A Great Hall of Reflection

“Art … is a great hall of reflection where we can all meet and where everything under the sun can be examined and considered.”
                                  -Iris Murdoch

Just about every morning I take a walk. At 7:30 my amazing assistant, Margaret, and I cue up a song, turn on the PA, and let music fill ACMA. For the next five minutes, as students hurry to classes to the sound of Miles Davis or Ella Fitzgerald, Sharon Jones or David Bowie, Mozart or Edie Brickell and Steve Martin, I walk.

coffeeA cup of coffee in hand, I navigate the front hall by the main office, zigging around the trophy case filled with ceramics, dodging kids wrapped in fleece blankets (a thing at ACMA during these cold winter months) and turn the corner by the door of the dance studio at the mouth of ACMA’s Hallway of Hope and Justice.

Every morning I see teachers standing at doorways greeting students, I see kids carrying projects (a canvas, a sculpture, the makings of a robotic hand), and I find myself surrounded not just by art on every wall, but by the creative student artists who make our school the work of art that it is.

Ours is a school of plush ears, horns, and tails. We are a place that exudes the creative spirit, a place where students create their identities as well as their art. At ACMA we laugh often, dream big, and are comfortable being just a little bit different. Seeing this creativity made manifest every morning is an inspiration.

To walk down ACMA’s hallways first thing in the morning, The Clash, The Bangles, or the Beatles filling the air, is to see hope.

At 7:30 in the morning students are focused on what’s ahead. They’re not performing; they’re preparing. As these artists, writers, dancers, and musicians move together through the hallways, nodding hellos to one another, smiling, and toting instruments, cameras, and portfolios, they seem to me less a disconnected collection of individuals and more the cohesive colors of a creative rainbow. They share a desire to make art and a poetic way of seeing the world.

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My walk takes me to the end of the hallway, past paintings and wire sculpture, past displays about LBGTQ pride and announcements for upcoming productions, beneath student murals reaching back for decades and temporary installations on kindness, body image, and environmental issues.

Each step, to the strains of Mendelssohn or the bounce of Billie Holiday, takes me through a sea of anticipation. The day is about to begin. In the next hours together students will dance, and sing, and draw, and sculpt. They will write, and act, and make films. They will discuss literature and math, debate history, experiment in science (and maybe artistically too). They will support one another, encourage one another, and help each other be the best artists (and people) they can be.

Well, once they’ve wiped the sleep from their eyes; 7:30 am is awfully early for artists.

To help them wake up we may cue up some Prince or Buckshot LeFonque, Pink Martini or Johnny Cash. Whatever the soundtrack for the morning, the feeling is the same: gratitude for being at ACMA, excitement for the creative process, and a belief that today great things may happen.

I never take that morning walk for granted. Never. It’s a time to connect with students and staff, absorb the inspiration of our vibrant school, and witness first hand the profound power of creativity.

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(Robotic) Hands On Learning

“Mr. Paige, come look what I did!”

I’d just stepped into a sixth grade science classroom, prompted by the knowledge that they were in the building phase of a cool project involving robotic hands, and she was the first student who looked up and made eye contact. The class was so busy, so focused, so when this young scientist invited me to check out her work I threaded through the groups of students standing around tables talking, tinkering, and engaging with each other, and hurried to where she was standing.

IMG_5349When I got to the table this student shared with her group I saw pure delight in her eyes. Proudly she explained the intricacies of the mechanical glove she and her peers had been working on. “Biomechanics,” she called it, as she talked about the “anatomy of the hand.” This young scientist explained the project to me, nodding at the open Chromebook on the table and pointing across the room where their teacher was working with another group to test some fingers.

This is a project championed not only by our amazing ACMA science folks, but also by our district’s TOSA team (Teachers on Special Assignment). It’s a nice example of what can happen when educators work together, teachers open their classrooms to new ideas, and everyone puts student engagement first.

At an art school like ACMA it’s not unusual to see students engaged in activities that mean much to them. Potters, poets, and performers spend hours both in class and out creating works that demonstrate their creativity and artistic ability. Musicians, dancers, and painters practice, problem solve, and innovate as part of what they do every day. Filmmakers, theater techs, and graphic designers know all about trying one approach, revising, adapting, and doing something different. In all those artistic fields I see passionate and purposeful students determined to create something amazing …the same qualities I saw in that robotic hand.

Similar too was the pride in that student’s voice when she invited me to come over and see what she and her group had done. That hand, all wires and cardboard, showed the results of that same curiosity and creativity so familiar in art studios and performance spaces across campus.

It’s in these moments of creation that real learning flourishes. As students make, from clay or musical notes, or words, as they build, with movements, code, or even wires and cardboard, they create connections that bring understanding to life. The students who are making maps in history class, building court cases in English, or applying math to real world problems all have a chance to find relevance in what they are learning.

