Oregon October

The pewter skies
and perpetually wet blacktop
harbingers of fall
announce sweatshirt weather
cold ears
and clouds
of exhaled breath

Until an October sun
bright
unexpected
perhaps the most
wonderful possibility of the season
allows us to turn our faces to the sky
and feel
the taste of apples
rustle of leaves
and smell of the earliest fireplaces.

At school, students
grown accustomed to the rhythm of the year
daydream spring
textbooks whispering winter
summer so far away

And teachers too
hunkering toward December
right themselves from leaning into autumn

Dig hands into pockets
and smile up at the sun.

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Leaving the Din of Trifles

So, Emerson.

He is my dad’s favorite American author and as such was a constant presence in the literary landscape of my childhood. I came to him on my own terms in college: I was a double major in literature and philosophy, just Ralph Waldo Emerson’s kind of guy I suppose.

Truth be told, Emerson isn’t one I’ve spent lots of time with since I was an undergraduate, but every once in a while I dip into an anthology and am reminded of why my dad likes him as much as he does.

This weekend was one of those once in a whiles.

As a principal ushering in the start of the school year, I turned to “Education,” a posthumously published essay cribbed from notes and commencement addresses and filled with ideas as challenging and thought provoking as any in today’s education landscape.

With a mix nineteenth century circumlocution and New England bluntness, Emerson begins by praising the value of school, writing:

Humanly speaking, the school, the college, society, make the difference between men. All the fairy tales of Aladdin or the invisible Gyges or the talisman that opens kings’ palaces or the enchanted halls underground or in the sea, are any fictions to indicate the one miracle of intellectual enlargement. When a man stupid becomes a man inspired, when one and the same man passes out of the torpid into the perceiving state, leaves the din of trifles, the stupor of the senses, to enter into the quasi-omniscience of high thought–up and down, around, all limits disappear.”

This idea of disappearing limits, of “intellectual enlargement,” of expanding horizons is as worthy a goal in this present century as it was in the nineteenth. Today we talk about education being the gateway to success, and spend much time justifiably focused on equity, knowing that helping every student leave the “din of trifles” and step onto a path of growth will help foster a life enlarged by opportunity.

Emerson’s essay marches through a series of nineteenth century ideas as antiquated in concept as they are in language, and emerges from the intellectual weeds of his time, stumbling into the bright sunlight of the grand and timeless notion: “Education should be as broad as man.”

IMG_4616What he means by this, he explains, is that “the great objective of education should be commensurate with the object of life.” This coupling of grand notion and practical application, similar to contemporary notions of a pedagogy beyond regurgitation, challenges educators to push students to learn, understand, and apply that learning and understanding.

Are we doing this today?

Were educators doing this in Emerson’s time?

Writ large, the answer is “no” or at least not always. The many and frequent measures of academic success: grades, tests, and benchmarks complicate the free acquisition of knowledge and thorough engagement, but Emerson counters with an argument for optimism that is timeless: “I call our system a system of despair,” he writes, “and I find all the correction, all the revolution that is needed and that the best spirits of this age promise, in one word, in Hope.”

Hope, that thing with feathers that perches on the soul, as transformative then as it is now, is something that fills the best educators I know. It allows us to see beyond despair, or the more common annoyance, and focus on the important work of helping support every student in our schools.

Emerson suggests that the answer needed, the “revolution” in education he would like to see to help students become “great hearted” adults, is in transcending what he calls “neat and safe uniformity” and seeing students for who they are.

He suggests that students bring a “variety of genius” to school, and that they are motivated by different passions and purposes. He recognizes, in his very nineteenth century vernacular, two kinds of learners, introvert and extrovert, whom he describes as “obscure youth” learning in “solitude” and the “young giant, brown from his hunting tramp” lustily engaging with life. For both he praises the value of imagination, writing: “the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil.”

