“Be kind like Rahul and confident like Ruby”

As the dad of an extroverted ten year old boy and thoughtful thirteen year old girl, with a wife with a clear sense of perspective, there isn’t much to watch on TV that we all agree on. Sure, Doctor Who is a hit, but truth be told my wife sneaks peeks at her computer while the TARDIS is hurtling through time and space. When the kids were younger Expedition Unknown was a winner, though once she realized Josh never finds what he’s after my oldest’s interest cooled appreciably. When the World Series was on three of the four of us were up to watch a few games, but for consistency the only series that always wins the day is The Great British Baking Show.

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Together we’ve binged the show, side by side on the couch, popcorn in hand all this fall, and over Thanksgiving break together we devoured the most recent season.

What strikes me about The Great British Baking Show is its overwhelming sense of kindness. On the show, beneath a literal big tent, contestants from across the UK bake and bake and bake everything from familiar shortbreads to exotic and odd dishes out of British history.

It’s a competition, but not as cutthroat as many American cooking programs seem to be. Over the weeks contestants strive to do their best, but can be seen helping each other, encouraging each other, and presenting a sense of camaraderie that swells up to meet the tears and heartbreak that comes under pressure.

Everyone is welcome in the baking tent. Age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical differences, choices in style, the diversity of all these make a richer picture of humanity, even as all are focused on creating art …edible art, of course… and participating in what comes across as a grand adventure and rollicking good time.

But that good time isn’t without hardship. No one can bake perfectly every time, and whether it’s mixing up salt and sugar or making an ambitious attempt that falls short, there’s something metaphoric in these bakers’ onscreen world. On The Great British Baking Show, as in life, everyone wants to do well, has doubts, fails, and has the ability to come back.

A sensitive lot, it’s not unusual for contestants show tears after being told they didn’t do well, but over and again they gather themselves and “crack on.”

My kids, seeing these tears, pursed lips, and determined nods saw in the bakers something from their own lives. While they haven’t been told specifically that their doughnuts are over decorated or their biscuits too wobbly, they have been in school for years and have felt that sense of sadness and frustration in subjects that don’t involve sugar or spice.

How healthy then for them to see adults, some like them, some wildly different, wrestle with disappointment. How great too that they see other adults around them supportive, generous, and kind. “It’s just baking” was a refrain from more than one contestant, and while it is, maybe for those of us watching it was also something more.

For educators like me, sentimental and sometimes silly, The Great British Baking Show offered some lessons I’ll take back to my work next week.

The two professional bakers making the decisions about who won and lost offered judgement that was honest (I think. Heck, I can’t taste the cakes). Criticism seemed tough, but was often accompanied by encouraging words (the sponge may be doughy, but the mango passion fruit hazelnut ganache, or whatever it is they’re talking about, tastes great). Contestants took the feedback with a nodding sense of acceptance, knowing, I think, that it was delivered in such a way as to guide them to better things.

The critique that was offered was always specific and situational, meaning they may have burned those biscuits, but the next bake has the potential for greatness. Leaving the amateur bakers with hope was as important as pointing out that the puff pastry leaked butter on the pan.

Screen Shot 2018-11-24 at 2.18.31 PMWhen the hosts, two generous hearted comedians, Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig, announced the “star baker” they seemed to do so with pride, and when they had to say who came out on the bottom they exhibited caring, even as they broke the news. Hugs ensued.

Even more, the hosts showed an ability to insert humor into the high stress situations of the baking competition. With a hug or clever comment they helped crack the tension and allowed the contestants to breathe, laugh, and regroup. Like great teachers (and counselors, and secretaries, and even principals) they showed that laughter can help create an atmosphere where progress is possible. Without humor, without heart, it would just be a competition. We seem to have enough of that. It was a clear lesson for folks like me who have the opportunities to bring balance to what can be a high stress world of middle and high school.

I’d be naive to imagine that every day at school could be The Great British Baking Show, but the spirit of the program, the exuberance, celebration of differences, and kindness on display are things that I can take to my work and encourage in those around me.

