Either, or…

If I were to wish for anything I should not wish for wealth or power, but for the passionate sense of what can be, for the eye, which ever young and ardent, sees the possible.”                  -Søren Kierkegaard

I choose optimism. I choose to see in others and in the world around me the possibility of greatness, little and big.

In more than twenty years in public education I’ve seen tragedy up close. I’ve seen meanness and cruelty, unrecoverable mistakes, and years ruined in the decision of a minute.

And… My heart bruised, but not breaking, beats with the belief that all will be well. Even in the dark moments, when the world smells like hot metal and snakes, I believe that hope, that thing with feathers, perches on my soul.

As a school principal it is as vital for me to see the best in my school as it was for me as a teacher to believe in the best in each of my students.

The payoff is high expectations that those around me consistently rise to to; the alternative is cynicism, depression, or that attitude of let’s get through this that sinks ships and damns possibility with faint praise.

The praise I offer is real and heartfelt. If sometimes I have to travel a little farther to find it than I would for something to complain about, it’s a trek worth making.

Because in more than twenty years in public education I’ve seen profound joy up close. I’ve seen kindness and compassion, unbelievable achievements, and lives transformed in the decision of a minute.

My heart beating almost to bursting with hope, I know that in its way, and in its own time, all will be well. I know that with so many of us working together for something so important, amazing good is more than possible.

I couldn’t wish for more.

L-I-S-T-E-N

photo 1 (5)I hate spelling bees. The unnecessary pressure on kids, the meaninglessness of getting every letter right in a word so obscure it risks ridiculousness, and the public tightrope we ask students to walk all turn my stomach.

A teacher I work with and respect loves spelling bees. She cites the value of working hard to achieve something academic, the value of public praise, and the joy that fills the faces of the winners.

We can talk.

And she knows that if she wants to organize a spelling bee at Diegueño, I won’t get in her way.

I come back to that quotation attributed to Robert Frost: “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.”

Building and nurturing a professional atmosphere, where it’s more than okay for people to have different points of view, is a hallmark of a healthy school.

Just last month, as I was discussion a big school decision about how we’ll organize our “Cougar Academic Time” I got a reminder of where we are as a school. Shooting for transparency, I told one of the teachers I was talking with, a department chair, my point of view, which I knew from earlier discussions was different than hers, and she nodded and explained why she felt the way she did. A first year teacher was having lunch with us, and she listened to what both of us had said. Then, in a moment that made me pleased and proud, she said: “You know, I think I like a totally different way we could do it.”

The comfort this first year teacher had in telling her principal and department chair her opinion, knowing it was about an important subject that we all have a vested interest in, and knowing that it was very different than what either had in mind, is the kind of open communication that is so important in education today.

Twitter, edublogs, edcamps, and all the new ways educators connect can be a boon, but if they’re really going to move our practice forward, we must be willing and able both to say and hear different points of view, and like Frost, not lose our tempers or self-confidence.

That means actively asking questions, both of ourselves and others, like “what am I not thinking about?” or “what am I missing?” It means reading opinions that challenge what we do, putting our own ideas out there, and inviting conversation.

How do we avoid the echo chamber of like minded colleagues? How do we avoid being “yes men and women” ourselves? I think it’s simply by embracing the mindset that we’re all learning, and that sometimes our best teachers are those people who help us feel uncomfortable enough to make change.

That shouldn’t anger us or shake our confidence; it should educate us.

How Lincoln Learned to Tweet

photo (4)One of my favorite stories about learning in Daniel Wolff’s book How Lincoln Learned to Read comes in the section on Henry Ford. A ten year old Ford, working with a handful of other boys his age, built a turbine engine out of a ten gallon can and some other odds and ends. Wolff quotes Ford, who wrote: “the boiler finally blew up and scalded three of us, and I carry a scar on my cheeks today.” And then Wolff brings home the example with four beautiful words: “That’s how he learned.”

