arms to all by choosing to make connecting with each other a priority.

This can happen through big events, like Exhibition Day, or the more subtle instances of kindness that we weave into every day at our schools.

Creating a place where students feel they belong isn’t easy, the important things in life often aren’t, but it is both possible and worth the effort.

That effort is most effective when it involves many, and many different perspectives. As Isaac described in his TEDx Talk, having a student government that wasn’t made up only of extroverts and “typical ASB students,” but involved artists and writers, introverts and dreamers, made it possible for the school to be more welcoming to all.

photo 2But welcoming doesn’t mean glossing over troubles. Isaac mentions being a peer counselor in his last years of high school. As a Peer Active Listener (PAL), he listened to a student who was excluded and bullied, and who considered taking her own life. Describing her loneliness, so common and so profound in our students today, Isaac came to the realization that not only do we all need community, we all need to feel heard and to belong.

Having seen that PALs program he describes, I can attest to the power of students helping students. PALs provided a safe place for students to be heard, and a sensitive ear for anyone going through the challenges of young adulthood. In addition, the students who served as PALs worked closely with adult counselors, and more than once I saw stories, like the one Isaac tells in his TEDx Talk, that were literally life saving. This was a way the school as an institution could support the individuals who made up the student body.

Even if a school doesn’t have a PALs program, students can and should be encouraged to listen to each other, seek help from caring adults, and be aware of the importance of inviting others in.

IMG_6196Understanding the profound need all of us have for belonging can inform the choices we make person by person, classroom by classroom, school by school to welcome each member of our community to participate in making the culture of our school.

I come back to Isaac’s words about community, and join him in imagining “a place where eccentricity is encouraged, where struggles are acknowledged, and people are supported.”

This doesn’t happen by accident or without thoughtful attention to the needs of our kids. As Isaac suggests, “maybe we are the answer to the prayers” of those most in need. Us. Each of us.

I encourage us all to be aware. To imagine the community we want to create, take actions every day to make that community real, and go the extra step to invite in those around us who may feel lost or alone, stressed out or unsure if they can be a piece in that mosaic. They can, and our community will be more beautiful because of them, and us, together.

Advertisements

Problems of Practice

It’s not an easy job. No one said it would be. For those of us in public school administration, however, the job is one worth doing and worth doing well.

This is my twenty-fifth year in education, about half of those as an assistant principal and then principal, and while the overwhelming majority of the work is positive, connecting with kids, getting to know families, and supporting caring teachers, there is a stressful side too (I suppose there is in any meaningful work) and I couldn’t have stayed at it -through the tears, raised voices, tension, and stress- if I hadn’t worked with supportive people and honestly believed that I had the possibility of making a difference.

Being a site administrator means being a good steward of the school, a supporter of the staff and students, and a person willing to have the difficult conversations to help the school function best.

Those are often conversations held solo, one at a time, door closed, emotions high. When they end, however they end, principals and assistant principals are left to take a deep breath and get about the business of whatever comes next.

Sometimes, in those most fortunate and often rare times, there’s a colleague able to escape the rush of obligations that define our worlds and listen for a bit. Principals and assistant principals who have been in the business know the value of these kindred spirits and recognize the challenges of making time to support one another.

Screen Shot 2018-10-24 at 12.14.09 PM

It’s this reality that makes me most appreciate a commitment the administrators in my district are making this year to build time for us to pause from our daily work long enough to share some “problems of practice.”

At our monthly principals meetings we take time midway through the morning to break into groups and talk. One of us poses a question, a real one, that is weighing on our mind. The issues might be school culture related, about safety, or about academics. The common denominator is that as a principal we don’t have the answer. Not yet, anyway.

There’s a structure to our discussion, based on the consultancy protocol developed by the School Reform Initiative. It’s a thorough process that involves a group of half a dozen administrators.

One of us takes about ten minutes to introduce a dilemma we’re struggling with, asking a question to the rest of the group to help focus the conversation to come. For another five minutes the group asks clarifying questions, doing their best to understand nuances of the problem at hand. As administrators we want information before we make decisions, and this back and forth provides it.

