Summer Salmagundi

This is a strange summer. The sky is blue, the sun is hot, and the flowers need watering before another warm day, but this June and July feel different from every other summer I’ve experienced as a principal. 

The pandemic, of course, has changed things; taking the kids out for a boba tea or a matinee on a hot afternoon isn’t part of the equation, masks are hotter to wear in June than they were in April, and there’s always that thought lurking in the back of my mind that I neither want to get sick, nor pass anything on to my elderly parents. What’s the right line to walk between avoiding COVID-19 and still supporting the mental health of our kids and our families? How much is too much? How much is not enough? Is there any answer to any of those questions, any right answer anyway?

Our country’s newfound widespread acknowledgement of racial inequity is another force that has altered the tenor of the times. Difficult and important conversations are taking place all over the US (and beyond) and thinking about what these discussions might look like when students return to school in the fall is on my mind and the minds of school administrators everywhere. So too is the soul searching of white educators like me, the purposeful reflection about how to be a part of the solution, and thinking about what concrete steps we can take at our schools to promote a community that is anti-racist, values students who are LGBTQ+, and embraces as its identity the diversity of our many members.

But what it means to “return to school in the fall” is an unknown as well, and a part of this strange summer is preparing for an opening of school that is as yet undefined. We know that things will be different, but whether we’ll be on campus together for part of the week, have to transform to all remote learning, or some kind of ebbing and flowing between the two models has many of us doing our best to mold a system that can be flexible as it supports students, teachers, and families. We learned lessons from the spring of 2020, and know we need to make the fall (and winter?) of 2020 better for everyone. How? We’re working on it, step by step by step by step.

And those many steps, as well as an ongoing march toward some kind of senior celebration in August, and the usual planning that (in different budget circumstances) would have taken place in April and May are replacing the summer hikes and walks on the beach that usually fill late June and July. With furloughs dictating that employees like me who work year round can’t take vacation days during July, I wonder what the fall will feel like without that opportunity to step away and unplug that usually happens on camping trips or out of state visits to family or friends. We’ll see in August, I suppose, but the tether to work has further blurred the line between what I was doing in April and what I’ll be doing in July. Believe me, I’m thankful for a job I love, but more than 25 years into this career I never underestimate the value of some time away.

IMG_5684So…

I took the kids crabbing on Nehalum Bay. We barbecued corn and shrimp and some veggie burgers with my folks. A handful of paperbacks found their way off my shelf, silly books to entertain. My son and I watched the Back to the Future trilogy. Drive through ice cream cones have become familiar. Our family is figuring out day trips to natural areas where we can avoid crowds and be active. We’re doing our best.

Because the importance of that “time away” (in whatever incarnation it takes) is important for educators and for students, and while a coronavirus imposed separation makes the notion of summer vacation feel different than it has, the importance of finding ways to renew remains unchanged.

We’d all like to be back around each other: students, colleagues, the marvelous energy of school. We miss performances, talking in the hallways, and spending time together in class and beyond. Knowing that there are real limits on what we can (safely) do makes that desire to connect in person even sharper, and as much as we look forward to the day we can be together again, it’s just the truth that we don’t know exactly when that will be.

So we watched May turn into June, classes disappear, the days get longer, and summer arrive. The Fourth of July is next week, at least that’s what my calendar tells me (though as I work to plan some kind of senior ceremony for the Class of 2020 it feels unreal to be heading into July). 

We know we need to prepare. We know we need to renew. We know we need to plan and rest and stay connected and step away and be ready to step into another unknown. It’s all a salmagundi of questions, contradictions, and emotions. All will be well, but just how it will be is still up in the air, and any reassuring smile is hidden behind a mask.

This is a strange summer, but it is summer.

Summer, I suppose

It is summer
I suppose
though the rain is falling
hard
outside my window
and the sky is gray
and we had to turn the heat on this morning
after coming back in with a wet dog.

