A Couple of Jedi

I’m proudest that at the end of the visit my son insisted that the sandspeeder stayed with Papa.

IMG_5521It started as a Christmas present from my folks to my nine year old son, a Lego set that made his eyes widen. Sitting at the dining room table assembling his Jakku Quadjumper, my son seemed as happy as the proverbial clam. Midway through the big project my dad sat down next to him, looking from the visual directions to my son’s nimble hands dancing over the plastic blocks.

For the past few months, remembering has been a bit tougher for my dad, familiar things sometimes unfamiliar, and while his memory of people is unflagging, some of the complexity of life that he has always enjoyed wrestling with seem to be taking an upper hand.

But as he watched my son build, the expression on his face was a mixture of delight and curiosity. Bit by bit this spaceship was taking form, my son so focused on his work. I went into the kitchen for a cup of tea and by the time I got back something wonderful was happening: they were building together.

They’ve always been pals, but watching them now I saw something different. My son, patient and positive, helped guide my dad’s hands to the right blocks, put them together, and snap them into place. My dad, concentrating, listened to my son and smiled as they completed each step.

IMG_5581They stayed at it for the better part of an hour, leaning in to talk about the emerging spaceship, my son offering “great job!” after they finished each page.

Teaching. Learning. Collaborating. Creating. The principal I am saw something to admire.

The expression of happiness on both their faces as they presented the completed Jakku Quadjumper to my mom, my wife, and me was marvelous. That Lego set provided a path to something magic.

It’s the sort of magic that a principal like me longs to see in classrooms at my school, teaching and learning led by love and followed by building, the process of working together to construct something to be proud of. At its best learning is creating, making something (from robots to meaning) in an environment that is supportive, focused, and can be transformative. When that happens, lives change.

The next morning, a trip to the store for toothpaste and dental floss brought me near a toy aisle. I couldn’t resist.

By the afternoon our two Jedi were at it again, not Padawan and Master, just two noble knights working together to build a sandspeeder, the pile of Legos around them building blocks of memories.

About ten minutes into the build my dad looked up and said: “He’s a good foreman!” Then he smiled and they went back to building.

IMG_5572When we were ready to leave town the next morning, my son told me that we should leave the sandspeeder for Papa. “He might want to play with it,” he said. The perspective of a nine year old. “You bet,” I answered. “He might.”

And it was in this last kindness, on top of the patient collaboration I’d seen earlier, that I felt an overwhelming sense of joy.

As we begin a new calendar year I wish for every student a teacher with passion and patience, and for every teacher students with curiosity and a pinch of awe. For all I wish kindness and connections, the chance to build, the chance to learn from each other, and the chance to be proud, together, of a job well done.

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Glowing

While we are born with curiosity and wonder and our early years full of the adventure they bring, I know such inherent joys are often lost. I also know that, being deep within us, their latent glow can be fanned to flame again by awareness and an open mind.”
-Sigurd F. Olson

photo 2 (1)I grew up on an untamed acre of land, a stack of Hardy Boys books on my shelf, and parents who encouraged in me everything from baseball to rock hunting. With trees to climb, snakes to catch, and capes to wear, the world was an interesting place, a place to be experienced with muddy sneakers and grass stained jeans.

Adolescence brought me indoors, school organized sports, and a shift of priorities gradually changed those free days of childhood into something more …civilized.

By college books overwhelmed my time, my curiosity turned toward philosophy not filling mason jars with bugs, toward books not baseball cards. I suppose I grew up.

Today it feels like the world is in a rush to leave childhood behind. As a high school principal I see students already pushing themselves academically in ways that would astound my college self. They study hard, learn much, and often push aside the simple joys of youth that compete with a full slate of AP classes and the building of college resumes.

As a middle school principal I saw cell phones help catapult young teenagers away from childhood. By the time students reach high school many have acquired an adult(like) sensibility that would have felt out of place even twenty years ago. But…

Those “inherent joys” of childhood, that sense of wonder and spirit of play, isn’t gone so much as drowned out by the bustle of the world.

As educators, part of our our role is to help students navigate the path to adulthood, a winding road that leads through dense jungles, over wild waters, and along the edges of chasms that give pause to those of us over thirty. Another part of our job is to fan that “latent glow” that Sigurd Olson describes, the rich luminescence of curiosity, wonder, and adventure, back into flame.

Schools are at their best when nurturing curiosity and promoting wonder. It’s in those moments when students are inspired to move beyond comprehension and into the realm of application and engagement that education becomes transformative.

