Roll for Initiative

Goblins, orcs, and ogres… while I’m not so jaded as a high school principal to suggest that this is the clientele that fills our school hallways, I’m dorky enough to make the pitch that if I can handle a hoard of kobolds or bugbears, I can handle a hoard of teenagers. (A variation on that “classic” maxim, I suppose: “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.”) Hear me out.

This summer I had the opportunity to step in on a panel for a friend who was teaching a college class for aspiring administrators. It was a lot of fun and I was humbled by the depth of wisdom from the others on the panel. They were so thoughtful about such a range of topics, and I thought to myself: the lessons we learn and can pass on really can make a difference.

And while I have had my own fair share of formative experiences as a principal (and before that as an assistant principal) I’m also inspired by sources decidedly not academic. I’ve written before about how poetry, Star Wars, Star Trek, and even nautical fiction have inspired my work as a principal, and last spring I added another nontraditional source to that list: Dungeons & Dragons.

I posted about DMing for my kids not long after the pandemic started, and while I was far from a polished Dungeon Master (far, far, far from it), the experience was really fun and left me with a taste to do it again.

Now I’m a reader and the kind of person who likes to learn, so ahead of jumping back into the Dungeon Master’s chair I picked up a couple of books and took to YouTube to see what I could do better. It was a delightful exercise in seeing a whole new world I didn’t know anything about (my only other experience with D&D was playing a handful of games when I was in middle school back in the early ‘80s). My favorite surprise find, hands down, was Web DM.

With lots of wit, laughter, and easy Texas charm, Jonathan Pruitt and Jim Davis cover just about everything a fellow like me, who came late to D&D, needs to know. For anyone who hasn’t seen Web DM, it’s just two fellows sitting at a table surrounded by dice, miniatures, and the trappings of epic fantasy roleplaying. They introduce a topic, provide specific examples, and banter back and forth for about half an hour. I love that they’re engaging and knowledgeable, but also never judgemental about different ways of doing things. They have opinions, sure, but they’re not mean and always leave room for other points of view. They invite viewers to think, and one episode in particular had me thinking about the similarities between being a principal and being a DM.

The episode Problem DMs: Overcoming Game Master Issues in 5e Dungeons & Dragons pretty much sums up a good swath of the kinds of principals I’ve met in my quarter century in education. If I were putting together a college class for aspiring administrators this would be a required text.

Because as nutty as it might seem, Web DM’s description of different kinds of Dungeon Masters could serve as a great reminder of some of the important things about leading a school and a cautionary tale to anyone reflecting on his or her own practice as a school administrator.

The episode starts with a meaningful reminder: “The Dungeon Master is another player at the table. They have different tools, they have different pieces that they use, but … they’re not like this special figure…” So too, I would offer, the principal is one of a staff of adults working together to help kids, and as Jim Davis says of a DM, “they need to be empowered to make decisions, they need to be empowered to make rulings, the rules need to support the Dungeon Master in running the game, but it’s not like we’re sitting down to be ruled by the iron fist of tyranny.”

“What we’re talking about today,” Davis explains, “is really Dungeon Master styles, and a mismatch between Dungeon Master styles and player styles that create problems.” As they describe it, the different styles aren’t bad in and of themselves, but can seem so if mismatched with the players at the table. It’s not unlike a school, where it works best when the culture of a site and the personality of a principal are really in sync. To help this happen, principals, like DMs, should know their type.

And what are those types of Dungeon Masters? Well…

The Optimiser, always challenging those around him, planning, preparing, and showing no mercy. The result of this style, Jim Davis explains, can be a “well oiled machine” …by necessity. This competitive environment works for those who want a high pressure experience and the sense of accomplishment that comes from “winning” a difficult battle. Optimization, however, comes at a price. You can see this in schools, where it’s easy to understand that sometimes the motivation for “optimizing” comes externally, but the results can be as unsustainable as they would be when the players and DM don’t all agree that this style is the way they want to be playing.

Adversarial DMing is a way of describing a Dungeon Master who is interested in having power and control. While this might work for the DM, it can lead to players feeling animosity, fear, and maybe that they shouldn’t continue. Davis suggests that sometimes players second guess themselves when they’re in situations with adversarial DMs and wonder if they’re not having fun or succeeding because of “something I did.” Does this happen on a school staff? If you don’t know the answer, site administrators, go ask your staff.

The Rules as Written DM scolds players for not knowing the ins and outs of the Player’s Handbook, looks up every rule, or hesitates to make a decision on the fly in fear of doing something wrong. “Unless you have a table full of rule lawyers” Davis tells the audience, this style of play can be difficult. As in D&D, rules, protocols, and expectations help provide an armature on which education can be fashioned into a viable sculpture, and like D&D when those rules are placed above the humanity of the enterprise the results can be frustrating, disheartening, and lead to lamentable results.

Jim Davis makes the point, however, that Adversarial DMs and Rules as Written DMs should be seen as existing as a “matter of degree.” Sometimes, he explains, it’s appropriate to say honestly: “My f***ing dragon is trying to kill you. I hope he doesn’t. I like your characters.” (A note here: Web DM is peppered with occasional F-bombs; truth be told, behind closed doors, so too is school administration.) Rules aren’t bad, and a lack of structure can be. The dance that DMs and principals must master, or continue to attempt to master, is balancing between the two.

