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.

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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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February 14th

Tomorrow is a big day, filled with anticipation, love, and more than a little excitement. It is, of course, the first day major league pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

About once a year I set aside my usual topic of education and say something about our national pastime. Occasionally I’ll try to tie baseball to something related to teaching and learning, but just as often I just let my love of the game have the stage for its annual post. Baseball is, like life, or learning, a subject that invites waxing poetic.

So… Pitchers and Catchers.

I scraped ice from my windshield this morning, bundled up against the 28°, and headed to work in the dark. The trees around my house are bare, and even though a few intrepid daffodils are starting to poke up through the flowerbeds, spring seems miles away.

Somewhere in warmer climes professional baseball players are beginning to arrive to play ball. They are loosening up arms, jogging along outfield walls, and preparing for the long season they hope won’t end until October. Between now and then is the end of winter, the full of summer, and the beginning of fall, and with their arrival, forgetting what the frost tells me every morning, is spring.

SpahnWith spring my thoughts span memory, lighting on the time when I was twelve and my dad took me to see a college ballgame where Warren Spahn was coaching. I wanted so much to get his autograph, but the game was going long it was almost time for me to leave. I went up to the chain link dugout between innings and asked: “Mr. Spahn. Mr. Spahn. Could I have an autograph?” He frowned at me. “We’re in the middle of a ballgame,” he chided. “I know,” I apologized, “but I’m catching a game in half an hour and I have to go.” He nodded and signed the paper I handed him. I still have that autograph.

Pitchers and Catchers.

I think about going with my uncle to the Metrodome in Minnesota to see Frank “Sweet Music” Viola pitch for the Twins. It was the dome’s first year and the air conditioning wasn’t working. We sweated into the plastic seats and I got to see the imperial Carl Yastrzemski stride across the field ignoring everyone in the stands. Afterward we went to a little hole in the wall bar for coney dogs. There were black and white photos of athletes everywhere, memorabilia, patrons who looked like they might have been sitting in those worn out booths for decades. It was a place unlike any other I’d ever seen, and at thirteen I felt like I had been welcomed into adulthood.

YastrzemskiPitchers and Catchers.

My team did not win the World Series last year. They did not win the year before that, or the year before that. In fact while I have been with my wife for 26 years, she has never known me when my team won the series.

But with the arrival of pitchers and catchers hope returns to fans like me. We see under the southwestern sun …possibility. My team may not be playing come this October, but they might. They certainly will be in the background of my April and May, June and July, August and September.

They will be on the radio, my favorite window into the game, while I finish this school year and begin the next. They will fill the hours of summer and the first cool days of autumn. And if my team isn’t out of the running by the all star break, and maybe even if they are, they will provide a chance for hope every night, 162 times between now and the end of September.

When I am given the chance, loving the game as I do, I will strive to have the grace of Warren Spahn and avoid the superiority of Carl Yastrzemski, at least as they seemed on the days when their paths crossed mine. I will do my best to show those around me the generosity of my uncle, sharing a coney dog (whatever that might be a metaphor for), and show everyone around me the smiling optimism captured in the notion: “Maybe this year.”

Until the first pitch is thrown, which now feels like it will be soon, I will scrape my windshield and think about spring.

Words, Words, Words

IMG_5722“Are otters artists?”
“Our otters are artists.”
Words
Tongue twisting bursts
of shared creativity.

My daughter came up with the otters
and as we refined the couplet
laughing in our kitchen
the world felt good.

Words have the magic
of connecting
transforming

No new idea there, but
a simple appreciation
for the times poets spun
“morning morning’s minion”
“sibilant penumbra”
or “man’s first disobedience and the fruit…”

And for those instances
in kitchens
and in poems
when we ourselves
turn something
of an artistic otter.

 

A Couple of Jedi

I’m proudest that at the end of the visit my son insisted that the sandspeeder stayed with Papa.

IMG_5521It started as a Christmas present from my folks to my nine year old son, a Lego set that made his eyes widen. Sitting at the dining room table assembling his Jakku Quadjumper, my son seemed as happy as the proverbial clam. Midway through the big project my dad sat down next to him, looking from the visual directions to my son’s nimble hands dancing over the plastic blocks.

For the past few months, remembering has been a bit tougher for my dad, familiar things sometimes unfamiliar, and while his memory of people is unflagging, some of the complexity of life that he has always enjoyed wrestling with seem to be taking an upper hand.

