Kitty Litter

I was in a scriptwriting class on Monday and heard the teacher delight his class with the truth that as a writer and filmmaker there were times a young auteur would be given the challenge to “make kitty litter sexy.” The class laughed, of course, and he went on to lay down the truth that part of what good storytellers of any medium can do is take something simple and make it interesting. It was later that day that I found myself looking at the proverbial box of litter.

I knew where to turn.

My kitty litter was explaining the concept of ACMA’s “Access” period to students new to our school as well as how they can use our online system to sign up to visit teachers and get help. A schedule adjustment had made it so that the time we’d originally set aside to do this task would take place after the first Access. Gulp.

I turned to my student filmmakers.

Tromping out to my film teacher’s classroom I hoped I could coax a couple of students to help put together something informative we could share with new students. I had in mind something modest, and I had a deadline of just over 24 hours.

Screen Shot 2017-09-14 at 8.49.59 AMAs students do when we believe in them, they more than rose to the occasion.

We talked briefly about the task at hand, they nodded and said they could do it.

By the next morning a student stopped by my desk to film my cameo in the short, her patience and smile reassuring me that things were going to be just fine.

Tuesday afternoon two inspired students swooped into my office with a rough cut that they adjusted as I watched. Witty, short, and clear, what they’d created did more than I expected to make the topic accessible to new students and provide not only what Access is, but also how the students could sign up for it.

Screen Shot 2017-09-14 at 8.50.16 AMWe sent it out to all new families that night, and Wednesday morning, as Access rolled out for the first time this year the result was students, veteran and novice, in classrooms getting help from the teachers they needed to meet.

The student filmmakers received no “points” for making the short, nor did they even add their names to the credits (though I hope to persuade them to do so on the next short I ask them to make). They stepped up, however, to do something for their school and for the students new to our ACMA family. They brought humor and polish to their work, and even enlisted a real life new-to-ACMA student in the starring role of “new student.” They were, not to put too fine a point on it, the kind of inspiration that led Emerson to say “Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.”

Every week I am inspired by the young people I have the privilege to work with. Wednesday that inspiration came in the form of a minute and five seconds of kindness and creativity.

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Customer Service

When we moved back to Oregon one of my first stops, ahead of an overnight fishing trip with my son, was to Bi-Mart. For any who don’t live in the pacific northwest, Bi-Mart is a local employee owned store that sells everything from tents to hard candies, nails to plastic tumblers, flannel shirts to microwave ovens. With cement floors and employees in blue smocks, Bi-Mart was a working man’s Target before any national chain invaded the beaver state.

Stocking shelves at Bi-Mart had been my first real job back in high school, and I’d returned to unload trucks for a year after I left graduate school …ah the value of a degree in philosophy… before I decided to become a teacher.

BimartA membership store long before Costco, northwesterners have been plunking down $5 for green or yellow card since Eisenhower was in office. After almost twenty years away from my home state, my card was as gone as my misspent youth.

So, when I stepped into Bi-Mart a few weeks ago I approached the front desk with thoughts of buying another card before hunting for the perfect lure for our trip to catch smallmouth bass. That was not what happened.

Standing on the wrong side of the waist-high door just inside the Bi-Mart lobby I explained to the matronly woman in the blue smock that I needed to purchase a new card. I’d been away since 1999, I told her, and didn’t have mine any more.

“No,” she corrected me. “We say lifetime membership and that’s what we mean. What’s your name?” I provided it. She typed into the computer on the desk. “No,” she said after a minute or so. “Not there.”

It wasn’t a problem, I assured her, reaching for my wallet. I’d be happ-

“What store did you first get the card?” She interrupted with a smile.

“What?”

“At which Bi-Mart did you get your first card?”

I thought about it for a moment. “Salem, I guess,” I answered. “I worked there as a kid.” She nodded. “The one on Lancaster Avenue,” I added. “But that was back in the mid-80s, and…”

…and she was back on the phone, a heavy plastic receiver to her ear, one hand held up to let me know I needed to wait. I did, watching her nod into the phone, say a few words, and then repeat: “Yes, Bjorn, B-J-O-R-N. Right.” She shifted in her chair, waiting before finally ending the call with “Oh, thanks” and jotting something on the yellow legal pad in front of her. She put down the phone and smiled at me again. “They had it,” she said, as if the fact weren’t astounding.

“Wow,” I answered. “They keep those records a long time. Do they have a different computer system than here?”

