Fine Young Cannibals

Art is about taking chances, learning from failure, and being willing to try something unexpected. In those ways it’s a lot like being a principal. The two pursuits converged this week when some intrepid student filmmakers asked me to be in their movie.

They guarded the script like it was a Star Wars film. I got my three pages without more context than I could put together from stage directions like:

The cannibal storms out of the room leaving behind her binder and the therapist grabs them and pulls out the sketches/drawings inside and looks through them, he fans them out and looks at each one until he comes to the last one, he holds it up so the camera can’t see it and it cuts to the next scene.


My two short scenes, two voice overs, and single costume change set me up as the straight man, a mercifully unimportant and plausibly vegetarian character in a film titled Meat (An American Cannibal Film).

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As they set up the camera and lights in my office. The director, a senior whose easy smile helped put his two actors -me and a student whose artistic focus is drawing and painting- at ease, chatted with his sound man about verisimilitude and budget.

“It’s set in 1996,” he explained. “So I got an almost working answering machine at Goodwill for $9.” “Your budget for this is $9?” “Well, I spent $22 on fake blood.”

This was sounding increasingly like something I might regret more than my turn at Carpool Karaoke or the time I dressed up as one of the Blues Brothers and sang in front of the student body. Still…

These were great students. This mattered to them. My scene was relatively tame, a therapist and his patient. All that, along with some gentle reassurance from my film teacher who had seen the rough cuts, let me stay true to one of the tenets of my philosophy of being a principal: When students ask me to participate in something that is meaningful to them, even (or especially) if it is nutty, I do my best to say “yes.”

We shot after school on a Friday, a three person crew, the actor playing the cannibal, and me, filling my office for an hour or so, laughing, talking about art, and books, and movies between takes. That conversation, that opportunity to connect with some fantastic young people, was worth any embarrassment about my clunky acting abilities.

Because it isn’t really about my acting; it’s about being present for my students, participating in what is important to them, and allowing myself to play (and sometimes play the fool) in service of a spirit of fun that is important at a school, and indeed in life.

Our schools are stronger, safer, and better for all when students and adults are able to learn, laugh, and play together.

A willingness to start with “yes” has led to some of my favorite experiences and most meaningful connections with students, and I firmly believe that nurturing this more playful side helps to make me a better principal when the stressful realities of the work require gravitas, a clear head, and a commitment to doing right. Silly, serious, sanguine, it’s about making students the priority.

So my first entry in IMDB will read “Dr. Monroe” in Meat (An American Cannibal Film). It may turn out to be this generation’s Night of the Living Dead or a silly footnote to the illustrious director’s future fame, but whatever shows up on screen I’ll carry with me fond memories of a great afternoon shared with artists and creative souls, fine young cannibals.



The Horse, of Course

The horse did it?

In an increasingly complicated and logic defying world, there is something magical and more than a little healing about the acts of teaching and learning.

Over the past couple of weeks some kind and welcoming English teachers have been generous enough to allow me to step into the classrooms they share with students and teach. It’s the fulfillment of a promise I made to myself when I became a principal: I would make a point to teach every year.

Teaching allows me to connect to my students in a way beyond being just a guy in a tie. It puts me in the position of seeing first hand the challenges and rewards of being n instructor at my school and helps to keep me grounded in the reality that what really matters at a school is what happens in the classroom. I once worked with a superintendent who liked to say: “There are two kinds of people in a school, teachers and people who support teachers.” I’m proud to be the latter, and thankful when I get to step back into the former category.

IMG_5918This winter, as the news of the day read like something out of Orwell or Huxley, I traveled with scores of sixth and seventh grade sleuths across the heath of Dartmoor in search of the “first favourite for the Wessex Cup,” the distinguished Silver Blaze. It was amazing.

I’ve long held that there is no feeling to compare with the give and take of a classroom discussion, and my time with these curious young scholars proved that point to me again. Talking about the way clues in a mystery are like the details readers might find in a close reading of any text, discussing Sherlock Holmes and our short story of the day, and being in their company when the students realized that the equine title character had committed the murder of a despicable man (in self defense, no less) was as renewing as it was delightful.