It is summer
I suppose
classes ended on Thursday
of last week
I’m told (though the proof of it
is as unseen as faith)
there were no screams as students
left the building
no lockers left open or papers scattered
just that today the kids won’t log on.

It is summer
I suppose
though we’d like to be at school
seeing friends, at least, or
somewhere other than our houses
where it feels we have been
for so long.

It is summer
I suppose
though no baseball
comes from my radio
the cheering crowd a murmuring
that has never in my half century on the planet
paused
as it has now.

Crowds will return
it will stop raining
students will come back to school
and
sometime
the world will
say in more reassuring tones,
it is summer again.

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Three Sparks of Joy

These past few weeks of sheltering at home I’ve felt the same sort of isolation that so many others have. I’m fortunate to be sequestered with a family I love and pets who keep things interesting. I’m in a neighborhood green with spring and the summer sun seems to be poised to make an appearance after the rainy cool weather than helps grass grow, but even so the reality of not being able to see friends and family, do the normal things (like take my son to the comic book store or eat falafel at our local kabobery) is disconcerting at best. That said, from time to time throughout this quarantine kind messages have found me from friends, art has sparked joy, and the powerful caring of my school’s artistic community has reminded me that hope is always just around the corner.

For anyone needing a bit of a boost today, I want to share three of those instances that brought me a bit of comfort and a smile to my face.

The first came by way of an email bcc’d me by a site administrator at my previous school. He reaches out to the departments he oversees every week (and sometimes shares those emails with me) and his messages of hope are always inspiring. I was pleasantly surprised to be quoted in this recent message, and then knocked off my feet by the video he shared of a poem that I didn’t know.

Good Morning, Folks:

Our former principal Bjorn Paige, himself a former English teacher, used to joke with me at the start of each school year by quoting Where the Wild Things Are. “Let the wild rumpus start!” he would say, as the first bell rang and the school year commenced. I bring this up because this past week, and the changes and challenges we have faced, felt just like that: a wild rumpus. While concerning, time-consuming, and a host of other adjectives, the week is over and the wild rumpus will go silent… at least until next Monday.

I hope this email finds you well… or as well as can be. Again, I turned to poetry this week with a poem I first encountered last night during my normal 2:00 am anxiety attack. I logged on to Twitter to find Andrew Scott, otherwise known as “Hot Priest” reading “Everything is Going To Be Alright” by Irish poet Derek Mahon. I must have listened to him read the poem three or four times and then read it four of five times more before I fell back asleep. I read it again this morning. It is moving. I share it because I share the sentiment. And Andrew Scott’s reading of the poem is fantastic. The text of the poem is below. Everything is going to be all right. I swear.

Everything Is Going to Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
― Derek Mahon, Collected Poems

I miss you all. I hope you are well. I hope you are finding peace. Hang in there– we have just a few weeks left… and then the wild rumpus will go silent. For now.

I am here if you need anything. You will always find it here.

Cheers.”

This is an administrator who cares deeply, is willing to be vulnerable, and has a poetic spirit that can elevate those around him. I didn’t know the Mahon poem until I read his email, but am richer now for having read it, and even more for having Andrew Scott (that marvelous Moriarty) perform it.

Another flavor of performance that I’ve found myself turning to in this time of COVID-19 is music, and I realized when I was driving to the store this week that I’ve had one CD blaring in my car a lot lately: Swagger by the Irish band Flogging Molly. Admittedly, I like my rock and roll a bit more punk than pop, and song after song Swagger feels like the right balm on the wound that is Coronavirus. 

That said, it was a quieter Flogging Molly that I happened upon a few weeks ago, Dave and Bridget, two married members of the band, who are doing fireside sessions, two songs per week, from their home in County Wexford, Ireland.

Intimate, unplugged, and inspiring, these weekly reminders of the power of art have been something to look forward to. To hear a fiddle, pipe, and guitar played by two talented musicians, drinks on the table in front of them, fire in the hearth behind, is a reprieve from a world crazier than any of us could have expected. 