“No,” she said as she wrote her name and a number on a fresh green card. “We keep paper files on the cards we issue.”

I tried to imagine the signature of my sixteen year old self in a drawer in Salem, Oregon. The paper, more than thirty years old, would be yellow with age.

IMG_4014The woman handed me my new card and a pen to sign it. “When we say lifetime, we mean lifetime,” she said again. “Enjoy your shopping, and welcome back.”

As a principal I think a lot about the relationships I build with staff, students, and families. I always try to treat others well and do the right thing to help others. From time to time I like to think that I’m doing a pretty good job, and then, just in time to keep me humble, I’m shown an example of integrity that inspires me to work even harder.

What struck me at that Bi-Mart lobby wasn’t just that a paper record of my card existed or that some legwork was able to turn up the number, though both are astounding in their own way; what really resonated with me was the absolute lack of hesitation on the part of the woman at the front desk. She was ready to go the extra mile and seemed never to doubt that the right answer was just a few steps away. She knew the company’s promise about membership and was committed to a promise printed on every card.

She did this with a smile, taking up the challenge unflinchingly and stressing to me that it was the right thing to do. Never in our interaction did she have to call a manager or ask anyone’s permission; the company’s promise was clear in her mind and she took ownership of making good on that promise.

In a world of mission statements and attempts to capture a collective vision in site plans and on brightly printed posters, this Bi-Mart example of independence and clarity of purpose struck me as profound.

When I’m asked about what we do at my school and why we do it, I want to be as certain and as friendly as the woman in the smock. I want my staff and students to be a able to articulate our “what” and “why” with confidence and a smile.

A corporate someone might call what I experienced at Bi-Mart “customer service.” I believe it’s more than that; treating people well and being committed to doing the right thing is a way of life.

As the school year gets underway I hope to refine our promise to students, our commitment to each other, and our understanding of what matters most. I hope to live my professional life with that same sense of purpose and to empower those at my school to take the same sort of ownership as did the that blue smocked hero at Bi-Mart.

Living this way doesn’t just make a short term difference. Living this way matters for a lifetime.

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.

The Bones

At a school it’s the students who are the lifeblood of campus. Their energy, unbounded, fills our days with unexpected surprises and a justification for the hope that brought every teacher and staff member to this profession of education. But in this analogy, the framework on which everything hangs, the foundation of our collective body, is the adults who call our school home; the staff are the bones.

staff nutty 16-17

Every May we take an opportunity to celebrate the classified and certificated staff, the board passing resolutions honoring both groups, our parent foundation throwing a fancy lunch, and our students offering gallons of coffee and even more thank yous than normal to the adults in their school lives.

Those adults more than earn the praise and appreciation.

I’ve been reminded of that recently by a slew of events where staff have been willing to say “yes” to students when asked to do things as kooky as give improv comedy a try at the Teacher-Student Comedy Sportz game, the assistant principals emceeing a school assembly, and our Homeroom Olympics including a day with a collective primal scream …followed by Jazzercise.

csz2It’s in events like this that students get to see the kindness and humanity of their teachers, administrators, and classified staff. It’s one thing to go to an AP study session with a teacher you respect; it’s another to see that teacher in a dunk tank, swatting at a softball, or trying to sing.

But it’s this willingness to play, and occasionally play the fool, that endears the adults at a school to the students. The expression of glee on the faces of the Comedy Sportz students when the delightful woman who manages our learning commons agreed to step on stage was profound. “We got the librarian!” one Comedy Sportzer shouted, the group cheered. …and that night, on stage, she got one of the night’s biggest laughs with a “flick and swish” line in a Harry Potter bit. It was hilarious, and sweet, and will be something the kids talk about for a long time.

photo (4)As profound, in my mind, was last week’s Spring Assembly. It still amazes and delights me that when the kids thought about who they wanted to emcee the event they chose two assistant principals. These intrepid souls threw themselves into the job, recruiting a flash mob of teachers to join them in a dance from Napoleon Dynamite, leading the crowd in karaoke, and showing that while from time to time they need to lay down the law, they can do so with the kind of respect that shows students that they’re more than just their office. These administrators are humans, and good ones at that.