My Precious House Rules DM is the person who “hands over a 37 page living document” describing how things are done at this particular gaming table. Not unlike some schools, where specific traditions, agreed upon culture, and unique ways of doing business are a part of what makes things work, “homebrew” D&D, if agreed on by the party, can lead to special and marvelous results. As Davis says of such gaming groups, “more power to them, they are playing the game in a time honored way.” …if everyone agrees. Homebrew for a player who is a traditional rule follower, however, might not be the right fit.

That made me think of a friend of mine who is an AP History teacher at a high octane academic school in Southern California. His students routinely excel on the AP exams and he loves the pressure and rewards of working in a system that demands much and expects results. He delivers them, and he told me once that he couldn’t imagine teaching at my school (where tie-dye could be the official school color). It just wouldn’t be a good fit, he explained. As much as I respect him as a teacher, and that is a lot, I think he’s right. He’s comfortable with the educational version of an Optimizer DM and would feel out of step with my decidedly homebrew world. 

But even house rules happen on a continuum. 

Hater DMs, subscribe to the “not in my game” aesthetic. Davis gives an example from a game when he DMed in this way …for a specific purpose, but as Pruitt interjects: “maybe it’s okay to have personal preference, but you don’t have to impose it on someone else.” Good advice beyond D&D. For me that’s spelling bees

“There is a point,” Jim Davis says, “between too permissive and too restrictive that works for your gaming group. And that means that there is a compromise between everyone who is at that table, not just what one person wants and then everyone else has to deal with it.”

The Quiet DM v. The TMI DM. Davis and Pruitt use the example of under and over description to describe these two kinds of Dungeon Masters, admitting times they’ve each fallen into these behaviors. Describing the DM as “the players’ eyes and ears” and explaining the importance of fulfilling this role, they discuss how easy it is to struggle with the discrepancy between what the DM knows and understands (Dungeon Masters have the whole picture of the adventure) and the players know (who are experiencing the adventure a step at a time) and the challenge of the “slow releasing of information that takes place between the interaction of the game.” Quiet, TMI …as a principal, I have been both. Maybe both this week.

“One last thing,” Davis adds toward the end of the video that is as applicable to the gaming table as it is to the schoolhouse as it is to any environment in which we find ourselves, “if you have a DM who does not respect your boundaries that is a huge f***ing red flag. If they do not respect your boundaries when you are playing together, then they are not going to respect your boundaries outside of the play, they are not going to respect your boundaries in any other aspect.” This step back from listing styles of DMing and addressing the fundamental issue of respect and humanity is a reminder that the world we live in is fraught with opportunities both good and bad. His advice on gaming applies to more than the gaming table, and it resonated with me as a part of a staff when he said: “You want to play with people who you trust and you want to play with people who are going to treat you with respect.”

Pruitt brings the conversation to a close with a couple of questions that (if this connection between being a Dungeon Master and a principal is to be believed) would be the cornerstone to a meaningful discussion in that fictitious college class for aspiring administrators: “How do you not do all the things that we’ve talked about?” and “What are some ways to better align DM and player expectations?”

Because it’s that alignment of everyone in the group, gaming group or group of educators, that is at the heart of a successful, fun, and productive experience.

The last few minutes of the episode, addressing the importance of communication, honesty, and “knowing yourself” are heartfelt and wise. So too is the advice about asking for feedback, adjusting to those responses, and how to set clear expectations early in the process. “If you care about [your players] as human beings,” Davis says, “then you can avoid a lot of these problem behaviors.” 

Caring about others as people. What would happen if every educator started from here?

“Be kind,” he concludes, “and be respectful, and a lot of these problems will go away. Not all of them, so it’s good to know what you can do.”

The whole show is a fantastic 37 minutes of wisdom for DMs and principals, maybe not honestly something that will make it on a college syllabus, but more insightful than some scholarly articles that will.

…a side note, and if anyone is still reading this (thank you) then maybe you’ll indulge me a paragraph or three that I’d include if sharing this with RPG minded aspiring administrators… (What does the Venn diagram of D&D fans and school administrators look like?) Another episode of Web DM that resonated with me as a principal took on the important topic of sexism, as real in the world of high school administration as it is in Dungeons & Dragons. 

With Web DM co-founder Emma Lambert sitting between them, the regular hosts asked questions and listened as she broke down a reality that answered the episode’s premise “Let’s Talk About Stereotypes of Women in 5e D&D.”

I’ve known and worked with some amazing women in high school administration, but the reality on the ground is that when I look around at a meeting of principals my status as a white male has put me in the majority in every district where I have worked. So too, it seems, much D&D.

In 17 minutes or so, she holds up and knocks down stereotypes. Looking at her fellow Web DMers, for instance, she speaks truth while poking fun with lines like: “A munchkin stereotype or even a neckbeard stereotype… in some ways their problem is that they care about the game too much.” The fellows nod. “That’s not necessarily seen as an option for women.”