Screen Shot 2018-11-24 at 2.22.09 PMAnd then, at bedtime on the night we watched the final of the last season, I overheard my wife talking with my kids and I realized that it was more than just communal TV time or one sentimental educator’s musings on how to apply something he saw over vacation to school.

My wife and kids were talking about the people they’d been introduced to throughout the program: painter Terry, whose artistic vision (he did a 3D face sculpture?!?!) outpaced the time allowed on almost any challenge; Dan’s love for baking for his partner and his kids, and joy in this opportunity to break out of the under-appreciated challenge of being a stay at home parent; Kim-Joy, who my son observed would be a natural at my little art school; and the welcoming couple who’d taken Rahul as one of their own family when he emigrated from India.

Their pyjama conversation was about those little moments when as an audience we were reminded that The Great British Baking Show isn’t about baking, it’s about humans.

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And my wife, who is far wiser than I am, and far, far more able to connect and make a meaningful point brought it back to our own kids when she told them: “Be kind like Rahul and confident like Ruby.”

Good advice for us all.

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Invited In

“Imagine with me a place where eccentricity is encouraged, where struggles are acknowledged, and people are supported. Imagine a place where people are celebrated for their differences and brought into the fold to collaborate and create something beautiful.” -Isaac Rosenbaum

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His passion around Exhibition Day was profound, as was his exuberant approach to building community. The time since graduation has only added perspective to his inspirational work, and power to his message of hope, care, and the importance of inviting others to share in the community we help to create.

I watched Isaac’s TEDx speech this week and recognized in it the powerful voice for kindness and inclusion that I’d known when he was a student at my high school (or I was a principal at his school) (or we shared a school together).

So often in administration the thousand tasks, the pressing needs, and the unceasing obligations fill our days and run the risk of clouding our vision for creating the best school we can. For me this week, Isaac’s words were a warm wind, blowing those clouds away.

Talking about his school as a “chaotic collaboration” of students celebrating one another, and of each contributing to a greater mosaic of school culture was a reminder of what school can be.

photo-1-8His feelings of belonging, and of creating culture, are something parents, educators, and students themselves want for our kids. We know that at its best, school can be a haven, a place of inspiration, and a grand opportunity to belong and make a difference.

As a school we can’t eliminate the very human cruelty that sometimes infects us all. We can’t make every teenager, or every adult, embrace the better angels of our nature, or always choose the kind word. We are human, all of us, and we stumble sometimes in our interactions with others. At best we can look at these times as opportunities to show ourselves and each other the other very human possibility of forgiveness.

But as a school we can do much to nurture the attributes Isaac mentioned in his talk. We can build in opportunities for our students to tell their own stories, celebrate the people who make up our school, and make it easy to give thanks often and publicly. Schools, busy and bustling, can open their arms to all by choosing to make connecting with each other a priority.

This can happen through big events, like Exhibition Day, or the more subtle instances of kindness that we weave into every day at our schools.

Creating a place where students feel they belong isn’t easy, the important things in life often aren’t, but it is both possible and worth the effort.

That effort is most effective when it involves many, and many different perspectives. As Isaac described in his TEDx Talk, having a student government that wasn’t made up only of extroverts and “typical ASB students,” but involved artists and writers, introverts and dreamers, made it possible for the school to be more welcoming to all.

photo 2But welcoming doesn’t mean glossing over troubles. Isaac mentions being a peer counselor in his last years of high school. As a Peer Active Listener (PAL), he listened to a student who was excluded and bullied, and who considered taking her own life. Describing her loneliness, so common and so profound in our students today, Isaac came to the realization that not only do we all need community, we all need to feel heard and to belong.

Having seen that PALs program he describes, I can attest to the power of students helping students. PALs provided a safe place for students to be heard, and a sensitive ear for anyone going through the challenges of young adulthood. In addition, the students who served as PALs worked closely with adult counselors, and more than once I saw stories, like the one Isaac tells in his TEDx Talk, that were literally life saving. This was a way the school as an institution could support the individuals who made up the student body.

