Ahoy!

I had the honor of being animated by a very young Alex HIrsch.Who is this guy?

It’s a question a few might be having as I take up the mantle of principal at ACMA (Arts & Communication Magnet Academy) in Beaverton, Oregon. A quick search tells anyone curious enough to spend ten minutes with Google that I’ve been an educator for 25 years, having taught English, art, and leadership in Oregon and California, and spent the last decade as an administrator, most recently as a principal of a very funky school not far from the beach.

A little more digging will say that I’m coming home to Oregon after too many years away, and have the great company of my wife, Jeannette, and my two kids, Ella and Henry. …oh, and three cats. You won’t find much about the cats online, and certainly not the story of me moving north with them (though if you visited a little motel in Yreka this summer and saw a guy and his cats checking in for the night, that was me. Nothing strange about a guy and his cats).

What you might also see, and if you’ve found this little chronicle of miscellany I suppose you already have, is that over the past few years I’ve written more than anyone with simple curiosity would want to peruse to answer that question I started with: “Who is this guy?”

No problem.

For a thumbnail sketch of who I am as an educator, I pulled these half dozen posts from the past few years and my time as a middle school and high school principal. Give them a peek and I think you’ll get a sense of my way of looking at the world and the work that I am so proud to be a part of. They’re not all of who I am, but they’re a swell primer of “the new guy” at ACMA.

pirateEducation can be magic, and when the stars align and everything feels unnaturally right, things like this can happen. Things like “Swashbuckling!

I always want my students to see me as a teacher, not just the guy in the tie, and part of that commitment comes when teachers are kind enough to hand me the keys to the classroom. One of my favorite topics is Sherlock Holmes, which I first folded into a lesson when I was a middle school principal, learning, as well as teaching “…a series of lessons…

Being a principal means helping be a good steward to your school and facing the reality that you are needed most when things aren’t going easy. Construction, destruction, and the awesome power of art all combined to make one day a couple of Novembers ago one of the most memorable in my professional life. I tried to catch some of the magic in “Vertebrae.”

BluesI can neither sing nor dance well, but I can care with the best of them, and the ability to say “yes” is something I possess in large amounts, so when I was invited to emcee a school assembly and join an amazing (and amazingly talented) student in singing a Blues Brothers tune I was quick to don a black fedora and suit and put on my dancing shoes. The truth was that it wasn’t my ridiculous dancing or off key crooning that I hope students remember, it’s the message that we all are good to remind each other: “I Need You.”

Even as we need each other, to truly embrace our adventure in education we need passion, curiosity, and mentors. I saw all three last summer when my son and my dad connected over “A Fish Story.”

It’s still summer, at least as I write this, and I’ll round out these half dozen entries with an old one that tries to capture some of that sunshine that belongs to July. It starts on a roller coaster and ends in a museum, all to the lazy tune of summer when we’re most relaxed when our proverbial boat is “Adrift.”

IMG_3782If you’d like, this blog is categorized with some topics listed in the right column. For my ACMAniacs out there, I’d suggest “art” as a category that means a lot to me and might to you too.

I’m really looking forward to the start of the school year, when I will have a chance to talk with students, parents, teachers and staff. I’m excited to join the ACMA family and be a part of a very special place with a quirky spirit that feels welcoming, curious, ridiculously creative, and very, very much like home.

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Shuttering the Apothecary

mug shotCommencement commenced, summer upon us, and a moving truck idling in the driveway, it’s time for me to take a few weeks to make the major life transition from one state to another, one principalship to another, and one comfortable situation to a brand new adventure.

I started this blog for education related thoughts years ago when I was an assistant principal and have cheerfully kept it up as a principal, remembering that my starting point was an understanding that it would be filled with odds and ends, diverse and sometimes personal notions, and the kind of variety suggested by the line from Shakespeare stolen for the title:

I do remember an apothecary…
And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuff’d, and other skins
Of ill-shaped fishes; and about his shelves
A beggarly account of empty boxes,
Green earthen pots, bladders and musty seeds,
Remnants of packthread and old cakes of roses,
Were thinly scatter’d, to make up a show.”

But as life takes a huge leap toward the green expanses of Oregon, I know that it would be wise to shutter this apothecary for the summer and focus on making the drive north, settling in at a new school, and preparing for a new collection of “alligators stuff’d, tortoises, and old cakes of roses.” I have enjoyed the opportunity to reflect that this space has provided and relished the comments and engagement so many have offered.

