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.

“You can just talk” 

The senior, a gifted musician, talented artist, and leader of our National Honor Society, slowly raised his hand. He looked to the moderator and waited. She was listening to another girl and after a moment or two made eye contact with the patient senior. The moderator smiled. “You can just talk,” she said, welcoming, kind, the perfect leader of a student gathering. He put his hand down, smiled back, and launched into a big idea about how high school students could help support middle schoolers on our 6th-12th grade campus.

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It was lunchtime on a Friday and the first meeting of our ACMA Student Forum.

The idea was simple: two amazing students moderated a discussion, projecting a shared document on the wall and asking students what topics they wanted to talk about. While one typed, everyone gathered was invited to pitch in ideas about what was working at our school, what wasn’t working, and what they thought might help make ACMA better.

Students, any students, not just students elected to student government or as Ohana reps, could say whatever they thought. All voices were equal, whether it was a plucky 6th grader or a veteran like that twelfth grade fellow who raised his hand.

IMG_1731The couple of dozen students listened to each other, added their ideas to the mix, and asked questions. I was there to listen and answer any questions that the principal might, but the forum wasn’t mine, it belonged to the students.

Topics ranged beautifully from a question about how much time the seniors would have to present their Capstone projects in March (they’d like as much time as they could have to share their art) to how often we might make announcements (the hope was once a week over the PA, and maybe finding some other ways to spread the word about important events).

Students talked about how to support clubs (a club fair at lunch was one idea) and what we might do to invite more art into our lunches (music, visual art displays, and excerpts from productions all rose from the diverse voices in the room). Lots of students nodded as they enjoyed pizza together. 

While one moderator typed furiously to capture the ideas (her notes will be shared with the staff next week), the other moderator invited comments from the group, prompting, praising, and promoting a lively discussion.

Then, in what struck me as a delightful surprise, the discussion turned to academics. 

“We’re seen as an art school,” a senior said, “and we should be, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t do math and science and the academic subjects too.”

“We’re proud of being artists,” another student added, “and being different, but sometimes I think the younger kids don’t understand how seriously we take our studies.”

IMG_1737“Especially the sixth graders.”

“They see us being goofy in the hallways,” said another, “but not when we’re crying over an essay at two in the morning.”

“How can we help that?” a junior asked.

“We could talk to them in their Ohanas,” someone suggested. “Like right after midterms, when they’re getting their grades.”

“And we could help them,” another said. She looked around at the group. “Could we offer to tutor younger kids during Access?”

For any non-ACMA readers, “Access” is a 40 minute long period once a week when students can sign up to go to visit any teacher they’d like for extra help, to make up a test, or work on a project. Sometimes teachers get swamped, and the students at our forum noted that many of them had already taken and passed classes the underclassmen and middle schoolers were in now; they’d be willing to form study groups that med during that time.

Some of the students started talking logistics, some brainstormed the classes kids would need the most help in. One let her thinking include the topics of balance and wellness, and how students might help one another. Another how soon they could go to Ohanas to speak to students about taking academics seriously. Everyone was amazing.

IMG_1734…and I’d be fibbing if I said that I expected today’s forum to jump from art and communication to academics, but then it did.

These awesome students, given the opportunity to talk about anything they wanted, chose to talk about how they could help.

At ACMA that shouldn’t be surprising. 

Because as proud as we are to be a school of artists, free thinkers, and open minded humans, we’re also a school filled with students who care, students who want to help, and students who take their studies seriously  (even if they don’t always take themselves seriously, a healthy trait).

That one student said: “you need to know algebra even if you’re going to a conservatory” showed a glimpse of that ACMA magic. This is a place where the unexpected should be expected, where kindness finds its way into our best conversations, and where a gathering of artistic souls can go anywhere. 

“You can just talk,” our moderator told her peers. Today they did.

 

We’ll have our next ACMA Student Forum in the student study area in the B100 hall at both lunches on November 20th. 

Truth

I was up at 2:00 am and then again at 3:30. By 5:05 I was out of bed, and by 5:30 I was standing outside my school marveling at how dark it was with no exterior lights on anywhere. This is my 25th year as an educator, my 13th as a site administrator, and I still can’t sleep before the first day of school.