Even if a school doesn’t have a PALs program, students can and should be encouraged to listen to each other, seek help from caring adults, and be aware of the importance of inviting others in.

IMG_6196Understanding the profound need all of us have for belonging can inform the choices we make person by person, classroom by classroom, school by school to welcome each member of our community to participate in making the culture of our school.

I come back to Isaac’s words about community, and join him in imagining “a place where eccentricity is encouraged, where struggles are acknowledged, and people are supported.”

This doesn’t happen by accident or without thoughtful attention to the needs of our kids. As Isaac suggests, “maybe we are the answer to the prayers” of those most in need. Us. Each of us.

I encourage us all to be aware. To imagine the community we want to create, take actions every day to make that community real, and go the extra step to invite in those around us who may feel lost or alone, stressed out or unsure if they can be a piece in that mosaic. They can, and our community will be more beautiful because of them, and us, together.

Bird is the Word: Three Stories

I’m sometimes asked what it’s like to be the principal of an art school. With just over 700 students grades six through twelve, an unusual age spread, focused on visual and performing arts, my school is proudly quirky, unapologetically iconoclastic, and as wildly creative as it is kind. Our staff shirts this year are tie dye. But that doesn’t quite catch all of who we are.

IMG_6890So I offer three snapshots of our school spirit, tiles in the mosaic of Arts & Communication Magnet Academy. Hardly comprehensive, these examples from a busy August simply show a sample of who we are, or aspire to be.

ACMA has long had a tradition of silly yearbooks photos. It could be argued that these have always been a part of our school; look back at the first yearbook and you’ll see Faye Dunaway, Groucho Marx, and Obi Wan Kenobi alongside the students. By 1994-1995 students had begun to add props to their yearbook photos, hats, guitars, and stuffed animals. Fast forward to the early 2000s and the staff are in on the goofiness.

Last year saw a puppy make his way into a yearbook photo. Some students came with masks, hats, and one in a banana suit. For kids new to ACMA silly yearbook photos, the final station of our registration day, are an introduction into the playful spirit of our school. They get their official ID picture, formal, with a smile, and then are invited to have fun. Work, then play. For returning students this is an opportunity to plan ahead and express themselves in a way that is “so very ACMA.”

So this year, as I was walking through the blue box theater where they were taking photos, I heard a snippet of dialogue that I’m not sure would ever be uttered anywhere other than our little school. Bending over the display screen, the photographer and a student were reviewing a proof and the photographer said: “You look fabulous in this first photo, but the bird is looking away.”

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So very ACMA.

The next week our teachers returned to campus, and in the midst of staff meetings and preparing for back to school night, new student day, and the first day of school, a group of about a dozen of my performing arts teachers gathered in the library to talk about a big idea. Our PTO had suggested that in lieu of an auction, this year we might entertain the notion of a celebration of the arts, a Cabaret Night that would see performances from across the creative continuum, an evening where parents, patrons, and families could come and enjoy what ACMA is all about. It was a kernel of possibility that these teachers decided to embrace.

Talk ranged from how we could select the best of the best performances for the night, integrate new work, and invite talented student performers to show off the art that matters so much to them. It was what I expected the conversation might look like, talented artists chatting about showcasing student work. And then…

Then something shifted. One teacher brought up and idea about how we might fill the foyer with visual art, integrating photography, animation, and spoken word into the event. Another suggested a plan for providing multiple performance venues. A third asked about using the main building for some part of the night, making part of Cabaret Night a farewell to the CE Mason building that has served as home to students for almost 70 years. Ideas exploded all around the table. Dinner? Dessert? MCs? What about alumni?

Conversations blossomed about former students and what they were doing in the world of art and performance. Would any be interested in performing with our students? The possibilities…

One night turned into two. How could we invite more families to come to experience our art? What kind of projects could we collaborate on between departments: film, dance, music… if we projected photography and had our jazz band… how about some poetry paired with… would the choir want to… could we get sculpture students and the orchestra to…

I left dizzy with the possibilities. I’d seen each of these teachers individually preparing and producing opportunities for students to shine, and I’d seen a few collaborate with other departments, but in a passionate hour on the week before school began I witnessed the sheer power of art and imagination, in service to students, on a level that is hard to capture in words.

