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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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.

Mercy Me

I was an idiot as a teenager. I was not malicious, mostly, though prone to selfishness and the inherent narcissism of an only child in his teenage years. An athlete and solid student, I got the cultural approval of the suburban 1980s and took for granted that I was a white, middle class, and male.

That’s not to say that I flaunted my privilege, or was really cognizant of it, but I realize in retrospect that what I imagined to be confidence could have been seen by some as arrogance or even callousness.

One of the realities of reaching one’s forties is an acceptance, and occasionally healthy embarrassment, of our teenage years. It’s a luxury we deny ourselves in the moment, and a perspective gained only with the passing of time.

As a high school principal, I have the opportunity to watch amazing students transform from kids into young adults. They come to us wide eyed freshmen, described by a friend of mine, another site administrator, as “eighth grade a dayers.” They leave to professional lives in college, trades, and the military. It’s a transformation that can feel like a whiplash.

…and it isn’t always pretty.

Nor should it be.

Adolescence is a time of discovering identity, pushing boundaries, and students finding their own voices. That there will be missteps along the way is a truth as old as time.

It helps me to remember this when I work with students. Those teenagers so passionate about issues that mean so much to them now, and may be forgotten by the time they are thirty, are doing what they need to do to learn how to fight for a cause, stand up against perceived injustice, and speak their minds.

Listening to them does more than simply help the students grow; it can help adults like me become more thoughtful, patient, and purposeful educators.

And when they treat us or each other more harshly than we’d like, or speak before they think of others, or even act in ways that feel rude, perhaps because they are, those moments may just be the opportunities they need to learn. They also may be the opportunities we need to remember, remember our own adolescent years.

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“14 doesn’t look good on anyone.” Particularly me.

…and show empathy.

A wise parent, who had found herself in my office years ago because of a poor choice her child had made, once provided me with a line of perspective that has stuck with me for the better part of a decade. It was weeks after we’d met that first stressful time and we found ourselves standing next to each other at a ballgame, cheering on the freshman team.

We chatted briefly, and I made some kind of comment about her student’s improved behavior. Without embarrassment or anger she smiled and said: “Fourteen doesn’t look good on anyone.”

It’s hyperbolic, of course, but was certainly true of me, and it helps me keep in perspective that all of us do well when we remember that line from Shakespeare: “The quality of mercy is not strained.”

I was an English and Philosophy double major, but it took me until I was close to forty before I really, really understood what Shakespeare was saying. I needed life, not just school, to teach me that.

Truth be told, in the thick of things, when emotions are high and it would be a good idea for everyone in the room to take a breath and a big step back, it’s not always Shakespeare I think of.

I’d like to say I picture Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, or someone with far more patience and wisdom than I’ve ever had, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, and these are sometimes the best I can do, I simply whisper to myself: “Just remember your own idiocy.” Not perhaps the slogan I want to put on a t-shirt or get tattooed on my arm, but a prompting nonetheless to slow down and do better.

However we get to it, our lives and the lives of those around us, are better when we can apply to everyone we meet, empathy, understanding, and that unstrained quality, mercy.

“So, please understand…”

photo-3-3Not every student has a newborn calf in her barn, but everyone has a story.

I get kidded sometimes for reading more poetry than books on education, but then, when I’m least expecting it, a verse hits me and I realize that a poetic sensibility may be the right way to look at how best to do my job.

It happened a couple of weeks ago when a friend loaned me Edwin Romond’s collection Dream Teaching. With humor and poignancy, Romond captures the essence of working with students, and the interior life of a caring educator.  If I were ever teaching a class on being an administrator, Dream Teaching would be required reading.

One poem struck me particularly. I’m a principal now, so while the poems about teaching sparked nostalgia, “Letter to My Principal” did even more.

The verse, formed as a poetic apology letter from a student, captured a spirit I see in kids all the time.

It begins with what I believe is earnestness and an acknowledgement of a decision technically against the rules:

I came to school late today
and I am sorry.
I do remember your note
about my punctuality
But…”

Those of us who have been site administrators know that our students sometimes make decisions that go against our school rules. We’ve written letters home about attendance and worked with teachers and parents to keep students in class.

