Star Wars Nerds

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 6.35.26 PMI met Darth Vader in the lobby of a car dealership in 1978. He strode in, large as life, black cape trailing behind him, uttered a few words to the collected youngsters, and left us each with an autographed picture. It was awesome.

The world has changed around us since the late 1970s and my encounter with the not quite so ominous Sith Lord, something that’s as true in public education as it is in life.

For my own son, just a little older now than I was when I met Darth Vader, Star Wars means Legos, video games, and plastic lightsaber battles with friends on the lawn. Looking back on my simple but sturdy action figures I know that the notion of Star Wars Battlefront or a realistic laser sword that extends when you flick it open would have blown my eight year old mind. For my son those are part of his childhood landscape.

I got a glimpse into his more modern world last month during my son’s 10th birthday party. My wife is the master of kid parties, ice cream cakes, crafts, and favor bags that drop jaws. My minor role ever since we started putting on kidstravaganzas has been scavenger hunts. Drawing on years of Pirate Weeks and Space Weeks, I put together clues and ciphers that led the kids from one place to the next in pursuit of a final prize. At this birthday party, one stop on the hunt involved the boys putting together a puzzle of Poe Dameron, then realizing they needed to flip the completed puzzle over to read the next clue which had been scrawled on the back in Sharpie.

As my son and his friends hunted for pieces and fit them together I overheard them talking. “I’m a Star Wars nerd,” my son said before joining a chum in a detailed juxtaposition of the new trilogy and the original.

What would they think about meeting someone dressed in a Darth Vader costume at a car lot?

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Like my son and his friend, I’ll confess to being a self identified “Star Wars nerd.” I’m mature enough to not get worked up by the new movies, or even the prequels. I watched Solo in the theater and enjoyed it. I’m forgiving when it comes to Star Wars stories (from the old comic books to the next generation of films) because it seems to me that every step along the way they celebrate imagination.

The power of imagination is something that can transform a Toyota dealership into a viable place to meet a space villain. It can make a scavenger hunt at a birthday party feel like an adventure worthy of Sherlock Holmes. It makes childhood magical, and has the potential to make education relevant, fun, and engaging.

Sometimes I think: maybe school is not enough like Star Wars.

Rediscovering that autographed 8 x 10 back in a dusty box in my parents’ garage prompted the memory of what it felt like to be a kid and to be moved by the unexpected. I realize as an adult that surprises like that don’t happen by accident. My folks had gone out of their way to take me down to the car dealership. Someone had worked hard to make sure that Darth Vader was tall, looked and sounded “real,” and would leave every kid with something they could keep. At our best, we educators do something similar.

We work hard, we plan, and we ask ourselves how we can inspire and engage our students. When we’re successful we see our kids connect to the material and with each other. We see growth and wonder. We leave them with something that matters.

Emphasizing the imagination in our classrooms and at our schools (our students’ and our own) has the potential of improving our kids’ engagement with classes and community. Celebrating the imagination, whether it’s through a class project, a school activity, or an artistic enterprise is a way of helping our students see what is possible, know what they create matters, and understand that they can make a difference. This matters now more than ever.

Increasingly the stress of the world encroaches on our campuses. The news brings word of threats from a thousand directions, and whether it’s student protests or increased incidents of kids contemplating self harm, the reactions from our kids are real.

Recently my son and I watched The Last Jedi, an epic that merged my Star Wars and his. There were Luke, Leia, and Chewbacca. There were Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren. And sure nostalgia made me happy when I saw Yoda, that marvelous puppet, on screen, but it was when I heard the wisdom of a new hero that I was most moved.

Intrepid Rose, that splendidly brave soul, after saving fellow hero Finn’s life, reminded him that the way forward was “not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.”

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Words far more relevant than a long time ago or a galaxy far, far away, and how wonderful that they weren’t said by another white male character.

Like my son, I’m a Star Wars nerd, and with him I value the wonder of a child meeting Darth Vader, the imagination of putting together Legos, and the perspective that we live in a complicated world made better when we put our focus on what, and those, we love.

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A Difficult Quartet

We are humans. Even working at a school filled with creativity and joy, kindness, laughter, and a healthy sense of fun, it would be foolish or disingenuous to imagine that the professional life of any educator is free from the tragedy, heartbreak, and the fear that is a part of what it means to be alive.