This isn’t to say that The Adventure of Silver Blaze was chosen only as literature of escape; I’m proud of the Holmes lesson I used (and adapted as I got better at teaching it from period to period) and felt like we ended each class having discovered a thing or two, including that an author from more than a century ago could still wallop them with a surprise ending.

Literature has the power to inspire, delight, and provide perspective. I felt that truth every day that I taught English and am reminded of the fact when I get to visit classes (and even teach them myself). The Adventure of Silver Blaze not only gave students an instance of good coming out on top, a bully being humbled, and cleverness overcoming evil, it also set the stage for students to work together to solve a problem, practice critical thinking, and talk with peers about their methods of thinking about literature.

Sure, having the principal teach was a novelty (though I hope over time and with repetition it feels increasingly less so), but ultimately the lessons were something as simple as they are commonplace in education: humans coming together to make sense of the world, talking, looking back over old stories, and connecting with each other.

…well, and shaking our collective head when the bad guy gets kicked in the head by a horse.


I began teaching five years before Columbine. It’s not that schools were perfectly safe then; one of my students lit the mascot on fire at an assembly during my first year of teaching, and in my third year another student tried to burn down the school. He brought gasoline and splashed it around the front doors before lighting a match. The front doors were metal, set into concrete. They power washed it the next day and arrested the student. But the reactions of students to acts of violence perpetrated on school campuses was different then.

When my students heard about the shooting at Columbine High School, thousands of miles from the small, rural, Oregon high school where we were, they wanted to honor the students who had been killed by planting a rose. If they’d kept up this tradition over the past nineteen years, that campus would be a massive tangle of thorns and flowers.

But that didn’t keep up. Reactions changed.

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Columbine wasn’t the first mass school shooting to happen in my teaching career. Just a year earlier, and much closer to home, Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon saw 24 students shot and two killed by a recently expelled former student, and it certainly has not been the last. Since Columbine the number of tragedies on campuses has grown, and while debating the exact number is as foolish as it is distracting, the truth remains that schools today have a different relationship to gun violence than they did at the end of the last century.

We are better protected, with more thoughtful school designs, key card doors, and more secure campus perimeters; and better prepared, by safety drills of all sorts and dedicated inservices to inform teachers and school staff about what to look for and how to help keep our kids safe, and…

When students today hear about a school shooting, the disbelief their parents might have felt when they were in school has been replaced by something else: the view that this is a just part of their world.

That feels strange.

When word came from Parkland, Florida about the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School the adults in my school and district responded with grief, empathy, and concern. We drafted messages for our school community, prepared our counselors to be ready for students, and were visible and welcoming the following morning. My assistant principal and I visited classrooms, I shared a message of support with my staff, and we as a family of caring educators got ourselves ready to be there when students wanted to talk.

Most didn’t.

Two teachers visited my office, as emotional as I was, and we processed what we’d read about the Florida shooting. We talked about where we were when we heard about Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and some of the other tragedies that rocked our profession and our world. We remembered our own high school experiences, and wondered aloud the reason our current students seemed less interested in talking about it than students had back when my high schoolers had wanted to plant that rose.

Why is it, we asked ourselves, we adults are so shaken and our students seem to be responding so much more quietly, if at all?

I had a long conversation with our school resource officer, a caring soul who stopped by our campus to see how we were doing. He was quick to point out the importance of being proactive and focusing on how we can prevent these tragedies. I’m hopeful he’ll join me when I address the student body at a pair of assemblies next week.

The responsibilities of an educator in 2018 feel different than they were when I started teaching a quarter century ago. The conversations we need to have with our kids extend beyond the familiar topics that lured us to this profession; they include today matters of life and death, safety and security, and so much more.

I’m still reeling from the horrors reported from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, and steeling myself to talk with students more deeply next week. As a principal I want to do all that I can to keep my students and staff safe, my campus secure, and my school a positive place to learn. It’s work that won’t end in my lifetime, and work so important that I tend to it as I would a rose.


No Philosopher King

The looks I get when teachers and students hear that I have a degree in philosophy range from bemused to noddingly impressed. What was he thinking? Some seem to be wondering. What a great foundation to be a leader! I imagine others thinking to themselves. Well, I imagine it anyway.