They make the point that from its earliest editions D&D has had inclusive language, but that has not always been the practice at the table (or, perhaps the schoolhouse). 

There were more parallels, from assumptions of motivation to how different genders are discussed in the system. “There has always been a very inclusive side to this culture,” Lambert explains, “and there’s always been a very exclusive side, and you’re always going to run into it.”

D&D, she means, not education, but…

The world of school administration can learn from lots of sources inside education and beyond. Web DM has made me a more thoughtful principal. And someday, who knows, maybe I’ll get to DM for a group of educators. Wouldn’t that be amazing. No promises that it would be as inspiring as that panel I got to serve on, and even after watching my share of Pruitt and Jim Davis I’m certainly no polished DM, but it sure could be fun.

“I can’t imagine not being there…”

The five am wakeup felt familiar. The day teachers come back to campus after summer vacation is (for me as a principal) my first day of school. I still get butterflies, and probably always will, before the year begins. That’s normal, I suppose; I want so much to get things off to a good start. 

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But this year the teachers didn’t come back to campus proper. My early trip to my office, pausing for a predawn selfie, was followed not by my usual pancake breakfast for the staff and gathering in the library, but by a Zoom meeting where teacher faces looked back at me from kitchen tables, extra bedrooms, and makeshift offices from Portland to Forest Grove.

More than a few cats and kids joined us for the morning, and the playful banter in the chat was a nice reminder that even though we were discussing what is an unusual (and unusually stressful) start of the school year, we’re all friends here and ready to support one another.

That caring and support was a highlight of the morning. People were real when they talked about what made them anxious, what was keeping them up at night, and what they were feeling about the year ahead, and when someone suggested the importance of each of us helping each other (with new technology, planning for distance learning, and how best to connect with kids) the avalanche of volunteers who put their cell phone numbers into the chat to make it easy to connect was profound.

We’ll be okay, better than okay really, because we honestly care for each other and are there to help everyone succeed. And when we don’t succeed I’m convinced we’ll be there to help each other pick up the pieces.

It was this spirit of professional generosity that moved me most on this “first day of school” and reminded me of the very special school community that I’m so fortunate to be a part of. 

I never take that for granted, but after a couple of months away from campus to see my staff together, even in boxes on a screen, felt really, really good.

It was a perfect follow up to the email I received from an incoming student the night before:

I am so excited for this year at ACMA! Obviously this is not how I imagined my first day of 6th grade going but we all are making the best of this situation. I worked so hard to get into this school and am looking forward to my experience. I have heard nothing but positives about ACMA and I can’t imagine not being there. I have wanted to go to this school for as long as I could remember. I am so excited to meet you and the teachers and excited to work with all of you. Can’t wait to start ACMA in two weeks!”

I’m looking forward to the year ahead too, and to all the people —staff, students, and families— I get to spend time with. We may not be in the same building, at least not for a little while, but we’re still here for each other. 

Let the wild rumpus start.

“When you mess with the bull…”

Parents and educators, we’re partners in this. As we navigate this odd, unusual, and unfamiliar world of Comprehensive Distance Learning (CDL) one of the best ways we can support our kids is to work together. What does that look like? Well, at its heart it means caring for students, communicating frequently and honestly, and staying as connected as we can around academics and social and emotional health. On the ground (or around the kitchen table) this can look different from day to day.

Last week one of my amazing teachers came to me with an idea that felt different than others I’d seen about parents supporting students, and I thought it would be worth sharing with families as another way to think about how we partner this fall. It sounds a little unconventional at first, but when the dust settles on his proposal what’s left makes some sense.

“As we know,” he wrote me, “most teenagers often require extra motivation, cajoling, and encouragement in order to do things they don’t want to do. Teenagers definitely need to be pushed through academically rigorous material. If it was just stuff they were interested in, they wouldn’t grow. If they could do it all on their own, it wouldn’t be hard enough. They are supposed to struggle and the work of education is continually adjusting the amount of struggle. In the classroom, I have an ability to see kids working and I can make adjustments. I can see when kids need to be redirected or helped or complimented. I can dole out rewards and inflict consequences. All for the sake of pushing a kid to try and work and grow.  

“All teachers can do now is present information and grade work. As we saw in the spring, this led to generally poor results for all stakeholders. Generally, the only one in a position to properly push these kids now are parents. This is not ideal or even fair, but it is the situation. If a parent is not in a position to administer their child’s education, due to work or other circumstances, that kid needs to be identified and we need to figure out how to provide them with educational guidance and support.  

“I heard a lot of frustration from parents that distance learning was overwhelming for them as well. We need to be sensitive to this and figure out how to keep their morale up and keep them engaged in this partnership. I believe that clarifying their role and helping them learn how to do it can make this manageable. I wonder if shifting terminology and asking parents to think of themselves as vice-principals rather than teachers would help.”