I do my best to use my voice to celebrate the good things, sometimes talking about the hard work it takes to achieve those positive results, sometimes simply marveling at the good in the world. And…

That’s true, but only part of the story.

In addition to the joy that comes from working with students, the path of being an educator leads through some swamps and dark forests as well. This summer, as I’m comforted by the warm weather and long sunshiny days, I’ve made it a goal to finish four books that challenge me to engage with some of the more difficult aspects of my journey as a principal.

To be my best for the students, staff, and families I work with, I need to face the harder truths of being a human and being an educator. For me, bookish by nature, this means opening some volumes that don’t feature a detective in a deerstalker.

Four books in my backpack this summer include a case study on gun violence, a memoir about a brother’s suicide, a novel by one of my former students addressing the impact of domestic violence, and a book by a psychologist on grieving the loss of a child. This is not going to be easy reading; it is instead important reading.

As a principal I see students and families at their best, and I see students and families in their times of their greatest stress. The books on my list speak to that stress, and I hope will give me insight as I work with my school community to be the best support for them I can be. As summer ends I’ll fashion a post or two out of this summer reading and the ideas and implications that inform my own work. For anyone who might want to talk about these topics, and the books on my list, I’ll share titles and authors now.

Rampage CoverI started Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings by Katherine S. Newman this winter, prompted by the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School. Thorough and well researched, the book contains a pair of case studies and takes as its ambitious goal answering the question: “Why violence erupts in close-knit communities – and what can be done to stop it.” It’s sobering that this book was published in 2004. That said, there is no call greater than keeping our students safe, and while gun violence is rare in comparison to other dangers our kids face, the reality of life as a building principal has expanded since I got into education to include an understanding of this dark reality of our world.

100 tricks100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do, a memoir by Oregon’s Poet Laureate Kim Stafford, carries the subtitle “How My Brother Disappeared.” Through stories and reflections, Stafford details his brother’s death from suicide and the life they shared before that tragic event. Suicide is a reality that frightens parents and educators, a spectre that students hear about, talk about, and sometimes consider. In one of my first years as an administrator I witnessed first hand what happened after a student took his own life, and the impact that had on family, friends, and our school community. Referrals for students with suicidal ideation are not uncommon, and with each I feel a pang of anxiety and a desire to make a difference. Stafford’s memoir has the courage to discuss this difficult topic, not because that discussion doesn’t hurt, but because, as he puts it, “the darkest things hurt more when they are not told.”

towellOregon author Gayle Towell wrestles with those “darkest things” as well in her 2015 novel Broken Parts. I’ve read her harrowing novella Blood Gravity, and through that moving and brutal work was introduced to brothers Jake and Ben, whose abuse at the hands of their father inform a struggle to cope with the past as they move forward, perhaps together. I don’t know exactly what to expect of Broken Parts, but I do know that Towell’s unflinching courage to deal directly with topics that many would hope to avoid promises a novel with lessons I need to learn as a person who works with young people.

lossThe Unspeakable Loss: How do you live after a child dies? by Nisha Zenoff, PhD was given to me by two parents who had found some comfort within its pages. As they explained it to me, The Unspeakable Loss “is a book that has practical tips to support grieving families and children.” The power and purpose I have witnessed in these parents is profound, and my wish is that as I read this book I will gain some understanding about what I can do to help as a principal and as a person.

I’d love never to need the perspective I may glean from these volumes, but I know that being informed and prepared for the most difficult situations is a part of my job, a responsibility of my calling, and a commitment I have to the students, staff, and families around me. This difficult quartet of books offers an opportunity to learn more. I hope to be ready to hear their truth.