IMG_5354This week’s robotic hand could be next week’s Sphero challenge or next month’s cigar box guitar build. The joy I saw in that student’s eyes, and the focus that filled the whole sixth grade science classroom, could be echoed in choir, or theater, or Spanish class.

At its best education provides students with opportunities to succeed, to create, and to engage. When that best arrives, as it did this week in the form of the robotic hands, the power of learning is profound.

Our challenge as educators is to build our lessons and our schools with the potential to inspire students to want to know more, to work together to understand, and to come up with a product (be it something written, built, or performed) that inspires them to turn to us when we enter the room and say proudly: “Come look what I did!”

National Holiday

I saw my first unicorn at 6:35 am. She walked out of the dark and into the cafeteria to stay warm before school, joining a pack of students who had spent time planning and creating costumes for a big day at Arts & Communication Magnet Academy.

IMG_4894Back in the main office, after a bus duty of watching remarkable creations walk onto campus, I found two pirates smiling at the pumpkin left anonymously the night before and decorated with my name and a llama, a reference to Rojo, the therapy llama, who had visited earlier in the month.

Together we laughed at the parade of costumes that stopped by: The Hulk, complete with green face paint; an impeccably mustachioed gondolier, whose facial hair was as carefully sculpted as it was real; and a body builder toting a giant dumbbell and looking like someone out of a 1920s circus …and those were some of my teachers.

IMG_4897Here at ACMA we begin each day by playing music over the PA in lieu of a bell, and as we were getting ready to cue up the theme from Harry Potter The Cat in the Hat stopped by, joined by a cheetah, and Chuck Norris …more staff.

Students got into the act as well, an outpouring of creativity that captured the outrageous skills our students have in art and performance. Clowns and zombies, Ghostbusters and vegetables, dogs, cats, fairies, and even a skunk, the wild abundance of costumes was overwhelming. Stepping into the hall as the opening strains of Harry Potter filled the school I saw …everything. Herds of unicorns. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. Chefs. Cowpokes.

IMG_4914At lunch I hung out with a seven foot tall satyr.

I must have looked a little overwhelmed at the spectacle of it all when one of my math teachers smiled at me and said: “Here at ACMA Halloween is a national holiday.”

What a glorious thing that is.

I love that ACMA, as strong academically and artistically as it is, is on an average day a school of plush ears, horns, and tails. Our students, and our staff too, know the value of having fun and expressing themselves. Today’s costumes didn’t have to be fancy or expensive; the best were hand crafted celebrations of the creative spirit.

ACMA is a place where students make art and live life artistically, and on the 31st of October …well at ACMA that’s a national holiday.

Kitty Litter

I was in a scriptwriting class on Monday and heard the teacher delight his class with the truth that as a writer and filmmaker there were times a young auteur would be given the challenge to “make kitty litter sexy.” The class laughed, of course, and he went on to lay down the truth that part of what good storytellers of any medium can do is take something simple and make it interesting. It was later that day that I found myself looking at the proverbial box of litter.

I knew where to turn.

My kitty litter was explaining the concept of ACMA’s “Access” period to students new to our school as well as how they can use our online system to sign up to visit teachers and get help. A schedule adjustment had made it so that the time we’d originally set aside to do this task would take place after the first Access. Gulp.

I turned to my student filmmakers.

Tromping out to my film teacher’s classroom I hoped I could coax a couple of students to help put together something informative we could share with new students. I had in mind something modest, and I had a deadline of just over 24 hours.

Screen Shot 2017-09-14 at 8.49.59 AMAs students do when we believe in them, they more than rose to the occasion.

We talked briefly about the task at hand, they nodded and said they could do it.

By the next morning a student stopped by my desk to film my cameo in the short, her patience and smile reassuring me that things were going to be just fine.

Tuesday afternoon two inspired students swooped into my office with a rough cut that they adjusted as I watched. Witty, short, and clear, what they’d created did more than I expected to make the topic accessible to new students and provide not only what Access is, but also how the students could sign up for it.

Screen Shot 2017-09-14 at 8.50.16 AMWe sent it out to all new families that night, and Wednesday morning, as Access rolled out for the first time this year the result was students, veteran and novice, in classrooms getting help from the teachers they needed to meet.

The student filmmakers received no “points” for making the short, nor did they even add their names to the credits (though I hope to persuade them to do so on the next short I ask them to make). They stepped up, however, to do something for their school and for the students new to our ACMA family. They brought humor and polish to their work, and even enlisted a real life new-to-ACMA student in the starring role of “new student.” They were, not to put too fine a point on it, the kind of inspiration that led Emerson to say “Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.”