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Now truth be told, there weren’t many kids on campus today; this “first day of school” for me as a principal is the day my staff comes back from summer. They’re a wildly nice bunch, almost all of whom I’ve worked with now for years, and… and I still couldn’t sleep last night.

It’s not that I was nervous, not exactly. I had confidence that the day we’d put together would be a good one (starting with breakfast and ending with a scavenger hunt), and… it would be a lie to say I was relaxed, or calm, or not nervous. And I think that’s okay.

I write a lot in this collection of posts about what it’s like to be a principal, and about lots of the good stuff that comes with being an educator. That’s all true, and… I hope that for anyone reading who is an administrator or teacher, or heck, a student or parent too, that I don’t give the idea that this is easy. It’s not.

Doing a good job in this important work means being a little nervous, not just in your first year or your second, but in your 25th, and I’m sure 26th, and I’d guess until the last first day of school at the end of your career.

It doesn’t mean that fear has to be a part of the job, or anxiety, or panic. Then what did you have, you’ll ask, healthy insomnia? Well, at least an understanding that it’s okay to care so much about getting off to a good start that waking up a couple of times before that first day is okay, human, a part of this grand adventure. At least for me.

Then, several cups of coffee later… today went well.

My staff was rich with kindness, deep with caring, and light with humor. They smiled generously, participated in our work together willingly, and reminded me as they always do why I’m the luckiest principal in the world.

I hope all of the principals out there, and assistant principals, and teachers, and all of the educators who feel their blood pressure rise a little before the curtain goes up on another year can take a deep breath and believe that as challenging as this whole thing is, they’ll be okay. Sure, you might be a little short on sleep that first day back, but all will be well. Honest.

I’ll bring coffee.

Like Rick Always Said…

Every August as I prepare for the start of the school year (planning the opening staff meeting, making piles of new staff t-shirts, and figuring out what I’ll say when I get to welcome or welcome back the amazing staff and students) the words of one of my former superintendents come back to me: “Happy New Year!”

He started every welcome back administrator meeting with the line, smiling in a way that didn’t insinuate he was trying to be clever, but rang with genuine excitement.

IMG_0689Because every fall is an exciting beginning to a new year. Last year’s struggles have had the summer to slip away. Last year’s mistakes have had a couple of months to turn into something like wisdom, experience at least, and the pain of those errors and missteps have (we hope) transmogrified into cautionary tales.

Gone too are last year’s successes. Those events that went right, those challenges we rose to, those too are beginning to take on the sepia of age. If we’re to make the most of this year, we oughtn’t stay back in the past; those same fields of victory could prove disastrous if we imagine that we can simply repeat what we did before without thinking about it. 

The one exception to this slow fading are the relationships we’ve built. The friendships, the respect, the begrudging acceptance that we forged in the fire of year past are our new starting point in August. These are the faces who know us a little better today than they did last August, the good people who may even smile when we turn to them in the next week or two and say: “Happy New Year!”

So to all of my educator friends, to all my students and parents too, to everyone who, like me, is getting ready to shake the sand from our shoes and put the sunscreen away, I wish you a year of adventure, of connection, and of community. I hope your lessons go as planned, or better yet that they surprise you in wonderful ways when they don’t go as you planned them.

I hope you laugh often and much as you move through the hallways and that your laughter is shared with others. I hope that when you look up in December and then again in June you can say to yourself that the good days outnumbered the tears.

Because there will be tears. They’re a part of the process of being human, and maybe, just maybe, being better humans at the end of the year than we were at the start. Empathy and compassion happen under the direction of stress, and while I can’t wish my friends a year free of hard times, I can hope that I (and others too) will be there to help dry those tears, patch the cuts, and look forward with you at a future bright with possibility.

That promise of something better fills schools in August. It motivates us to develop big plans, imagine great enterprises, and say to each other, with real excitement: “Happy New Year!”

Emperors and New Clothes

When I was a youngster, just three or four, I met Governor Tom McCall. Oregonians know McCall as a legendary state political figure responsible for the bottle bill, major environmental legislature, and ensuring the public ownership of Oregon beaches. When I met him, I called him “Big Tom.” I don’t know the logistics of that meeting, but have a vague memory of waiting in the outer office before being ushered into the governor’s office to present him with a drawing I’d made. What I do remember is that during my wait I’d accidentally ripped the paper and when I got to Big Tom I told him that he could fix the rip with a little scotch tape.

photo 4Chutzpah. 