A little closer to home, and maybe a bit less Irish, a couple of weeks ago the staff at my little art school banded together (remotely) to put on a show for our students. Teachers, counselors, and classified staff sent in performances and messages for the kids, and we packaged it all under the title ACORN (Arts & Communication Online Revue Night). Just about every week we’ve tried to do some kind of all school activity, a scavenger hunt (for items in their houses), a Kahoot (about ACMA history and trivia), an open mic night for the students, and it felt right to have the adults in our students’ lives pick up the mic and perform. 

Screen Shot 2020-05-28 at 7.16.39 AMAnd perform they did: a math teacher who has been learning accordion over the quarantine, a science poem, a counselor with a tutorial on how to sew masks, some songs, juggling, photography, and a bit of performance art masquerading as a long story about pink ping pong balls. Along the way the heartfelt messages of love from everyone were reassuring, inspiring, and just what many of our students needed.

One of the happiest surprises during ACORN was a host of incoming students, who have yet to step foot on our campus, who joined us for the live viewing of the show. We know how disconcerting it can feel moving to a new school in the fall, particularly when what that fall will look like is still uncertain, but I like to believe that our playful ACORN gave these new to ACMA students a sense of who we are and some reassurance that coming to a new school will be okay (thanks in no small part to the awesome kindness of some of the comments from established ACMA students in the Zoom chat room). The incoming students even got to see that they’re not alone in their love of Gravity Falls, anime, or cosplay. As one of our juniors said in the chat: “We’re all a little weird here. Welcome!”

Art can spark joy. Homegrown or from Ireland, creativity can and does make a difference. It invites us, in the face of tragedy and stress, to contemplate “the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window / and a high tide reflected on the ceiling,” and even what might happen if we “ever leave this world alive.” Making art makes an even bigger impact, and as we allow our own creativity to be inspired (from an acorn grows an oak tree) we might even find that that joy is already within us.

I’m thankful for artists like Flogging Molly, Andrew Scott, and Derek Mahon, and to my friend Bobby for sharing his inspiration with me. I’m grateful for the creative spirits I get to work with, and to the art and kindness they share with our students, even across the miles during this time of sheltering at home.

At some point we’ll be back on campus preparing for the wild rumpus of school. Until then, inspired by art and by friends, I know in my heart that “everything will be all right.”

Strained

If you’re looking for someone to be mad at the choice of suspects is long, and I have no doubt that I’m on it. If remote learning has you frustrated, angry, sad, you’re not alone. It has lots of us feeling emotions we aren’t used to associating with school, all of us: students, teachers, parents, and even principals.

If you just want to scream, lash out at someone who made a choice that you think was wrong (no, you’re sure was wrong), or someone who sent a message that didn’t carry the right tone, or hold accountable someone on the other side of a computer screen, you will not find it difficult to find a name to put in the “To:” line of your email. These are frustrating times, and sometimes it feels like it should help if there is a person whose feet might get held to the proverbial fire. We see it all around us these days. So many of us are strained.

And before we type that email, assign that blame, or choose rigidity over kindness (and all are things that all of us are sometimes tempted to do) I’d encourage us to take a moment and think that…

Teachers are people. People doing their best to balance home and work, work being something that all of them know has the possibility of changing lives, work that involves kids we care so much about, and work that all of us feel obligated to do well. Really well. And for all of our professional lives those of us in education have been given a specific set of guidelines about what doing that job well entails.

Doing our job well means that when kids leave our classrooms they are prepared for what comes next, the next grade, the next level of math, the next English class that builds on the fact that students have already learned “x, y, and z.” This year we’re struggling to get halfway through “y.” 

And this kills us. One teacher I admire told me that he was struggling with the grading approach he was being told by the state to practice. “My classroom integrity and the faith I have in the system is really shaken when I’m asked to lie about what a student can and can’t do,” he told me. “It makes my work even more difficult to stand behind and do on a daily basis.” How will that student who leaves his class cope with the next class that she won’t be prepared for, and how can he hold on to the integrity that helps to define him if the “P” (for passing) at the end of the year doesn’t accurately reflect what happened in his (virtual) classroom? This isn’t a silly or frivolous question; we want teachers with integrity, and the strain he’s feeling from the situation is real. 