We then shift to probing questions, hoping to prompt the original questioner to think about the issue in a new way. Next, the process shifts into a curious conversation between the group during which the original questioner is an observer, taking notes, but not participating in the discussion. Having been both a participant and an presenter this year, I can say that it’s a part of the process that is transformative. To hear peers puzzling through the issue, the same issue vexing one of us in real time, is powerful and can lead to real insights. The process ends with a reporting out, the presenter reflecting aloud insights and appreciation. In the course of an hour or so real movement can take place.

But even more than technique, this time we spend leaning in and listening, being vulnerable (and truly so) with each other, and focusing our attention (attention so often fragmented by diverse demands and unexpected stresses), focusing our attention on helping each other, this time is important because it reminds us that we are not alone. We are more than bureaucracy and we are facing problems that may just have a solution, even if we haven’t been able to see it on our own.

Getting to those solutions alone can seem impossible. I suppose sometimes it might be. But in the company of colleagues, the stress of our meaningful work feels more likely to form a diamond than remain a lump of coal.

It’s not an easy job, but with the perspective, encouragement, and support of others, it’s a job we may yet do well.

Bird is the Word: Three Stories

I’m sometimes asked what it’s like to be the principal of an art school. With just over 700 students grades six through twelve, an unusual age spread, focused on visual and performing arts, my school is proudly quirky, unapologetically iconoclastic, and as wildly creative as it is kind. Our staff shirts this year are tie dye. But that doesn’t quite catch all of who we are.

IMG_6890So I offer three snapshots of our school spirit, tiles in the mosaic of Arts & Communication Magnet Academy. Hardly comprehensive, these examples from a busy August simply show a sample of who we are, or aspire to be.

ACMA has long had a tradition of silly yearbooks photos. It could be argued that these have always been a part of our school; look back at the first yearbook and you’ll see Faye Dunaway, Groucho Marx, and Obi Wan Kenobi alongside the students. By 1994-1995 students had begun to add props to their yearbook photos, hats, guitars, and stuffed animals. Fast forward to the early 2000s and the staff are in on the goofiness.

Last year saw a puppy make his way into a yearbook photo. Some students came with masks, hats, and one in a banana suit. For kids new to ACMA silly yearbook photos, the final station of our registration day, are an introduction into the playful spirit of our school. They get their official ID picture, formal, with a smile, and then are invited to have fun. Work, then play. For returning students this is an opportunity to plan ahead and express themselves in a way that is “so very ACMA.”

So this year, as I was walking through the blue box theater where they were taking photos, I heard a snippet of dialogue that I’m not sure would ever be uttered anywhere other than our little school. Bending over the display screen, the photographer and a student were reviewing a proof and the photographer said: “You look fabulous in this first photo, but the bird is looking away.”

IMG_8129

So very ACMA.

The next week our teachers returned to campus, and in the midst of staff meetings and preparing for back to school night, new student day, and the first day of school, a group of about a dozen of my performing arts teachers gathered in the library to talk about a big idea. Our PTO had suggested that in lieu of an auction, this year we might entertain the notion of a celebration of the arts, a Cabaret Night that would see performances from across the creative continuum, an evening where parents, patrons, and families could come and enjoy what ACMA is all about. It was a kernel of possibility that these teachers decided to embrace.

Talk ranged from how we could select the best of the best performances for the night, integrate new work, and invite talented student performers to show off the art that matters so much to them. It was what I expected the conversation might look like, talented artists chatting about showcasing student work. And then…

Then something shifted. One teacher brought up and idea about how we might fill the foyer with visual art, integrating photography, animation, and spoken word into the event. Another suggested a plan for providing multiple performance venues. A third asked about using the main building for some part of the night, making part of Cabaret Night a farewell to the CE Mason building that has served as home to students for almost 70 years. Ideas exploded all around the table. Dinner? Dessert? MCs? What about alumni?

Conversations blossomed about former students and what they were doing in the world of art and performance. Would any be interested in performing with our students? The possibilities…

One night turned into two. How could we invite more families to come to experience our art? What kind of projects could we collaborate on between departments: film, dance, music… if we projected photography and had our jazz band… how about some poetry paired with… would the choir want to… could we get sculpture students and the orchestra to…

I left dizzy with the possibilities. I’d seen each of these teachers individually preparing and producing opportunities for students to shine, and I’d seen a few collaborate with other departments, but in a passionate hour on the week before school began I witnessed the sheer power of art and imagination, in service to students, on a level that is hard to capture in words.