Wait, what? some of you might be thinking. That’s not the job I signed up for! His suggestion caught my attention too. But listen, this isn’t a scheme that asks you to put on a suit or dish out lines like “If you mess with the bull, you get the horns.” It’s more thoughtful than that. (Though of course you are still welcome to tell your own son or daughter that if they mess with the bull…)

Bull and horns

He continued: “Most parents don’t know how to teach math and literature and chemistry, but they do know how to enforce rules, redirect behavior, and support someone through a struggle.  You administrators do an awesome job of this stuff when we’re in the building, but I’d imagine your capabilities during CDL have greatly diminished.

“I would like to clarify and support the parental role in CDL by asking them to focus on five main jobs:

  • Establish an appropriate balance between work and free time
  • Minimize distractions during work time and persist through challenges
  • Make the most of free time 
  • Verify completion of assignments
  • Formulate questions for kids to ask their teacher

“We could have trainings and support sessions on each of these jobs ranging from “beginner” to “advanced.” These are things that parents should be able to do and ways they can be an integral partner. And again, if they aren’t in a position to do the above, we should identify those students and figure out how we can support those households. This role is critically important.”

So, parent as administrator, not instructor. Does that mean you don’t answer your kid’s question about the periodic table? No, but it shifts the focus of parent support to areas not limited to academics.

All five of the “jobs” this teacher suggested are vital to student success, and I’d like to unpack them over the next few weeks. Until then I invite you to think about ways parents and educators can work together to help make this school year as positive and productive as it can be. None of us can do this alone, but we’re not alone; we have each other, and the kids need that.

Buggles

I hear that video killed the radio star, and (if the kids today are to be believed) that if any principals like me want to capture the attention of our school communities we need to do more than churn out long winded blog posts like mine and get about the business of making movies. Well, short videos anyway, that just might be more appealing than a short reading assignment.

I’m taking that call for video to heart, particularly in this time of physical separation prompted by the ongoing pandemic. Even if I can’t see my students and families face to face every morning at least I can put my face out there to help keep the connection between home and school.

To do this I’m aiming for short hellos every Monday as a part of our ACMA Monday Message, a one page update with what to look forward to that week. In addition I’m filming some silly little shorts with specific topics (Zoom, support, stress reduction), and plan on a couple of “Fireside Chats” every month while we’re away from campus.

Screen Shot 2020-08-09 at 9.22.29 PMI know that seeing someone’s face, hearing their voice, and watching them as they communicate can help make the message clear. Sure there’s a bit of theatricality to it all, but at the end of the day I work at an art school and a little theatre is just fine.

It also means that I may be building a catalogue of buffoonery that I’ll look back on in a few years and shake my head about. That’s okay. Sometimes it’s okay to play the fool, particularly when it’s done with an open heart and desire to do the right thing.

Will anyone watch? We’ll see. If they do I can promise information, a window into ACMA, and a face that was made for radio.

The Summer of our Discontent

I keep a copy of Shakespeare’s Henry V by my desk, an inspiration for those days when I need to turn to an idealized vision of a leader boldly striking forth while keeping a human heart. I’ve written about it before, but maybe failed to mention that alongside that little tome sits a matching volume of Richard III, a reference work for days when leadership isn’t quite so noble (Shakespeare’s Richard was a scoundrel, for all you non-English majors).

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I taught English for more than a dozen years, and my most memorable time with Richard III came when a friend of mine and I were the two person English department at a small high school in rural Oregon. We taught a lot of Shakespeare, and the year after I left the school (to move south to California) I flew up one day in the spring and surprised my former students.

My friend was in the midst of a unit on Shakespeare with kids who were seniors and had studied Richard III with me the year before. He had a stage set up in his room, and before class started I hid behind the curtain wearing a gas mask (quiet homage to the Ian McKellen Richard III film). Once the students had filed in I pushed out from behind the curtain and launched into Richard’s opening speech, ripping the mask off as I got to the final line:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings”

Ah, “merry meetings.”

I thought about that long ago morning this week as we got word that we’d be starting the school year 100% remotely. It has been months since I’ve seen my current students face to face and in person, not just through a computer screen. Right now we are living through the “clouds lour’d upon our house” and the notion of hanging up our bruised arms feels miles away. And…

This will end. The time will come when our “stern alarums” will be replaced by something else. We will return to school when safety allows, and that will be a time of merry meetings indeed. Until then, well…

The uncertainty of the fall is heavy on all our hearts. We know that we want to be at school, but that the “at school” we have in mind doesn’t exist right now. The stress we feel is real. The isolation from friends, and as much from the bustle and hum of those around us at school who are all potential friends, is palpable. The worry about what we are missing makes sense. We are, all of us, doing our best to do our best. We are trying to understand a situation that none of us has faced before, and move through it with as much grace as we’re able. It isn’t easy.

It is the summer of our discontent, but seasons change.

And as we move into a fall of adaptation, where we are asked to face our uncertainty and move toward some kind of temporary normal that looks different than anything we’ve know, it helps to know that sometime in the future the seasons will change yet again and we will be able to look back at 2020 as a time that tested us, challenged our system, and a time that we emerged from changed, but whole.

Yehuda Amichai, a more modern poet than Shakespeare, said it well:

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.”