Another gifted teacher called a passing mark at the end of June “a governor’s P” (as opposed to “a gentleman’s C”). It was his way of processing what was being asked of him, imperfect, but true.

For many teachers, who work so hard and in this time away from campus are working as hard as ever, the tension caused by lack of student engagement, frustration with technology, and the chorus of concerns raised daily from all sides can feel overwhelming. Some see them as heroes; some call out every decision they make as the wrong one. They continue to work to help kids learn, but with every week that job feels harder. Students aren’t always engaging as we wish they could, some are struggling, and…

…and it’s important to remember that students are people. Midway through our discussions about how to best support our kids in this remote learning situation my staff had a discussion about the challenges our students were reporting to us and the fact that we all might benefit from taking a deep breath and thinking about the kids as “people, not pupils.” 

We batted around ideas for a coordinated response to some of the things our students had been telling us, things like: 

“This is a very stressful time for students and even though it may seem like we have more time to do work, it doesn’t mean we can necessarily. Anxiety and depression have gotten worse since the start of online school. Some students just feel like they are always behind and can never catch up. … The biggest concerns seem to be being behind next school year and failing classes as well as teachers assigning too much work, procrastination and pressure from parents.”

“Students have been dealing with stress by crying, breaking things, cutting or just not dealing with their stress and those are not healthy ways to deal with stress.”

“Some of us students are now facing food insecurity, abuse at home, a loss of support staff, and financial instability at a higher rate than ever before. I personally have A.D.D, and would not have been able to even begin to cope with the amount of work we are being given if I hadn’t had parents who were able to set up a complex system to help me. Many students do not have parents who either a) understand the issues their kids are facing or b) know how to help their children cope with online learning.”

These were very real student voices, strained by circumstances beyond what they were prepared for. Exactly zero of them had signed up for online school at the start of the year, the same number of teachers who had signed up to teach completely online. The stresses they were feeling were profound, immediate, and heart wrenching. They didn’t know what to do, and they were looking to the adults in their lives to help. And… 

…and we adults are stressed out too, particularly some of the moms and dads, aunts and uncles, grandparents and older siblings who are raising our kids. It’s easy for students to feel grumpy that their parents are forcing them to sit down and do schoolwork, and it’s easy for teachers to feel frustrated at some of the emails they get that question their teaching ability, dedication to the students, and (at least in one case I know of) even their parenting. That’s not fair, but…

Parents are people. And parents are people who are feeling as much strain as the teachers and kids. As one mom told me: “Sometimes I look at this situation and think to myself, ‘this is insane!’ It feels a tad impractical for my eleven year old to navigate seven classes remotely, all the while missing strong connections with her peers (which, arguably, peer-to-peer aids in the navigation of middle school). To state what you already know, it’s completely upside down. I’ve written to all of my daughter’s teachers to let them know she is struggling, and to get a grasp on what’s past due and what’s coming up. Since she’s behind in most of her classes, I’ve devised a plan to help her get caught up, but again, school work is met with negative emotions, the tears, the stress, the overwhelming feeling she can’t shake. For my family, the next 5 weeks looks like a mountain.”

Lots of parents feel the same. We want our kids to learn, we want our kids to engage with school (and with peers and with teachers). We see the stress in their eyes and just want to help …and want others to help.

There’s a line in Shakespeare that comes to mind when all of these stresses tempt us to lash out. It’s from The Merchant of Venice, a complicated play that knows its way around anger, bitterness, and societal stress. Midway through Act IV one character tells another (who is steeped in anger and embroiled in a lawsuit): “The quality of mercy is not strained.”

