The Opposite of Athena

“It is not enough to have a classroom free of psychological and social threats. The brain needs to be part of a caring social community to maximize its sense of well being. Marginalized students need to feel affirmed and included as valued members of a learning community.”     -Zaretta Hammond

At the end of last school year a series of conversations with some great teachers and students got me thinking more about the cultural backgrounds our students bring with them to school and how welcoming and affirming, or not, we are to those stories. I’m proud of the kind and supportive atmosphere that helps to define our school. Coupled with wild creativity, a comfort expressing ourselves, and an atmosphere that celebrates the individuals who make up our school community, ours is a school where to be a little different is just fine.

athena vaseHere at ACMA we work hard to create culture, a lofty and important pursuit, and as we do we would be wise to also consider the diverse and meaningful cultures our students, and staff as well, bring with them to our campus. None of us are, like Athena from Greek mythology, sprung fully formed from the brow of a god; we come to school carrying within us the long and rich histories of our families.

Some of that history makes us strong, some of that history gives us doubt, and all of that history helps to define who we are at the start of our individual journey. Can we transcend our families and heritages? Sure. Are we even richer if we can integrate those into who we are? I think so.

In her book Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain, Zaretta Hammond encourages educators to reflect mindfully on their own cultural baggage, challenging us to know ourselves. “You can never take yourself out of the equation,” she writes. Instead, you must commit to the journey. This means we each must do the ‘inside out’ work required: developing the right mindset, engaging in self-reflection, checking our implicit biases, practicing social-emotional awareness, and holding an inquiry stance regarding the impact of our interactions on students.”

Hammond-coverHammond often returns to the focus on paying attention to ourselves and our students. Recognizing that culture is how we (and our kids) make sense of the world underscores the importance of making room for all voices.

It was this spirit of listening to each others’ stories and reflecting on our own that prompted a “Culture Bag” activity at our leadership summit last week. Before the meeting we were given the instructions: “Please bring three items which represent who you are (i.e. your culture) that you wouldn’t mind sharing with others. Your culture is a matter of perspective and can be specifically tied to your interests, your experiences, your family, etc. We will use this time to learn a little more about each other.”

I’m usually dubious about activities designed to push me into connecting. I hate any artificial notion of getting to know you, but…

Before we began sharing, our superintendent stood up and modeled what we would be doing. He shared his story, and his artifacts (a photograph of his siblings, a hammer from his days working in a plywood mill, and his diploma from college), pulling back the curtain on his life and becoming very, very human. That he was so willing to be so vulnerable set the tone for something special.

So when I found myself at a table with three other administrators we all embraced the invitation to share a bit of ourselves. We laughed, winced at some of the tough stuff that has made us who we are, and ended after about fifteen minutes with a better understanding of what guides our work with students. I knew then that it was something I wanted to do with my staff.

For the adults who fill my school, gifted and caring professionals who bring so much to their jobs, I hope this kind of sharing can help us all to know each other, understand each other, and think about the rich stories we all bring to our school. I’m hopeful too that it’s a spirit that we’ll all bring to our opening days with the students.

I’ll save my own stories for our first staff meeting next week, though for any staff member peeking at this little post, I’ll share this photo without explanation.

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Throughout the year I want to provide my students, my staff, and my school chances to celebrate our culture and our cultures, ourselves and our stories, and to see one another as honest, real, and very, very human.

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School Cultures …with an “s”

My grandmother was Swedish. She came to the United States when she was sixteen and had her name Americanized from Selda to Zelda.

My other grandmother was the first child born in a little town in the heart of the Canadian plains, the daughter of immigrants from England who struck out to a new land before the First World War. My great grandfather returned to fight at Vimy Ridge as a part of the Canadian Corps.

IMG_7015I grew up hearing their stories.

My own red hair, redder as a child than it is today, reminded those on my father’s side of the family of my great grandmother’s fiery locks, which according to family legend she used to attract customers to her father’s London barbershop by sitting on the steps out front as a child.

My mom liked to say that my stubbornness, like her own, came from Grandma Zelda, a righteous Swede who always said that a Norwegian was nothing but a Swede with his brains kicked out. Later in life when she found a branch of Norwegian in her family tree, family stories have it that she said “Well maybe that’s why I’m so stubborn.”

My folks showed me old photos of Abby and Father, that London barber and his wife, who were early members of the Salvation Army. They were positively Victorian, and look back at me from the old photos with expressions I recognize in my own family and myself.

A painting by my grandmother, finished with a little help from my Uncle Rod, a gifted artist, of her childhood home in Sweden hangs in my parents’ guest room. I’ve stayed in that room with my own kids and showed them the scene from my grandmother’s memory.

All of their stories inform my story. Who I am is, in part, a continuation of who they were.

I thought about that after a wonderful conversation two gifted teachers and I shared about the importance of culture last week.

As an educator I know the importance of creating an accepting and welcoming school, and I’ve had the great fortune to be a part of more than one school community where students know that they can be themselves, and know they are valued and cared for who they are.

I love that I get to go to work every day at a school where plush ears, tails, and horns are a regular part of the established dress, where a student in a top hat or a unicorn onesie is a student, not a student seen as acting out. I’m proud to be a part of a community where skirts aren’t limited to those born biologically female, and where the study body values, as they say, “hearts, not parts.”

We rightly celebrate individuality and nobly honor differences, even as we encourage the choices each of us make every day to be the people we want to be. We are actively in the business of making culture, school culture.

…but this is different than honoring the cultures each of us carry with us.

All of those wonderfully welcoming and inclusive attitudes; the value placed on kindness; the celebration of artistic spirits, not just works of art; and the belief that everyone can become who they want to be …and then change their mind …and then change their mind again, all of those attitudes, it struck me, were not about the same sort of culture I’d been talking about with my teachers.

They had been talking about countries, traditions, and heritage.

If my history includes a London barbershop and a Swedish painting, then what about the stories that each of us bring to our creative collective present? If I am not only defined by the choices I make for myself, but also by the rich cultural heritage that I’m right to honor and embrace, then isn’t part of creating a welcoming school community also developing ways for each of us to share our own family’s stories as well as writing our own?

That was what my teachers had been talking about. Like me, their family stories and cultural heritages were foundational to who they are. What might we do, they asked, to invite, articulate, and celebrate our students’ family stories? What could we as a school do to give the artistic souls who fill our school both the invitation and encouragement to share their cultures with each other?

For anyone noticing, I’ve used more than a couple of questions in this post …so far. That’s not clever rhetoric; it’s that I’m still figuring this out. Being the principal doesn’t mean you always have the right answers. Done right, it often means you try to ask the right questions.

I took some of my questions to Sho Shigeoka, a sage in the realm of equity and honoring cultures, cornering her at a district meeting with the swirl of thoughts I’d been wrestling with throughout the week.

She smiled at me and said: “Ask the kids.”

I walk the halls every lunch, sit in on classes often, and chat with students all the time, but I’ll confess that in that moment with Sho I couldn’t remember a single time this year when heritage came up as a topic of discussion.

“Gather a group,” Sho said patiently. “Ask them how they think they could celebrate their stories.”

I will.

Over the next few months I look forward to hearing my students (and staff too) answer those questions. I’m excited to work with those two caring teachers who started this line of thought and the diverse and creative students to find ways for each of us to share who we are.

This post promises to be the first of a few looking forward and joining others to look back on family, culture, and the stories of our lives. I want to help create a healthy school culture for all of us that honors the cultures each of us. It’s time to start asking, and time to start listening.