For the introvert this means being allowed to learn “the literature of his virtues; and, because of the disturbing effect of passion and sense, which by a multitude of trifles impede the mind’s eye from the quiet search of that fine horizon-line which truth keeps- the way to knowledge and power has ever been an escape from too much engagement with affairs and possessions.” Don’t make the kid read aloud. As Emerson says later: “There is no want of example of great men, great benefactors, who have been monks and hermits in habit.”

For the happy hunter, learning true to “nature” is a rumbling of “stormy genius” and Emerson suggests that “if he can turn his books to such picturesque account in his fishing and hunting, it is easy to see how his reading and experience, as he has more of both, will interpenetrate each other. And every one desires that this pure vigor of action and wealth of narrative, cheered with so much humor and street rhetoric, should be carried: into the habit of the young man, purged of its uproar and rudeness, but with all its vivacity entire.” Let the kid talk. Let her tell stories. Guide her to less uproar and rudeness, but not at the expense of that pure vigor that makes her who she is.

For both types of learners Emerson argues that “the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil,” an idea not so far from much of educational theory today.

This isn’t to say, acknowledges Emerson, that we should “throw up the reins of public and private discipline [or] leave the young child to the mad career of his passions and whimsies, and call this anarchy a respect for the child’s nature.”

“Respect the child,” he advises, “respect him to the end, but also respect yourself. Be the companion of his thought, the friend of his friendship, the lover of his virtue, but not kinsman to his sin.” Teachers matter much, and that balance of respect and guidance is as real today as it was when Emerson was writing.

Put simply, Emerson’s focus is on allowing the natural wonder, the “perpetual romance of new life,” to exist side by side with instruction around how to learn. A student “can learn anything which is important to him now that the power to learn is secured; as mechanics say, when one has learned the use of tools, it is easy to work at a new craft.”

That learning how happens step by step, and according to Emerson should never lose the “mutual delight” of teaching and learning. I’d add to that the delight of reading folks like Emerson.

I do my best to read books relevant to my work as a principal, Couros and Dweck, Brown and Lythcott-Haims on the shelf by my desk, but it’s important too not to ignore poetry, philosophy, and even a good kids book when as an educator I set my sights on leaving the din of trifles.

The Gift of Conversation

In the wild rumpus of modern day life one of the things educators, parents, and students do too little of is talking with one another about ideas. Sure we pull together to discuss particular crises, talk grades when the topic comes up, and address immediate challenges, but more seldom do we take a step back and talk about how we got to those situations, or how best we can work together to meet our greater collective goal of helping each of our students learn.

One modest way to confront this challenge of building collective perspective is to carve out time to gather and discuss a topic, inviting diverse points of view to speak, listen, and connect. Bookish as I am, I see a great catalyst for this kind of conversation as books.

To that end, we’re going to try something here at ACMA that I hope might get people talking with one another about how we best support each other and our students. On December 4th we’ll host our first ACMA Book Club.

IMG_4513In the couple of months between now and then, I invite students, parents, guardians, teachers, counselors, staff members, grandmas and grandpas, to read The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey. It’s an immensely readable book, with much to agree (and maybe even disagree) with, lots of real examples, and a spirit of hope that I think helps the very serious messages resonate.

As a principal and as a dad I found in Lahey’s book ideas to challenge my practice, inform my decisions, and get me to think about how I was supporting (or maybe even hindering) the kids in my life.

Does everyone need to agree with everything Lahey says? Heck, no, but I honestly believe that The Gift of Failure has the potential to spark some amazing conversations, and what better gift can we give each other in this busy world than an opportunity to talk with each other about how we might make a difference?

 

The ACMA Book Club will meet in the Arts & Communication Magnet Academy library on Tuesday, December 4th from 6:30-8:00 pm. 

“Shopping” with Hawkgirl

My son has a collection of Hawkman comic books from the early 1960s. They’re goofy and grand, filled with morality and primary colors and a Kennedy era feel that DC Comics thought was appropriate for younger readers.