photo 4 (2)That sense of goodness is at the heart of this year’s Homeroom Olympics, a tradition at San Dieguito linked to a woman who typifies all that is right about our school, retiring assistant principal Dr. Jeanne Jones. In addition to events like synchronized swimming without water and scavenger hunts around campus, this year Dr. Jones and her team of student organizers encouraged events to promote wellness and balance for all students. This led to Tai Chi in the quad, pet rock painting, and two homerooms working together to provide a day near midterms when the whole school could step outside for a primal scream and then laugh as they moved to a class of students in 80s style leotards leading them through Jazzercise. To work at a school where students and staff work together for such profound play is inspiring.
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All the while, as they say yes to the silly stuff these same adults are there for the dramatic moments. It is to these caring teachers, counselors, and classified staff that students turn for help and understanding, knowing at least in part that these adults are people just like them, but with a few more years on the planet. For their part, the adults listen, care, and help the students find the answers or support they need. They change and save lives.

As they do, those same teachers, counselors, and classified staff do their work with and for students with passion, purpose, and professionalism. They arrive early and stay late, plan, adapt, and refine lessons, and put students and learning first.

These adults make profound differences one interaction at a time. They are the bones that hold up education and one week is not enough time to celebrate them. They are heroes.

Young at Heart

TEDxI like to believe that it’s because I’m seen as young at heart that I got the invitation to emcee TEDx Encinitas this April, though if I’m honest it’s just as likely that it’s because I have the ability to simply be immature.

The call came after a wonderfully talented student and I hosted San Dieguito’s Winter Assembly. We’d pulled out all the stops, dressing as each other, sporting Pikachu and Team Paradox costumes, and ending with a number from The Blues Brothers that literally had us singing and dancing. There’s no business like show business, I’m told, no business I know.

But the TEDx event was different; we were not the show; we were brought in to support the show. Daunting. Inspiring. It was a challenge we looked forward to.

photo 5TEDx Encinitas was designed to flip the traditional TED experience on its head. Rather than have a series of people with vast life experience talk to a students, a group of students, from ages 11 to 21, was gathered to present their stories to an all adult audience. Titled “Changing Voices,” the evening would give youth a chance to speak to adults, all kids on stage, all grown ups in the audience.

Except me. Young at heart. Maybe not quite mature enough to warrant a seat at the grown up’s table. Flattered to be given a chance to join an articulate, insightful, and passionate group of students on stage.

Rehearsal took place the night before, a great opportunity to see the young presenters, serious, focused, and filled with anticipation, preparing for the show. In addition, I got to watch scores of student volunteers helping behind the scenes, running lights, sound, cameras, managing the house, wrangling performers, and showing that maturity of ability that nestles side by side with youthful exuberance.

photo 4 (1)My eight year old son came by the theater and Austin, the senior who was my fellow emcee, took him on a tour of the tech booth and catwalks. My son has a new hero.

That ability to be inspired, however, isn’t limited by age. I have the great good fortune to see teenagers every day, and bear witness to the profound curiosity, passion, and kindness that so many show. Certainly the trials of youth are real; the existence of angst, arrogance, and anguish are just as true in 2017 as they were when I was in school, or my grandparents, or my grandparents’ grandparents, but those who focus on the negative behaviors of “kids today” are missing a message that informs everything educators like me do: the students filling our schools now have the capability of greatness.

The day of the event saw more than a dozen students step onto the red circle of carpet and speak from their hearts. They sang, and spoke, and sent the audience of adults into genuine laughter, lip thinning thoughtfulness, and swallowed tears. Their stories of making a difference, of caring, and of being true, resonated with the audience. Six hours in, none of us really wanted it to end.

photo 1 (2)How important it is for us as adults to value the perspective of our students. The adolescent speakers, so thoughtful and remarkable, had much to teach those of us who call ourselves adults. So too did the many hands that worked behind the scenes, teenagers who cared deeply about the messages that their peers presented and the idea that adults would take the time to listen to youth.

I’m blessed with an opportunity to work with amazing students every day, and I was proud to be a part of an event that allowed so many to share their voices with adults who don’t always see such profundity in person.

That today’s youth are promising stewards of our planet; that teenagers are capable, conscientious, and curious explorers of life; and that the future is more than promising was captured in the essence of these student presenters and performers, as well as in my partner in emceeing, whose quiet kindness to my son served as a reminder of the depth of empathy that exists in so many kids today.

photo 2 (1)All of us who were in the theater that Saturday have the potential to take some of these students’ spirit with us. All of us who heard what these kids had to say couldn’t help but be inspired.

For anyone who wasn’t able to attend the event, in the weeks ahead you will be able to see clips at the TEDx Encinitas site.