I see this work every week as I travel from classroom to classroom. It’s in the theater, where students write their own one act plays, direct each other, and create meaningful art. It’s in the science lab, where young leaders in healthcare learn how to do bone repair from doctors at Scripps Hospital. It’s in the auto shop where sparks fly as students build a go cart, facing the challenges of metal and motors with a determination that is inspiring.

photo

In each of these cases it is a gifted teacher standing just offstage who creates the opportunity for students to be their best. These are adults who know the value of fanning that latent glow of curiosity. As we see more and more of this we see the infinite possibilities contained in our students.

As a principal at a high school I see students who have left much of youth behind them, but within whom that “wonder” that Olson describes is simply waiting to be rediscovered. I applaud teachers everywhere who make it their mission to inspire students, and I applaud students everywhere who are willing to engage in their own learning. The result of these efforts, and hard work they are, is a school filled with passion and purpose, a school that glows.

A Fish Story

My son is excited about learning.

At eight years old, his passion for knowing more about fishing is matched only by his excitement to go to Lake Dixon with his grandpa in a few days. They’ve been planning the trip for weeks, and as a result I’ve seen my son’s taste in bedtime stories take a turn from the Hardy Boys to a paperback his grandma got him called Incredible and True Fishing Stories.

Out back I found a tree branch with a string tied around it that he has been using to practice, my own Huck Finn, missing only a straw hat and corncob pipe. Saturday morning I came downstairs to find him binge watching Monster Fish. He knew everything about the piraiba catfish and tiger sharks …and wanted to tell me about them.

DSC04212My dad is excited about teaching.

At eighty, the light that I’ve seen in his eyes as he talks with his grandson about casting and catching fish inspires me to believe that no matter what our age there is always something to look forward to.

This week he brought a fishing pole to our house that he used to teach me to fish with forty years ago. To see him talking my son through the basics, sharing everything about drag and bobbers brings a wave of nostalgia that takes me back to shores of my childhood.

I wish my son was excited about school.

We were at the grocery store yesterday and found ourselves in line behind a teacher from my kids’ elementary school. She smiled at him and asked, on this week before classes resume: “Are you excited for school to start?” He shrugged and looked at the ground.

All of us knew the answer behind that shrug.

That he has a capacity for curiosity and a love of learning is apparent in the catalog of fishing facts and string of library books he’s checked out over the summer with titles like Saltwater Angling and The Freshwater Fisherman’s Bible. From Monster Fish he’s accumulated more information about African rivers than anyone this side of Dr. Livingstone, I presume. He took time last weekend to explain to his sister the difference between a Nile perch and an alligator gar.

photoHe has patience too. As I watched my dad show him how the reel worked, my son’s eight year old hands soon discovered the Gordian capabilities of fishing line. The tangles profound, his teacher allowed him to experiment to find a solution, and stepped in to offer patient advice when that was the right thing to do.

That most of his first casts didn’t go too far didn’t seem to bother him. He tried and failed and tried and failed and tried and threw one that bounced off the wooden fence. The sound of that red and white plastic bobber hitting the wood could not have been more satisfying if it had come with a cash prize.

Through it all, he stayed captivated. Watching, trying, learning, he wanted to know more.

When Papa took a turn at the tangled fishing line, my son took the opportunity to read aloud from Incredible and True Fishing Stories and explain to him the difference between a marlin and a tarpon.

This inspiring learning was so unlike that shrug at the grocery store.

I know I’m sentimental, and so moved as to be almost teary watching my son learn on that familiar fishing rod. I understand that my own memory of fishing for bonito out of Long beach and trout in the Santiam River make me prone to romanticize things, but…

…but I wish so much that my son, and my daughter, and every son, and every daughter gets a teacher this year who inspires in them the same feelings of curiosity, joy for learning, and imagination.

Great teachers do this, and I can say from the experience of a dozen years of teaching, it’s not easy. Creating a classroom that validates, celebrates, and inspires students is hard work, and even the best intentions aren’t enough; it takes effort, and energy, and optimism. It takes a love of learning and love of teaching kids.

We stand on the shore of a new school year, ready to push our proverbial boats into the water. Will our kids get that teacher who connects with and inspires them? Will those of us who are educators be those teachers?

DSC04206Fishing, like education, is about hope.

And as I watched my dad and my son wrestling with that reel, I hoped that a day would come when he was as excited about going to school, and every teacher was as excited about helping each student learn, as he was about learning to cast.