Twain’s Undertaker

Then the Reverend Hobson opened up, slow and solemn, and begun to talk; and straight off the most outrageous row busted out in the cellar a body ever heard; it was only one dog, but he made a most powerful racket, and he kept it up, right along; the parson he had to stand there, over the coffin, and wait- you couldn’t hear yourself think. It was right down awkward, and nobody didn’t seem to know what to do. But pretty soon they see that long-legged undertaker make a sign to the preacher as much as to say, “Don’t you worry- just depend on me.” Then he stooped down and begun to glide along the wall, just his shoulders showing over the people’s heads. So he glided along, and the pow-wow and racket getting more and more outrageous all the time; and at last, when he had gone around two sides of the room, he disappears down cellar. Then, in about two seconds we heard a whack, and the dog he finished up with a most amazing howl or two, and then everything was dead still, and the parson begun his solemn talk where he left off. In a minute or two here comes this undertaker’s back and shoulders gliding along the wall again; and so he glided, and glided, around three sides of the room, and then rose up, and shaded his mouth with his hands, and stretched his neck out towards the preacher, over the people’s heads, and says, in a kind of a coarse whisper, “He had a rat!” Then he drooped down and glided along the wall again to his place. You could see it was a great satisfaction to the people, because naturally they wanted to know. A little thing like that don’t cost nothing, and it’s just the little things that makes a man to be looked up to and liked. There warn’t no more popular man in town than what that undertaker was.”

-from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

There’s a spot in Huck Finn when the undertaker drifts out a funeral and takes care of a loud noise. When he returns he makes the marvelous choice to share what happened, information appreciated by our young protagonist and the rest of the assembled mourners.

As a principal, I do my best to emulate that thoughtful undertaker.

The information I have and the perspective my position affords me are precious, and I never take that for granted. If I’m able to communicate something, I do, and from time to time I’m told by students, parents, and staff that they appreciate it. Who doesn’t like to know? But there are times when the nature of what’s going on requires greater discretion and the tight lips of a sailor committed to keeping his navy afloat. There are times I can’t say anything.

undertakerIt’s in these times that the imperfect best I can muster is to listen to concerns, both the heartfelt and the accusatory, acknowledge the person across the table from me, say what I can, and hope that they can get from me some modest understanding that despite the silence, we share a vision for the best school ours can be, and a desire to support every student.

Sometimes that doesn’t come through.

There are those willing to say their point of view and then suspend disbelief long enough for me to do my quiet job behind the scenes. There are other times I take some punches.

It means that as a principal I need to have a clear vision of what’s right and a dedication to all students that guides all my work.

Like a compass in a tempest, clarity of purpose and commitment to kids can help weather the waves of emotion and lightning strikes of anger and frustration. The journey of a school, and every principal’s voyage too, isn’t measured by the outcome of an hour, but is judged by progress over time.

I trust that if I do what’s right by kids and strive to work toward a school that knows compassion, caring, and the value of hard work, then all will be well …even if there are times I can’t say everything about it.

Summer Memories

photo (5)This summer we’re not taking a big vacation. After last year’s move from California to Oregon, a chaotic few weeks of loading up cats, kids, and boxes of books, driving, driving, and driving, and unloading a houseful of life while reacclimating, and helping acclimate two kids, to the Pacific Northwest it’s nice to know that we won’t go farther than the coast in these sunny days of July. That said, for the past few years I’ve always done a “Notes From the Road” series of posts, and I thought I’d take a stroll down memory lane with three thoughts from summers past.

A trip to the Bay Area, winding up the coast on an extended car trip, led me to consider the importance of students participating actively in their education Prompted by my own kids enjoying Waffles in Pismo Beach, and my wise wife making the lesson clear to me, I was reminded that “students want to do, to actively participate in their own learning.”

Visiting the school where I had my first teaching job 25 years ago was both surreal and sentimental. Recounting “Goggle Day,” perhaps the first kooky thing I did as an educator, made me thankful for the experiences and people who have helped shaped me as a professional and for the sense of fun that is a part of what happens at the best schools.

It was in a Canadian forest that I spotted a traffic sign that summed up being a principal: Two Way Traffic / One Lane Road, just another instance of how getting out of our usual routine, opening our eyes to the world around us, and embracing new places and ideas can help to inform the work we do at our schools and in our professional lives.

For all my friends in education, I wish you a marvelous summer filled with adventures, new experiences, renewal, and some ideas to take back to school in the fall.

Summer Dinosaurs

Summer here, it’s time for some must needed renewal. Even for those of us who love what we do, education is a profession that demands energy. To do it well means not scrimping on engagement, taking time to do things right, and giving of ourselves in the service of something great. The pace, never slack, seems to pick up as the school year rolls on, bursting into an outright sprint by the time April turns into May.

