Octopus

I was having a day. Not a bad day, but a day when it felt like the surprises that were coming brought more challenges than smiles, and a string of opportunities to make a difference left me feeling like a slowly unclenching fist.

As I walked through the counseling department, having safely escorted a couple of students to a person who could help them out, I looked up and spotted one of my amazing teachers sitting at her desk in a common planning room.

She smiled, as she always does, and asked me if I had a minute. Clench. “Sure,” I answered, always attempting to be a gentleman. And then she surprised me.

Screen Shot 2018-04-18 at 1.47.49 PM“I had my kids do this in class,” she said, lifting a pile of manilla folders from her desk and bringing them over to the table where I’d sat down. “It’s about organization.” She sat down next to me. “Here.” She opened the top folder and took out a stack of photographs of sea creatures: a translucent squid, an octopus, an anemone or two.

For the next three or four minutes she led me through a sorting exercise that had us sitting shoulder to shoulder looking at the pictures and answering a series of questions, captured in a table created by a group of students. Does this creature have legs? If so, go to row “C.” If not, go to row “D” etc. etc. At the end of each trail of questions the creature in the picture got a silly name.

My teacher and I laughed. The photos moved from one stack to another. The weight of the day floated away like a brine shrimp on a rising tide.

It was a little thing that wasn’t a little thing.

Here was a teacher who spotted her principal not whistling, brow furrowed, having …a day. Rather than simply think I’m sure glad I’m not him she thought I wonder if I can help?

The truth: she did.

The inspiration that teacher provided went well beyond making my day better. Her small act (that wasn’t a small act) reminded me of the value of looking out for one another, the importance of not just identifying a problem, but rolling up our sleeves and doing something about it, and the profound impact of genuine kindness.

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Spring Flowers

Little provides perspective better than spending time with kids. As a principal, I know that my interactions with students tell me more about the health of my school  than just about anything else; as a dad, a spring break road trip that had our family of four sharing hotel rooms and a crowded car was a great grounding experience; and some very precious time with my niece and her family, including a wide eyed three month old, his bouncing seven year old brother, and his clever three year old sister reminded me how important a calling it is to be an educator.

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For each of the kids in my life, those in my immediate family and those in my school family as well, teachers and the other adults who help to form their education have the power to make such a difference on their changing lives. As adults we know that. As kids they feel it.

As I listened to my own kids talk in the back seat of the car, I heard the truth about the way students in our school system see things.

“I’d never want to be a teacher. Kids treat them terribly.” Pause. “Not me, but kids. Particularly boys.” Thoughtful pause. “Mrs. —- doesn’t like kids, so I guess it’s a little okay they treat her badly back.” Pause. “Not me. Mr. —– respects us. They don’t act up for him.”

I heard about school rules and routines, sometimes unable to keep myself out of the conversation. “Before school we have to stay in the cafeteria, and if we’re too loud a lady blows a whistle at us. Sometimes she gets really frustrated, like when one group of kids starts to yell and chant.”

“Chant?” I asked. “Do they chant: ‘Whistle! More! Please!’?”

“No, Dad.”

More even than rules and misbehavior, from my niece I heard about the power of a teacher and administrator to make things better. At an IEP meeting, when the teacher and principal spoke about strategies and supports, their reassurance and commitment was both real and appreciated. Parents want to know that the school cares for their students, and it’s a trust that is earned over time. When I heard “…and maybe with this new principal it will be better,” my first thought was that I want to be that honest school leader my students, parents, and teachers can believe in.

Belief and hope are the building blocks of learning, a truth a marvelous three year old reminded me of as she presented a drawing of spring flowers and was able to tell me the name of the color of each one.

IMG_6439“Blue,” she said, pointing. “Orange,” she added with pride. “Red,” she said with the confidence of a preschooler whose mom has been working with her around the kitchen table. Her eyes sparkled and I saw in them the potential so many parents (and grandparents, and uncles, and aunts, and caregivers) see in their own kids. I want the pride she feels now to always be a part of her education.

I don’t want anyone blowing a whistle at her.

But the truth is that I don’t have control over their education. I can love them and advocate for them. I can try to encourage in them resiliency and courage, and the confidence to make themselves heard, but I need others to take the time to listen.

At my own school I can do my best as a principal to nurture a culture that is caring and accepting, a safe place for everyone. (This is harder work than it sounds like in a sentence as short as that last one, but work worth doing.)