I’m not advocating uncontained explosions as the best science education, but I do see the benefits of spectacular failures like Ford’s, if they’re coupled with an attitude of exploration and true growth mindset. Ford’s story, like so many in Wolff’s collection of descriptions of a dozen American’s educations, shows the importance of determination, curiosity, and the ability to see failure as part of learning.

With that spirit in mind, I’m looking forward to trying something different for this month’s Diegueño Book Club. It might be marvelous, it could be odd, or there’s a chance of it ending up like Henry Ford’s turbine …a learning experience.

We’re going to try to blend a book club and Twitter chat.

Huh?

Yeah.

Like Ford, an intrepid ToSA, Kevin, and I are looking to build something we can sort of imagine, but haven’t seen before.

We see the benefits of bringing teachers and parents together to talk about education and ideas, as we have already earlier in the school year at Diegueño. We also see how cool it can be for educators to connect through our district’s #SDUHSDchat. Both encourage conversation, both ask meaningful questions about ideas, and both have the potential to make us more reflective about how we work with kids, and participate in this amazing enterprise, education.

So what will it look like on March 10th at 5PM (PST)? Well, we’ve got some ideas…

Diegueño’s library has great technology, including dual screens we might use to project #SDUHSDchat as the folks in the room talked about Wolff’s book. Kevin is thinking to capture some of the comments our the in person discussion and use them to compliment the chat online while I stay focused on the people with copies of the book out in front of them.

With the chat projected, those who are interested in plucking ideas and comments from the feed could use the greater mind of #SDUHSDchat to enhance the discussion we’re having around the table. If the smartest person in the room is the room, and the room has no walls…

We’re working on some questions that we might ask online that compliment the topics we’ll be talking about around the table in the library. For those who haven’t read the book, or all of the book, we want to make sure to provide enough to welcome ideas more general to education.

One of best parts of our last Diegueño Book Club was the wide variety of opinions and great diversity of perspectives. Wolff’s book encourages personal connections to the stories, and invites conversation about current education. In so many ways, those two ends are shared by #SDUHSDchat, and that convinces me to imagine that this pairing might even work.

photo (5)Maybe.

So whether we’re looking at the next New Coke or the next Godfather II, we’re approaching #DiegueñoBookChat with open minds, creative hearts, and growth mindsets. And if things go like Henry Ford’s explosive boiler, well, that’s one way we learn.

 

 

The next Diegueño Book Club, discussing How Lincoln Learned to Read by Daniel Wolff, will be on March 10th from 5:00-6:30 in the Diegueño Media Center.  If you can’t make it to campus, check it out at #SDUHSDchat on Twitter!

 

Hogwarts

potter1It felt like a metaphor, even as it was happening. I sat there, hands blackened by grease and dust, my son sitting on his bed looking down at me amongst the debris, the tip of the yellow and maroon tie winking at me from the mouth of the vacuum cleaner.

My mood was souring quickly; I’d just sucked up the Harry Potter tie from my six year old’s Halloween costume, and I had that sinking feeling that the machine was broken beyond repair, the tie was lost forever, and in a few minutes I’d be explaining my idiocy for not looking where I was vacuuming when I had to tell my wife what happened.

I figured the metaphor might be something about mistakes, about the importance of paying attention and staying in the moment. I’d get a post out of it, anyway, even if it cost me some embarrassment and a new vacuum.

Screwdriver in hand, I pulled apart the machine, thinking the metaphor might have something to do with having to clean up the messes we make. There was certainly enough dust around me to suggest this was happening to teach me something.

And then my son, whose tie it was, and whose attitude I was worried might be one of disappointment and loss, looked at the parts of the vacuum strewn across his bedroom floor and said one word, giving it two syllables for emphasis: “Awesome.”

And I knew this was a metaphor for learning.

Sometimes learning is neat, straight lines and right angles: a spreadsheet, haiku, or historical timeline. Sometimes it’s covered in grime and inspires quiet swearing we hope our kids won’t hear (or at least won’t repeat in front of their mom).

I see both kinds of learning as I travel through classrooms at my school, and I love it when I see students willing to roll up their sleeves and pull apart the experiences presented to them by their teachers.