We are living in a world “dug up” right now, but it’s from plowed ground that flowers grow. We’ll make it, together (at a physical distance, for a while), and sometime soon we’ll rip off the gas mask, smile with the joy of recognition that only comes from long absence, and enjoy together a merry meeting.

Strained

If you’re looking for someone to be mad at the choice of suspects is long, and I have no doubt that I’m on it. If remote learning has you frustrated, angry, sad, you’re not alone. It has lots of us feeling emotions we aren’t used to associating with school, all of us: students, teachers, parents, and even principals.

If you just want to scream, lash out at someone who made a choice that you think was wrong (no, you’re sure was wrong), or someone who sent a message that didn’t carry the right tone, or hold accountable someone on the other side of a computer screen, you will not find it difficult to find a name to put in the “To:” line of your email. These are frustrating times, and sometimes it feels like it should help if there is a person whose feet might get held to the proverbial fire. We see it all around us these days. So many of us are strained.

And before we type that email, assign that blame, or choose rigidity over kindness (and all are things that all of us are sometimes tempted to do) I’d encourage us to take a moment and think that…

Teachers are people. People doing their best to balance home and work, work being something that all of them know has the possibility of changing lives, work that involves kids we care so much about, and work that all of us feel obligated to do well. Really well. And for all of our professional lives those of us in education have been given a specific set of guidelines about what doing that job well entails.

Doing our job well means that when kids leave our classrooms they are prepared for what comes next, the next grade, the next level of math, the next English class that builds on the fact that students have already learned “x, y, and z.” This year we’re struggling to get halfway through “y.” 

And this kills us. One teacher I admire told me that he was struggling with the grading approach he was being told by the state to practice. “My classroom integrity and the faith I have in the system is really shaken when I’m asked to lie about what a student can and can’t do,” he told me. “It makes my work even more difficult to stand behind and do on a daily basis.” How will that student who leaves his class cope with the next class that she won’t be prepared for, and how can he hold on to the integrity that helps to define him if the “P” (for passing) at the end of the year doesn’t accurately reflect what happened in his (virtual) classroom? This isn’t a silly or frivolous question; we want teachers with integrity, and the strain he’s feeling from the situation is real. 

Another gifted teacher called a passing mark at the end of June “a governor’s P” (as opposed to “a gentleman’s C”). It was his way of processing what was being asked of him, imperfect, but true.

For many teachers, who work so hard and in this time away from campus are working as hard as ever, the tension caused by lack of student engagement, frustration with technology, and the chorus of concerns raised daily from all sides can feel overwhelming. Some see them as heroes; some call out every decision they make as the wrong one. They continue to work to help kids learn, but with every week that job feels harder. Students aren’t always engaging as we wish they could, some are struggling, and…

…and it’s important to remember that students are people. Midway through our discussions about how to best support our kids in this remote learning situation my staff had a discussion about the challenges our students were reporting to us and the fact that we all might benefit from taking a deep breath and thinking about the kids as “people, not pupils.” 

We batted around ideas for a coordinated response to some of the things our students had been telling us, things like: 

“This is a very stressful time for students and even though it may seem like we have more time to do work, it doesn’t mean we can necessarily. Anxiety and depression have gotten worse since the start of online school. Some students just feel like they are always behind and can never catch up. … The biggest concerns seem to be being behind next school year and failing classes as well as teachers assigning too much work, procrastination and pressure from parents.”

“Students have been dealing with stress by crying, breaking things, cutting or just not dealing with their stress and those are not healthy ways to deal with stress.”

“Some of us students are now facing food insecurity, abuse at home, a loss of support staff, and financial instability at a higher rate than ever before. I personally have A.D.D, and would not have been able to even begin to cope with the amount of work we are being given if I hadn’t had parents who were able to set up a complex system to help me. Many students do not have parents who either a) understand the issues their kids are facing or b) know how to help their children cope with online learning.”

These were very real student voices, strained by circumstances beyond what they were prepared for. Exactly zero of them had signed up for online school at the start of the year, the same number of teachers who had signed up to teach completely online. The stresses they were feeling were profound, immediate, and heart wrenching. They didn’t know what to do, and they were looking to the adults in their lives to help. And… 

…and we adults are stressed out too, particularly some of the moms and dads, aunts and uncles, grandparents and older siblings who are raising our kids. It’s easy for students to feel grumpy that their parents are forcing them to sit down and do schoolwork, and it’s easy for teachers to feel frustrated at some of the emails they get that question their teaching ability, dedication to the students, and (at least in one case I know of) even their parenting. That’s not fair, but…

Parents are people. And parents are people who are feeling as much strain as the teachers and kids. As one mom told me: “Sometimes I look at this situation and think to myself, ‘this is insane!’ It feels a tad impractical for my eleven year old to navigate seven classes remotely, all the while missing strong connections with her peers (which, arguably, peer-to-peer aids in the navigation of middle school). To state what you already know, it’s completely upside down. I’ve written to all of my daughter’s teachers to let them know she is struggling, and to get a grasp on what’s past due and what’s coming up. Since she’s behind in most of her classes, I’ve devised a plan to help her get caught up, but again, school work is met with negative emotions, the tears, the stress, the overwhelming feeling she can’t shake. For my family, the next 5 weeks looks like a mountain.”