For context, the line is delivered to encourage the character to show mercy not because he is compelled to by law, but because it is the right, the kind, thing to do. Showing mercy, she tells him, not only blesses the person receiving mercy, but blesses him as well. The lines go like this:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”

In this modern age it isn’t only monarchs who get to have an opinion; we all have the power to speak our minds. But if I read Shakespeare correctly, it’s not in the vehemence of our opinions that we show our best true selves. Our criticisms, our angry words, our stated frustrations, and our calls for justice may all have merit, but it is when we allow “mercy to season justice” that we bring ease to our strain (and maybe the strain of those around us).

For anyone thinking that we don’t need Shakespeare for this, I’ll shift gears and offer a little mid-80’s pop to bring the point home.

Thanks, Depeche Mode. 

People are people.” All of us. We’re stressed out. We’re frustrated that we aren’t able to help in the way we’d like, that we aren’t able to do everything we wish we could do. But maybe what we’re able to do is simply what we’re able to do. Our best. Maybe we can show kindness to one another, recognizing that our current circumstances feel overwhelming …for all of us.

So I encourage all of us to pause, breathe, and allow ourselves to accept that while people make mistakes and can be easy to be mad at, one of the most human things we can do is show each other mercy.

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That Learning Thing

Grades. They’re mostly gone right now, at least as they refer to the COVID-19 impacted spring semester. That’s a thing. Some would say a good thing. Some would say a bad thing. It’s a thing.

And as those grades disappear, I’m reminded of that line by B.B. King: “The beautiful thing about learning is that nobody can take it away from you.” The world around us has taken grades away; that leaves us with …learning. That’s a thing too. I’d argue a good thing.

Because learning is the reason we do this thing called school, or at least it should be. 

I’ll leave the history of school marks to someone more qualified, and simply acknowledge here that our system of grading isn’t the only way people have taught and learned over history. And right now, in these few weeks that compose the end of the 2019-2020 school year, the pandemic we face has changed the way education does business.

The guidance we schools got from the state suggests that as we move from March to June the rules of the road are that we lose the letter grades and move to a system of “Pass” and “Incomplete.” As a group of us principals summarized in a letter to parents:

Grading expectations for 9th-11th graders for the Spring 2020 semester:

  • For second semester, grades for 9-11th grade students will be Pass (P) or Incomplete (I).
  • Students will earn a Pass (P) if they earn a D- or higher.
  • Students will earn an incomplete (I) if they earn an F mark.
  • Students with Incompletes have until they graduate to demonstrate proficiency to change the Spring Semester Incomplete grades to Pass grades.
  • A Pass grade for Spring Semester 2020 earns .5 Credit.

Other Important Information for members of the Class of 2021

  • No further state testing is required for the Class of 2021
  • All Essential Skills and Personalized Learning Requirements for the Class of 2021 are suspended as many students will not have the opportunity to participate in the statewide English Language Arts and Mathematics assessments necessary to meet Essential Skills requirements.
  • Juniors will be awarded the full career education credit.
  • Most colleges and universities have adopted COVID-19 guidelines related to the Spring 2020 semester. Students and families concerned about the impact that their Spring 2020 grades will have on their future college options should contact the admissions office of the college or university they plan on attending.  

What does it all really mean?

I think it means that we’re wise to focus on learning, not grading, not fretting over the difference between an A and a B, not worrying that a particular assignment is late or that we’ve done something wrong that will torpedo our grade. Learning.

This doesn’t mean no feedback or guidance from teachers to students, but it could mean that the conversations look different.

I mentioned to students in a video I sent home (filmed in front of a green screen so I could be sitting in Dumbledore’s study) that students didn’t come to Hogwarts just to get grades; they came to learn magic. It’s a little like that at our school too. Students come to ACMA to learn art, dance, and how to weave words magically. They come to learn the science and history they need, and they will need some; learn history, so they are not doomed to repeat it; and learn about what it means to participate in a crazy-creative learning community.

Much of that, looking back to B.B. King’s remark, hasn’t been taken away. We lost the physical building for a spell, but the teachers are still teaching, the students are still connecting, and while we miss seeing each other in person, this is a strange, relatively short time where we may just have some opportunities we wouldn’t have before.

