Robots, Finger Puppets, and The Imperial March

“Will you be our robot?”

The students asked so earnestly I couldn’t say “no.” It was a sixth grade science class and they were studying programming with a couple of guest instructors from Intel. The task was to identify and clearly articulate the steps to take a robot from one part of the room to another and then make a sandwich. Simple? Not exactly. What it was, however, was a great (and not unusual) example of a creative teacher willing to challenge his kids with an activity that pushed them to think beyond the textbook. They gathered around tables, laughed, learned, and leaned in to work together on a task that made them think. The lesson had a community connection, a hands on approach, and put the ownership of learning with the students.

It was not straight rows, primers, and bored students. But…

An image of just that had prompted one of my teachers to exhale sharply earlier in the day. A tweet had been shared with her that suggested something static in our profession. She read that message of discouragement, thought about what she’d been doing with her social studies class that day, and sent me a screenshot and a video.

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“I’m not on twitter,” she wrote, “so I can’t share with her the video of my 8th graders doing a sing-a-long of one of their classmate’s original “The Ten Bill of Rights” (set to “The Ten Days of Christmas”) or the attached puppet show video… but I thought you’d enjoy these examples of public school being anything but “sit down, don’t talk…”

Screen Shot 2018-03-15 at 8.56.17 AMThe video was as delightful as you might imagine, and the next week when I stopped by her classroom the students who had created the show, funny, smart, and fabulous, were even more so. They had been given a creative opportunity to show what they knew and share that knowledge with their class. Far from the images in the tweet, this was learning.

Both of these were examples of the kind of activity that happens in classrooms every day. A little fun, a lot engaging, these are opportunities for our students to engage with the subjects at hand, celebrate curiosity, and actively do.

And then, from time to time, bigger projects present themselves…

I wrote recently about the cigar box guitar build in one of our precalculus classes, and couldn’t let that experience pass without mentioning one magical moment shared with me by a student. She and her partner had been working on a guitar, and after the first day’s sawing and drilling had decided that before the last build day they would add their own creative approach to the instrument.

guitarPainting the box as a lightsaber and the neck as a glowing red blade, they returned to the second day of the build with the elements of a guitar that would look as impressive as it might sound. As I moved from group to group in the workshop these girls saw my amazement at their project, and as they posed for a photo one smiled and said: “Just wait until you hear me play The Imperial March on this!”

Learning looks different from classroom to classroom, but for anyone who thinks it’s all straight lines and hands raised waiting to be called on I’d invite you to my school to be a robot, watch a puppet show, and listen to an amazing student play you a tune of the guitar she built in math class.

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Sweet Music

I’d been wanting to get the bus to my campus since I first got the job. More than a year ago, when I was the principal elect waiting to begin my tenure at ACMA, I spent my free time scouring online for scraps of information about the district and school I would be moving to. I found amazing photos of performances and fine art, information about award winning student films and the major bond project changing the face of the district, and…

6E70358E-A38F-4AB8-80DB-113A8E2AC243The bus.

It intrigued me, this rainbow painted school bus, Beaverton School District’s “Future Bus,” a rolling collection of innovation filled with tool benches, building materials, and a sense of adventure. I knew that I wanted to get it on my campus as soon as I could.

Today, a cold day in February, the bus arrived.

It brought with it saws, rasps, hardwood, and cigar boxes. We’d ordered the strings and bridges, and this morning students packed into the Blue Box Theater, a great open space we could commandeer for a couple of days, to build cigar box guitars.

86AA441A-02A8-41DB-9FF8-9D066BD6280BThe build was the Future Bus Team’s first at a high school, and rather than gather a collection of stage builders or set designers, it was a precalculus class who stepped up to talk about the math and physics of sound as they drilled, cut, and built instruments. Math applied, creativity in building, learning by doing. It was awesome.

We started the day, as we always do, with a song played over the PA in lieu of an opening bell. Today we sensibly chose BB King. By the time “The Thrill is Gone” finished echoing through the hallways, our build team was ready to talk tools, safety, and sound to a group of young mathematicians.

2A300AD5-D5A4-46D8-BD03-14A18EC2BB2FCigar box instruments date back to the 1800s, with images of cigar box fiddles and banjos in the hands of soldiers from the Civil War. The simple design uses the wooden cigar box as the resonator, providing an inexpensive way to create an instrument with the potential for surprising good sound. Today’s versions often add a pick up for an amp, and offer musicians a creative and personal way to make a guitar of their own in just a few hours.

For ACMA’s build, those hours began on Sunday afternoon when the Future Bus drove up to the bay door of our performing arts center and we unloaded half a dozen workbenches, a collection of tools, and an impressive stack of wooden cigar boxes. In about 90 minutes the performance space had been transformed into a workshop, complete with a portable record player loaded with a little Led Zeppelin. We were ready to go.

IMG_6053Then today, they got to work.

For three hours the Blue Box was abuzz with activity. Students used Japanese pull saws to carve guitar necks, clamped, sanded, and drilled. They listened to our two guest instructors, collaborated with peers, and watched as their math teacher joined in on the building. To see his enthusiasm was as inspiring as witnessing the students’ engagement.

Beneath the stage lights they constructed musical instruments, learning as they went (about tools, and sound, and the application of mathematics). They talked about the project at hand, they took pride in explaining to me what they were doing, and they laughed. So often laughter is a harbinger of learning.

What will the students learn from building cigar box guitars? I hope a little about the math behind the measurement, chords, and sound. I hope a lot about the joy of creation and the possibilities of applying the theoretical knowledge they spend a lifetime in classrooms acquiring.

IMG_6055The process of creating is transformative, and bringing that hands on building experience into the classroom has the potential to make learning real.

Seeing students crafting their guitars today, laughing, talking, and working together was a culmination of what we’d discussed earlier in the year when the Future Bus Team came to campus to talk with our math teacher about a learning. To see the three of them in my office, sharing stories and plucking a finished guitar, was inspiring. To see them with students, guiding, encouraging, and connecting, was profound.

B760E6E1-9F73-4C44-8D5F-20B3CF74406FThe build finishes this Friday, coincidentally the day of my coffee with the principal. I plan on taking the parents who join me on a walking tour down to the Blue Box and letting them see the kids put the finishing touches on their guitars. We are ACMA after all, a school that digs having an audience, and I’m looking forward to sharing the good work happening on campus.

I know not every day can look like a cigar box guitar build, but I see in experiences like this exemplars that we might all do more to keep in mind as we develop lessons and encourage our students to engage, create, and apply what they are learning. Math class never looked like this when I was in school, but seeing the work today helped underscore that when it’s done right, learning can be sweet music.

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.

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.

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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.