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.


Expectedly Unexpected

poeThey read Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Pit and the Pendulum” and discussed the math behind the swinging of the titular blade. It was math class, after all.

Math class at SDA.

Things at San Dieguito feel different than they do at some other high schools. Some folks say the students are nicer. Some talk about the kindness of the teachers. Others notice that it’s not unusual to see a student walking around in a onesie Pikachu costume or wearing a cape.

Those are all true observations, but as a proud principal, I’d add that one of the things so special about our school is a willingness to try something different.

This could be casting bronze in art class, choosing to do a winter concert without any holiday songs, or staging an evening of student-written one acts early in the fall.


Trying something different might look like physics classes presenting portfolios to community members about both what and how they learned this term, our alumni raising money to reinstall the Metal Mustang in the front of our school, or the AP Art History class staging art flash mobs during homeroom. Degas? Surprise!

It’s not unusual to see something delightfully non-sequitur here at San Dieguito.

We’re a school of poetry slams, musical theater, and a student art gallery.

At SDA “different” is part of our DNA.

Trying something different might be ASB students hanging window boxes from the plywood walls around the construction site of our new classroom building, our fans bringing a sign promoting veganism to a basketball game, or our instrumental music class deciding to put on a concert for the public during finals week.

A rallying cry at San Dieguito is “Keep SDA Funky.”

photo-2We do.

And today, the final day of the first term, when I looked out my office window I saw that sometimes San Dieguito’s funky spirit extends beyond our campus borders.

That math teacher who read Edgar Allan Poe with his class did more than talk about the mathematics of a pendulum. After discussing arcs and differentials, he made a phone call. To the fire department.

I like to imagine that it was the excitement in that teacher’s voice that prompted the firefighter on the other line to say “yes” when asked if there was any way they could come out and help the class create a real life thirty foot pendulum to try out their equations.

Maybe the firefighter was a San Diegutio grad.

So it was a surprise, but not surprising when I stepped out of my office and walked up to see a hook and ladder truck next to our bell tower, a student wearing a red helmet suspended and swinging, and a line of students timing the swing of the pendulum …and smiling.

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A Slice of Learning

To hear them talk about Pi Day, I couldn’t help but be excited. “It’s the Pi Day of the century,” one person explained. “3.14.15…”

That it would be on a Saturday didn’t seem to slow anybody down. The opposite was true, in fact, with Pi themed events slated for both Thursday and Friday.

“We’ll have a pie eating contest, of course,” one math teacher offered. “And wear math related clothes, and recite the digits of Pi.”

Glee showed on every face around the lunch table in the math pod. Discussion turned to whether or not a pie might be thrown. I admitted to taking one in the face last year …and that wasn’t even the Pi Day of the century.

As a math loving group of professionals, they kicked around some ideas of mini lessons they could use with their classes. “This can be fun,” one teacher said, and I believed every word.

Thinking beyond the bounds of the math department, one of our teachers said, “I’m hoping the English department might do some Pi-kus.” I must have had a curious expression as I laughed aloud. “You know, he continued, poems with a 3-1-4 rhyme scheme!”

This playful spirit was contagious, and as I listened to Diegueño’s amazing math department talk about decorating rooms and celebrating math with their students, I was reminded of the outright joy that can come with teaching.

These are lifelong learners and passionate professionals, who take their subject seriously and themselves less so. Gifted at helping kids understand mathematical concepts, they also share the ability to be silly, have fun, and show an unabashed love of what they do.

I’m not sure if anyone will throw a pie next week, though if they do I have the sneaking suspicion it may be aimed at me. But I do know that Pi day, the Pi Day of the century, will bring students and teachers together in a fun way that will celebrate all the right things about learning. And…

I’ll try to
A swell Pi-ku.

…and I look forward to joining in the celebration.

math shirt

“You can dance if you want to…”

photo 2 (26)On the day before Winter Break Mr. Kutney’s math classes developed dances that reviewed math terms, laughing and learning as they allowed themselves to be goofy in the service of mathematics and fun. When they finished, in addition to praising specific interpretations of math terms (“I liked how you linked hands to show that sine wave.”), Mr. Kutney said something that struck me as wonderful. “I’m really proud,” he said, “of the way you supported each other and made an atmosphere where it’s okay to get up in front of each other and be a little silly. I love that.”

I did too.

I also loved that I was in the room because kids had called out to me through an open window, interrupting me as I crossed campus to invite me to watch them perform. A measure of health in a school is how much the students (and teachers too) want to show off what they’re doing in classrooms.

photo 2 (25)And beyond. The last day of classes before break also brought an invitation to watch science students launch rockets into the air above our soccer field. Seeing their faces as they returned, victorious, to their classroom, bottles with cardboard fins tucked under their arms, made me proud to be an educator.

Across campus the last week of December saw active learning in classrooms from all disciplines. Art students created stop motion videos, English classes debated morals as related to The Outsiders, and physical science students donned safety goggles and oven mitts (this is middle school, after all) for an experiment on the salt content of seawater.