Another jazz musician, Miles Davis, told us “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.” It’s a quotation that guided me in my early days as a teacher. Philosopher of (among other things) education John Dewey would disagree, but not in the way some would think. He wrote “Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.” Grades, particularly the letter grades that bruise spirits and stunt summative marks, don’t always support Dewey, and almost never support Davis. Those grades, at least right now, are gone.

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And with those grades absent, what is left for students (and educators too)? Learning. Learning to adapt. Learning to engage. Learning for the sake of learning. I don’t think that’s too idealistic; I think many of us, students and teachers alike, are hungry to gather together (in whatever way social distancing rules make that look) and learn.

To do that means staying connected and engaging in what’s happening in classes. It means not turning our back on our school communities, but renewing our commitments to making those learning communities strong. We are called on in these strange times to be kind, to be patient, to see the best in one another, and to, as Dewey says, “really think,” learning from our failures, our successes, and most importantly each other. That’s a thing.

The Times

IMG_4129These are weird times. Stuck at home, but with company I love (thank heavens); struggling as a principal to help my school keep its center, even as we’re all “doing school” from a few hundred different kitchen tables; and unsure as I squint into the future to see just what might be coming next …except, of course, taking the dog for another walk, a dog who seems quite happy with this COVID-19 nonsense keeping the humans at home thank you very much. Weird times.

A friend of mine, a classical guitarist, sent me his “Coronavirus Isolation 2020 Playlist.” “Remember,” he told me, that “some will perplex you. It’s filled with chaos and balance. Some will make sense, some will make you go “what the hell?” There is no guitar music. That one is coming soon.  And it will not hurt my feelings if you do not care for most of it. These were handpicked.”

IMG_4459“Chaos and balance.” There’s something that rings true there, and the mix was as eclectic as I thought it might be, The Kinks nestled in next to Johnny Cash, Mozart, Tom Waits, Bob Marley, and Death Cab for Cutie, this was a musical landscape as confusing as the times suggest. The Smiths, then David Bowie, Pink Floyd, and Nine Inch Nails. Perplexing, but in a way so much better than the perplexing world around us right now. Weird times.

But truth be told, “Isolation 2020” is not my soundtrack to this sheltering at home. For me right now the music is live, my fifteen year old and his acoustic guitar. He’s pretty good, and getting better each day; lots of time inside means time to practice. And not one day of this time at home has gone by when I haven’t heard his voice singing Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’Changin’.”

Yes, they are.

And feeling that change, which impacts all of us, makes me wonder what the kids will take out of this. As an adult going through the social distancing of COVID-19 I can see a few things that I will do differently when this is all over and much that I won’t take for granted again. But, as both a principal and a dad, I can’t get out of my head my concern for the impact this is having on the younger crowd.

IMG_4462I was a kid in the 1970s, which left me with a healthy fear of nuclear war, a musical taste shaped by The Clash, and the fundamental knowledge that Han shot first. The experience that these kids are living through, the enormous and close to home reality of school closures, and the uncertainty of a world around them filled with adults who right now don’t know exactly how this will end …how is all that hitting the kids?

We won’t know the answer right away, of course, but as we navigate these weird times, it’s important to remember that the kids around us, both in our own home and those educators like me interact with remotely, are looking at us and how we respond to the stress we’re all facing.

We might be filled with chaos and balance, we might want to turn up the volume on R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as we Know it” (and that’s just fine to do), we might look around and wonder what’s next. And as we do, I’d encourage us all to also reach out to some of the younger crowd we know and be a reassuring adult. I think they need that right now.

Right now, as the events of the world become the formative influences on the youth of today, as some feed on the fear they see in the eyes of those they see, some find strength in themselves, and some aren’t sure what to do next as they hear Dylan’s call to:

…admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone”

Thirty years from now, when the “kids today” are the adults in charge, these weird days will have played a part in forming who they are at their core. How important then that those of us who have a chance to support them do just that. We’ll get through this, whatever our soundtracks, and we’ll get through this best if we do so together. What it will look like on the other side, that’s a story for a future day.