I’m a high school principal, hardly Plato’s philosopher king, and as kooky as it sounds, in my workaday world of running a school I consistently lean on the background and perspective my philosophy major provided to me.

A part of that perspective, of course, is critical thinking and the ability to logically parse out arguments, two skills that serve me well as I work in a profession filled with decisions to be made and answers to be found. Inundated with data and opinions, provided a range of “facts” that don’t add up, evaluating situations for validity is a part of what I do every day. Years with Carnap and Quine taught me to be careful with my thinking and left me confident in my ability to put my mind to problems and be able to see the clearest way.

IMG_5346But education, and particularly the role of principal, isn’t always clear or logical, and I’m also thankful for the ability to suspend disbelief and hold various and contradicting points of view that comes from my study of philosophy. So often the right choice comes only after walking a labyrinth, a task made easier by some comfort in the world of the unknown. Paradox may be too strong a word for some of what I see, but as I work to find solutions to the puzzles of my work an understanding that sometimes Zeno’s arrow is staying in the air for a while helps put things in perspective.

Also helping with perspective are the ethical arguments I learned studying philosophy. More often than one might expect issues in education are issues of equity, fairness, and justice. Beyond those logicians or playful puzzlers, social philosophers like Rousseau and Foucault, who helped to inform my professional self, also provide a certain perspective that I use to help navigate the turbulent waters of educational policy. I’m not saying that I break out Aristotle when I need to decide if a kid should get a free bus pass or we ought to suspend a student for smoking in the bathroom, but I do believe my time as a philosophy major helped me lay a foundation from which I’ve built the approach I take to my work.

Finally, and as important as any of the other impacts I’ve mentioned, I find that studying philosophy inspired in me a profound curiosity, a desire to keep learning, to question, and to always strive to know more. This pursuit of knowing and love of learning help to define who I am as a principal and an educator. They’re qualities I hope I model for my students and school community.

While those students may or may not know what to make of my degree in philosophy, it’s a part of who I am, and that, I think, makes a difference they can feel.

Being (more) Human

“The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through vast forests, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”
-James Baldwin

We are, as a school, a community that can. We can create art with wild abandon. We can create connections with real purpose. We can create community with a clear conscience.

IMG_5668What we can’t do is rely on reputation, no matter how well earned. That ACMA is a place that is welcoming to all, that we are a school that honors and celebrates students of diverse backgrounds, cultural heritages, gender identities, and points of view is a reality we need to continue to build day by day, interaction by interaction, and purposeful choice by purposeful choice.

I see this choice of kindness every day as I walk through our halls. A commitment to kindness, and to each other, manifests itself in activities like the Kindness Project that some of our students took on earlier in the year, the boards of affirmations in our hallways, and the support I see in classrooms across campus as students strive to create and refine their art.

As a school we’ve made the choice to hang banners in the hallways celebrating more than just upcoming events and school spirit. A quotation from Martin Luther King hangs above our front door, another from Henry James reminds the students:

Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”

Just outside our main office two displays celebrate the sense of belonging we hope all our students and staff feel here at ACMA. One, with silly yearbook photos of our staff against a backdrop of puzzle pieces leaves one spot for the observer; a mirror at eye level hangs next to the words “You fit right in.” I see students look at this every week.

IMG_5662Across the hallway another set of puzzle pieces decorate the wall just inside the front door. Surrounding a hand crafted “Welcome to ACMA,” the ACMA set against a rainbow, are connected puzzle pieces made by every new student to our school. On the first day of classes new students each decorated a puzzle piece and now every day they can see how they fit together to form the colorful mosaic of Arts & Communication Magnet Academy.

But kindness isn’t as simple as a jigsaw puzzle. Human nature can be cruel as often as it is kind. Stress, fear, and anxiety can make us careless, inconsiderate, or even mean. Teenagers aren’t immune to the thoughtless word or inconsiderate remark that escapes from the best of adults.

And in the face of this reality, art.

In his 1962 essay “The Creative Process” James Baldwin described the challenges and opportunities of being an artist. As he writes about the “battle” societies have all had with “the incorrigible disturber of the peace – the artist” he lands on the idea that it is the power of art that illuminates the truth and has the possibility to make change.