Or maybe it was just the naive perspective of a kid. I figured he’d want to keep the drawing, of course, and knew I was the young fellow who could offer him advice on how to curate this art for his collection. He smiled, nodded, and probably patted me on the head. I left happy.

I happened on a photograph of that meeting this summer and it made me think of the wonderful ability kids have of cutting through bureaucracy and the trappings of office to speak honestly about what’s on their mind. Often it’s the youngest who can offer advice without fear to the authority figures we learn, over time, to defer to. What a marvelous thing.

As a principal I see this deference sometimes, and truth be told it doesn’t make me a better leader. What does help me serve my school community well is when those around me are honest and straightforward and are willing to tell me the truth.

I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by strong voices in my main office and within the ranks of my staff. Not all, but more than a few of my teachers seem to feel comfortable approaching me with concerns in time that we can do something about them. Those closest to me are kind, but clear, when the offer me advice about how one of my wilder schemes is not a good idea.

“Bjorn, the whole school can’t really tie-dye t-shirts in a way that doesn’t make a colossal mess and cause headaches for everyone.” That sort of thing.

Students are awesome about this too, and some of my favorite memories of student voice have happened when individuals or groups of kids come to my office to talk about what’s on their mind. It’s not always that I can fix what’s bothering them, but I can listen and make efforts to move toward a better situation.

The fearlessness of these students reminds me of that little boy and Big Tom. They are sure that they have an answer to the question at hand, and for that certainty I applaud them, even if the adult reality makes those answers hard to bring about.

In the end, it’s these challenging ideas and the change they can prompt that help to make our school better. Whether it’s the day to day procedures that impact students every day or the broader policies and practices that we can improve to make the student experience better, inviting student voice is an important part of being a school leader. I need to know when the emperor has no clothes, preferably before I walk out in front of the parade.

As a principal I can’t fix everything as quickly as I wish I could, but by listening to others sometimes I can. It just takes paying attention …and a little scotch tape.

A Mural in Progress

It’s the last week of school and I’m living in a yearbook. Around me on all sides are the scrawls and drawings, wisdom and vulgarity, cartoons and catchphrases, a cacophony of teenagers with sharpies. Near the Tom Marsh Gallery, a unicorn. By the dance studio, a rainbow handprint. And just outside my office, a cartoon of Thanos is snapping our current building away.

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That snap isn’t far from the truth. In just a few days rumbling machines will rip down the walls of the C.E. Mason Elementary building that has housed our campus since ACMA came into being. Gone will be the cherished murals. Gone will be the wooden wainscoting. Gone will be the gentle slope of the hallway outside the darkroom.

Knowing that this chapter in ACMA’s history was coming to a close, our graduating seniors took it upon themselves to paint the interior courtyard one night before graduation. We walked in the next morning to a kaleidoscope of color, birds, rainbows, and more than a few stenciled Mona Lisas. The substitute custodian that day walked up to me as I was coming onto campus. “Is this some kind of a mural?” He asked, “Or graffiti?” I looked around at the bright colors, creative images, and statements of love. “It’s ACMA,” I answered.

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The next day was a perfect storm. Literally.

Underclassmen were amazed when they saw the painting on the walls. Strolling around the courtyard, posing for photos, and laughing, they relished the seniors’ art. That afternoon we gave out yearbooks, and as we did the skies opened and a profound thunderstorm brought rain down in sheets and pushed students into the hallways. …sharpies for signing yearbooks in hand.

IMG_2088You can see where this is going.

What happened next was a window into our school’s collective soul.

But we are an arts school, and the faces that looked out from the walls, the animals who galloped, scurried, and flew over the plaster, and the wild colors that covered the eggshell white were incredible.

Bathroom graffiti seldom includes portraits of Frida Kahlo. Ours did.

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We saw examples of cubism, cartoons, and clever creativity. Scattered between, above and beyond were names, messages, and quotations.