Right now, the times, they are a’changin’.

An Opportunity of Biblical Proportion

Today I got the best compliment from a teacher that I’ve had in a long while. A family emergency is forcing this English teacher to miss a few days and as he was clearing the absences through our main office and preparing for a sub he said to my secretary: “I am, as you well know, very wary about handing the better part of an entire week of my classes over to anybody–particularly my new class–The Bible in Literature. My best option would be for Bjorn to teach it, though I doubt his schedule would permit it.”

There is no way in (Biblical) hell I will miss covering for that teacher.

I taught English for more than a dozen years, and I loved the daily give and take of discussion, the igniting of ideas, and the joy of experiencing great literature (and some not so great) with students. There is magic in a student reading Hamlet for the first time, or A Room of One’s Own, or Oedipus (like the amazing student who stopped me after the class period where Tiresias made his prophecy and said earnestly “well, at least next class we’ll find out that isn’t true”).

Spartans

I never taught Bible in Lit, and I know the minefield it could prove to be, but I also know the capable hands of the gifted teacher who is at the helm, so my only hesitation is the universal (and nagging) teacher question: Can I do it well?

We’ll find out soon. 

I’ve stepped in to this teacher’s English classes before, teaching Cavafy not long ago and joining in with a bunch of poets just before Halloween, so I think I appreciate his confidence in me even more.

His call to action fills me with a sense of expectation, some healthy butterflies in my stomach, and the commitment to live up to his kind, kind belief in me.

There’s a lesson there for all of us in education, I suppose. I’m so fortunate to have the opportunities I do.

January

Snow days
in Oregon are
aspirational, more often than not
meteorologists promising
just enough
to raise the hopes of every student
and teacher
to heights as unrealistic
as a legitimate January snow.

Sometimes,
sometimes
it happens
(not every year, but…)
once in a grade school lifetime
once again in middle school
maybe
and in high school
at least a late start or two.

Instead, we go to school
frozen mornings
crisp afternoons
every eye looking out
classroom windows
for the whisper of snow
that will not stick
not today
not during math class
or English or history
but might tonight

because sometimes…

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Watching Snow Fall with Chinese Dancers

A notable moment came when the kids were just talking. A group of ACMA 6th graders were sitting in the commons with thirty-seven kids their age visiting from Shanghai, and ahead of the Chinese students visiting a few classes they got to comparing notes on school. Our students, who know our 7:30 am start time is early, asked when they started at their school in China. 7:00 am. ACMA eyes opened wide. What time did our kids finish? 2:05. It was time for our guests’ jaws to drop. What time are you out? We asked. 5:00 pm, and then two or three hours of homework. Did they have time to hang out with friends? Go swimming? Play basketball? No. No. and No. To be eleven years old at ACMA is different than being eleven in Shanghai.

Those differences, from what kids wear to what kids eat, faded, however, as the students talked about the classes they loved and the classes they …didn’t love as much. Believe it or not, preteen attitudes toward some academic subjects seem to cross cultural lines.

Similar too was the playfulness of both ACMA students and students from Shanghai; both groups laughed easily, clowned around, and smiled when someone did something goofy. Kids, no matter if they live in Beaverton or Wujiaochang giggle, are tempted to toss fruit at lunch, and feel like running up the stairs in the hallway.

IMG_3004Here at ACMA we are very fortunate to have a longstanding tradition of dancers visiting from an art school in Shanghai. They perform for our student body and dance with our ACMA dance students. After the performance they join our kids for lunch and attend classes for the rest of the day. It is fantastic.

This year a second group of students visited ACMA the day before the dancers; it was these students who shared wonder with school hours, homework, and attitudes toward math. After their mixing and mingling they broke off into groups to visit a theater class, a science class, and a couple of music classes. 