This wild rumpus is amazing, filled with adventure and often the unexpected. But sometimes, as emotions run high and the rush of the world makes it difficult to keep perspective, those adventures take us to places where the opportunities to make a difference feel more like climbing a mountain than walking on the beach.

Lost WorldSummer means beaches.

For me, in addition to the literal visit to the coast, renewal comes from familiar quarters. Family. Good books. Time in nature.

A recent trip to Lincoln City provided just that renewal. Poking around a little used bookstore I happened upon a book that had dodged my reading life for decades. I’m a confessed Sherlock Holmes fanatic; from my easy chair I’ve enjoyed hours on the moors with Arthur Conan Doyle tracking the footprints of a gigantic hound, but I realized that I’d never formally met Professor Challenger, the hero of his 1912 potboiler about a plateau in South America where the Jurassic Period never ended, The Lost World.

It was time to chase some dinosaurs.

Now pterodactyl pursuit is not an activity for the school year. Too many pulls on time and real life stresses vie for attention. The real world gets in the way of many a ripping good yarn.

Being a principal means finding a way to display fortitude while discovering renewal in little gulps. The long days and daily responsibilities, as positive as they can be and as filled with possibility as they often are, demand attention, and the reality of knowing that at any minute the phone might ring with news from campus or our school community. This could cut short a night out, or turn a weekend into a workday.

But, ah, summer.

Summer is a time for dinosaurs.

So I put aside planning for a long afternoon, left off the work that I’ll be better able to tackle with the fresh perspective that comes from a little time away, and left the bookstore with a paperback of The Lost World.

Back on the beach I read Doyle’s epigraph:

I have wrought my simple plan
    If I give one hour of joy
To the boy who’s half a man,
    Or the man who’s half a boy.”

How important it is for those of us who work with kids to allow ourselves to revisit the feeling of youth. Taking care of ourselves is not always something we educators do best, though to be our best selves it’s something we need to do.

Sometimes that’s time with family, a hike, or paddling a kayak. Sometimes it’s allowing ourselves to follow footprints in the sand that might belong to a gigantic hound …or maybe a dinosaur.

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Strange

There is a park that is known
For the face it attracts
Colorful people whose hair
On one side is swept back
The smile on their faces
It speaks of profound inner peace
Ask where they’re going
They’ll tell you nowhere
They’ve taken a lifetime lease
On Paisley Park

-Prince, Paisley Park

While we don’t have a school fight song at ACMA, I like to think that if we did it would be Prince’s “Paisley Park.” Artistic, independent, and confessedly quirky, students and staff at our little art school recognize the importance of seeing the world through the kaleidoscopic eyes of an artist. We paint, sculpt, act, and dance. We make music and make films. We write poetry and write scripts. We write the possibilities of our own futures.

To some, this looks strange.

But while the workaday world might look twice at what some of us wear, the color of our hair, or the glitter on our faces, ACMA’s colorful people are about more than just appearances. Our artistic souls run deep, and our capacity for seeing life in a way that might make a difference is profound.

If we were a superhero, we’d be Dr. Strange.

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…because ACMA is a place for magic. It is a world of wonder and wild creativity. Faced with challenges, artistic, academic, or social, our students respond cleverly, compassionately, and creatively. Where there isn’t yet an answer, our students are ready to go about making their own.

A student once told me: “Nobody’s weird here at ACMA, because everyone’s weird here at ACMA.” She meant this in a good way.

Diverse interests, diverse backgrounds, diverse attitudes all come together at our school under the transformative and unifying power of art. Painters, poets, photographers; dancing, drawing, and daring to do great things, it’s not strange to see students from one artistic pathway supporting peers from another, and even trying their hand in different medium as well. Our actors write, our musicians draw, every one of our sixth graders has a chance to dance.

Strange? Maybe. Or maybe strange is just a point of view.

ACMA contains a world not everyone sees, not technical, not linear, not gritty or cosmic, but something else, something unique.