Some students revel in this engagement, happy to be trying something new. They embrace the challenges presented to them with the same excitement as my son, Henry, who slid down beside me on the carpet and picked up a screwdriver. “Look at the vacuum,” he whispered, his eyes wide. “Awesome.”

For some students the struggle and sense of not (yet) understanding is a huge challenge. They’d prefer to be working with the more familiar, questions that have a single answer, experiences more contained. My admiration for the students who push through this discomfort, who learn to suspend disbelief, is great. My appreciation for the teachers who inspire this growth is profound.

photo 5 (14)I’m not a mechanical guy. I have a toolbox, but not the inclination to tinker much on my own. My wrestling match with the Hoover was inspired by necessity: I was going to get that Gryffindor tie. And while I didn’t (yet) have it, I understood why I was doing what I was doing, and this clarity helped fuel my work.

Henry, interested in the parts and process, was more than willing to sacrifice the tie for the experience. He wasn’t motivated by the end product of a costume tie; he wanted to peek inside the vacuum and see how it worked.

We were both motivated, however, and both had context for what we were learning. Neither of us were following any established directions; we were exploring, experimenting, and struggling. I gritted my teeth, unsure of the outcome. Henry focused and had fun.

We’re different that way, and I realized (as I was restraining him from trying to take the entire vacuum apart on his own) that if I paid attention to the spirit he brought to the work, I could learn a lot from our collaboration.

I finally freed the tie, wrapped as tight as a cord by the vacuum, and, disappointed, started to throw it away. I stopped when my wife stepped into the room and said: “They can still play with that. They love it.”

She was right, of course, though Henry was just as interested in watching me do my best to reassemble the machine. So I put the vacuum back together, a little wiser than when I’d started, and certainly more interesting to my son, and I gave a silent thanks for the visit to Hogwarts.

“Save an orange for me!”

It was an evening of stories. A parent told about getting her first “F” on a math exam and her teary phone call home to tell her dad that college wasn’t for her. A teacher shared the experience of being cut from choir in sixth grade, when everyone else in her circle of friends made it. “And in sixth grade,” she said “my friends were my world.” I remembered aloud striking out in T-ball and feeling devastated. I had failed, the six year old me thought, therefore I’m a failure.

photo (25)We told hopeful stories too: of the sister who tried out new jobs every few years, just so she could have new experiences, and was good at them; of the coach who encouraged his players to take chances and not dwell on failure; and of working hard to succeed, believing it possible, and pushing through challenges to learn, grow, and thrive.

It was our first Diegueño Book Club, and a wonderful collection of parents and teachers joined me in our media center to discuss Carol Dweck’s book Mindset.

Hearing the many voices from around the table helped underscore the relevance of the book, as well as the longstanding truths Dweck fleshes out. An English teacher pointed out that for years she’d been answering her students when they said they couldn’t do something with the reply “You can’t do it yet!” All of us live or work with young people, and we saw the huge opportunities we have to engage with the kids in our lives in a way we might promote a growth mindset, even as we see in our kids students with both fixed and growth ways of looking at the world.

Our diverse perspectives around the table shared some similarities. Many of us had begun our lives with what we recognized now as a fixed mindset, and most could point to a watershed moment when that fixed mindset no longer worked for us, when we had a choice: give up or move forward.

One of my favorite stories of the night came from a parent recalling her experience of going out for the cross country team in high school. She was a swimmer, she said, and tried running only to find out that she was the slowest on the team. Determined to finish, and to keep a positive attitude, she would call ahead to her friends: “Save an orange for me!” And keep running.

She believed she could get better, and that she was growing from this experience, even if she wasn’t finding the success she saw in other areas of her life. Without a delusion that she’d be improving so much she would win a shelf of trophies, she persevered with a smile.

It was inspiring to see our group of interesting and interested adults all making connections to our own lives and thinking about our kids (either our biological kids, or the 957 students at Diegueño ). Our conversation, rooted in Dweck’s book, moved from the volleyball court to corporate America, and from the hospital to the Thanksgiving table.

