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.

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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!”