I’ll pick up in the fall with Oregonian tales, and until then wish all my gentle readers a marvelous summer and, for taking time for these modest posts, a heartfelt thank you!

Incredible

In one of the most validating moments of my year so far, a ninth grade student let me know, in the slightly off kilter  way only a fourteen year old can, that I might be doing a good job.

Principals each have to find their voice, articulating through both words and actions who they are as a leader and as a contributor to the education students at their school experience. Some choose to be the person in the suit, dressed to show the high expectations they have for themselves and all those around them. Others choose to be the intellectual, masterfully connected to pedagogical advancement, engaged in professional development, and always able to quote the latest educational research. Some drape themselves with spirit wear every day, shouting their school pride from the rooftops. I suppose the best have an element of all three, and pinches of others.

As for me, a teacher at heart, I spend much time thinking about how I can best connect with the students at my school and support their learning, both inside the classroom and beyond. To do this, I tap into my paternal nature, and hope to project an accepting, benevolent, and committed deportment, one that sees the best in students and expects the best of them.

In a word: Atticus.

Truth be told, I’m no Gregory Peck, a fact I was reminded of in that honest and disarming way students have of speaking the truth. Walking across campus this morning, a student called out to me from where she was standing with a group of freshmen. “Mr. Paige!” she said. “You should be Mr. Incredible for Halloween!”

open-uri20150422-20810-1uc5daw_96b0b8deYe Gads, I thought. “Really?” I said.

“Yeah!” she replied, with a smile that showed neither irony nor malice.

“Okay,” I said, unsure of what else to add. “Something to think about…”

I did think about it.

Hair thinning, middle thickening, and a bit long in the tooth, Pixar’s Mr. Incredible isn’t unfamiliar to a fellow like me; I see some of these attributes in the mirror every morning. Beyond those physical casualties of middle age, however, he’s also a character with more than a few of the qualities I strive for as a principal.

Protective, durable, and ready to help, this cartoonish dad doesn’t always get things right; often enough he even looks silly, but he keeps his center and knows that with hard work and his heart in the right place, he can make a difference.

As much as I wish students would see me as Scout saw her father, at least in To Kill A Mockingbird, I realized this morning that I’m comfortable with the fact that my students might see me as a more …contemporary father figure, one that smiles a lot.

Will I put on a red suit this October? No. But I will carry with me the incredible feeling that at least one of my students sees in me something good.

Space


photo 2All teachers know there is no joy comparable to setting up your own classroom. Walls to be covered, furniture to be arranged, and the perfect environment to be created book by book and brick by brick. The experience of thoughtfully designing the space you’ll share with students brings a dizzying happiness ripe with possibility.

I don’t have a classroom anymore; I’m a principal now with a desk and conference table in the office where I hang my proverbial hat. On my best days I’m not in it much, an hour or so before students begin to arrive on campus and a couple of hours after the last bell has rung. This isn’t to say that it’s not an important space. I know that some of the conversations that take place here are critical and when someone finds him or herself “in the principal’s office” I want the experience to be as productive as it can and the atmosphere to speak of kindness.

photo 3This year is my first in a new office, new to me anyway; the walls went up in 1937. While I’ve certainly done my best to help if feel like home, one of the (temporary) defining elements of the space is a pile of boxes against my desk. Moving into a new job midway through the summer meant putting the priority on getting about the business of preparing for school, not interior decorating.

As a result, and a result I’m comfortable with (at least until I get a few days off to take care of it), some files to be put away and books still waiting for a shelf are part of my office decor. These boxes remind me daily to keep my focus on what happens outside my office; there will be time later this fall to straighten the furniture.

photo 1One bit of furniture yet to be straightened, and one that fits my priorities and approach, isn’t yet in my office. It’s important to me as a site administrator to look forward and make plans for events months ahead, keeping the big picture of the year in mind. Patience can sometimes yield great results, and while I have a stack of books and frames tucked under an end table right now, I can picture how great they’ll look on a bookshelf my great grandfather built in 1937.

Logistics mean I need to wait a bit to get that bookshelf in my office, but like the new tennis courts that will open in October or the new science and math building that will be ready in the fall of 2017, I see the benefits of waiting for something wonderful, not settling for something easier now.

What is in my office now is the accumulation of more than two decades in education. I keep the model sailing ship given to me by a student on a shelf filled with familiar volumes. Nearby is a squid mug I’ve blogged about, and on one wall is a pirate plaque made for me by an amazing secretary.

photo 3 (1)I have San Dieguito HS Academy memorabilia throughout the room as well. This is my school, and a place where I’m excited to make new memories.