It’s here that…

…plush ears, horns, and tails are a regular part of what students wear every day

…Mona Lisa is painted on our hallway walls, as a dog, a grunge rocker, and a surprising collage you have to look at twice to see her

…we have Back to School Night before the first day of classes

…students and staff pose for silly photos in the yearbook

…Rojo the therapy llama is a part of our school family

…our athletic complex is a single basketball hoop at a ¾ angle in the courtyard

…we don’t have a school mascot

…our hallways are a living gallery, filled with contemporary student art, not hidden behind glass

…LGBTQ is celebrated, not just accepted

…our summer theater program mounts a full scale musical in just a month

…our students doodle

…it’s not unusual to see a student on stilts, or a student in a top hat, or a staff member in a kilt

…tie-dye is the unofficial school color

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 11.40.36 AM…we have students who take math up through AP Calculus

…Halloween is a national holiday

…a giant painting of David Bowie hangs outside the main office

…staff compete in a giant Rock-Paper-Scissors competition

…we laugh a lot, we cry easily, and we surprise some who don’t know us with our strength

…we have a “Bat Cave”

…we love applause, we embrace creativity, and we care for each other

ACMA is a special place, and for those of us who get to spend time here every day, a transformational one. It’s here that we learn, create, a embrace being a little different.

To quote an unconventional superhero: “If you ask me, it’d be an awfully boring life if nothing was ever weird. It’s the weird ones who change the world.”

The Red Folder

Commencement. It’s a big deal for those of us in the education game, a day when we get to honor graduates and celebrate the accomplishment of students finishing more than a decade of learning. At some schools commencement is a solemn affair; other places it’s filled with silly string, flip flops, and decorated hats. A few universals seem to apply, and have for as long as most of us can remember: gowns and mortarboards, a podium for a speaker or two, and the promise of some kind of music.

My favorite ceremonies are those that bend expectations a bit, or even throw convention to the wind, smilingly of course. Here at ACMA those speeches, surprises, and smiles are gathered in a red folder on my desk.

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For the past few weeks all the plans for our ceremony have been piling up, and I’ve dutifully tucked them into that folder, where they’ve been arranged and rearranged for the greatest effect. We’re an art school after all, so we know that presentation matters, and where you put the jazz number, composed by an ACMA student, matters as much as who speaks first, in the middle, and last.

I’ve been looking at that folder all week, knowing that inside is magic. This weekend what’s there in black and white will burst out in technicolor. Like Dorothy arriving in Oz, everything becomes real.

At ACMA, real means leaving some expectations behind. You won’t find pomp and circumstance in the program, or a pronouncement by a board member. I’ve read the speeches, all free of quotations from Dr. Seuss or Winston Churchill. Heartfelt and relevant, these messages to graduates capture the true spirit of our school.

What is in that folder is a list of people and performances, of honors (“the burgundy cord represents…” etc.) and pathway endorsements. These matter much, and while a list is not a painting, a dance, or a film, they identify students who have made a lifetime of studying their passion.

Inside too there’s a copy of the program, where the names of graduates are lined up more systematically than our students have ever been in a fire drill. The painting of our PAC on the cover is lovely and professional, a far cry from the beloved Quonset Hut where the students will meet to put on their caps and gowns, but also an important reminder that as kooky as we sometimes can be, when we need to we can present ourselves in ways that will impress.

The formality of ACMA’s approach to commencement (I’ll wear a tie, the grads won’t decorate their caps) is reflected in the elegance of the program. That dichotomy is us as well; creative and professional, polished and bohemian.

In juxtaposition to that formality… the emotion of the day, the creative spirit of our school, and a couple of surprises (one for the teachers and one for the graduates) will shine through at our ceremony. For any imagining boredom, worry not: that human touch and artistic spirit that helps to define who we are as a school will more than make an appearance.

I’m excited about my first commencement ceremony as the principal of ACMA. I’ll miss the seniors very much in the days and years ahead, but to have this time to celebrate them with our ACMA family is precious beyond expression. We’ll bring all our hearts to that celebration, our songs, our poems, our sage advice too. And in the end I hope we leave our graduates with a sense of our appreciation, a measure of our love, and song in their hearts.

It’s all in that red folder right now. Saturday morning it will be on stage.

That’s a big deal.