We reflected on the idea that people with a growth mindset “believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.”

And then, by way of our own high school and college experiences, we made our way back to our own students’ classrooms.

Knowing that real learning involves some struggle, we talked about how we could promote opportunities for students to wrestle with ideas and engage in productive struggle. Classrooms are safe environments in which students can learn to face uncertainty, work through unknowing, and build the academic resiliency needed to persevere in the face of the unknown.

We all discussed how good it can be if the student who finds stress and temporary failure does so in an environment that encourages them to work through the problem, with a teacher who inspires them to try, and peers who are also struggling in plain view. How much better to have this happen earlier and in a safe space, and learn the skills to avoid that failed math test and tearful phone call home from college.

We also talked about how tough nurturing the sprouting shoot of real learning can be beneath the harsh sun of grades and the anxiety that comes from a mark not being as high as students and parents would like. Communication can help, and we all have work to do.

How we could encourage students to develop growth mindsets took up much of our conversation. We agreed that we were partners in this enterprise: parents, teachers, students, and even administrators like me.

photo (29)After talking about the importance of all our work, and honestly after laughing a lot too, we ended the night on a positive note. Reading Mindset, we agreed, had positively impacted our interactions with our kids, our students (and even our in-laws).

We left the evening knowing that we may not have all the answers (…yet), but we’re among friends, all of us running at our own pace toward the same goal of helping our kids. And we know those ahead of us, or enough of them, will listen when we raise our voice and say, with hope and a belief we can improve: “Save an orange for me!”

Growth

In just two weeks parents, teachers, and students will gather together in our library for our first Diegueño Book Club. A few folks have already told me that they’re coming, and two parents proudly held up their copies of Carol Dweck’s Mindset at our PTSA meeting last week.

I’m looking forward to the chance to sit down with members of our school family and talk about the big ideas Dweck offers. Good discussion has a way of bringing people closer together, and Mindset is a book filled with the fodder for interesting conversation.

photoWhen a math teacher told me that her copy had arrived and a student said that she and her mom were reading the book together, I knew those interesting conversations were on the horizon.

And while the evening our Diegueño Book Club meets will be one place where we talk about growth mindsets, I’m optimistic that those conversations will also happen on car trips and around kitchen tables across the neighborhoods that surround our school.

Late in the book Dweck writes:

“Tomorrow, listen to what you say to your kids and tune in to the message you’re sending. Are they messages that say: You have permanent traits and I’m judging them? Or are they messages that say “You’re a developing person and I’m interested in your development?”

It’s a question I’m interested in more people considering.

As a school community, I’m convinced that we are committed to helping students develop into the amazing young people they will be.

If who we are was cemented when we were in middle school, heaven help us all; I’d be an insecure, stumbling, red-head who routinely felt lost and a little out of step.

Helping to contribute to a school culture that embraces the notion that we all can continue to grow and learn is something many, many members of our Diegueño Family see as important.

On December 9th we’ll gather in our library to talk together. Before then, and after too, I look forward to the conversations happening in lunchrooms, grandparents’ family rooms, and in camping chairs on the sidelines of soccer games. I’m excited about the potential for us to use this opportunity to connect with each other, support each other, and grow.

“What makes it go?”

mastermind-how-to-think-like-sherlock-holmesI’m reading Maria Konnikova’s book Mastermind: How to think like Sherlock Holmes right now, and enjoying her take on the great detective and logical reasoning, even as I feel myself more and more like Watson with every page. Early on in the book she tells a story about Richard Feynman that resonated with me as an educator. She writes:

After World War II physicist Richard Feynman was asked to serve on the State Curriculum Commission, to choose high school science textbooks for California. To his consternation, the texts appeared to leave students more confused than enlightened. Each book he examined was worse than the one prior. Finally, he came up on a promising beginning: a series of pictures, of a windup toy, an automobile, and a boy on a  bicycle. Under each was the question: “What makes it go?”