I might even hope that someone in education reading the little scribbles I post every week might take from my words the notion that being kind and caring, and even a little silly, can be a good thing.

Yet beyond anything I say or do, it seems to me that the understanding of how things are and how things should be will come to me, and to all of us who make schools our line of work, if we simply put down our whistles and listen. 

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.

Empathy and Action

They gathered in the inner courtyard, more than five hundred strong, held hands, and stood silently for seventeen minutes. Some wore shirts expressing their point of view, #NEVERAGAIN or March for Our Lives, others simply looked the part of who they are: students, grades six through twelve, thoughtful, artistic, a little nervous, and more informed than some would expect. In a word, they were inspiring.

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The event was one of three student responses to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida a month ago. The first, one of empathy, was suggested by two seniors who put up a stretch of poster paper where students could record their words of support for the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In the days after the tragedy it provided a place for students to process their own feelings while focusing on others. We’ll roll this up in a few days and send it to the school, our small voice of support in the chorus of the national conversation.

The next response suggested by students came from our student representative to the school board’s Student Advisory Committee. That group discussed what they could do to express what they were thinking and feeling in the wake of what happened in Florida, and how they could have their voices heard on the issue of school safety. The result was the idea of a letter writing campaign by students to elected officials. Our rep got right to work.

At the assembly we held to discuss school safety, our student representative stood in front of the student body and explained the importance of action alongside empathy. She deftly answered questions about the project, and ended with an invitation to join her in writing to members of congress to share their perspectives as young people who come to school every day to learn, feel safe, and become the kind of adults some of us still aspire to be.

IMG_6199There were a great many students near the table that held that letter box on March 14th, and knowing our student body, I’ll wager the perspectives and ideas shared will be as diverse, thoughtful, and articulate as our students.

But for seventeen minutes there was unity in our diversity, those seventeen silent minutes when students stood together, holding hands, thinking their own thoughts about the day, the world, and the future. When the time ended there were hugs, a few tears, and a great gathering up of teens who headed back into the schoolhouse to learn. The orderliness of it all might have astounded some, though those of us who work with students were less surprised.

The students’ poise and purpose was inspiring too, though as a dad and a principal I want to temper my genuine appreciation with a nod to the reality that these are young people who have more on their minds and a wider future than any single issue. That they will make a difference I have no doubt. That they have a vision of the future that is kinder and more inclusive than my own generation’s I believe. That this takes away the collective responsibility of anyone older than twenty I do not accept.

Just as it is unfair to paint teachers as heroes in waiting, pursuing their noble cause with inadequate pay and unreasonable expectations, because they are so selfless …which somehow makes it okay, so too it is unfair to see in our youth saviors who might take away our own responsibility to contribute to making the world what we want it to be.

Teenagers today have done much to bring a message to our national consciousness, and a part of that message seems to me to be an call to engage with our communities. Wherever folks find themselves emotionally and philosophically in the wake of the tragedy in Florida, or in fact the decades in which school names like Sandy Hook and Columbine have become synonymous with violence, I think we can take inspiration from our students today, and hear them when they invite us to put our empathy into action.

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.

February 14th

Tomorrow is a big day, filled with anticipation, love, and more than a little excitement. It is, of course, the first day major league pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

About once a year I set aside my usual topic of education and say something about our national pastime. Occasionally I’ll try to tie baseball to something related to teaching and learning, but just as often I just let my love of the game have the stage for its annual post. Baseball is, like life, or learning, a subject that invites waxing poetic.

So… Pitchers and Catchers.

I scraped ice from my windshield this morning, bundled up against the 28°, and headed to work in the dark. The trees around my house are bare, and even though a few intrepid daffodils are starting to poke up through the flowerbeds, spring seems miles away.

Somewhere in warmer climes professional baseball players are beginning to arrive to play ball. They are loosening up arms, jogging along outfield walls, and preparing for the long season they hope won’t end until October. Between now and then is the end of winter, the full of summer, and the beginning of fall, and with their arrival, forgetting what the frost tells me every morning, is spring.

SpahnWith spring my thoughts span memory, lighting on the time when I was twelve and my dad took me to see a college ballgame where Warren Spahn was coaching. I wanted so much to get his autograph, but the game was going long it was almost time for me to leave. I went up to the chain link dugout between innings and asked: “Mr. Spahn. Mr. Spahn. Could I have an autograph?” He frowned at me. “We’re in the middle of a ballgame,” he chided. “I know,” I apologized, “but I’m catching a game in half an hour and I have to go.” He nodded and signed the paper I handed him. I still have that autograph.