IMG_7358I know that this spring the fruits of that conversation and the hard work that will follow this genesis of ideas will be marvelous (mark your calendars for May 17th and 18th), and as inspiring was to be a fly on the wall while these amazing artists and educators talked about taking chances, supporting students, and embracing the challenge of creativity on an epic scale.

On a more modest, but no less inspiring scale, a student came up to me at Back to School Night almost in tears. She’d lost $40 in the course of picking up her schedule (and ice cream cone from our PTO for our annual ice cream social) and asked if anyone had turned it in. They hadn’t, and it broke my heart to tell her so. She left, retracing her steps back to Fred Meyer where she’d been before walking to campus.

My mingling during the ice cream social brought me to the family of an incoming sixth grader, who shook my hand, remembering my name from our registration day, and let me know that he and his mom had found $40 that he wanted to hand in to lost and found. “They might really need it,” he said. I knew he was right.

So I asked the student if he wanted to be the one to give the money back to the student who’d lost it, and he smilingly agreed. We walked into the building in search of the upperclassmen who had lost the $40. We found her friend, who called her at the store. Then the friend turned to the 6th grader and handed him the phone. He introduced himself, listened, and smiled. Handing the phone back, he looked at me and said: “She wants to give me a hug!”

The creativity of birds, the passion of artists, and the kindness of family, these are who we are at Arts & Communication Magnet Academy …wrapped in a tie dye t-shirt.

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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.

M-I-C… see the best in others

The wire sculpture of Mickey Mouse wasn’t his, so when I saw him bending it where it hung in the hallway I stopped to watch what was going on. Concentrating, he squinted into his work, fingers working over the wire, reforming the circle of an ear. As I watched another student joined him, asking “What’s up?”

IMG_5781“I bumped it,” he answered, finishing the job of fixing the wire. “But it’s okay now.”

That little action said a lot about life at ACMA. That we are a school with a wealth of student art hanging in the hallways: wire sculptures, drawings, paintings, and more, and hanging not behind glass, but at eye level for everyone to see, is significant. That that artwork doesn’t get ruined or damaged by mischievous hands is profound. It’s also indicative of who we are as a school community.

Later in the week a teacher told me about another incident that seemed to capture our ACMA spirit. She’d lost her keys after a staff meeting and when she told my amazing secretary, whose work day was ending, they set off on a quest that lasted more than two hours. During the search our night custodian scoured through a dumpster, the teacher and secretary circumnavigated the building, and when hope seemed lost they made phone calls to see if they could track down any leads. When the keys turned up, the teacher’s joy came in second to her appreciation of those she works with. As my secretary told her: “That’s what friends do.”

It is.

And it matters so much.

This isn’t to say that things are perfect. We’re human, all of us, and sometimes we act like it. It’s in those moments that we need most the examples of kindness we see in others and the reminder to listen to the better angels of our nature that our school does its best to promote.

I see students having a voice in urging acceptance and positivity every time I walk down the hallways. Some of our middle schoolers just completed a positive body image project and are proudly sharing visual representations of their fine work across the hall from that wire sculpture I saw the student repairing.

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I see staff reminding each other of the value of care, offering heartfelt appreciations to start every staff meeting, sharing handwritten thank you cards, and treating each other like friends.

Here at ACMA, a place of exuberant creativity and spectacular performances, we are a community that likes applause, and as I hear students laughing and clapping as they eat lunch in the hallways, encouraging each other in classes, and showing acceptance for each other as they navigate the search for self so common in adolescence, I’m given hope that all will be well.

Sometimes the wire of our ears gets bent out of shape, usually a result of some sort of carelessness, but I believe that there are an abundance of people in the world, who -inspired by a positive community- will pause and put the effort into making things right again.