IMG_7358I know that this spring the fruits of that conversation and the hard work that will follow this genesis of ideas will be marvelous (mark your calendars for May 17th and 18th), and as inspiring was to be a fly on the wall while these amazing artists and educators talked about taking chances, supporting students, and embracing the challenge of creativity on an epic scale.

On a more modest, but no less inspiring scale, a student came up to me at Back to School Night almost in tears. She’d lost $40 in the course of picking up her schedule (and ice cream cone from our PTO for our annual ice cream social) and asked if anyone had turned it in. They hadn’t, and it broke my heart to tell her so. She left, retracing her steps back to Fred Meyer where she’d been before walking to campus.

My mingling during the ice cream social brought me to the family of an incoming sixth grader, who shook my hand, remembering my name from our registration day, and let me know that he and his mom had found $40 that he wanted to hand in to lost and found. “They might really need it,” he said. I knew he was right.

So I asked the student if he wanted to be the one to give the money back to the student who’d lost it, and he smilingly agreed. We walked into the building in search of the upperclassmen who had lost the $40. We found her friend, who called her at the store. Then the friend turned to the 6th grader and handed him the phone. He introduced himself, listened, and smiled. Handing the phone back, he looked at me and said: “She wants to give me a hug!”

The creativity of birds, the passion of artists, and the kindness of family, these are who we are at Arts & Communication Magnet Academy …wrapped in a tie dye t-shirt.

Price Tag

I once had a teacher I respect come up to me after a staff meeting and give me a number. He’d spent a chunk of his time in his seat not paying attention to what was being presented, but rather doing some math. He’d looked around the room, counted out how many teachers and staff were there, calculated hourly wages, looked at the clock, and figured a total cost for the meeting. It was staggering. “That’s how much this staff meeting cost,” he told me. “Was it worth that?”

Now I’ve never been one for long meetings, or standing up in front of a group reading through information that could be as easily distributed in an email or memo, but it was this amazing educator’s decision to put the “value” of meeting in black and white that has stuck with me for now almost a decade. As I prep meetings, particularly those that start the school year, his question echoes in my mind “Was it worth that?”

IMG_8282

What this means on the ground is more than just shorter meetings. Yes, I limit my welcome back days to mornings only, sticking firm to the commitment to get my teachers into their classrooms before lunch, but in addition I do my best to be mindful of how we spend those mornings together.

IMG_7115

We laugh.
We listen to kids.
We connect.
We discuss.
We play.
We try to come to consensus on the issues that impact our work.

…and when we have those mandated moments (of blood-borne pathogen training and such) we do our best to remember Shakespeare’s line: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

IMG_8275Sure there are times when a presentation is necessary, and I’ve found that teachers are most kind when it’s other teachers who are giving those presentations. It’s also important that we allow time enough to breathe around the information we get, so the discussions we have can really matter.

As a principal I’m not perfect in any of this; just ask my teachers, they’d tell you. But I do try hard to respect their time, and our time together. I know how much it costs.

After the meetings I walk. I do my best to lean into classrooms and chat. I’m reminded of that line from Henry V, when before the battle of Agincourt the king walks amongst his soldiers:

For forth he goes and visits all his host.
Bids them good morrow with a modest smile
And calls them brothers, friends and countrymen.
Upon his royal face there is no note
How dread an army hath enrounded him;

But freshly looks and over-bears attaint
With cheerful semblance and sweet majesty;
That every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks:
A largess universal like the sun
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all,
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.

I’m no King Henry, but I do try to echo his optimism and modest smile. And if I were a betting man, I’d wager that my teachers work as hard, are more engaged, and get more done than any did when I was a part of marathon meetings.

The price tag for our time together is high, and that doesn’t mean that we ought not meet, it just means that those meetings ought to be worth it.

“That was fun!”