Baldwin describes the tension between artists and society as necessary, art providing the questioning that allows society to transform; society providing the structure needed for such institutions as education. As vigorous as this tension can be, he maintains that:

Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.”

That freedom he writes about it more than a freedom to do, but also a freedom to see clearly the possibilities for societies to be their best, to confront injustice, to heal divisions, and to practice hope.

Through art, we have the potential to “make the world a more human dwelling place.”

Writing of the particular place of American artists, as true in 1962 as 2018, Baldwin suggests:

We are the strongest nation in the Western world, but this is not for the reasons that we think. It is because we have an opportunity that no other nation has in moving beyond the Old World concepts of race and class and caste, to create, finally, what we must have had in mind when we first began speaking of the New World.”

Locally, here at ACMA we have the possibility to transform ourselves through art in a way that Baldwin imagines for the greater world. Beyond puzzle pieces and vinyl banners, in addition to posters and projects, through the art our students create we can question, challenge, and celebrate the world we live in.

IMG_5672In ACMA’s Hallway of Hope and Justice our students share thoughtful and thought provoking pieces that ask our student body to question, reflect, and act. Posters celebrate the diversity of our community and show that as a school we value each student, each person, who is a part of our community. That there are many voices in that hallway is a result of Baldwin’s belief that the role of artists is to “drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.”

If we believe in Baldwin’s assessment of the role of the artists, it is through our creative spirit that we can “illuminate that darkness” and “blaze roads through vast forests.” Here at ACMA it is through paint and movement, ink and music, clay, cameras, and creativity that we can reinforce the goodness we want to see in our world.

In the weeks ahead I look forward to working with our artists to think about this social aspect of the work they create. What opportunities do we have? What truth do we want to tell? How can we, each of us, make our world a more human dwelling place?

Reading Weather

IMG_5480The winter is proving wet. After flirting with a white Christmas ‒just enough snow on the 24th to dust the lawn and allow a few determined snowballs‒ gray rain has settled in, a reminder of the true nature of the Pacific Northwest. Oregon is a place of warm drinks, flannel shirts, and independent bookstores.

Beyond prompting the purpose of a new coat and some sensible shoes, the winter weather hasn’t dampened life in Portland or in any way drowned the creative spirit at ACMA.

Art students look longingly out windows, poets feel a touch more like Thomas Hardy, and dancers find it easy to stay inside the studio. Student filmmakers are pushed inside more often, I suppose, but return to the out of doors with every parting of clouds and seem to enjoy the coziness a January chill gives to the gathering audience at a film night.

Winter in a world with seasons reminds me of what I missed in my decade or so spent in Southern California. As Kim Whysall-Hammond, a poet I dig, describes it:

Not a light soaking rain
Squalling, hailing and sleeting
Flooding, flowing, swamping
A deluge chucking it down

There’s a joy, sure, to sunny and seventy-five, but for an invitation to contemplation, a prompting to open a book, there is no better landlord than Oregon in the opening of a new year.

Nurturing this fireside reflection, a slew of books have piled up beside the chair in my living room, some of merit amongst the gingerbread of popular fiction.

untangled.pngI work at an arts rich school with an almost 75% female student body, and found Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood by Lisa Damour to be a book rich with examples and strong with advice. Written for parents, Untangled presents a real and reasonable perspective on how best to support the young women in our lives. As an educator, and a dad of a teenager, I appreciated Damour’s organization of the transition from childhood to young adulthood and her explanations of distinct stages that I see the students in my life going through, particularly as the principal of a 6-12 grade school.

An example of Damour’s rich and memorable perspective comes early in the book as she uses the analogy of a swimmer in a pool to describe the relationship between daughter and parent.

Consider the metaphor in which your teenage daughter is a swimmer, you are the pool in which she swims, and the water is the broader world. Like any good swimmer, your daughter wants to be out playing, diving, or splashing around in the water. And, like any swimmer, she holds on to the edge the pool to catcher her breath after a rough lap or getting dunked too many times.”

Knowing our role as pool edge is as difficult as it is important, particularly when “like a swimmer who gets her breath back, your daughter wants to return to the water, and she gets there by pushing off the side of the pool.” Those pushes away hurt, or can, but Damour’s book helps to put the value of that stress into perspective.