Later that day our theater teacher told me: “when we started playing games it was great to see the Chinese students start to engage little by little. We played simple games, like whoosh, I am a tree, and Boppity-Bop-Bop-Bop. It took a little while for the kids to understand what was happening, but once they were able to see the demonstration and get a little bit of translation, they were able to engage and we could see genuine joy on their faces.” If only we could get world leaders to play Boppity-Bop-Bop. ” At one point, it started snowing,” he told me, “and all the kids rushed to the window to see the snow fall.” There is something universal about snow falling.

It’s experiences like this that help kids see a world broader than their own. Those youngsters from China return home knowing that the United States is made of a diverse collection of people, included among them kids in capes and rainbow unicorn hats. It also helps our students understand that kids from China are …kids. Like them, very often anyway, and even if those students don’t have opportunities to wear as many capes, they share more in common than some in the world would like to believe.American, Chinese, from Beaverton or Shanghai, kids are kids, artists are artists, and all of us rush to the window to see falling snow.

Jessica

I met up with a former student today. The last time I’d seen her she was seventeen and I was twenty-five. Out of the blue a few weeks ago she sent me an email reminding me of our time together in an English Literature class I taught at Hood River Valley High …in 1995. She is teaching now in the same district where I work and she’d spotted my name in some district something or other and reached out to say hello. It was amazing.

We figured out that I’d be over at her school for a district meeting a couple of weeks later, and I planned to swing up to her classroom afterward. The meeting ended early, so I walked upstairs and was guided to her room, empty, but with its door open, sunlight streaming in, a welcoming place. I went inside and looked around. Her Billie Holiday poster on the wall reminded me of the classroom we’d shared twenty five years ago (and a poster of Miles Davis I had over my desk). The student work on the wall, personal photos, and a glowing lamp in the corner made the room feel comfortable and kind.

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I was alone long enough to remember just how young I’d been when I taught in Hood River, and how old I am now. The pictures around her desk told me my student looked amazingly the same, but somewhere in the past quarter century I’ve gone from looking like Captain Kirk to Captain Picard.

And then, as I was thinking about that English Literature class, my first teaching job and one whose lessons I still carry with me, the successes as well as failures, she stepped into the room.

Too seldom do we as educators get to hear from our students. More seldom still are the opportunities to really connect with them as adults and see the people they have become. Today moved me as I got to do just that.

We talked, reminiscing for a few deep and rich minutes before falling into the easy conversation shared by educators and parents everywhere. We both have eleven year olds and teenagers at home, and both share a positive world view rooted in kindness and a profound desire to make a difference.

I’m a gentleman, so I’ll keep the details of our conversation out of this post, but I can say that I left feeling anything by old; our conversation left me renewed. Here was a strong young woman who not only overcame adversity, but who is positively impacting kids every day. With humor and grace she navigated life over the quarter century since I’d last seen her and emerged with a positive perspective and profound power to make a difference. She does.

She certainly made a difference to me as she remembered a couple of instances from that English Lit class, and then told me (smiling and pointing to some notes one the whiteboard at the front of her room) that she’d even used Mary Wollstonecraft in her lessons on the Enlightenment. 

Wollstonecraft was a favorite of mine (particularly when used to set up future discussions on Virginia Woolf) in that class in 1995, and it was a mixture of pride and joy that made me laugh aloud when my former student told me that she’d introduced Wollstonecraft to her own students by comparing her in the Enlightenment to a woman at Star Trek convention: “Yes, there is a girl here! You should listen to her.” 

The same, I thought, could be said of my former student, now the teacher, doing important work with high schoolers every day. 

“I was just young and foolish back then,” I admitted to her as we talked. “I had no idea what I was doing.”

“I thought that,” she told me. “Afterward,” she added, smiling. “Not when you were teaching us, but later.” Another shared connection between two educators.

Mary Wollstonecraft, that woman at a Star Trek convention, wrote: “Friendship is a serious affection; the most sublime of all affections, because it is founded on principle, and cemented by time.” It had been too long since I got to talk with my former student, but seeing her again erased that time, and made our conversation feel to me like one between two old friends.