Eight and eighty, these two showed me much about teaching and learning, or maybe love and curiosity, fish and fun, which may after all be what the best education really is. Well, minus the fish.

I don’t know if we’ll catch anything when we go to Lake Dixon, but I don’t think that matters anywhere near as much as the learning that has already taken place.

And this school year? This one could be the best yet. I hope.

Mr. Roboto

Attending a robotics competition is like stepping into another world. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to watch San Dieguito HS Academy’s Robotics team, “Team Paradox,” participate in the FIRST Robotics Tournament at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. It was astounding.

Scores of students in quirky costumes hurried between the village of tool stocked booths, the testing area, and the competition ring. As I walked from the entrance to the Team Paradox “pit,” as our roboticists called it, I spotted students wearing matching gladiator outfits, “Pi-rate” costumes, and one team outfitted as Egyptian Pharaohs. I was happy our San Dieguito team had opted for whimsical t-shirts.

Bjorn and BotMascots strolled through the event. Safety goggles covered every eye. There were more capes than a San Dieguito lunchtime.

Not sure what to do first, I visited our home base, a 10 by 10 foot area outfitted like Doc Brown’s laboratory in Back to the Future. Team Paradox buttons lined one shelf, yellow, blue, and red vinyl flooring defined the area, and an amazing student video played on a loop. They handed me a pair of goggles, saying: “You’ll need these.”

From there, I walked over to where other members of the team were adjusting the 2102* robot to better respond to the varied conditions of the venue. Unlike previous indoor events, this arena challenged participants with wind and ever changing lighting. This meant adapting the sensors and camera on their ‘bot, which they controlled remotely through a computer and an interface that reminded me of a flight simulator.

These are, I thought to myself, talented and innovative people who will make our world better.

Beyond outrageous technical skills, Team Paradox displayed something else: an ability and inclination to work collaboratively. They needed to work together as a team to create and compete, and beyond that they understood that part of the world of robotics is working with other teams as well.

Coöpertition,” you’ll hear them call it, acknowledging that working in isolation is less effective than working together, and that winning at the expense of others isn’t winning at all.

In robotics, alliances are part of every competition, and these alliances are fluid. Teams know that the robot they’re competing against in the morning could be their ally later that afternoon.

How unlike so many of the teams we see in high school. How very much like life.

robotics tweetTeam Paradox embraced this. Leading up to the competition, San Dieguito students worked with a cross town high school to help them establish their own robotics team. As mentors, they welcomed this new team to a world they loved, seeing them not as rivals, but as kindred spirits. When Team Paradox won the event this weekend, one of the first tweets of congratulations came from this team.

Even so, robotics is much more than an intellectual carnival. Teams work hard to design and drive the best robots they can, competing cleanly with strategy and spirit.

photo 1 (7)Along those lines, on Team Paradox member explained to me that a teammate had designed an app that they used when they scouted other teams. “We enter data into our phones,” he said, “and it’s put into this program so we can pull up graphs and disaggregate data on specific teams.”

Um. Yeah.

Do we ask these same students to do less in classes? Do we recognize their abilities and help them achieve even more?

Seeing the robot, the app, the pit… seeing the students so focused and gifted, and at the same time so able to have fun, jolted my notions of rigor and engagement.

As I walked up to the stands to sit with the coach, parents, and other team members, I kept thinking about how vibrant this event was. Kids, laughing as they demonstrated an uncanny ability to put learning into practice, filled the arena. This was education at its best, and an example of so much of what’s right about youth today. It was, too, a challenge to push all of our students to achieve at their highest potential, to believe in what they can do, and give them opportunities, whether in art, English, or math, to be their own best selves.

photo 3 (8)A sea of yellow Team Paradox t-shirts greeted me when I sat down next to the coach. Among the crowd of mentors, parents, alumni, and teammates were two teachers who had driven down to the event. One Team Paradoxer offered to paint wings on my face, a show of team solidarity. A meeting later in the day precluded it; next year I’ll keep my afternoon open and leave with wings.

Then match time came and Team Paradox gave us something to see.

The students in the stands migrated to the floor, many with pom-poms, one with a megaphone, one dressed as the team mascot. They whooped. They cheered. They celebrated.

The robot began the match by taking to the air, hurdling over the obstacle on the way to its target.

The robot got stuck.

The team worked at their controls to right the problem, and the robot began again.

