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.

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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.

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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Internment

“Inside an old warehouse in South Texas, hundreds of immigrant children wait in a series of cages…” -Associated Press, June 18, 2018

One of the most powerful conversations I ever had as a principal was with Tak Sugimoto, an alumnus of a high school where I worked, who had been interned as a boy in the 1940s. His family was of Japanese descent, and in the height of post Pearl Harbor fear they were taken from their homes in Encinitas, California and placed in custody in an internment camp in Poston, Arizona. He described what education was like there: a makeshift school, students under terrific stress, and a system that punished families for simply being of a non-white heritage deemed threatening by the government.

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A hearty nonagenarian, Tak brought a profound wisdom to the telling of his story, and an unexpected sense of peace that was decades in the making. The corrupt nature of Japanese internment, the systemic racism, and the nation’s cruelty had wounded him, but not broken him; he lived now a strong, balanced man. Experiences like those he described had destroyed other families, ruined childhoods, and been a high water mark for intolerance and governmental cruelty. When I talked with him two years ago, he was optimistic that his country had learned from those mistakes.

As Tak spoke, I thought back to my friend Doug Kamon, whose parents met in a different internment camp, The Gila River War Relocation Center in the middle of another Arizona desert. At the end of every year we worked together Doug would present his family’s story, providing our students his own familiar face, making the details of this tragic time even more immediate to them. As Doug talked about his young parents and his grandparents, not all of whom survived the camps, students sat silently, listening to this man they knew so well and his connection to a past some would choose to forget. Many students found it hard to believe that Poston or Gila River could really have happened in the United States. More than a few considered themselves lucky that they didn’t live in times like those.

Both Tak and Doug’s parents were interned with their families. They struggled under harsh conditions and did their best to survive a system that marginalized them for no reason other than their ethnicity. In school in the camps the kids from the Sugimoto and Kamon families did their best in an environment filled with stress and anxiety, and went home to parents who could hold them tight and reassure them that they had the strength to persevere. These were terrible times, but they were together.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve thought a lot about these stories, and imagined what it might be like for the kids who don’t have parents to comfort them in times of duress. As an educator I know the importance of supporting every student, both academically and when it comes to mental health. It’s common knowledge that students face very real challenges, wrestle with complicated emotions, and struggle to stay healthy in US schools. Most of these students have adults to go home to and a greater sense of certainty than those kids whose home life is so uncertain. For kids who are deprived of that support, the risk of both short and long term harm is profound.

There are times when I feel helpless in effecting change beyond the walls of my own school. Here I can get to know kids and families, I can encourage kindness, build systems that promote care, and potentially make a difference. Even with all that, sometimes it’s really difficult.

In the greater world, where I am a participant, not a leader, I feel even more challenged when faced with situations that put kids in harm’s way. I am not a lawmaker, and as much as I write them, I struggle sometimes to believe that my voice matters. I do my best to stay optimistic, but seeing tragedy rise unexpectedly and impact kids keeps me up at night. Literally.

Willa Cather captured my anxiety when she wrote:

When kindness has left people, even for a few moments, we become afraid of them, as if their reason had left them. When it has left a place where we have always found it, it is like shipwreck; we drop from security into something malevolent and bottomless.”

“When kindness has left people…” What a terrible phrase. “When it has left a place where we have always found it…”

I want so much to believe that kindness can return, where we can all feel secure and not “drop into something malevolent and bottomless.”

Then I remember Tak and I hope.

I hope, and I wonder. Seventy years from now, who will be the alumnus who talks with a principal about her experience with internment? Will she have Tak’s wisdom or perspective? Will she share his strength? What will her story say about the the country that imagines itself to be a place where one can always find kindness?

A lack of kindness underscores the stories of Japanese internment that I know. There was a time when heartlessness toward others, describing them as something less than human, informed our country’s willingness to lock away the innocent. Tak was a kid, not a spy. Doug’s parents weren’t threats; they were people doing their best.

As an educator I need to believe that we learn, we all can learn, from our mistakes. I need to hold hope as a value, and live as if kindness is stronger than cruelty. In those shipwreck days I’m wise to look to survivors for inspiration, focus on nurturing kindness in every way I can, and be willing to reflect on what more can be done to help.