This isn’t to say that the smell of hot chocolate didn’t drift out of the chemistry lab or that the sound of students singing along with “Let it Go” couldn’t be heard outside the drama room. It was the week before Winter Break, after all, and a part of me believes that Frozen may become the Rocky Horror Picture Show of this generation.

photo (33)But even as they wore red tasseled Santa hats and enjoyed pajama day on Friday, students were actively engaged in learning. That final week before break saw a reenactment of the first Constitutional Convention, students learning about natural selection through a bird beak lab, and young musicians putting the finishing touches on their performance for the band’s Winter Concert.

And in Mr. Kutney’s class they danced.

Before the bell rang to end class, after the last group of students had performed, I asked a question that I knew the answer to. “When he introduced this lesson,” I said to the kids, “did Mr. Kutney demonstrate how to do it?” The smiles that accompanied the students’ collective “YES!” will stick with me for a long time.

“Show him! Please!” The kids said, turning to their teacher. He looked at me with a sheepish grin, a young teacher I’m proud felt comfortable to be a little goofy in front of his principal.

I’m a fan of teachers taking risks and having fun, of creating a school culture that expects rigor and welcomes whimsy. I want to be a part of a school family that supports each other as we engage in this celebration of learning with our kids.

photo 1 (22)So when he turned to me I said the only sensible thing a person in my position would say. With a smile that rivaled the kids’ and a whisper of my 1980s past, I told him: “You can dance if you want to…”

…and he did!

Pizza, Push Ups, and Pop

photo 1 (17)Laughter filled the room, and families around tables helping each other, and math.

Planning had been in the works since September, when our math department decided that the flavor of Diegueño’s Family Math Night would be celebratory. They’re a young department, only two over forty, and those two perhaps the most youthful of the bunch. Their idea of celebrating family and math together smacked of the unconventionality of youth, and this proved perfect for our audience, made up of middle school students, their parents, and scads of younger siblings.

The activities promoted a playful attitude, students and parents warming up with a challenge that invited them to use straight lines to cut a pizza into as many slices as they could. Walking around our media center, where eighty kids and parents were getting started, I could tell right away we were in for a great night: the kids were helping the adults.

photo 3 (12)Under the watchful eyes of our math teachers, all of whom agreed to give up the Tuesday night to come help, moms and dads, grandmas and little brothers (and even my AP and I) joined Diegueño students for an evening of hands on math fun.

One popular activity had us learning that Wisconsin’s mascot, Bucky the Badger, does push ups for every point scored in a football game, and then doing our best to figure out the total number of push ups he did when Wisconsin beat Indiana 83 to 20. I’ll be honest, my calculations were going astray until an intrepid twelve year old leaned over and helped me out. His patience with a former English teacher like me, and his ability to see me not as his principal but as a guy who was there to do math with him, captured the spirit of the evening.

Together we enjoyed raffles, skits by the Math team, and informative and practical tips for how parents can help their students at home. Mostly, we learned together and laughed together.

photo 5 (7)The hour flew by, parents and students leaning in to each other as they scribbled shared answers, and smiling broadly as they enjoyed family math time, unplugged and together.

I think my favorite part of the night was the last shared experience, when we got to chew gum and blow bubbles. Sure there was a graphing component to the bubble activity, but the image of parents and kids blowing bubbles through smiles and fits of giggling was one of the sweetest and most inspiring things I’ve seen in more than two decades in public education.

At our best we learn together. Our Diegueño Family is a collection of supportive and fun loving kids and adults. We value rigor and invite in whimsy. Often at the same time.

photo 4 (10)My AP took a photo of us all at the end of the night, a panorama that captured us as learners. You can see papers littered across tables and even a couple of people finishing up computations. These are learners young and old, some with pink gum in their mouths, some celebrating correct answers, all happy to be spending the evening together. And as the very thankful principal of Diegueño I have the pleasure of  being in the middle of it all …blowing a bubble.

“…might crash and burn but…”

photo 1 (8)She emailed me mid-lesson to offer an invitation. Freshly inspired by a conference with other math teachers, she hadn’t waited more than a day to try something new in her own Integrated Math A Readiness class. The subject line of her email read: “trying something new.” The body of the email dripped with honesty and the spirit of adventure: “…might crash and burn but totally common core if you feel like popping by.”

How could I not?

The gutsiness of the email wasn’t unexpected; this is a teacher I admire for her willingness to take risks and try new things. As a person who embodies a growth mindset, not just for her kids, but for herself as an educator, this was someone who wasn’t kidding when she said she didn’t know the outcome of the lesson. What she did know, however, was that thoughtfully risking change could lead to fantastic results. It did.

The lesson began with an infographic on child safety seats. Prompted by their teacher, the students filled one white board with answers to the question “What do you notice?” discussing the image and the information it presented. Next, they answered the question “What do you wonder?”