But as he watched my son build, the expression on his face was a mixture of delight and curiosity. Bit by bit this spaceship was taking form, my son so focused on his work. I went into the kitchen for a cup of tea and by the time I got back something wonderful was happening: they were building together.

They’ve always been pals, but watching them now I saw something different. My son, patient and positive, helped guide my dad’s hands to the right blocks, put them together, and snap them into place. My dad, concentrating, listened to my son and smiled as they completed each step.

IMG_5581They stayed at it for the better part of an hour, leaning in to talk about the emerging spaceship, my son offering “great job!” after they finished each page.

Teaching. Learning. Collaborating. Creating. The principal I am saw something to admire.

The expression of happiness on both their faces as they presented the completed Jakku Quadjumper to my mom, my wife, and me was marvelous. That Lego set provided a path to something magic.

It’s the sort of magic that a principal like me longs to see in classrooms at my school, teaching and learning led by love and followed by building, the process of working together to construct something to be proud of. At its best learning is creating, making something (from robots to meaning) in an environment that is supportive, focused, and can be transformative. When that happens, lives change.

The next morning, a trip to the store for toothpaste and dental floss brought me near a toy aisle. I couldn’t resist.

By the afternoon our two Jedi were at it again, not Padawan and Master, just two noble knights working together to build a sandspeeder, the pile of Legos around them building blocks of memories.

About ten minutes into the build my dad looked up and said: “He’s a good foreman!” Then he smiled and they went back to building.

IMG_5572When we were ready to leave town the next morning, my son told me that we should leave the sandspeeder for Papa. “He might want to play with it,” he said. The perspective of a nine year old. “You bet,” I answered. “He might.”

And it was in this last kindness, on top of the patient collaboration I’d seen earlier, that I felt an overwhelming sense of joy.

As we begin a new calendar year I wish for every student a teacher with passion and patience, and for every teacher students with curiosity and a pinch of awe. For all I wish kindness and connections, the chance to build, the chance to learn from each other, and the chance to be proud, together, of a job well done.

Hygge

This Saturday my kids and I made a pie. I peeled the apples that my son washed and handed to me, in turn handing them to my daughter who cut them into slices and stirred in sugar and cinnamon. They worked together on the crust, one rolling out the bottom layer, the other the top, each careful to wrap the dough loosely around the rolling pin and spin it smilingly first beneath and then atop the mound of apples.

After we wiped the flour from the kitchen table, preheated the oven, and tucked the red checkered cookbook back on the shelf, the three of us brewed tea and lit a fire.

IMG_4651My wife was out of town and we’d agreed to fill the day with simple things: two early soccer games, my daughter’s in a frigid fog bank and my son’s so wet spray flew off the ball with every kick; a trip to the library, where a librarian scowled at me when I asked to pick up a book my wife had on hold, “You do not have her card,” she pointed out, “we should not do this,” and then, we did, like naughty children, so easily bending the rules; a visit to the library book sale, where for three dollars I left with a book of William Stafford’s poetry and two paperbacks by Stephen King that I remember buying during my freshman year of college; and an hour of housework (laundry, dishes, vacuuming) interrupted by conversation.

It is so easy to get so busy.

Obligations, responsibilities, legitimate, persistent, real, all vie for our attention.

But with my wife away, the immediacy of parenting pulled me away from work and the world beyond our family. I’m so thankful it did.

The book relinquished to me by today’s librarian (who should feel no guilt in sending it home with me) was about Hygge. It’s a Danish concept that defies easy translation, but might be captured in part by the feeling of enjoying a book from a window seat on a lazy afternoon, the feel of a warm blanket looking out over a snowy day, or a cup of cocoa as your mittens dry by the wood stove. I’m told that in Denmark it’s a way of life.

If that’s true, then Saturday at our house felt pretty Danish.

And while I know that the hustle and bustle of work and home is waiting on the other side of tonight’s sleep, and while (if I’m honest with myself) I’m looking forward to the unexpected adventures and breakneck pace of being a principal, it helps me with perspective, priorities, and patience to have a day like today with the sweetness of baked apples and cinnamon.

The weather turning cooler is a nice reminder to slow down, and my kids did a great job of unplugging and really connecting today. Not every day can be a weekend. Not every meal can end in pie. But savoring these Danish days can be such an important balance to the hurly burly, necessary ballast in our ship of life.

Wordsworth captured the feeling I ended the day with in his poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.”

…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 will carry that tea and fire and apple pie with me for weeks. Finding our renewal is worth a few neglected emails or projects postponed. I’m so thankful for my kids, the rain, and a librarian willing to bend the rules.