In all that, a metaphor for life.

I’m proud that at the end of the weekend Team Paradox won the competition and will head to St. Louis for the national competition, but even if they hadn’t I would have been just as pleased. At last week’s robotics competition it wasn’t victory that impressed me, it was students.

Team Paradox

*They explained to me that the number assigned each team, and so prominently displayed on each robot, is determined by the order in which the team joined the world of robotics. 2102 then means our team started later than 2099, but long before 3200.

Teaching, Learning, and Softball

The point is to learn, not just be taught. Teaching happens along the way, formally and informally, and at its best provides the inspiration and information needed for real learning to take place. This result, however, is what matters most, the answer to the question: “Did they get it?”

I was reminded of the difference between teaching and learning today when my kids and I went to the park to play catch. My daughter is trying softball for the first time this spring, and this afternoon was her first time with a new mitt and bat. She was hungry to learn.

Having coached my son’s T-Ball team, I thought myself a qualified teacher. I pulled my own mitt out of the trunk, bought two new softballs, and thanked my stars to live in a climate that has sunny days in December. Her brother, already looking forward to his own baseball season this spring, put on his Storm cap and joined us.

photo 3We played catch, she took some swings, and drew a smiley face in the infield dirt. As we played, we talked and laughed, connecting with each other while she learned. When one of my throws bounced off her stiff new mitt and into her nose, I hugged her until she stopped crying.

And she learned.

We’ll go out again this week, weather permitting, and she’ll learn some more.

I know that it isn’t my teaching that will make the difference; I’m really just being a dad. As in a healthy classroom, the real learning comes from a curious and motivated student being encouraged, supported, and cared about.

I see this on campus every day, in classrooms, science labs, and art studios. I see students in business class taking chances as they pitch ideas they’ll actually put into action on campus, students in theater bravely performing in front of their peers, and students learning a language new to them embracing the opportunity to understand more about other cultures and ways of communicating. Any of these students could struggle or stumble in the moment, but around them I see teachers ready to hug them if they get bopped in the nose by that metaphoric softball, failure.

It’s what’s best about education, the focus not on teaching, but on seeing students learn.

Drop It!

photo 5I could just see his head over the top of the gym’s roof. Holding a pine cone, he called down to his class, asking them to take out their phones to time the impending fall. The pine cone’s; not his.

The pine cone dropped, thirty teenage faces watching its progress. It plopped on the ground and their eyes returned to the head atop the gym. After a moment of instruction, they took another measurement on a plummeting tennis ball, did a bit of calculation, and were ready for the real show: Eggs.

Egg drops are a part of the curriculum in physics classes around the country. Savvy teachers know that they’re part math, part engineering, and part showmanship. At their best, events such as these provide students with hands on learning that prompts them to work creatively and collaboratively to solve a problem. Students who embrace this opportunity, and come up with designs beyond the second YouTube example, find themselves challenged in a very real way to apply the knowledge they’ve gained in the classroom.

What I got to see at last week’s egg drop was a celebration of science and ingenuity. I saw students cradling their wooden and plastic structures as they headed out to the drop site. As we walked, they told me about planning their contraptions, building them, weighing them, and testing them out. The genuine pride students brought to their projects was inspiring, as was the palpable excitement they felt as they prepared to drop.

photo 4This energy alone would have made me consider the day a success, but once the drops began I got to witness a different kind of inspiration. Students gathered below the wall where the projects would drop, a curious half circle of teenagers, all eyes glued to the falling objects.

When an egg survived, they cheered. When an egg exploded, they consoled the engineer and tried to come up with an egg related pun. “Look on the sunny side,” one offered. “It was egg-citing anyway,” another said.

Throughout it all the teacher talked about the scientific method and learning both from successes and failures. His smile and support reassured them all that things would be okay, even egg-celent.

As James Joyce said, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” At that egg drop, many students stepped through to better understanding. Their teacher encouraged them to take chances, be creative, and embrace the challenge.

photo 2 (2)The importance of learning through experiences cannot be celebrated enough. Whether it’s a mock trial in history, atomic models in chemistry class, a poetry slam, or building a robot, when students are presented a challenge and given the freedom to create solutions they learn.

I’m proud to be part of a school and a profession that asks students to think critically and act creatively to develop solutions. To see the passion they bring to their own learning can’t help but inspire.

For anyone dubious about the state of education, I’d wish they could have seen those eggs drop. Even when yolk dripped onto the sidewalk minds were opening, understanding was emerging, and the students’ cheering was egg-ceptional.