Hawkman smokes a pipe, for example, villains ply their trade “for the thrill of stealing,” and our heroes travel through space to foil evil doers from Earth to Thangar …while wearing giant feathered wings.

Paging through the comics, I was struck by what the writers and illustrators in the early 1960s imagined as futuristic technology. Visiting their technologically advanced planet of Thangar, Hawkman and Hawkgirl (Hawkwoman would have been just too much for those swinging ‘60s comic book creators) have to readjust to a world far more wondrous than the third planet from the sun. The proof of this technological superiority: debit cards, recorded news on a big screen TV, and online “shopping,” so imaginary in 1962 that the word was put in quotation marks.

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Half a century ago these must have felt like big dreams, but today even the images seem quaint. Whither then our 21st century ideas of what the future will bring?

In education, as much as in comic books, comes the question: “What next?”

Just last night my wife and I were talking about our own experiences in school, complete with the clicking whir of film projectors and the tape recorded beeeep that prompted the AV Monitor to turn the knob on the filmstrip projector. (For my younger readers, those were days closer to 1962 than to 2017, in a time when the notion that every student could pull up their own video, educational or not, on a personal device would seem as strange as a half naked man with green pants and enormous wings. Strike that; YouTube would have seemed farther out than Hawkman.)

Today in schools we talk about cell phones and tablets and Chromebooks. We agonize over students being off task, nearly forgetting the days when we tucked comic books in our Trapper Keepers to read during class.

We talk a lot about paradigm shifts and technology changing everything, and I suppose that’s right, though when I walk into a classroom and see a great teacher connecting with students the common denominator is humanity, not technology.

Rather than frame the discussion in terms of “should we block Facebook?” I’d like to take a couple of paragraphs to wonder how we’ll look back on our behavior around technology in another fifty years.

Maybe fifty is too grand; I’ll be in my early 100s then and probably out of the education game. So… in ten years, what will our technology discussion look like in schools? I hope to still be a principal then, and I wonder what I’ll be talking with my students, parents, and staff about.

For perspective, ten years ago the hot topic of the day was this new portable device from Apple.

Ah, the iPhone.

It seems like this changed things a bit. To imagine what technology will look like in another ten years, both the technology we sanction in schools and the technology our students sneak in like comic books in a 1980s junior high, would be a fool’s errand.

To imagine why the students will use the technology, so magical and strange to our contemporary sensibilities, feels, well, possible. They will use the technology to learn.

…and play.

…and distract themselves from school when they get bored.

…and get in trouble.

…and communicate.

…and transport themselves from the classroom to the world beyond.

Just like we do.

I don’t know exactly what conversations I’ll be having with my staff in 2027, or how many on that staff will be cyborgs. Just kidding. I’ll guess that we’ll be talking about how we engage students, how we support them, and what we can do to spark curiosity.

Some will worry aloud about “kids today” and their fascination with the latest technological toy; others will ask themselves how they can harness those same devices to propel learning forward.

Socrates worried about writing, but seemed okay once he got the lads talking about big ideas. John Dewey was skeptical of direct instruction, but dug it when the kids started asking questions. Calculators, clickers, and Franklin Spellers all had their champions and detractors, and education has survived them all somehow, thank you very much. Some might even argue that students today have even greater opportunities to engage with school than they did when Hawkgirl was sitting on a Thangarian divan “shopping” on a TV screen.

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It’s our willingness to take the quotations off the unfamiliar that will allow us to think broadly enough to see that we learn as humans have always learned, in the context of our environment. That the environment changes is neither threatening nor sinister; it is a reality that we do well to accept. Doing so can do more than lower our anxiety about whatever technology will stream into our classrooms. It can help learning soar …like a hawk, of course.