Pitchers and Catchers.

I think about going with my uncle to the Metrodome in Minnesota to see Frank “Sweet Music” Viola pitch for the Twins. It was the dome’s first year and the air conditioning wasn’t working. We sweated into the plastic seats and I got to see the imperial Carl Yastrzemski stride across the field ignoring everyone in the stands. Afterward we went to a little hole in the wall bar for coney dogs. There were black and white photos of athletes everywhere, memorabilia, patrons who looked like they might have been sitting in those worn out booths for decades. It was a place unlike any other I’d ever seen, and at thirteen I felt like I had been welcomed into adulthood.

YastrzemskiPitchers and Catchers.

My team did not win the World Series last year. They did not win the year before that, or the year before that. In fact while I have been with my wife for 26 years, she has never known me when my team won the series.

But with the arrival of pitchers and catchers hope returns to fans like me. We see under the southwestern sun …possibility. My team may not be playing come this October, but they might. They certainly will be in the background of my April and May, June and July, August and September.

They will be on the radio, my favorite window into the game, while I finish this school year and begin the next. They will fill the hours of summer and the first cool days of autumn. And if my team isn’t out of the running by the all star break, and maybe even if they are, they will provide a chance for hope every night, 162 times between now and the end of September.

When I am given the chance, loving the game as I do, I will strive to have the grace of Warren Spahn and avoid the superiority of Carl Yastrzemski, at least as they seemed on the days when their paths crossed mine. I will do my best to show those around me the generosity of my uncle, sharing a coney dog (whatever that might be a metaphor for), and show everyone around me the smiling optimism captured in the notion: “Maybe this year.”

Until the first pitch is thrown, which now feels like it will be soon, I will scrape my windshield and think about spring.

(Robotic) Hands On Learning

“Mr. Paige, come look what I did!”

I’d just stepped into a sixth grade science classroom, prompted by the knowledge that they were in the building phase of a cool project involving robotic hands, and she was the first student who looked up and made eye contact. The class was so busy, so focused, so when this young scientist invited me to check out her work I threaded through the groups of students standing around tables talking, tinkering, and engaging with each other, and hurried to where she was standing.

IMG_5349When I got to the table this student shared with her group I saw pure delight in her eyes. Proudly she explained the intricacies of the mechanical glove she and her peers had been working on. “Biomechanics,” she called it, as she talked about the “anatomy of the hand.” This young scientist explained the project to me, nodding at the open Chromebook on the table and pointing across the room where their teacher was working with another group to test some fingers.

This is a project championed not only by our amazing ACMA science folks, but also by our district’s TOSA team (Teachers on Special Assignment). It’s a nice example of what can happen when educators work together, teachers open their classrooms to new ideas, and everyone puts student engagement first.

At an art school like ACMA it’s not unusual to see students engaged in activities that mean much to them. Potters, poets, and performers spend hours both in class and out creating works that demonstrate their creativity and artistic ability. Musicians, dancers, and painters practice, problem solve, and innovate as part of what they do every day. Filmmakers, theater techs, and graphic designers know all about trying one approach, revising, adapting, and doing something different. In all those artistic fields I see passionate and purposeful students determined to create something amazing …the same qualities I saw in that robotic hand.

Similar too was the pride in that student’s voice when she invited me to come over and see what she and her group had done. That hand, all wires and cardboard, showed the results of that same curiosity and creativity so familiar in art studios and performance spaces across campus.

It’s in these moments of creation that real learning flourishes. As students make, from clay or musical notes, or words, as they build, with movements, code, or even wires and cardboard, they create connections that bring understanding to life. The students who are making maps in history class, building court cases in English, or applying math to real world problems all have a chance to find relevance in what they are learning.

IMG_5354This week’s robotic hand could be next week’s Sphero challenge or next month’s cigar box guitar build. The joy I saw in that student’s eyes, and the focus that filled the whole sixth grade science classroom, could be echoed in choir, or theater, or Spanish class.

At its best education provides students with opportunities to succeed, to create, and to engage. When that best arrives, as it did this week in the form of the robotic hands, the power of learning is profound.

Our challenge as educators is to build our lessons and our schools with the potential to inspire students to want to know more, to work together to understand, and to come up with a product (be it something written, built, or performed) that inspires them to turn to us when we enter the room and say proudly: “Come look what I did!”