Sometimes the temptations that lead kids to be late or absent are silly; sometimes they’re sinister, but Romond’s poem is a reminder that we do our jobs best when we don’t stop at the what, but ask for the why. The narrator of Romond’s “Letter” gives a why to remember.

…a calf was born last night
and I found him blinking
into his first morning…”

Rather than making this an excuse or complaint, the verse veers in a direction our students are not only capable of, but a condition more common in “kids today” than popular culture would have you believe: wonder.

Romond captures this when he writes:

So, please understand
I was caught in a sunrise
so gold it turned our barn
to pink…

…I was set to leave, I swear I was,
but his mother, her eyes dark as plums,
began to bathe him with her tongue
moving like a paint brush
up and down his milky face,
and when he gazed at me
and mooed like a nervous bassoon,
what could I do but stay…”

Now I’m not suggesting the elimination of compulsory education, and any student reading this should know that too many tardies can still keep you from buying a ticket to the dance, but Romond’s poem reminds me just how important it is that in a society rushing so quickly from moment to moment and expectation to expectation, we pause to experience the magic and power of the world.

photo-1-3Education is humanity, not bureaucracy. Rules exist, and must, and alongside them exists beauty so gold it turns the schoolhouse pink.

What would our students write to each of us if they had Romond’s gift for words? What would they tell us if they dared or if we dared to listen?

“Letter to My Principal” dares, and does so with a passion and purpose that kindles thoughts poetic and a reminder to slow down and really listen.

“Have a go…”

ComplicatedPart of a healthy school community is the ability (and opportunity) for parents, students, and educators to talk together about the big issues, ideas, challenges, and opportunities that swirl around our shared experience. Whether we’re moms and dads trying to help our kids navigate a world so different from our own growing up, students faced with a thousand choices every day, or teachers, counselors, and administrators dedicated to helping kids learn, we all benefit from time to connect with each other not in reactionary ways, but proactively identifying topics about which real conversation can yield positive results.

With this in mind, over the past two years I’ve had the pleasure of hosting book clubs at school that give all of us a chance to talk. Those opportunities for parents, teachers, and students have been informative, renewing, and fun. As this new school year begins I’m excited to announce that our first San Dieguito Book Club of 2016-2017 will be on October 18th at 6:00 pm when we’ll talk about It’s Complicated by danah boyd (the lowercase, ee cummingsesque choice of spelling her name is hers, and while the former English teacher in me cringes, I’ll honor it).

The risk of choosing to talk about a book, a real live book, about social media is that it will be outdated before it comes to print. It’s Complicated, however, smartly looks not at particular apps or social media platforms, and instead takes as its starting point the teens that use those apps and platforms. Writing with a great empathy and understanding of those adolescents, boyd presents and addresses typical presuppositions about “kids today” and does a nice job of speaking to issues of privacy, safety, and community.

It’s Complicated gives us much to talk about, but less to fear, and I’m looking forward to hearing what parents have to say about their own perceptions of their son’s and daughter’s online activity, what teachers notice about how social media and the rise of handheld technology has changed education, and what students believe about their own behavior online. These conversations are at the heart of our San Diegutio Book Club.

The New York Times book review captures the reason It’s Complicated is a solid choice for our first (of three) book clubs this year when it notices that “Boyd’s book helps us understand our new environment.” The interconnected online world is certainly different than what most of us parents and educators grew up with, and whether we agree with what boyd has to say a little, a lot, or not at all, It’s Complicated provides us with a great starting point for a discussion of the ubiquitous nature of social media in our teens, and our own, lives.

Last spring, when we ready Julie Lythcott-Haims’ How to Raise an Adult, discussion ranged from parsing direct quotations from the book to heartfelt anecdotes from parents, who realized just how much we really aren’t alone.

I knew just how much we parents were connected by shared experience when we got to the point in our discussion about “grabbing the glue gun” during our kids’ elementary school projects. As parents talked about the successes and missteps they’d experienced helping their students gain independence, lots and lots of heads nodded. We’d all come to the book club caring, curious, and a little nervous, and had all of a sudden found ourselves surrounded by kindred spirits.