16

My daughter laughed aloud. My son’s eyes got wide …then he laughed too. Thin, mustachioed, and grinning through newsprint from across the years, the grainy photo of my sixteen year old self (handed to me with a smile by a friend I’ve known since 7th grade) invited me on an unexpected stroll down memory lane.

This surprise gift of an antique newspaper clipping followed close upon a terrific conversation I’d had with my yearbook teacher during which she’d asked me, in three words, to describe what I was like in high school. My three: So. Very. Boring.

FullSizeRender (2)Looking at that thirty year old scrap of newspaper I reconsidered.

It’s not, I realized, that I wasn’t boring; it’s just that in 1986 I didn’t understand that I was. Like so many of the students I work with, my perspective as a high school junior was limited. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I saw the world through the only eyes I had, with the inexperienced vision of an adolescent.

That clipping, when the ink had still been wet, meant the world to me. It was validation of hard work and a signpost that I was on the right path. It was a nod from The Statesman Journal that I was successful.

Three decades later the same piece of paper was a curiosity, good for a moment of fun, but inconsequential in who I am, or better put, who I have become.

That truth, as black and white as a newspaper article, is something educators like me struggle to help our students understand.

“Why would I want to take the PSAT?” a junior asks. “I know what I’m going to do and it doesn’t involve a four year university.”

“I don’t have time for a career inventory,” the senior tells his counselor. “I’ve already got it all planned out.”

I believe the students when they say these things. They are, for them, the truth.

And…

That sixteen year old buffoon I was (with so very much hair) reminds me that as real as that truth is, time has a way of changing us and our perspective in ways that are as unexpected as they are profound.

Who we are in high school is who we are in high school. This is not who we will become.

Our inner core may be the same, go watch Michael Apted’s 7 Up film series if you have any doubts of that, but the way we see the world and our place in it does evolve.

At sixteen I regarded myself as twice as clever and ten times as able as I really was. I acted boldly when I was really scared and tried to look confident when I didn’t have a clue. I took my privilege for granted and my success as a direct result of my talent, not the amalgam of luck, hard work, and the support of others that it really was.

The adult I now am looked at that newspaper clipping and understood more of the truth. Even so, if I were a time traveler who could sit down with my high school self I don’t know that I could persuade him to believe that point of view. Maybe that’s best.

The importance of youthful exuberance should never be undervalued. Sinatra was wrong when he sang that youth was wasted on the young. Youth is the transformative experience that makes us who we are as adults. It empowers us to take on the impossible, believing that for us reality just might make an exception.

As an educator then, how to help my students balance passion and perspective? How do teachers, counselors, and administrators like me help kids see that we are not dismissing their teenage truth even as we encourage them to make choices that keep doors open (that PSAT and career inventory) and give them the options to do great and unexpected things with their emerging lives.

Maybe a part of the answer is introducing them to our sixteen year old selves.

As we are honest with our students about who we were and who we are now, we may have the possibility of helping them see that directions can change and all still may turn out okay.

Engaging with our kids about what it was like for us to navigate adolescence might help them see that the path is seldom straight and that the bends and curves might not only be the reality of growing older, but might also be the best parts of becoming an adult.

On top of that I’d wager that our students might smile at the things that stay the same; driving to work this morning I found myself singing along to Depeche Mode.

At the very least I’ll suggest that as educators we are wise to pause from time to time to put ourselves in our own students’ Chuck Taylor high tops. Memory Lane leads past the corner of Insight and the cul-de-sac of Empathy, if we look up and see them.

If nothing else, that junior with the Tom Selleck mustache is good for a laugh.

“Today you’re a lot stronger…”

Being new is never easy and fitting in at school can be a challenge for anyone.

I know; I’m the new principal.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we welcome students to campus and about how it feels to be new at our school. As the first few weeks of classes roll along, I’ve seen students put up posters celebrating kindness, cheered as our assistant principal and my and secretary created a magical puzzle piece bulletin board to welcome students, and watched teachers go out of their way to make classes friendly and inviting.