Following these prompts, the teacher broke the class into pairs, and students discussed what they believed the information was saying, discussing in terms of fractions and searching for clarity as they discussed measurement. Another math teacher walked through the room (ours is a department who visit each others’ classrooms) and his remark, accompanied by widened eyes: “They’re totally engaged.”

They were.

A few minutes later the class came together to talk about what they’d learned so far. One girl shook her head and said, “We got it totally wrong.” Her teacher touched her desk and said gently, “And that’s totally okay. This is just your first try at it. You can get it.” I could see the student’s shoulders loosen and her eyes pinch in a smile.

Partners worked together again, revising their initial attempts at explanation, or entirely reworking their approaches, as they needed. The teacher moved around the room, asking questions and praising students’ engagement. Students wrote and discussed, every one of them at work.

Not long into this final discussion, a student raised both her arms in victory and whooped (literally whooped) that she and her partner had gotten an answer they were proud of. Invited to explain their diagram to the class, the partners did so with a smile. Encouraged by their teacher’s exuberance, the girls shared with their peers, proud of the work they had done.

As they finished, a second group brought their diagram to the front of the room. They approached the question differently, but their smiles and confidence were the same.

A third group came to the document camera and began their impromptu presentation with the line “We did some pretty hard core math.” Grinning, they explained where they’d gone wrong in their first two attempts and how they felt pleased with their third go at the problem, which proved a different approach than either of the first two.

photo 2 (12)In the end, four of the five groups attacked the challenge in different ways. The students’ earnestness and comfort with not succeeding the first time was profound. These were students who were building their math skills at the same time they built resiliency and reinforced the idea that while they didn’t know yet, they could work hard (together) and figure it out.

I left the math class inspired. Yes, the lesson might have crashed and burned, but it didn’t. Under the smiling gaze of a gifted teacher, the lesson, and the learning as a result, soared and shined. Will this happen every single time? No. And just as this amazing teacher told her students, that’s okay. It’s about the willingness to take chances and embrace uncertainty in pursuit of something great.

I look forward to the next email I get from a teacher that begins “I’m trying something new…”


Her sub plans were clear and the class a sea of smiling 12 year old faces. Crazy Sock Day, part of spirit week, had them in a particularly good mood, and it was a class I’d visited just the week before. It’s a fact that not everyone knows that if a substitute teacher is late, as today’s was (the result of a fender bender on the way to school), the principal or assistant principal takes the class. It doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does I take the opportunity to dive in and participate in the most important job in education: teaching.

In my time as an administrator I’ve stepped in to teach everything from PE to Shakespeare’s sonnets. I’ve covered a high school dance class and a 7th grade science lab. Sometimes, like today, the absent teacher has left a beautiful lesson plan. Sometimes …we dance.

The exhilaration is the same, standing in front of a room of students. They’re there to learn and I have a front row seat.

Math today provided a good example of the critical thinking our kids are capable of. After a short warm up activity, students moved into established groups, shifting desks to face each other and resettling in an astounding 25 seconds, ready to go.

We spent a few minutes reviewing their homework assignment, as armed with with the correct answers I traveled from group to group, checking in and asking questions. At almost every cluster of desks I witnessed discussion, either of what the answer might be or why it might be what they agreed it was. When students were stumped I asked clarifying questions and in every case this reframing was all they needed to figure out an accurate answer.

Wrong answers came next; the teacher had cleverly left photocopies of a sample test filled out with incorrect solutions to a dozen or so questions. Challenging students to work together to determine which answers were wrong, and even more challenging: why? this exercise in critical thinking and collaboration reminded me of the real work adults do every day.

Subbing for a class that contained no lecture or ticking off answers to problems the students did the night before reminded me of the importance of challenging students academically, even as we support them with patience, carefully chosen questions, and a lot of heart.

Just as I’d seen in English, science, and history classes, the students in my math class (well, mine for the day, anyway) were living that line from Einstein: “I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

And with a focus on igniting curiosity and nurturing the conditions in which students can learn, the lesson left for me today illustrated the truth that good teachers know: the best teachers don’t teach math, English, science, and history; the best teachers teach kids math, English, science, and history (and coding, and drama, and music, and art, and PE, and all keep the focus on kids).

For me, the opportunity to move around the room, look in the kids’ eyes, and engage with them in learning was profound. I love high fives and conversations about baseball at lunch, but being able to spend time sharing the experience of learning was a poignant reminder of why I became a teacher a couple of decades ago.

I finished my sub assignment thinking that every administrator ought to spend time teaching every year. By the end of the day I even convinced my English department to let me teach some Sherlock Holmes to our kids next month. The thrill of starting to plan the lesson has me feeling like a first year teacher again.

Tomorrow I’ll be sure to go out of my way to say “thank you” to the teacher who left me those great lesson plans and a class of students ready to learn. It’s the same message I gave those kids when class ended, heartfelt gratitude for a renewing and inspiring day as their substitute teacher.

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