Until then, for anyone who wants a dose of inspiration, I’d encourage you to seek out some students you know and ask them to tell you their stories. Kids don’t need to stand on stage to have something to say. Adults don’t need to be in an audience to listen. So ask. Talk. Really pay attention.

At best you may be seen as young at heart; at worst being a little sophomoric isn’t bad at all.

Spring in the Air

photo-3-1There’s a shift in the school year when the time comes around for kids to start playing ball. Those gray days of winter still lurk nearby, and we all worry that water is pooling too much on the infield, but as the March sun punches through February’s clouds, drying the dirt and bringing life to the birds, there’s a palpable feeling that spring is in the air and summer is around the corner just waiting to be summoned with those two magical words: “Play ball!”

Spring sports at a high school are a high water mark for student participation. In addition to softball and baseball, lacrosse begins, the boys are playing tennis, golf and volleyball start up, and the largest team most schools ever see begins to jump, run, and shot put around the track and field.

513Those student athletes know that the difficult hours of practice they put in during the cool weather of March will pay off under the May sun, and their seasons starting up remind us all that graduation is closer than we think.

As a principal, this time of year is busy with preparation: for next year’s master schedule, giving tours to prospective students and families, and making sure that our ducks are in the proverbial row for state testing, senior activities, and ultimately that final day when mortarboards take to the air. Along the way there are retirements to commemorate, student awards to celebrate, and teachers to hire.

But this can also be a “tired time” as my former superintendent used to call it, a long stretch between winter and spring break. It’s a part of the year where we do well to try to be more patient with each other, smile a little more, and allow those around us, and ourselves, a little more room to breathe.

photo 1 (2)This is a time to embrace the efforts of others to keep our spirits up: ASB’s Spring Spirit Week, the math department’s “Pi Day,” and (here at SDA) the Dorkathalon.

Cheering on those spring athletes, the embodiment of youth, and spring, and hope, can be inspiring too. Today, if the rain holds off,  I’m going to head out and watch a softball game, and I know that the time spent in the stands promises renewal. Kids playing under the sun has a way of helping put life into perspective.

Art, Angelic

At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise”
John Donne

I sat in the darkened theater listening to the orchestra’s introductory suite, anticipating the actors preparing to step on stage. I’d been over to the theater earlier in the week, returning a wig and glasses those artistic souls had loaned me for my own performance at an assembly, and had seen the opulence of the set: a tree winding its way to the sky, arched windows in a wall of stone, and a throne resembling something out of Henry V.

addamsI’d watched a preview of the musical number that started the show, a witty tune complete with snapping, a light bulb, and a tango interlude. These were outrageously talented students and the evening was young.

Art has a way of elevating our human experience, and working at a school with a thriving artistic heart never ceases to inspire me.

I know that the intellectual underpinnings of what we do at school matter much, and watching a student lead her peers through a difficult math problem, or seeing a young scientist collaborate with others to learn how to do bone repair in a science class brings its own sense of hope for our world. Math, science, history, these all help to form our future; art transforms us.

photo-4-3I see this magical transformation when I walk into the student art gallery on campus and take the time to really look at the paintings and sculpture of our student curated shows. It’s there in the sounds of students playing guitars on the lawn as they make music together, some of it their own. I see the transformative nature of art in every senior tile on campus, a legacy of ceramic squares that reaches back for decades and reinforces to students that each of them contribute to this school and its history.

Just this week a new mural went up on the outside wall of our screen printing shop (itself a realm of wild creativity). Not only is this new piece of student work transformative, but it also transforms. The student artist incorporated living moss along with the painted image; it is a mural that will literally grow over time. How wonderful to know that there are places in this rational world where dreams can become reality, where flights of fancy take to the air, raising our collective spirit with them.

stephanie-rivera-mural

Four centuries ago the British poet John Donne noticed (in verse) that while the globe was round, our human imaginations can transfigure “imagined corners” into something angelic. I see it every day on our campus, and felt it profoundly that night in the theater as trumpets not unlike those described by Donne finished the orchestral introduction, the curtains opened, and the winter musical began.

Great actors can elevate comedy into emotional resonance, and these students did. Songs soared, laughter burst from the audience, and for a couple of hours every soul in the theater was allowed to be a visitor to a world of artistic inspiration.

Our education system values facts and formulas and figuring things out, and it should. But just as we want our students to be able to navigate the globe, so too how important it is that they can find their way through art to the earth’s imagined corners.