Reality is powerful. Optimists sometimes doubt. Internment of children is internment of children. Hope will win the day.

I hope.

School Cultures …with an “s”

My grandmother was Swedish. She came to the United States when she was sixteen and had her name Americanized from Selda to Zelda.

My other grandmother was the first child born in a little town in the heart of the Canadian plains, the daughter of immigrants from England who struck out to a new land before the First World War. My great grandfather returned to fight at Vimy Ridge as a part of the Canadian Corps.

IMG_7015I grew up hearing their stories.

My own red hair, redder as a child than it is today, reminded those on my father’s side of the family of my great grandmother’s fiery locks, which according to family legend she used to attract customers to her father’s London barbershop by sitting on the steps out front as a child.

My mom liked to say that my stubbornness, like her own, came from Grandma Zelda, a righteous Swede who always said that a Norwegian was nothing but a Swede with his brains kicked out. Later in life when she found a branch of Norwegian in her family tree, family stories have it that she said “Well maybe that’s why I’m so stubborn.”

My folks showed me old photos of Abby and Father, that London barber and his wife, who were early members of the Salvation Army. They were positively Victorian, and look back at me from the old photos with expressions I recognize in my own family and myself.

A painting by my grandmother, finished with a little help from my Uncle Rod, a gifted artist, of her childhood home in Sweden hangs in my parents’ guest room. I’ve stayed in that room with my own kids and showed them the scene from my grandmother’s memory.

All of their stories inform my story. Who I am is, in part, a continuation of who they were.

I thought about that after a wonderful conversation two gifted teachers and I shared about the importance of culture last week.

As an educator I know the importance of creating an accepting and welcoming school, and I’ve had the great fortune to be a part of more than one school community where students know that they can be themselves, and know they are valued and cared for who they are.

I love that I get to go to work every day at a school where plush ears, tails, and horns are a regular part of the established dress, where a student in a top hat or a unicorn onesie is a student, not a student seen as acting out. I’m proud to be a part of a community where skirts aren’t limited to those born biologically female, and where the study body values, as they say, “hearts, not parts.”

We rightly celebrate individuality and nobly honor differences, even as we encourage the choices each of us make every day to be the people we want to be. We are actively in the business of making culture, school culture.

…but this is different than honoring the cultures each of us carry with us.

All of those wonderfully welcoming and inclusive attitudes; the value placed on kindness; the celebration of artistic spirits, not just works of art; and the belief that everyone can become who they want to be …and then change their mind …and then change their mind again, all of those attitudes, it struck me, were not about the same sort of culture I’d been talking about with my teachers.

They had been talking about countries, traditions, and heritage.

If my history includes a London barbershop and a Swedish painting, then what about the stories that each of us bring to our creative collective present? If I am not only defined by the choices I make for myself, but also by the rich cultural heritage that I’m right to honor and embrace, then isn’t part of creating a welcoming school community also developing ways for each of us to share our own family’s stories as well as writing our own?

That was what my teachers had been talking about. Like me, their family stories and cultural heritages were foundational to who they are. What might we do, they asked, to invite, articulate, and celebrate our students’ family stories? What could we as a school do to give the artistic souls who fill our school both the invitation and encouragement to share their cultures with each other?

For anyone noticing, I’ve used more than a couple of questions in this post …so far. That’s not clever rhetoric; it’s that I’m still figuring this out. Being the principal doesn’t mean you always have the right answers. Done right, it often means you try to ask the right questions.

I took some of my questions to Sho Shigeoka, a sage in the realm of equity and honoring cultures, cornering her at a district meeting with the swirl of thoughts I’d been wrestling with throughout the week.

She smiled at me and said: “Ask the kids.”

I walk the halls every lunch, sit in on classes often, and chat with students all the time, but I’ll confess that in that moment with Sho I couldn’t remember a single time this year when heritage came up as a topic of discussion.

“Gather a group,” Sho said patiently. “Ask them how they think they could celebrate their stories.”

I will.