Books, Badminton, and Beautiful Conversation

You know it’s a good meeting when a majority of the parents and teachers are barefoot.

It was our final gathering of the year for the Diegueño Book Club, and laughter filled the grassy area in the center of campus. We threw foam horseshoes without much success, if success is measured in ringers or leaners. If, however, the yardstick for accomplishment is having a good time, we were wildly successful.

The laughter continued as we batted a birdie to one another, our badminton skills inversely proportional to the amount of fun we were having.

There in the quad, beneath the flagpole, parents, teachers, and I were playing. Our smiles and talk of what we’d been like as kids brought us closer together, and the heart pumping lunges to reach that birdie made me feel happy to be at Diegueño, surrounded by great people, and having fun.

photo (7)After our most successful volley of the night, seven continuous bounces of shuttlecock against badminton rackets (it was windy; volleys were tough), we sat down in the shade of one of Diegueño’s trees and shared a jug of water one of our teachers brought from her classroom and a plastic container of chocolate chip cookies. Circled on the grass, we brought out our copies of Stuart Brown’s book Play and started to talk.

We talked about the importance of play, both structured and unstructured, and how different school was today than when we were students. Discussion led to play as it happens on our campus, both in big events like Spirit Day and in classes every week, as students enjoy time and space to be creative, collaborative, and come up with their own approaches to the challenges they face.

Two parents mentioned the “POM” or “problem of the module” that has entered the lexicon of the Diegueño Math Department. Not open ended so much as “open middled,” a math teacher explained, the POM encourages students to notice and wonder, to bring critical thinking to a purposeful challenge, and to work together to find an answer. The result is different than run of the mill “homework,” though the POMs are done outside of the classroom.

I’ll save the homework discussion for another post, but suffice it to say that we all could speak to the difference between daily assignments and more complex opportunities for students to apply the skills they are learning and have learned in class.

The kind folks in our book group listened as I yarned a bit about some of the things I did as a teacher, including Pirate Week and Space Week. Beyond the fun of talking about times when I got to play in the classroom (and beyond), this discussion blossomed into talk of a more academic success we’d seen just a couple of months ago at Diegueño: Pi Day.

Pi Day is really a misnomer; here at Diegueño we celebrated math for a full week in March. Beyond the thoughtful and student driven activities, for me the anticipation, the brainstorming, the excitement to create something fun (and Pi related) were as important as the flashier successes of the event. In the fortnight before the celebration I saw kids engaged, inspired, and showing the sparks of creativity that brought to life unexpected accomplishments.

Acknowledging that not every day can be Pi Day, we talked about everything from PE classes to History, and the value of engagement, hands on activities, and opportunities for the kids to have a voice in how they demonstrate what they are learning. As Brown suggests, “play isn’t the enemy of learning, it’s learning’s partner.” Our group agreed.

Conversation ranged from how we as parents play with kids to the importance of family and community. I won’t tip my hand on all the ideas flying around that tupperware container of diminishing cookies, but as we talked about balance, building community, and helping everyone feel at home, I was inspired by the specific suggestions about how we could do even more to bring parents, students, and all of our school community closer together.

This balance, especially in a world increasingly competitive, and a society that puts extreme pressure on students (as well as moms and dads) around grades, high school classes, and college acceptance, is important, and part of the answer to the question “How can we help families?” comes in the word: play.

I know that as the principal I might raise an eyebrow or two with this next line from Brown’s book, but it resonated with me, and I think with the other folks who were with me on the grass. “Play, by its very nature,” Brown writes, “is a little anarchic. It’s about stepping outside of normal life and breaking normal patterns. It’s about bending rules of thought, action, and behavior.” Within in the safety of school, and under the guidance of adults who care about them, a little unstructured play might just be the balm some kids need to ease the stress they face every day.

This isn’t to say that school should only be games, or that structure is anathema to learning. As our Diegueño Book Club talked, however, we recognized that how we frame what we do on campus (and in the work we assign beyond the schoolhouse walls) matters a lot.

A teacher in our group remembered aloud a quotation from Tom Sawyer: “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” I thought about what that meant to me as someone who has chosen to be an educator. It’s a topic I’ll continue to discuss with my staff and school community.

Reading a book and talking about it at school… I guess I could see how someone might consider that work, but for me, that evening on the lawn, it was most certainly engaging, enlightening, and enjoyable play.