Feynman’s hopes that students would see in these examples mechanics, chemistry, and biology, would be dashed, Konnikova goes on to explain, by the clunky one word explanation that followed: energy. The textbook simply used the pictures as window dressing, not challenging students to puzzle about the question. As any good textbook from the middle of the last century would, this one came from the perspective that students needed to be given information that they could memorize and return (potentially unused) to the teacher on a test.

But what if that question was asked of the kids and not immediately followed up by a lecture?

I see glimpses of what I think might be the answer in my own kids. As I scribble these lines, they’re focused (and occasionally frustrated) twisting miniature rubber bands on their rainbow looms. Watching his older sister, my six year old son has learned how to find videos on my phone (he cracked the password himself) that show him how to make bracelets of increasing complexity.

He doesn’t get them all on the first or second or even third try, but he sticks with it, motivated both externally (he was very pleased to get a smile from a girl he gave a double fishtail to today) and internally, as he answers for himself the question of how?

The middle school students I see in classes at Diegueño are curious and creative. Posed with a challenge like the one that captivated Feynman, they aren’t afraid to struggle with concepts they don’t yet understand. This willingness to engage with a question meaningfully and in an environment that doesn’t punish failure, but sees it as part of the process, may be the single biggest opportunity education has seen in a long time.

I could see asking the student in English class about an essay by Emerson using the same language I heard my math teachers use: “What do you notice? What do you wonder?”

I could see students asking the same questions as they come upon chemical reactions, perspectives in art, poetry, basketball, or coding. I could see teachers holding up a sonnet by Shakespeare, a map of Machu Picchu, or a geometrical shape and asking some variation of: “What makes it go?”

…and I can imagine the kids figuring it out.

…yet

mindsetRather than be the guy who just wishes everyone at his school would read Mindset by Carol Dweck, a powerhouse of a book with huge implications for teaching, parenting, and living life, I decided to try something different. I wrote about my first reading of the book this summer, and since that time have been ruminating on how I can encourage a discussion of the ideas on my campus. I know that I can’t force anyone to pick up the book, nor would I want to be some bibliocrat who did, but the thought of inviting people in my school community to join me in a discussion about Mindset struck me as exciting. If parents and teachers, heck students too, were to really talk about the “growth mindset” ideas in Dweck’s book some pretty cool possibilities could emerge about the way we work together to support kids.

Next step: A Diegueño book club! I’m inviting my school family to read Mindset this month and then come together in December to talk about the ideas Dweck presents. For those who do, I think there will be lots to discuss about and connections to be made to how we encourage students.

In a nutshell the book presents the differences between a “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” using examples that make the ideas clear. As an educator, I’ve seen both approaches to life in my students, my teachers, and (if I’m honest) myself.

Put simplistically, those with fixed mindsets believe that people are generally “good” or “bad” at certain things, and that they reach a limit, the ability to draw for example, and plateau. Failure, in this case, signals hitting that limit.

A growth mindset says that improvement is always possible, and that setbacks teach us as well as successes. With the belief that effort and resiliency combine for the greatest results, this way of looking at life suggests persistence and the ability to see challenges as speed bumps, not roadblocks, leads to progress. It’s about taking a failure (“I can’t draw a monkey!” and adding one word: “I can’t draw a monkey …yet.”)

The implications for learning are great.

At their best, schools are havens for growth mindsets, as resilient students meet teachers who believe in them and push them to succeed. Sometimes obstacles get in the way of believing that we all can learn and improve, and I’m optimistic that carving out some time to read Dweck’s book and talk about it may help us all focus on the transformative possibilities in our students and ourselves.

Will a Diegueño book club work? Can open discussion about big ideas succeed in our school community? Will really thinking about these growth mindset ideas change the world, or at least our corner of it? I’m not sure …yet.

 

The first Diegueño Book Club, discussing Mindset by Carol Dweck, will be on December 9th from 5:00-6:30 in the media center. This gives us time to read the book, chew on the ideas a bit, and think about some things we’d like to talk about together.