Every week I am inspired by the young people I have the privilege to work with. Wednesday that inspiration came in the form of a minute and five seconds of kindness and creativity.

An Escaping Octopus

Here’s to whimsy. Here’s to unexpected and unnecessary creativity. Here’s to art that no one asked for and poems written on the cement in chalk.

It was an octopus that got me thinking about creativity yesterday, as it peered up at me from a wooden crate, two tentacles reaching out from between the splintered slats.

…honestly, it was a painting, a bit of public art on a metal breaker box in an alley behind an ice cream shop near the Oceanside Marina.

photo 5 (3)What struck me when I spotted the clever painting was that this was an example of an artist bringing to life something that had before only existed in her mind’s eye. Others had seen the metal box, used it, ignored it, but it took someone thinking differently and having the daring and ability to make what she could imagine into a reality.

Mary Wollstonecraft, an 18th century thinker whose daughter, Mary Shelley, did her own bit of imaginative creation when she penned Frankenstein (as a teenager), wrote: “The generality of people cannot see or feel poetically.” I’ve always loved Wollstonecraft, but as a middle school principal, I don’t know that what she’s saying is exactly true …certainly not for the twelve and thirteen year olds I know.

Given the opportunity and encouragement, the middle schoolers I see every day think creatively and have the capacity to bring to life dreams no less whimsical than Victor Frankenstein’s creature.

It’s important that schools nurture this poetic thinking and unbridled creativity, particularly as angsty adolescence approaches with the threat of clouding everything in its path in emotional shadows.

Nurturing whimsy now, celebrating the creative spirit, and allowing flights of fancy may not stave off the broken hearts or tortured emotions of lunchtime at high school, but it might just provide the kids with enough optimism to stay alive inside until prom is over and mortarboards are in the air. Then, when life beyond school opens up before them, that sense of spontaneous creation, that whimsy and hope just might escape again, like an octopus from a painted crate.

“Holy Squid!”

photo 5We talk a lot about English and mathematics in middle school, state tests measuring these subjects and using the numbers to help define schools, after school programs developed to bolster writing and mathematical reasoning, and professional development days dedicated to helping promote strategies to engage students in English and math. None of that is bad; these are skills that our kids need as they prepare for high school and beyond, but I was reminded today of another aspect of school, another measure of a campus’ health: squid.

Well, not necessarily only squid, but the presence of spontaneity and whimsy, of creativity and application, the side of school that is art.

photo 2On a trip through a drawing class this morning, I got to see a studio full of young artists working on designs to be considered for our Diegueño Spirit Day t-shirts. Spirit Day is a big deal at our school, with all 950 students, as well as staff members, getting shirts celebrating our Diegueño Family. Most of the designs were Cougars, our mascot, who were wonderfully regal or exuberantly spirited. Growling, grinning, and gleeful. They were a great example of how a teacher, and a school, can provide a real life reward for a cool lesson in art. The t-shirt design contest struck me as perfect blend of school spirit and practical application.

Increasingly students are given opportunities to make meaningful connections between what happens in the classroom and what happens beyond the schoolhouse walls. At Diegueño, students learn to code, and share their games with others; our band learns tunes that they take to local parades; and our Dual Language Immersion students connect with students at a local elementary school who are becoming biliterate in the same way as our students.

But middle school is more than just preparation for the world of work; 7th and 8th grade are still a time when a sense of fun runs through much of what we do. I saw that as I was leafing through a stack of Diegueño Spirit Day designs and happened upon one that was …unconventional. Using the shorthand for Diegueño that shows up when we go to abbreviate our school name, DNO, this t-shirt design made up in pluck what it lacked in Cougar spirit. Nestled in the letters DNO, a squid.

photo 3 (1)Middle school is a time of things unexpected. Whether it’s an impromptu lesson on how to tie a bow tie, or a discussion of how to play guitar shared by a student and campus supervisor, a school’s ability to welcome the unexpected is another measure of health and vitality.

So as I was brought to a stop by that striking cephalopod, muttering “Holy squid!” almost under my breath, I got a healthy reminder of a sense of spirit and play that isn’t measured in an essay or a test.

For some students expressions like this take the form of a skit in Spanish class or a song in History. For others it’s a poem in English or creative answer to a problem in math; at Diegueño I see teachers in those subjects invite creativity alongside rigor. Others express that joy that is youth in lip sync performances, stop motion videos, or cardboard marble roller coasters.

Whatever the way students exhibit their artistic spirit, I’m proud to work at a school that embraces it. And while we might not change the mascot, not yet anyway, I know an image I’d like to have on a t-shirt. “Go DNO Squid!”