Over the next few months I look forward to hearing my students (and staff too) answer those questions. I’m excited to work with those two caring teachers who started this line of thought and the diverse and creative students to find ways for each of us to share who we are.

This post promises to be the first of a few looking forward and joining others to look back on family, culture, and the stories of our lives. I want to help create a healthy school culture for all of us that honors the cultures each of us. It’s time to start asking, and time to start listening.

Spring Flowers

Little provides perspective better than spending time with kids. As a principal, I know that my interactions with students tell me more about the health of my school  than just about anything else; as a dad, a spring break road trip that had our family of four sharing hotel rooms and a crowded car was a great grounding experience; and some very precious time with my niece and her family, including a wide eyed three month old, his bouncing seven year old brother, and his clever three year old sister reminded me how important a calling it is to be an educator.

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For each of the kids in my life, those in my immediate family and those in my school family as well, teachers and the other adults who help to form their education have the power to make such a difference on their changing lives. As adults we know that. As kids they feel it.

As I listened to my own kids talk in the back seat of the car, I heard the truth about the way students in our school system see things.

“I’d never want to be a teacher. Kids treat them terribly.” Pause. “Not me, but kids. Particularly boys.” Thoughtful pause. “Mrs. —- doesn’t like kids, so I guess it’s a little okay they treat her badly back.” Pause. “Not me. Mr. —– respects us. They don’t act up for him.”

I heard about school rules and routines, sometimes unable to keep myself out of the conversation. “Before school we have to stay in the cafeteria, and if we’re too loud a lady blows a whistle at us. Sometimes she gets really frustrated, like when one group of kids starts to yell and chant.”

“Chant?” I asked. “Do they chant: ‘Whistle! More! Please!’?”

“No, Dad.”

More even than rules and misbehavior, from my niece I heard about the power of a teacher and administrator to make things better. At an IEP meeting, when the teacher and principal spoke about strategies and supports, their reassurance and commitment was both real and appreciated. Parents want to know that the school cares for their students, and it’s a trust that is earned over time. When I heard “…and maybe with this new principal it will be better,” my first thought was that I want to be that honest school leader my students, parents, and teachers can believe in.

Belief and hope are the building blocks of learning, a truth a marvelous three year old reminded me of as she presented a drawing of spring flowers and was able to tell me the name of the color of each one.

IMG_6439“Blue,” she said, pointing. “Orange,” she added with pride. “Red,” she said with the confidence of a preschooler whose mom has been working with her around the kitchen table. Her eyes sparkled and I saw in them the potential so many parents (and grandparents, and uncles, and aunts, and caregivers) see in their own kids. I want the pride she feels now to always be a part of her education.

I don’t want anyone blowing a whistle at her.

But the truth is that I don’t have control over their education. I can love them and advocate for them. I can try to encourage in them resiliency and courage, and the confidence to make themselves heard, but I need others to take the time to listen.

At my own school I can do my best as a principal to nurture a culture that is caring and accepting, a safe place for everyone. (This is harder work than it sounds like in a sentence as short as that last one, but work worth doing.)

I might even hope that someone in education reading the little scribbles I post every week might take from my words the notion that being kind and caring, and even a little silly, can be a good thing.

Yet beyond anything I say or do, it seems to me that the understanding of how things are and how things should be will come to me, and to all of us who make schools our line of work, if we simply put down our whistles and listen. 

Spring Soccer

Reading TS Eliot outside
beneath a bright translucent sky
the April wind against my face
blows dark clouds and certain rain
toward the folding chair where I read
tall grass dancing around me
my daughter’s soccer team kicking and
laughing nearby
a thermos of tea
now brewed too dark
for a sunny day
but just about right for today’s storm
rests on the damp ground beside me
an umbrella
no match for the wind
beside it, and my son
sleeping in the warm car
just on the other side of the chain link fence.

Tom (and like so many I believe, honestly believe,
that my English degree qualifies me to call Eliot by his first name)
tells me that Midwinter Spring
is its own season
and as the drops begin
to hit my yellow legal pad
the ink melting beneath the rain
seems to prove his point.

This will be a good Oregon deluge
a fine day for soccer
a day made for poetry
and deep, dark, bitter tea.

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