“…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…”

Summer Reading

I’ll admit that this summer I read at least as much detective fiction as I did books for work, Sherlock Holmes and Kurt Wallander jockeying for time alongside more educational titles. Summer should be a time for books on a towel in the sand, and I’ve always found Håkan Nesser more welcome at Moonlight Beach than Carol Dweck. Well, maybe I’m making that up; Mindset should be read everywhere.

Three books stood out to me this summer as interesting reads before starting the school year at Diegueño Middle School: Getting to Calm by Laura S. Kastner and Jennifer Wyatt, The Drama Years by Haley Kilpatrick, and Secrets from the Middle by Elyse S. Scott. I liked the combination of these three, as they addressed the three major forces working with kids: Parents, Students, and Teachers.

A parent myself, Getting to Calm was a great reminder of the importance of keeping perspective and poise when raising kids. I have two elementary age kids at home, and see opportunities in my parenting them to make decisions that will support, encourage, and help them grow. I also know that at some point, sweet as they are, they’ll probably call me names. Well, at least roll their eyes and make a decision or two that I wouldn’t at this point in my life. As a middle school principal, I know that the same is true of my work with my 900 or so 7th and 8th graders. Staying grounded, understanding options, listening with empathy, and creating a plan that can lead to positive results is as important to a school administrator as it is a parent, and both the dad and principal in me appreciated the clarity and common sense in the book.

With specific examples (that rang true, based on my own parenting experience of a now 24 year old, as well as my 20 years in education), Getting to Calm helped to underscore the power a family has in determining a student’s success. Parents shape their students’ lives, and the scenarios in this book underscored the importance of the choices we parents make as we respond to the decisions of our tweens and teens. Adolescence isn’t a time without challenges, but when families and educators work together these challenges can be opportunities for growth. I could see this as a nice resource for parents navigating the waters of adolescence for the first time.

Another good guide for the tempest of middle school is The Drama Years. Subtitled “Real Girls Talk About Surviving Middle School –Bullies, Brands, Body Image, and More,” the book stresses three hallmarks of a plan for staying safe, sane, and strong in 7th and 8th grade: finding an “anchor” activity, having a “big-sister” type mentor, and giving back to the community. While I’m usually dubious of books with hyperbolic titles, the points made about these three tools for success were spot on. I’ve seen thousands of students in my time as a teacher and school administrator, and overwhelmingly those who struggle most are those who lack the perspective that all will, ultimately, be well.

To have an activity separate from school classes (acting, singing, athletics, robotics, tai chi etc.), to have someone to talk with (a mentor, older teen or adult, who can listen with empathy), and to have the understanding that comes from volunteering (that while middle school is tough, life can be even tougher for some), these things help girls (and boys) put the daily, and very real, stresses of their school experience in perspective. As I strive to make Diegueño a place where students feel connected, supported, and free to become the people they will be, The Drama Years was a nice primer on the challenges students face and how we as adults can help them do more than survive; we can help them succeed.

Secrets from the Middle was recommended to me by our superintendent, and was an interesting read from the point of view of a retired middle school English teacher who maintained that success in the classroom was more than just vocabulary lists mastered or sentences diagramed. Her premise in this thin but powerful book was that teachers need to allow themselves to be human as they work with students, to stay true to themselves as they connect with kids. With 30 years of teaching experience, hers was a voice I’d like all my new teachers to hear. She stayed positive, real, and honest about what it’s like to work with 7th and 8th grade students. Stressing structure, engagement, playfulness, and rigor, she described a teaching philosophy that was good for kids. As she said well, “I rarely backed off from my guiding principles through the years, and I let students know why I believed in them.” Engaging students in the “why” of things not only helps them in school, but helps them in life.

True experience can only be won on the ground, not read about in books, but these three short volumes were a great addition to my professional bookshelf, and provided nice perspective on the middle school years before classes begin on August 26th. It’s then I’ll look forward to watching great teachers connect with kids, have opportunities to keep calm, and do my best to keep the drama confined to our two periods of theater. I know that every year brings challenges, and I honestly feel that after reading these three books I’m a little better prepared for whatever happens when soon, to put it in Sherlockian terms: “The game is afoot!”

photo (56)