IMG_7267Last spring heard the satisfying crash of the pins as they flew in ten directions and bowling balls thumped hard into the table at the end of the hall, followed by wild applause.

An afternoon meeting over, my staff was bowling in the hallway between the art studios and the math classrooms, a beautiful benefit of working in a building that will be torn down in just a few months. We weren’t really causing any damage, but from the laughter and applause that filled the hallway, you’d think we were having a party. Putting away the tables at the end of the afternoon, one of my veteran teachers looked at me and said: “That was fun!”

I work at a school where the staff makes a point to have fun. We work hard, certainly, care deeply, and are passionate about the teaching and learning that happens every day, and… while we take our work seriously, I’m proud to say that we don’t always take ourselves seriously.

In a world of no nonsense, we are very much some nonsense.

What this willingness to play means is that as stressful as our jobs can be, and as educators that stress is very, very real and rooted in the importance of what we do, we support each other and ourselves with laughter.

There’s a rumor that it’s the best medicine.

And what do we need medicine for? The act of teaching is by its nature exhausting. The best teachers don’t only teach English or math or science, they teach kids English and math and science. That means buckets of energy being poured into class period after class period, hours spent with young people who bring their own complicated lives to school, hungry to connect and ready to take on the world.

Add to that constant pulls on our time, demands from the site, the state, and the district, and budget concerns so regular that they aren’t a storm to be weathered, but the wet pavement on which we always drive.

Yet these challenges, as real as they are, are all stresses that we share. As much as any teacher might feel alone in her classroom, at a certain point a bell will ring and the kids will leave, and -if all goes right- that teacher might stumble out after the students and find kindred spirits, people who can support, listen, and maybe even laugh.

In his book Play, Stuart Brown offers this assessment: “Play, but its very nature, is a little anarchic. It is about stepping outside normal life and breaking normal patterns. It is about bending rules of thought, action, and behavior.”

Bowling.

In the hallway.

This ability to finish a hard, emotional, and important day of work and still have the desire to connect and have fun is a healthy example of a staff who care for one another and are willing to support each other through the tough times as well as the fun ones.

I believe that as a staff can see this perspective of togetherness and shared community the benefits are passed on to students. Even better are the times that students and staff have a chance to play together.

Last school year this sense of fun began at our first pre-service day when a group of students led the staff through some theater games designed to get us to see school through teenage eyes, play, and think about how we might embrace the improv inspired notion of always saying “Yes, and…

pastedImageThroughout the year staff made a point to continue to sprinkle play into our work together: a Rock-Paper-Scissors competition, firing marshmallows down the hallway, and synchronized swimming without water.

This year I hope that continues, spreading smiles through our faculty as well as our students.

A friend from long ago once gave me a present when I left the school where he and I both worked: a wooden lamp, with a sign that reads “Work like a captain. Play like a pirate.”

Wise, whimsical words.

Because learning, working, and living each involve hard work to be done right, and all of those noble pursuits benefit if from time to time they’re punctuated with the phrase: “That was fun.”

The Opposite of Athena

“It is not enough to have a classroom free of psychological and social threats. The brain needs to be part of a caring social community to maximize its sense of well being. Marginalized students need to feel affirmed and included as valued members of a learning community.”     -Zaretta Hammond

At the end of last school year a series of conversations with some great teachers and students got me thinking more about the cultural backgrounds our students bring with them to school and how welcoming and affirming, or not, we are to those stories. I’m proud of the kind and supportive atmosphere that helps to define our school. Coupled with wild creativity, a comfort expressing ourselves, and an atmosphere that celebrates the individuals who make up our school community, ours is a school where to be a little different is just fine.

athena vaseHere at ACMA we work hard to create culture, a lofty and important pursuit, and as we do we would be wise to also consider the diverse and meaningful cultures our students, and staff as well, bring with them to our campus. None of us are, like Athena from Greek mythology, sprung fully formed from the brow of a god; we come to school carrying within us the long and rich histories of our families.

Some of that history makes us strong, some of that history gives us doubt, and all of that history helps to define who we are at the start of our individual journey. Can we transcend our families and heritages? Sure. Are we even richer if we can integrate those into who we are? I think so.