Lots of parents feel the same. We want our kids to learn, we want our kids to engage with school (and with peers and with teachers). We see the stress in their eyes and just want to help …and want others to help.

There’s a line in Shakespeare that comes to mind when all of these stresses tempt us to lash out. It’s from The Merchant of Venice, a complicated play that knows its way around anger, bitterness, and societal stress. Midway through Act IV one character tells another (who is steeped in anger and embroiled in a lawsuit): “The quality of mercy is not strained.”

For context, the line is delivered to encourage the character to show mercy not because he is compelled to by law, but because it is the right, the kind, thing to do. Showing mercy, she tells him, not only blesses the person receiving mercy, but blesses him as well. The lines go like this:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”

In this modern age it isn’t only monarchs who get to have an opinion; we all have the power to speak our minds. But if I read Shakespeare correctly, it’s not in the vehemence of our opinions that we show our best true selves. Our criticisms, our angry words, our stated frustrations, and our calls for justice may all have merit, but it is when we allow “mercy to season justice” that we bring ease to our strain (and maybe the strain of those around us).

For anyone thinking that we don’t need Shakespeare for this, I’ll shift gears and offer a little mid-80’s pop to bring the point home.

Thanks, Depeche Mode. 

People are people.” All of us. We’re stressed out. We’re frustrated that we aren’t able to help in the way we’d like, that we aren’t able to do everything we wish we could do. But maybe what we’re able to do is simply what we’re able to do. Our best. Maybe we can show kindness to one another, recognizing that our current circumstances feel overwhelming …for all of us.

So I encourage all of us to pause, breathe, and allow ourselves to accept that while people make mistakes and can be easy to be mad at, one of the most human things we can do is show each other mercy.

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Dungeons and Distance

COVID-19, week seven: the one where I learn how to be a Dungeon Master for my kids’ first game of D&D.

I’ll start with the acknowledgement that I am very, very fortunate to be sheltering at home during this time of global pandemic with people I like (and love). I get to continue to do my job (albeit in a way I haven’t before), and I even have a dog to walk. Which is awesome. While I don’t like not being able to visit my parents or browse Powell’s, technology allows me to Facetime with my folks and I have more than enough books here on my shelf.

I’m happy that one of those books is The Lord of the Rings (well, three books, but you know what I mean). It has been serving as inspiration not only in this time of pandemic, but more specifically for my attempt at the collaborative storytelling of Dungeons & Dragons.

IMG_4644We picked up the “Starter Set” of D&D for $20 at Target earlier in the week, our jigsaw puzzles and some of our well worn board games having exhausted their best efforts. It seemed like a natural place to begin. Then, with a spring rain filling the gutters and encouraging us to stay inside, we gathered around the kitchen table on a wet Saturday, mugs of tea at our elbows, and started down the road together toward the Lost Mine of Phandelver. We were a merry fellowship, making up in creativity and curiosity what we lacked in experience.

I’d read about D&D and the positive impact it can have for kids at school, first in an article in which one ninth grade teacher in Texas summed it up this way: “Participation in narrative role play can open up interests in topics such as mathematics, science, history, culture, ethics, critical reading, and media production. When D&D and its cousins are played in an inviting, encouraging, compassionate, and intellectually engaged environment, play opens the door to truly amazing possibilities for learning.”

We weren’t doing anything quite so grand at our kitchen table on Saturday; the three of us were simply trying to encourage some sanity on a rainy day of COVID-19 sheltering at home. But I could see what that teacher was talking about. The best parts of our game came when impromptu inspiration (that long haired goblin with a broken nose who lost an arm to my son’s fighter’s broadsword) and collective decision making brought my kids together and inspired a laugh or two.

I was the Dungeon Master in that D&D epic, and because I’m a bit dorky and don’t like to do things poorly, I prepared for the role by reading more than a few words of wisdom online. There are lots of D&D sites that have advice for novice “DMs” and I was struck by where the list of DM tips overlapped with what I do for a living: Be prepared, make things fun, err on the side of the players, improvise, tell a collective story. And I thought…

Being a DM is a lot like being a principal. 

In the best of times the preparation we put in (over the summer, on evenings and weekends, and behind the scenes every day) helps to nurture an environment that is positive for students, teachers, and families. We can tell when things are going well by the laughter in the hallways and in the classrooms. At our best, we show mercy and understanding to everyone in our school community, and we always do our best to put kids first. Improvisation is a part of every school, and when we do it in concert with the people around us the collective story we tell can be amazing.

In “5 DM Tips for Running Your First Game” an experienced Dungeon Master advises: 

Carefully listen to your players. Yes, you should hear them when they tell you what their characters would like to do. Yes, you should pay attention to the intent of what they are describing their character doing. But your players communicate with you in a number of other ways.

It’s easy to tell when your players are having fun and engaging with your story. People having fun will smile. People having fun will exclaim! People having fun will argue with passion. That means that what you are doing in your game is working and you should note that and do more of that thing.