The students chose to write and draw on surfaces they knew would be torn down as part of the major construction beginning in July. They stayed away from the portables that will be sold off and honored the established student art that has been up on the walls since the school began. So many used the opportunity as a way to make their artistic mark on a school they care about. It was overwhelming.

…and…

We had to close one of the bathrooms because of some naughty pictures and inappropriate words. And while the students didn’t mess with any of our murals, they did color outside the proverbial lines, both in terms of location and content. Some comments were vulgar, others simply mean.

In terms of quantity, the positive outweighed the negative like elephants to mice, but that didn’t make any of the negative less jarring.

IMG_2092We are a school that aspires to kindness, acceptance, and caring; we are a school made up of humans, fallible, clumsy, sometimes careless humans.

So we adults painted over a few words that weren’t meant for school, and the next day I got on the PA to share a message with my kids:

We’re ACMA; we’re artists. We’re creative, interesting, and have the ability to be thoughtful, to choose to be kind, and to make good decisions.

This week, following our seniors’ decorations of the courtyard, many of us took up the pens we were using to sign yearbooks and added our marks to the walls of this old building. I get it. It’s a human need to want to connect and belong. Overwhelmingly those little pieces of art have been positive and showed the creativity within us. Some weren’t.

So I wanted to reach out to you now with three things:

First, honor each other, the murals that are on our walls, and who we aspire to be at ACMA. Please do not write things on the wall that are vulgar or crass, that insult anyone, or would embarrass your grandmother.

Second, please do not make any marks on the wood, doors or wainscoting; we are salvaging some of this wood to be incorporated in our new building, and we want to have enough wood to be able to do that.

Third, be kind. Treat our venerable building well. It has served as a home for ACMA for decades and we do right when we show it, and the people who take care of it, respect. We have just three more days together on this campus; let’s finish strong. Together.”

After that, more of the same. Meaning a few of the bad words and inappropriate images, but even more of the colorful drawings, scores of them, notes of appreciation for our school, and even a quote from Hamlet.

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

IMG_2093And my frustration at what some would rightly consider vandalism began to shift. Yes, I did my best to monitor what students were writing, and yes I joined our patient custodian in covering the naughtiest of the words, but I recognized that for a principal who values feedback, this living yearbook was providing a roadmap of what to celebrate, what to question, and what to change moving forward.

Some of the uglier graffiti, tucked in bathroom stalls and the corners where peers couldn’t see them draw it, told me that we still have work to do with regard to treating others with respect. We put energy into fostering positive interpersonal relationships, and we’ve got to do more to help this be a universal value. That these types of comments weren’t front and center like the more artistic offerings told me that even those who wrote them recognize that they’re not something in keeping with our school community.

IMG_2098Some of the graffiti made me question what more I can do to involve students in more of the decision making that happens on campus. Their thoughtful remarks about the end of this era, saying goodbye to a building they obviously love, and the transformative power of art reinforced that “the kids” (or at least some of them) are mature beyond their years. Harnessing this passion will be a challenge that, done right, can be a powerful force for good at ACMA.

And image after image, comment after comment, this installation piece that our school became provided those of us willing to slow down and really look with much to celebrate.

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The seniors, who started the whole shebang, left messages of love, affirmation, and acceptance. From the Freddie Mercury stencils to the rainbows, hearts, and expressions of love, they demonstrated in glowing color the values that make art the universal language of hope.

The others, who joined in with the emerging voices of sixth through eleventh graders, added to that youthful exuberance with their own perspectives, mostly positive, about the world they are creating, on a canvas they love that is being destroyed.

I can honestly say that I hope to never have this experience again in my professional life, and…

IMG_2102I have learned to appreciate the gift that graffiti offered me, an opportunity to see what’s happening in the hearts and heads of my students. …and what we saw was overwhelmingly good.

Our students are hungry for opportunities to share their creativity, their thoughts, and their passions. This doesn’t have to be through visual art or yearbook style quotations, though it can be. It might also look like open mic nights, literary publications, and chances online to share a little bit of who they are.

While I can’t say I’ll miss it, not at all, post-snap I can say that I will think about it, and doing so I will look for ways my students can have their voices heard throughout the year, not just on walls.

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