In her book Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain, Zaretta Hammond encourages educators to reflect mindfully on their own cultural baggage, challenging us to know ourselves. “You can never take yourself out of the equation,” she writes. Instead, you must commit to the journey. This means we each must do the ‘inside out’ work required: developing the right mindset, engaging in self-reflection, checking our implicit biases, practicing social-emotional awareness, and holding an inquiry stance regarding the impact of our interactions on students.”

Hammond-coverHammond often returns to the focus on paying attention to ourselves and our students. Recognizing that culture is how we (and our kids) make sense of the world underscores the importance of making room for all voices.

It was this spirit of listening to each others’ stories and reflecting on our own that prompted a “Culture Bag” activity at our leadership summit last week. Before the meeting we were given the instructions: “Please bring three items which represent who you are (i.e. your culture) that you wouldn’t mind sharing with others. Your culture is a matter of perspective and can be specifically tied to your interests, your experiences, your family, etc. We will use this time to learn a little more about each other.”

I’m usually dubious about activities designed to push me into connecting. I hate any artificial notion of getting to know you, but…

Before we began sharing, our superintendent stood up and modeled what we would be doing. He shared his story, and his artifacts (a photograph of his siblings, a hammer from his days working in a plywood mill, and his diploma from college), pulling back the curtain on his life and becoming very, very human. That he was so willing to be so vulnerable set the tone for something special.

So when I found myself at a table with three other administrators we all embraced the invitation to share a bit of ourselves. We laughed, winced at some of the tough stuff that has made us who we are, and ended after about fifteen minutes with a better understanding of what guides our work with students. I knew then that it was something I wanted to do with my staff.

For the adults who fill my school, gifted and caring professionals who bring so much to their jobs, I hope this kind of sharing can help us all to know each other, understand each other, and think about the rich stories we all bring to our school. I’m hopeful too that it’s a spirit that we’ll all bring to our opening days with the students.

I’ll save my own stories for our first staff meeting next week, though for any staff member peeking at this little post, I’ll share this photo without explanation.

IMG_8111

Throughout the year I want to provide my students, my staff, and my school chances to celebrate our culture and our cultures, ourselves and our stories, and to see one another as honest, real, and very, very human.

Infectious Exuberance

This morning a group of students filled my office with their positive energy and vision for the year ahead. My first summer meeting with the elected officers is always a treat and this year it provided a jolt of excitement ahead of the run up to the start of school.

IMG_7961

For a couple of weeks I’ve been at my desk planning the opening days when teachers return, fine tuning the master calendar, and thinking about the first week with students. All of those plans, which look good on my computer screen, but feel a world away from the action that will arrive with students, paused as I listened to these fantastic student leaders talk me through the series of events, the schemes to support school spirit, and the vision for a fantastic ACMA that they’ve been working on all summer.

Like me, they’ve been planning, and as they gave voice to those plans it was inspiring to hear the passion behind their ideas and the dedication to bringing those ideas into action.

2018-2019 will see events focused on helping students tell their stories, make connections to the school and each other, and show pride in who they are and this special school we call home.

I’ll let the students introduce their plans themselves, but as I wrote notes on my calendar during our meeting I kept thinking: these students have a plan and the power to make our school a better place every month!

I was particularly happy to hear the students talking about opportunities for our sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students to share artwork, participate in events on campus, and contribute to the positive atmosphere of our school. I loved the focus on community, the celebration of all art forms, and the importance of play.

The students also talked about smart choices to best get information to students and share a window into our world with the broader community. Heck, this meeting made me consider getting on Instagram to be sure not to miss out on some of the fun.

With less than a month before teachers return to campus, spending the morning with students energized me more than anything else I’m likely to do this summer. Those same students will be the first voices my teachers hear when they come back this fall; they’ve agreed to lead our staff through a couple of activities designed to reinforce the importance of human connections between students and staff. I have no doubt that the staff will find them as inspiring as I did today.

As July turns into August it’s time to shift gears from the more relaxed pace of summer to the growing excitement of the start of school. There is no better time on campus than those sunny days of early fall, and I’m over the moon excited to be sharing this journey with such amazing students!