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.

Unperfect Actor

As an unperfect actor on the stage
Who with his fear is put besides his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart.
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite…
-Shakespeare, Sonnet 23

The students were fantastic, a couple of dozen young actors gathered in the library to talk Shakespeare, clever, confident, and more than able. 

As a principal (and recovering English teacher), I’m always thankful for the opportunity to get to work with students in the classroom, and my appreciation was real and profound to the drama teacher who allowed me time to introduce these kids to a raft of poems, the joys of scansion, and the delight that comes with reading Shakespeare’s sonnets for the first time.

My lesson was nothing fancy: a little (only a little) context, time on sonnet structure, guided practice scanning a poem, and then some work in small groups on structure and meaning.

We talked about the sonnets as a sequence, reading one I suspected might have the best chance of being familiar to them, sonnet 18, together, and then (after some time for smaller conversations with peers) ticking through half a dozen others as a class.

IMG_2279This was an acting class, so their reading aloud of the poems was inspiring; these were some of the same actors I’d seen perform Romeo and Juliet a couple of weeks earlier. Their understanding of the sonnets was strong too. Some youthful wrestling with the language (“ow’st” means…?) aside, they were able to use context to gain understanding and came up with clever readings of Shakespeare’s verse.

It was a reminder of just how fun it is to see students grapple with new material, in this case kids predisposed to Shakespeare engaging with texts they didn’t know as well as the plays they’d already studied. Watching them talk with each other was a lesson in the importance of prompting students and then getting out of their way.

And then, because it was a special schedule that day, the bell rang ten minutes before we were really done, sonnets 116, 130 and 138 still on the shelf. 

I am, I thought, to use Shakespeare’s words: “an unperfect actor.” How could we not have had time for three sonnets that would have enriched our conversation? Heck, I hadn’t even introduced them to the dark lady or fair youth, not really anyway.

And… while we might not have had “the perfect ceremony” what we did have was an opportunity to engage, both with the text and each other. As a principal I’ve come to believe that this kind of interaction is more important than many of the other things I do at school.

We all know that teachers are the most powerful force for good at a school, and when students can see their principal as a teacher too, recognizing that I didn’t get into this profession to be a principal, but to work with students, then we begin to break down the artificial barriers to connection that sometimes come when a fellow puts on a tie.

I loved working with the students on sonnets, and hope to get back to that class for our last few sonnets sometime soon. Until then I’ll whisper Shakespeare’s words: “For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”

Thank You

A short (work) week and a short post with one simple message: thank you.

Being an educator means being busy, and being a principal in November means that the world feels like it’s rushing forward and only picking up speed. For teachers, and students, and administrators too the pace and intensity can be unforgiving, and as much as we talk about getting up early to work out, eating well, or taking care of ourselves, if others are much like me the reality involves far more black coffee on the run and late nights than my doctor would like to hear about.

With Thanksgiving break, and the five days in a row free of an alarm clock, I almost feel like I have the chance to take a deep breath, close my eyes for a moment, and appreciate those around me.

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Because I do appreciate the amazing educators, spectacular kids, engaged parents, and the many, many kind, caring, and patient people who help make my world a better place.

With a small gesture like a smile or “good morning” (which in the moment doesn’t always feel so small) or a grand one, I am so fortunate to have people in my life who care.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve gotten emails from former students and former colleagues, had such care shown me from colleagues and parents, and benefitted from the exuberant joy and kindness of the students I get to work with. To each of them my appreciation is real and too seldom articulated.

The world can be overwhelming at times, especially around a school in November, and Thanksgiving (and Thanksgiving break for educators like me) is a good time to pause long enough to appreciate those forces for good that are also a part of our lives. Whether in a moment of reflection, an email to someone who makes a difference to us, or a note of thanks, now is the time to embrace Dickens’ line: “Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has plenty; not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”

For everyone who is one of my present blessings, and there are so many of you, I say “Thank you!”

 

…and I’ll add a special thank you to everyone who reads these little posts from time to time. I appreciate your comments, your kindness, and your time. Happy Thanksgiving!

Broken Ship in a Box

“That’s a broken ship in a box,” she said, looking past my shoulder at a wooden crate under the window. She tilted her head and looked again. “Broken ship in a box. That’d be a great title for a poem.”

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And while I don’t know that this delightful teacher, so observant and good humored, knew that I’d given over this school year to bring more poetry into my life, professional and otherwise, I applauded her suggestion.

“It could be a collective effort,” she went on, smiling. “We could all write it together.”

The possibilities seemed great.

In education we like metaphors, and at ACMA we like bending those metaphors a bit. Rebuilding our ship at sea is a familiar one, so too thinking outside the box. This object in my office, and my teacher’s noticing it, seemed to marry both in a marvelously unexpected way.

We left it at that, at least then; a bell rang pulling her to greater things (middle school social studies) and I had to run to a classroom observation, but I jotted down the title she’d suggested and snapped a photo of the ship, thinking to myself that we would do something with it. Something. Sometime soon.

That sometime soon happened the following week, during our staff development day.

Before we got to discussions of academics, digital citizenship, intervention, and student wellness, we started the day with something a little unexpected, a quotation by Austrian philosopher Otto Neurath: “We are like sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials.” How like education, I suggested, and how connected to thinking outside of the box.

I told the story of the teacher and the ship in the box, including the notion we all might work together to write some poetry, and invited them to consider that scene from Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams’ teacher tells his students:

We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion …and medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” “Answer. That you are here — that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?” 

I acknowledged that though I was a former English teacher, or perhaps because of it, I knew that not 100% of my audience was excited about writing a poem. 

IMG_1638With that in mind, I’d reached out to my art teachers (every good educator knows that the best plans are plans shared and the best lessons aren’t hatched in isolation) and the result was divine.

Three teachers stood in front of the staff and introduced an art lesson that invited them to each work on a square that was a quarter of a ship. They could make it their own, complete with poetry or without, and would then collaborate with three other staff members to build their ship. 

These astounding teachers, who I have seen do such great work with kids year after year, brought that same spirit to the work with adults. They toted in colored pencils, pens, and materials for collage. They circulated around the library where we were working to laugh, encourage, and help the teachers engage with the creative shipbuilding at hand.

IMG_1633It was fantastic.

We saw pirates, and rainbows, and clever comments on education writ large. A science teacher put plastic in the ocean, an English teacher brought in the Greeks, and one intrepid sailor tipped the lesson on its side and built a brigantine from newsprint. One math teacher brought out a protractor, a dance teacher found metallic gold foil, and more than one person burst well off the black rectangle of the mounting paper. Rebuilding ships. Breaking boxes.

IMG_1650A couple of crews even snuck in a little verse.

And we, as a staff, got to create together.

We talked, we considered why we do what we do, and we expressed those ideas in colorful and creative ways.

Too often we adults forget the importance of play and art and connecting with each other in whimsical ways. That morning we did all three.

What then is our mission as educators? Like Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society is our aim to inspire? Care? Support? Push our students to be their best?

Believe our art and it could just be all of the above. 

At least at ACMA, where a teacher might notice an antique broken ship in a box, and…

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