And because principals are humans too, I have a few special pieces to help ground me and remind me of who I am when I’m not wearing a tie: an oil painting by my wife, creativity incarnate; two framed prints from a book by Dickens, acknowledgement of my sometimes wordy and antiquated soul; and a ferocious clay tiger made for me by my niece.

Scattered throughout are photographs, pictures of my family that smile back at me no matter how my day is going.

The environments we create say much about who we are, and I hope that if someone were to come into my office when I wasn’t there she would think me worth getting to know.

They’ll never put my name on a bench…

photo 1I have lunch from time to time with Marilyn Pugh, a former principal, who has always been generous in her time, giving me her ear when I need it, and advice when I ask. She was the principal of Diegueño for a decade, and is so loved and respected that she has her name on a plaque on a bench in front of campus.

I’ll repeat that: They named a bench in her honor and she’s alive.

In my first year at Diegueño, I loved my meetings with Marilyn, and seeing the faces of my staff light up when she entered the room. “MARILYN!” they’d shout, arms above their heads, zeroing in for a hug. She had the reputation of a tough administrator, and one who cared immensely about her teachers, her staff, and her kids. Her legacy is more than that plaque; she is seen as the high water mark for administration at Diegueño, something principals like me strive to emulate.

And I did keep Marilyn’s work in the back of my mind as I went about becoming part of the Diegueño family. I knew I’d be different; it’s right that I’m me, but I always had it in my head that I’d work hard and be true, and that after a few years there might even be a couple of teachers who would at least remember my name when a future principal brought me to visit campus sometime around 2040.

Last week I realized that they’ll never put my name on a bench.

Last week the opportunity to become the principal at San Dieguito High School Academy galloped into my life, snorting and stamping its hoof, and waiting for me to saddle up. It was an invitation to adventure that I could not pass up, not at least without a heaviness of regret that would haunt my work at Diegueño.

The pain of leaving, real and heart-rending, stood in contrast to the joy of expectation, of knowing that this was the right decision.

Like Rick at the end of Casablanca, I knew knew that I needed to put Diegueño on the plane bound in one direction, while I began a beautiful friendship with unknown promise in another. If not, I’d regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of my life.

Okay, that last paragraph was too melodramatic, but truth be told, I feel a touch melodramatic right now. I’m really excited to be going to SDA, and have also been in the business long enough to know just how much I’ll miss the people of Diegueño every day.

I’ll lean on Jorge Luis Borges, who captured this twin feeling of hope and loss in his poem “We Learn.”

…you learn to build your roads on today
Because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans
And futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.

After a while you learn…
That even sunshine burns if you get too much.

So you plant your garden and decorate your own soul,
Instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.

And you learn that you really can endure…

That you really are strong

And you really do have worth…

And you learn and learn…

With every goodbye you learn.”

I’m learning from this most recent goodbye, as I’ve learned from difficult farewells from years past. Time, I’ve found doesn’t always dull the loss, but good work helps, and new opportunities are the foundation of a meaningful life.

So as I say goodbye to a school family who I care deeply about and who treated me so well, and put my foot in the stirrups and swing into the saddle of something new, I know that Diegueño is a part of who I am, and that the excitement I feel about the road ahead in no way diminishes the beauty of the memories I keep in my heart.

borges campus

A life connected…

My favorite class from my first year of graduate school boasted the title: Medieval Literature, non-Chaucer. We read works by Margery Kempe, William Langland, and Julian of Norwich, all in Middle English, and I found that I loved it. I also realized, that when push came to shove, immersion in Medieval Literature was not what I wanted for my life’s work.

Searching back for the moment I was inspired to become a teacher, I paused at a string of moments that were candidates for that life changing event: Mr. Gossack throwing an eraser in my high school math class, and then walking to the office to admit that it accidentally hit a student; a philosophy professor, Dave, inspiring me in an independent study of Plato, and showing me how student driven inquiry could be so powerful; and the moment when a friend and newly minted teacher told me about getting ready for his first teaching position, and I knew I wanted that level of purposeful joy.