IMG_4376Then today at lunch a small act struck me with its simplicity and power.

I was standing alone in the quad supervising lunch when a group of girls walked up and handed me a piece of candy. Taped to the wrapper was a sliver of paper. They smiled and told me to “open it.”

Inside I found a message of comfort and hope:

Smile and let everyone know that today you’re a lot stronger than you were yesterday.”

They left me feeling a little happier, and then, when I stepped into the cafeteria one of my food service workers flagged me down to tell me something important. “Those girls,” she said, “with the basket. Do you know what they were doing?” My first thought was nothing bad, I hope, they were so nice to me. “They’re going around finding anyone eating lunch alone and they’re giving them a piece of candy and talking with them.”

The dad in me wanted to cry at the profound kindness of their action.

IMG_4377Today I’d been that fellow alone. How many others, students new to our school and students simply not yet as connected as I hope they soon will be, felt that same uplift of spirit when they were given a message of hope.

For any who have eaten alone, for any who have been “the new kid,” and for any who felt like they didn’t quite fit in, I offer the sentiment of reassurance given to me by those kind, kind students: “Smile and let everyone know that today you’re a lot stronger than you were yesterday.”

Yes, and tomorrow you’ll be stronger still. Our school will welcome you. And down the road, once you’re comfortable and feel our school is home, maybe you and your friends will get a basket of your own and spread a message of kindness.

Locals

“Dad, are we locals?”

It was the Monday before the first day of school and my nine year old son and I were eating breakfast. I looked at him and answered his question with a confused “Huh?” We’d moved from a place where such things mattered, but we weren’t in the surfing queue at Swami’s; this was our kitchen table in Portland.

“Locals,” he repeated, pointing out or window at a construction sign across the street:

ROAD CLOSED
TO THRU TRAFFIC
LOCAL ACCESS ONLY

I smiled at him. “Yeah, we’re locals,” I assured him. And in the road construction sense we are.

IMG_4132But as the first week of classes unfolded and I watched my own kids adjusting to new schools, wincing at their anxieties and the moments when a drop of kindness could have gone so far, that question from over our cereal bowls came back to me and my answer felt less certain.

As educators we talk a lot about climate and culture, and creating a space where everyone feels welcome. At our best we build systems to support our students, create opportunities for each to feel they are part of the greater school community, and encourage everyone on our campuses to demonstrate kindness to one another.

But… in the hurly burly of the start of the year, how easy it is to let that focus slip. There are classes to start, procedures to review, activities to organize.

That sign and my son’s question echoed in my opening week consciousness, prompting me as a principal to ask (with a sense of paternal urgency): What more can we do to welcome kids to our school?

Certainly we do a few things right: an ice cream social just before the only Back to School Night I know of that encourages students to attend with their parents, particularly those new to our school; silly yearbook photos on registration day; and a “first day” of school (before the whole student body shows up) for every student new to ACMA no matter what grade they’re in.

I also know there is more we can do.

So right now some of our students are filling our hallways with messages of love as part of the Kindness Challenge, our Spirit Committee is working on ideas to make the start of the school year welcoming for all, and classroom by classroom our teachers are getting to know students, perhaps the most important welcome of all.

Can we do more? Of course. Every school does well when it makes the decision to embrace new students wholeheartedly and recognize that very real feeling Maya Angelou captured when she wrote: “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

As a principal it’s my job to look for the good in people and keep a firm vision of the best school my school can be. This is never more important than when students step on campus for the first time and find themselves in the freefall of figuring out their place in a new world. It’s at these times that a smile or “hello” can mean so much, when going out of one’s way to help can make a difference for a student’s whole experience. This is the time to let them know that they are safe and cared for and can be themselves.

It’s my goal, and a hope I have for the amazing students and staff around me, to do all we can to make the answer “yes” when a new student finishes her first week at ACMA and asks: “Am I a local?”

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