 

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Sock it to Me

I’ve seen “drives” before, canned food, toys, that sort of thing. Holiday sharing, as it’s sometimes called at a school, can be a positive part of our students’ experience, reinforcing kindness, teaching empathy, and helping remind us that as important as learning is, caring matters just as much.

This year at ACMA a spirited counselor took the reigns of a Sock, Hat, and Glove Drive, rallying students to bring in so many warm things that they filled my office. She made witty and wonderful announcements over the PA, stood in front of the school before dawn to collect donations as parents dropped off their kids, and even enlisted an intrepid board member, and ACMA kindred spirit, to join her one morning.

Day by day the sock pile grew. Hats and gloves filled my windowsills. Wool hung from my bookshelves, and every morning more warm clothing arrived.

Giving is something that comes naturally to students, and the generosity of our kids was matched only by the glee with which they presented their gifts.

The difference with ACMA’s Sock, Hat, and Glove Drive this December, subtle as it was, came in the way it reflected the spirit of our students and our school.

In addition to mountains of functional woolen gear were Star Wars socks, rainbow gloves, and hats with ears. Just because someone needs a helping hand doesn’t mean she can’t look fabulous. It was a fact lost on me at first, covered by the sheer quantity of clothing, but then one morning as I walked into my office I saw the pile of socks, hats, and gloves looking back at me!

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This, I thought, is ACMA.

Also ACMA is the expression of delight on the faces of the students who came by my office every morning to deliver their donations. Student after student, sixth grade through senior, ACMA kids brought smiles as wide as Christmas to my door, leaning in, laughing, and tossing the socks, hats, and gloves onto the ever growing pile.

Over time, and at the invitation of that marvelously mischievous counselor, students were encouraged to throw their stuff at me if I was sitting at my desk. We even made a couple of short videos to promote it, and the playful joy on the students’ faces moved me beyond words.

Then, this morning, the last day of the drive, a student, a huge handful of lavender socks in her hands, said: “I can really throw this at you?”

“Yes,” I answered, “but if I catch it, I get to throw it back at you!” She grinned, threw, and ducked. ACMA magic.

The socks, hats, and gloves will find feet, heads, and hands this winter, and I the warmth our students feel from giving will last for a long, long time.

“Today you’re a lot stronger…”

Being new is never easy and fitting in at school can be a challenge for anyone.

I know; I’m the new principal.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we welcome students to campus and about how it feels to be new at our school. As the first few weeks of classes roll along, I’ve seen students put up posters celebrating kindness, cheered as our assistant principal and my and secretary created a magical puzzle piece bulletin board to welcome students, and watched teachers go out of their way to make classes friendly and inviting.

IMG_4376Then today at lunch a small act struck me with its simplicity and power.

I was standing alone in the quad supervising lunch when a group of girls walked up and handed me a piece of candy. Taped to the wrapper was a sliver of paper. They smiled and told me to “open it.”

Inside I found a message of comfort and hope:

Smile and let everyone know that today you’re a lot stronger than you were yesterday.”

They left me feeling a little happier, and then, when I stepped into the cafeteria one of my food service workers flagged me down to tell me something important. “Those girls,” she said, “with the basket. Do you know what they were doing?” My first thought was nothing bad, I hope, they were so nice to me. “They’re going around finding anyone eating lunch alone and they’re giving them a piece of candy and talking with them.”

The dad in me wanted to cry at the profound kindness of their action.

IMG_4377Today I’d been that fellow alone. How many others, students new to our school and students simply not yet as connected as I hope they soon will be, felt that same uplift of spirit when they were given a message of hope.

For any who have eaten alone, for any who have been “the new kid,” and for any who felt like they didn’t quite fit in, I offer the sentiment of reassurance given to me by those kind, kind students: “Smile and let everyone know that today you’re a lot stronger than you were yesterday.”

Yes, and tomorrow you’ll be stronger still. Our school will welcome you. And down the road, once you’re comfortable and feel our school is home, maybe you and your friends will get a basket of your own and spread a message of kindness.