Rock, Paper, Scissors

RPSIn the interest of fun…

More descriptions of what educators do should begin with those five words. Teachers, counselors, classified staff, administrators… we work hard, care deeply, and sometimes wear our emotions on our sleeves. As busy as we are, it’s easy to forget to take time to laugh, a topic I’ve written about a bit lately, and something that the staff at my school has embraced changing.

Lately we’ve seen lightsaber fights and a crazy good game about culture lifted from the Peace Corps. We’ve eaten chocolate and sipped coffee, batted paper around like kids, and enjoyed a salsa cook off. Sometimes the activities that the staff came up with involved preparation or a trip to the store; today there was magic in the air as we boiled our collective activity to one word: fun.

Well, actually, our social studies department chose three words: Rock. Paper. Scissors.

Dimming the lights at the start of a staff meeting, they played the theme song to Rocky and brought up a video introducing the grand art of roshambo.

Anticipation rose.

Would we be pausing our discussion of Senior Capstones to pair up and play Rock-Paper-Scissors? Could the day have taken a cooler turn?

The lights came back on and our grinning history teachers brought out a work of art.

As they explained that over the next two weeks we’d have an opportunity to compete in the greatest Rock-Paper-Scissors competition every, two intrepid teachers rolled out a bracket that would put March Madness to shame.

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Every staff members’ name was on the huge rectangle of butcher paper, and as we leaned forward and squinted to see who we’d be matched up against, our organizers explained that every two days we’d report our winners and watch as staff moved through a sweet sixteen, elite eight, and final four on their way to a final showdown at our next staff meeting.

It was awesome.

Inevitable side conversations arose: Was it Rock-Paper-Scissors or Rock-Paper-Scissors-Shoot. (It’s Rock-Paper-Scissors.) How many rounds was each match? (Three. Duh.)

Two math teachers spotted that they were matched up, and we had our first victor on the bracket. A science teacher asked if when we got to the sweet sixteen we could pause and fill out our own brackets with predictions.

IMG_7043And as we laughed, a history teacher explained that behind this grand scheme was a hope that we would all get out of our rooms and talk with each other. At least for three rounds every couple of days we would leave our silos and find our friends, or those who may be our friends.

Without spending a dime this group of teachers spun gold.

We went on to our planned discussions at the meeting, and we’ll all come back tomorrow ready to do the hard and meaningful work of education, but even as we do, for the next two weeks we’ll all have one eye on the bracket, and be thinking about what a great group of teachers started today …in the interest of fun.

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Jedi Academy

IMG_6774What if we hit each other with pool noodles?

It seemed like a sensible question.

A few weeks back a couple of my teachers got to talking about morale. It ebbs and flows at every school, even the best of them, as the demands of the day pile up and the pressures of making a difference in a job that matters so much grow and grow until very good people find themselves sleeping too little, eating too much, and not taking time for themselves.

The educators I know sometimes need to be reminded to give to themselves as much as they give to their students. They need to be encouraged to breathe and relax, go for a walk, laugh at something silly. Play.

So these intrepid teachers fell into conversation about what we could do at work to make our professional lives …happier.

They weren’t talking about a swelling soundtrack and larger than life event, just adding more of a sense of fun to what we do.

And then, like angels, or middle school teachers (and I believe the terms are very often interchangeable), they did something about it.

It started with crumpled paper, a couple of books, and a trash can. Making a game of it, they got together to bat a ball of paper back and forth, racing another team of hastily gathered teachers, to see who could get the paper in the can first. No double hitting! No catching the ball! Rules piled up to add a little challenge to the game.

And they laughed.

Hard.

IMG_6069Later that afternoon they came into  my office with a suggestion I couldn’t refuse.

After school a week later the empty halls echoed with the laughter of teachers playing. Our staff meeting paused long enough for us to break into teams, choose our own books, and get to slapping a ball of paper back and forth as we rushed toward garbage cans and victory.

Being the amazing organizers they are, those angels/middle school teachers ended the meeting with a chart inviting departments to sign up on to do “something fun.”

IMG_6733Since then we’ve had a salsa contest during a staff meeting and a chocolate tasting extravaganza that ran all day. One morning our counselors turned their office into a coffeehouse.

…and then…

The day arrived when our staff gathered in the theater, the lights dimmed, and the words appeared on the screen: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away…” Cue music (we did). Roll yellow words (we did). Welcome the staff to a day of lightsaber duels (heck, yeah).

We called teachers to the stage by random numbers, three at a time, each handed a pool noodle decorated to look like a lightsaber. They positioned themselves within small squares of blue tape situated onstage in front of the screen displaying scenes from Star Wars movies, sized up the opposition, and on the count of three-two-one started whapping each other.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 4.52.45 PMThe goal was to stay in the blue squares. Some did.

And on the way they laughed. The audience cheered, chomping on red vines as if they were watching a summer blockbuster, seeing their colleagues, now intrepid Jedi, wailing away.

After the first round we brought in double sided lightsabers and let them have at it again.

At the end of the afternoon, just fifteen minutes out of a busy day, applause.

The staff took time to appreciate our receptionist and my secretary, who had put so much effort into the event, and whose Princess Leia hair buns were one of the stars of the show.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 4.32.49 PMThey left smiling.

Those last three words matter so much. In a profession that can be taxing (important, life changing, rewarding, but difficult) to create opportunities for the adults who work with students to play, to laugh, to connect is vital to the health of a school.

To care for our schools we must care for our teachers.

This means many things: Teacher Appreciation Week, thank you notes, lunches provided by the parent organization, and more. It also means opportunities to be silly.

Morale will ebb and flow, that’s the world we live in, and it’s also the challenge we’re given to face those emotional highs and lows by supporting one another, taking the time to be kind, and doing our best to see the best in ourselves and each other.

…and sometimes it’s fun just to whap fellow Jedi with pool noodles.

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.

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.