But it turned out that the memory that continued to assert itself didn’t take place in a classroom, or amongst other teachers, or even when I was a high school student. For me, the defining moment in my decision to become a teacher came on a snowy November day as I sat alone in my efficiency apartment in East Lansing, Michigan reading Njal’s Saga.

njalThat semester I’d found myself a few credits shy of what I needed to keep financial aid, so I signed up for one education course along with the literature classes that I was taking in my graduate program. It was a two credit affair, with only a couple of papers and a requirement that I observe in a local school. I could see a middle school from the window of my apartment, and I marched over in my Michigan State sweatshirt and asked if I could sit in on some classes. They put me in an English class, and I remember the dissonance I felt on that first day as I listened as the class read aloud from William Sleator’s Interstellar Pig.

This was not Medieval Literature. I wasn’t convinced it was even literature.

InterstellarPigI stayed for a class, jotted some notes I could turn in later, and left. I’d come back every week over the course of the term, and see twelve and thirteen year olds learn to read critically and write analytically.

And then I’d go back to my apartment and plow through Tristram Shandy and Paradise Lost. I loved the great books I was reading, but as fall days shortened into winter, and snow began to pile outside my door, the ivory tower began to lose some of its appeal.

Friends I knew in academe loved what they did, and I couldn’t imagine them doing anything else. For me, however, the idea of a life lived in thick books and ivy covered buildings began to feel… well, a little off.

And on that night when I was sitting at my desk, Njal’s Saga open in front of me, it hit me: I wanted to live a life connected to the real world. I wanted to make a difference.

I left graduate school at the end of the term, returning to Oregon and unloading trucks for a year as I figured out how I might make that difference. It turned out to be teaching, and with each year I spent in front of a class I found I loved it more.

From time to time, when I think back on my days at Michigan State, my memories always include the moment when I realized that one chapter of my life was over, and that something important was about to begin. I didn’t completely know it then, but I was going to be a teacher.

Apothecary

I do remember an apothecary,—
And hereabouts he dwells,—which late I noted
In tatter’d weeds, with overwhelming brows,
Culling of simples; meager were his looks,
Sharp misery had worn him to the bones;
And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuff’d, and other skins
Of ill-shaped fishes; and about his shelves
A beggarly account of empty boxes,
Green earthen pots, bladders and musty seeds,
Remnants of packthread and old cakes of roses,
Were thinly scatter’d, to make up a show.
Romeo and Juliet V.1

Not long ago a friend of mine asked me why I blog. Why this salmagundi of ideas about (mostly) education? How, he wondered, did I decide what to write about, and when? I tried to answer him over the phone, a muddled answer at best, one that made me sound a lot like that apothecary in Romeo and Juliet, who stocked his shelves with oddities, some of which made a difference in the course of Shakespeare’s play. Asked again by another friend, I thought I’d do a better job if I jotted out an answer. Here goes.

I blog because I want someone to notice what I’m doing and give me a five issue story arc in the new Moon Knight comic book.

photo 1 (24)Just kidding.

I blog because writing helps me reflect, celebrate, explore ideas, and (when I’m at my luckiest) join the great conversation about a topic I care greatly about: teaching and learning.

Flannery O’Connor said: “I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” I’m not quite that bad (or good; I’m sure there are some Flannery O’Connor fans out there; I’m one), but I do know that putting pen to paper puts me in a contemplative zone, and helps me reflect on my professional practice. In addition, I think that blogging regularly helps me live life in a more thoughtful way, observing more closely and engaging with the world more mindfully as I go through my day.

Through posts I’m also able to celebrate the great work of teachers and students at my school. I’m often out and about on campus and see inspiration, and writing about the positive events I see helps me appreciate the people I work with every day.

I hope my readers (from Minnesota to Australia) know my school, at least a little, and think: “now that’s a good place.” It is, and blogging lets me share our story in a truthful and celebratory way.

Blogging also helps me push myself to explore new ideas, and connections between education and the world around us. It prompts me to engage with educational theory, and see how I can bring this to my own professional process. And by its public nature, it puts a bright light on what I do, and invites me to be (or at least feel) accountable to more than just myself. I’ve had parents and teachers ask me about ideas I’ve blogged about, and this interaction is renewing, rewarding, and keeps me on my toes.

It’s this potential to prompt conversation that intrigues me most about blogging. This public collection of thoughts is a modest way I can join the greater conversation about education. Sure, my work is mostly local, but I hope that some of the ideas might resonate with folks with different zip codes and different points of view.

If one of my posts can spark discussion or be a catalyst for someone else, then maybe these odds and ends, these skins of ill shaped fishes, have a place in the conversation too.