Communicating your expectations and thoughts and perceptions of your game to your players is also very beneficial. Let them know what you think is working and what you see could be improved. They may agree with you, but even more likely they will offer you a point of view on your game that you had not considered. That is invaluable data for planning your game moving forward.”

He could easily be writing about school administration. Students at school should be having fun and engaging with the stories of their lives. They are helped most when we listen to them, engage with them, and can see that “people having fun will smile. People having fun will exclaim! People having fun will argue with passion.” We want that in our young adults, and don’t have to be facing a pack of orcs to see it happen.

Back to that article on D&D in schools, the author, educator Paul Darvasi, invites us to wonder: “These intriguing case studies point to what a comprehensive learning program might look like if subjects and skills were not taught in isolation from each other, but integrated into a single cohesive system where students are intrinsically motivated to participate.”

It is so easy to be so siloed in a middle or high school, and this grand experiment in remote learning that every school in our state is struggling with has exacerbated that separation even more. I’m fortunate that a few creative pockets at my school have actively worked to collaborate, but it’s harder to do online than fending off a stone giant.

ACMA has an active D&D club, and when we went into sheltering at home a few reached out to me to see if they could come to campus to pick up items so they could keep playing online. Like so many of our students these intrepid adventurers find themselves in a situation no roll of the dice can overcome. They’re working out ways to play from home, connecting with their community, or at least a part of it, and working together to accomplish a goal. There’s a lesson there for all of us.

And… at some point in the not too distant future we’ll go back to school. Those D&D Club members will roll dice together on campus. The teachers will be able to step out of their classrooms and see familiar faces and possibilities for connection. All of us, students and teachers alike, will return from this experience and have the opportunity to write our own story. 

Will we be different, more inclined to connect, more appreciative of the community we get to be a part of? Trying adventures do change people (and elves and wizards). I’m hopeful that with every experience we learn and grow, and that when we are done sheltering at home we can all go back to the people and places we had to separate from and engage again, like travelers coming home from the Lost Mine of Phandelver.

Dog Days

IMG_4008At least the dogs are happy. That seems the most universal silver lining when I talk with friends. People home from work and school, walks a joy (for homebound humans as well as four legged bundles of fur clad love), the COVID-19 induced time at home means that while many of us wrestle with uncertainty, anxiety, and a dollop of boredom, the pups are active, appreciated, and bounding into what mother nature tells them is spring. They are angels, and perfect reminders that there is still much that is right in the world.

But that world.

Today, in addition to a video conference on how our district might facilitate online learning and how we can support our soon to be graduating seniors, I spent two hours back on campus to allow teachers and counselors time to come in and collect plants, files, and anything they need before we’re away from campus for a spell. (I’d say until April 28, the governor’s latest return date for schools, but the world seems to change every morning when I get up and a date like that could seem antiquated before anyone reads this post).

It was wonderful (and a little surreal) to see the adults I work with coming back to campus during the allotted window, even if we all kept a sensible distance between us and weren’t quite sure what to say (“See you soon?”) as each person left the building.

We’re all trying to figure out what happens next, both as an education system and each of the individuals who make up our school. I know students are feeling the strangeness of it all; I’ve gotten concerned emails from some and marvelous emails from a few others, sharing the art and music they’re making and ideas for when we get back.

I got another email from a teacher who had driven by our old campus, soon to be our new campus as they build a new building that we’ll move into in the fall of 2021. “Sun is out,” he wrote. “Weather nice. Construction going well. Even though we are all stuck things are moving forward. Thanks for all you do. See ya soon.” He threw in a few photos of our building rising up against a beautiful blue sky, and I could believe that all will be well.

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The first full week without students, teachers, and staff is finishing with a sense of the unknown looming over all of us. We’re about to go into what would have been our spring break, a week usually filled with renewal and maybe an adventure or two. 

We’re all on a huge collective adventure instead, maybe one navigated primarily from our living rooms and shared over Zoom. Heading into week two my thoughts go out to all those whose situations are filled with much more stress than my own. They are many, and need all of us to show kindness, patience, and support.

I wish I had answers to the questions people are asking me as a principal. (When will we be back? What will it look like when we are? Why can we just switch to online learning now?) But the truth is that while I’m fortunate to have lots of autonomy in my building, the answers to all those questions are beyond the walls of the schoolhouse. I know that our district is at work on what it can address equitably and thoroughly, and the state is assessing things every day. So, I believe the answers will come, some we like, some that may frustrate us, but those will take time.

Time that my dog tells me would be well spent on a walk.

Cut Flowers and Spring

It snowed on the first day of the extra week of spring break brought to the kids by the COVID-19 Coronavirus, a strange day after the strange day on which we found out that schools were closing for two weeks and middle school boys everywhere rejoiced in the idea of a fortnight of Fortnite. For the rest of us, particularly the adults who now are puzzling over how to navigate kids and social distancing, Friday was the start of an uncertain time. 

By the time I sat down to write this post on Sunday night more and more restrictions had come into play and others still were being mulled over by folks in government who mull over such things. I keep waiting for the centipede of uncertainty’s next shoe to drop.

