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.

Advertisements

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!

Off the Grid

It was 100 degrees out and the water in the North Santiam felt like heaven. Rushing by, sun sparkling off the rapids, the river was much as I remembered it from fishing trips in high school. It was mid-July and my son and I had packed up the tent, his fishing pole, and some snacks his mother would frown on, and headed into the woods for a summer camping trip.

For educators like me, July is an opportunity to renew, disconnect (at least for a bit), and take a deep breath between the crazy rush of graduation and the exciting potential of the first day of school.

July is for educators what Tintern Abbey was for Wordsworth.

Describing that place of nature and retreat, and what it meant to him in the long time he spent away from Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth told readers of his poem:

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration…”

Like that old English poet, I know I’ll look back on this trip to the river and feel “sensations sweet” during those “hours of weariness” that find us all “‘mid the din” of our workaday world.

One of the biggest differences between July and the rest of the year is pace. There is certainly work to be done, both tying up loose ends from the year before and planning for the year ahead, but for many of us this middle month of summer allows time for reflection, learning, and a refocusing on what really matters. That’s a lot easier to do in the middle of a forest than it is at a desk or amidst the rush of daily life.

Being someplace where my phone displayed those marvelous vacationary words “No Service” meant not only an opportunity to spend time with my son, but also a chance to put the outside world on hold for a few days, put energy into building a fire, finding the best way down to the river, and exploring the world without computerized navigation.

Unplugging for a while helped me shake off the stresses of incoming email and piles of work to be done. I knew I’d get back to those emails and that work soon enough, but separating from them allowed me the energy and perspective to do so with a clearer head and focused mind.

For all of us who work with students, a time away from campus can help refresh and renew us in a way that nothing else can. Knee deep in the river, looking up at towering evergreens and a sky so blue it feels like it’s from a song, I was reminded of myself as a person, not just a principal. Paradoxically, by August I think that will make me a better principal.

As I sat by the North Santiam watching my son tangle his line in the rocks, sentimental fool that I am I thought of Tintern Abbey and knew that:

…here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.”

I hope educators, and students too, everywhere are able to have a few Tintern Abbey moments this summer and return to school in the fall rested and filled with renewing memories.

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?

Screen Shot 2018-07-09 at 8.29.55 PM

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.”

Screen Shot 2018-07-09 at 9.09.08 PM

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.