As we talked about the challenges of parenting, one mom who’d moved to our town from Australia mentioned the trepidation she saw in her kids’ friends and contrasted that to the more bold Australian attitude that looks at uncertainty and thinks: “Let’s have a go!” We have a long way to go before that spirit of adventure is commonplace, but knowing that we are part of a caring community can help.

book clubIn addition to the parents, many teachers joined the discussion. To hear them talk about the importance of students finding their own voices, gaining confidence, and being willing to take risks inspired us all to think a little more about our role in helping kids become adults.

And those kids… some came to the book club as well. Our parent foundation purchased a few copies of the book for our school library and those copies were checked out on the first day. The students who lent their voices to the conversation brought a richness that those of us who have taught English know can be profound.

I’m optimistic that discussion on the issue of social media will be just as rich, and I look forward to hearing perspectives as varied and passionate as we heard last spring.

Over the next few weeks I’ll share some articles about the topic and excerpts from It’s Complicated, and do my best to encourage us all to learn together, talk with each other, and feel comfortable enough in our shared adventure to smile. We’re not alone and one of the best things we can do is take a deep breath, find our community, and have a go.

Building

When our admin team gathered to take our obligatory pre-school year photo, the choice of backdrops was obvious: construction.

We trotted out past the Mustang sign in front of the school, walked by the iconic bell tower, and positioned ourselves in front of an enormous hole in the ground.

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My assistant hopped up on a low wall to snap the picture, being sure to get not only the bioretention basin and trenches in the photo, but also the expanse of dirt, emerging cement, and a corner of the hulking metal skeleton of the classroom building that will open in the fall …of next year.

Construction is more than a rumbling reality at San Dieguito; building for the future is a metaphor for our work as a school.

Our teachers are amazing builders, their daily work with students in classrooms  the mortar that holds together the edifice of learning. Other adults contribute as well. The watchful eyes of campus supervisors, the organization and heart of an army of classified staff, and the overflowing support of our counselors all help to create an education that can be a shelter in the storm of growing up.

Parents, through their love and involvement, buttress their students, providing strength and support when the pressure gets to be great.

And in the midst of it all, students swing their proverbial hammers and build.

They build the memories they will take with them for a lifetime. They build the friendships that will enrich and nourish them. They build their knowledge and character, their passion and wisdom, brick by brick constructing what their lives will become.

This year, like every other, will be a year of construction. The most important work will take place inside each of our students, the new building rising and the bulldozers moving earth reminding us that it is always our responsibility as educators to build.

Gesso

Early August on a high school campus is hot and a little lonely. As a principal, I get back before most, and until folks start drifting back from summer vacation it’s just me, my assistant, and a skeleton crew of twelve month employees coming to school to get things ready for the start of a new year.

photo 2 (2)That preparation includes everything from organizing our “Taking Care of Business Days” to making sure that the master schedule is the best that it can be. There’s also work to be done preparing for the opening staff meeting, planning ways to bring our campus community closer together, and this summer the steady growl of heavy machinery as construction crews work on two big projects that will make our school better in the long term, but right now constitute a hard hat zone.

Even so, I love early August for the promise of possibility it brings. IT’s now that administrators like me have the relative quiet to set goals and make the plans that will help guide our year. September through June is run at a gallop; August trots.

To mix metaphors, early August is the gesso on the canvas of the year. Oil painters know that to create a work that will last, the canvas needs to be properly prepared. The best painters spend the time necessary applying gesso, the chalky white undercoat put on a canvas, to create a place where the brilliant colors will appear. Like those painters, the preparations we do now allow for the layers and layers of color that will emerge over the months ahead.

534I don’t know what this year’s image will look like yet, nor what colors will fill the proverbial canvas, but I honestly believe that the preparations of August can help to make a true difference come September, January, and May.

So as my intrepid assistant sends out letters of welcome and the men in yellow safety vests and plastic white helmets move the earth around us, my thoughts turn to the painting that will follow this month’s gesso.

The real fun begins as students and teachers begin coming back to campus. Soon.