That uncertainty, coupled with the challenge of being a principal on the edge of school closures beyond my control but within my responsibility to communicate has put this blog on hold for a week or so, and even now I wasn’t sure what I could say; anything newsworthy would seem to be outdated by the time I hit “post.” So…

I use this blog to tell stories, stories of pirates, and port-a-potties, and pies in the face, and while I might not have the answers right now, I thought I could at least tell two and a half stories of life on the ground here at school, and then end with a line from Neruda and I hope a pinch of hope.

Story 1: I was walking down the hallway Friday morning with one of my math teachers. A senior hurried alongside us and asked: “What are we doing today in statistics?” The teacher didn’t break stride. “Statistics,” he said with a smile.

Story 2: A mom, whose middle school son had been out with a cold, asked if she could come in and pick up some of his books from his locker before the school closed down for two weeks of spring break. I walked her down to his locker and as she tumbled the books, notebooks, and stray papers into a grocery bag the sliver of a note fluttered to the bottom of the locker. She picked it up and glanced at it to see if she ought to stuff it in with the rest. Then she paused, her mother’s eyes deciphering the writing. “This says ‘smooching,’” she said, looking up at me. I thought it was something like a surprised smile that crossed her face. “You could always leave it in the locker,” I suggested. This time the smile was apparent. “Oh no, this one’s going home.”

Story 2½: I waved goodbye to the mom and her note, thinking that the day couldn’t get much stranger, and looked down to realize that I was wearing a lab coat. About a thousand years ago, when I was an English teacher at a small school in Oregon, a good friend and I started “Lab Coat Mondays.” It must have begun when I was teaching Frankenstein or some such thing; costumes were always a part of my repertoire as a teacher, and once I realized the fun (and ample pockets) of a lab coat it was something too great not to do once a week. I’d mentioned Lab Coat Mondays to some colleagues here at ACMA and, with a wit and sense of whimsy that I’ve found to be a part of who we are as a school, it wasn’t long before a host of teachers were wearing lab coats once a week (we opted for Friday). While many of them chose a sleek black look, my old standby is a well worn white lab coat, and I wondered: did that mom think I was wearing this because of COVID-19?

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These are light and cough free stories of the Coronavirus and the weird whirlwind of closing school unexpectedly. I know that there are serious stories of hardship and illness out there as well, and that over the next few days and weeks we could see things turn again and again.

Our present reality caught us mid stride, and while we would like to keep doing what we’re doing (statistics or otherwise) and while we know that life goes on (smooching included, even if we know it could be a bad idea) those ways of being in the world that started with the best of intentions (lab coats on Friday, for instance) could need a bit of modification to make sense today.

There’s a line by Pablo Neruda that came to my mind as information continued to unfold: “You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep spring from coming.” Canceled classes, postponed events, and even stores without toilet paper and canned beans may make us feel like all of the flowers have been cut down, but spring will come, and as we support one another through these uncertain times, I believe that there are brighter days ahead. Even if we’re surprised by a snowy March morning or two.

Outside

We stood together in the February chill, rain threatening, clouds thick, the grass wet beneath our feet. From the expanse of field we regarded the east side of the school, a new building of sensible earth tone brick, and thought about the possibilities.

We’re living a new reality this year, our little art school hanging our collective hat (beret, fez, fedora, cat ears, horns, or beanie depending on the day) at a school without the big performance hall we’ll have when construction is done on our permanent campus and we return to Center Street in the fall of 2021. 

For the most part we’ve been able to adjust: our dance department turned an auxiliary gym into a fantastic performance venue, theater has chosen shows perfectly suited to our temporary home’s black box theater, and we’ve added monthly Open Mic Nights to fill the commons we’re in for these two years.

This flexibility and challenge to think beyond our usual venues or routines will translate to both a renewed appreciation of our Performing Arts Center (when we see it again) and a spirit of innovation that we’ll bring to our new campus.

And…

Graduation is too big for the black box, or aux gym, or the commons. It needs a grander venue than anything inside our temporary home, and is something intimate enough that we don’t want to just anywhere because it has enough seats.

So…

We got to thinking and began to entertain the notion of taking commencement outside.

Yes, I know, we live in Oregon, where a sunny day in June is as guaranteed as a first novel becoming a bestseller.

Still, the idea of gathering under the sun and celebrating our seniors in a way that has never been done before at our little school sounded about right.

Different? Sure. Unconventional? Maybe. An opportunity for creativity? As they say around our community: “So very ACMA.”

Back to that February rain.

It was me, my astounding secretary, and an intrepid senior who took a wet walk outdoors to allow ourselves to imagine.IMG_3224

We talked about seating, and photos, and where to put the band. We allowed ourselves to imagine a day sunny enough to warrant some pop ups for our visiting grandparents who would need the shade. And as we paced and photographed, suggested and saw in our mind’s eye what the ceremony might be, the idea of commencement on the east long began to look fantastic.

We hurried inside and got out an invitation to the seniors to meet in early March to walk out and offer suggestions. We know that creativity can be inspired through collaboration, and we want the graduates to have a hand in designing their day.

Education has a place for dreaming and for doing, for many voices and shared interests imagining in February what the world can look like in spring.