In addition to helping parents see the challenges their daughters are going through as they navigate adolescence, Damour does a nice job of helping parents see the challenges they are going through themselves. Being a mom or dad isn’t easy, but Untangled is a resource for parents (and educators too) that can help us all help our daughters thrive.

this is a book for.jpgMore focused in scope than Untangled, but just as important and powerful is Dannielle Owens-Reid and Kristin Russo’s book This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids. Written with heart, insight, and humor, this book provides information that could make a difference for parents of LGBTQ kids and would be on my required reading list for educators entering the field today.

Owens-Reid and Russo acknowledge the challenges faced by LGBTQ students, but never get mired in the stress that students identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning confront in the minefield of adolescence.

Written, as the title implies, for parents, this book addresses parental concerns and provides strategies parents might use to overcome those concerns. The honest and caring tone the authors strike not only makes their answers to the series of questions they use to structure their book accessible, but adds a reassurance to parents that while the struggles may be real, all will be well. I finished the book feeling informed, reassured, and better able to support and understand the LGBTQ students I know.

As Untangled and This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids begin with students in mind, All Joy and No Fun starts with the topic of parents. Subtitled “The Paradox of Modern Parenthood,” Jennifer Senior’s book takes an unflinching look at the stresses parenting takes on the moms and dads (and uncles and aunts, grandparents and guardians) who take on the important job of raising kids.

all joySenior takes a historian’s eye to parenting, nodding to the utility of children on farms and then juxtaposing that with what she sees as the current reality of kids being “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.” This emotional pricelessness comes, of course, at a price, and Senior writes in real terms about the tremendous pressures parents face as they do their best to give to their children and maintain at least a part of themselves.

This challenge, Senior argues, is real not only because of the stresses put on marriage, relationships, and self by the overwhelming act of parenting, but also in light of “the dirty secret about adulthood is the sameness of it, its tireless adherence to routines and customs and norms.” Senior acknowledges that kids can “liberate” parents from routines, but doesn’t shy away from the difficulty of managing the beautify chaos of kids and the responsibilities of adult life.

Often as I read All Joy and No Fun I felt a sense of melancholy appreciation for her spot on observations, and a desire to transcend the challenges, even as I wrestled with the doubt that comes with adulthood in general and parenthood in particular. I believe that the parents I know, like me, would see themselves in Senior’s book, living the quotation from William Blake she cites: “Joy and woe are woven fine.”

In the end, however, All Joy and No Fun is a hopeful book. As hard earned as it is, the “Joy” of the title is profound and the “Fun” might be had (at least in bits) if we as parents are able to have the perspective this book aims to help us find.

Alongside these important (to me, anyway) books are piled some volumes clearly not chosen directly for my work. As lovely as winter is for contemplation, there’s a place too for poetry and a ripping good yarn. Seamus Heaney’s Field Work has inspired me this winter, as has Jane Goodall’s A Reason for Hope, and I’d be fibbing if I didn’t say that The Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor wasn’t one of the most moving experiences I’ve had with a book in a long while. I remember a teacher once telling me that her principal liked to say that “the best teachers teach from a full life.” That’s true of bookshelves too.

So as the rain falls and the students dream of spring, I’ll pour another cup of tea and scan the shelves in search of a good book.

18 for 18

No, not eighteen New Year’s resolutions; that would be silly. But, being a goal setter presented with a brand new year, I’ll set out these three things that I’d like to accomplish in 2018.

pencilsEighteen meaningful classroom visits every week. I know that’s a lot, if they’re more than poking my head in the door, and I also know that as a principal I’m at my best when I’m chin deep in the hurly burly of school, not at my desk.

No more than eighteen minutes in a row in my office during the school day. Sure I’ll have meetings that go longer than that, and I’ll take them, but from the start of school until bus duty at the end of the day I’m shooting for less time away from students, teachers, and staff.

Eighteen calls home to celebrate students before the end of the year. As a teacher I was good about this, often meeting my goal of calling home with a positive message to a third of my kids before back to school night. It’s different as a principal, but if I can share positive messages home with more parents and guardians I think it can make a positive difference in the world of my students.

So welcome 2018 and a renewed focus on spending time with the most important part of education: the people who share this grand adventure.