“Yo Jay, yo Jay, check this out!”

We ended the drive with the five of us singing “You Make Me Feel So Young,” a swinging tune that sums up at least a part of my swirling emotions as principal at San Dieguito. Four amazing students, creative, funny, and kind, had asked me to shed any administrative dignity I might have and join them for Carpool Karaoke. “Yes” was the right answer, and by the end of the ride the lyrics to that Sinatra song had never been so true.

2Being a principal means being willing to play, participate, and share laughter with students. It also means shouldering responsibility, working hard and sometimes long hours, and bringing as much balance as possible to the job. Keeping students first in my mind helps me do that.

So today, as ASB kids filmed a segment for the spring assembly, I hopped into a car and did my best to destroy a series of marvelous songs.

They’d asked me if I had anything I wanted to sing, and before I answered I thought about it, only to realize that the music I listen to falls into two categories: old, old, old stuff (Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, so out of their world as to be unrecognizable) and rock and roll not suitable for a principal to croon (let’s be honest, it simply isn’t appropriate to hear the principal sing almost any song by Prince, The Pogues, or Social Distortion). So I made only one suggestion, an unexpected ditty that I thought would be worth a laugh, and I left the rest of the playlist up to the students.

3We started innocently enough, with a little Bowie. Parking is an ongoing challenge at our school, so we set the narrative of our video as my helping the driver, a senior, find a place to park. There was no more natural soundtrack than us mm-ba-ba-de-de-bum-bum’ing our way through Queen’s “Under Pressure.”

We laughed, anyway.

Next, I revisited my misspent youth with an unexpected riff on Run DMC’s “Son of Byford,” my driver beat boxing as he shook his head that this old man would know the words of any rap song.

The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” did not go so smoothly, but by the time we belted out “The Time of My Life,” a fitting farewell to SDA, we’d both hit our stride.

4Half an hour later, thinking we had enough footage to be cut and spliced into at least 30 seconds of entertainment, we headed back to the front lot. As we did, laughing that there might be no songs that we both knew the words to, we picked up three ASB students who were helping film and edit the video. They piled into the back and I apologized as we pulled away from the curb. “I only know Sinatra songs,” I said, and from the back seat I heard: “Pull over.”

Then, with a quickness that surprised me, my driver found a series of Old Blue Eyes songs on his phone. From the back seat came the suggestion for “You Make Me Feel So Young,” and without hesitation we broke into song.

I don’t know if the cameras were rolling as we drove back to my office, but I do know that those two minutes will remain in my memory as some of the most joyful I’ve had here at San Dieguito.

1I’d thought that my choice of Run DMC would be the biggest surprise of the day, but (as is so true so often at this fabulously funky school) it was the students who surprised me. They were so kind to invite me to join the fun, they put up with my inability to sing, and they even knew a little Sinatra. A delight.

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“You know, for kids…”

photoThere a point in The Hudsucker Proxy, a Cohen Brothers movie about, among other things, hula hoops, where Tim Robbin’s character holds a drawing of a circle up to a coworker whose puzzled expression prompts the explanation: “You know, for kids!”

It’s a circle, so simple as to be ridiculous, and combined with Robbins’ wonderfully earnest expression reminds me of the biggest why of our profession. In the busy or stressful times, when it’s easy to make things more complicated than they need to be, we could all do ourselves a favor by repeating Robbins’ line, maybe even with that goofy grin.

This year we took about a quarter of our opening day staff meeting to underscore this perspective by having students take our faculty through a series of activities to build community and prepare for the year ahead. More than symbolic, though that too, the experience of students leading adults, of those kids being listened to and seen with such respect, brought into focus both the reason we educators do what we do and the great good that can come from providing students the opportunity, encouragement, and responsibility to engage with the adults at the school we share.

photo 1That morning, three intrepid students led us through a series of challenges and games, and had our teachers, counselors, administrators, and classified staff smiling, talking earnestly, really listening to each other …and even playing tag.

Throughout the activities, the students emphasized how important it is for us to know each other, know ourselves, and work together for a greater good. They encouraged us to open up, to take chances, and to be proud of the work we do.

When they ended our half hour outside by telling us: “We can hardly wait to see you on the first day of classes!” no one doubted their sincerity and everyone seemed to share their sentiment.

What these three students did was astounding. With poise and purpose (and infectious smiles) they had a group of nearly a hundred adults following their every direction, suspending adult inhibitions, and playing together.

faculty plays

That our faculty was so willing to embrace this experience was further proof of the priority they place on students. I’ve worked where some people say they value and respect students; the educators I had the pleasure to spend time with at that first meeting showed how much they live that truth.

We educators get into this profession to make a difference, and often the most powerful impact comes when we inspire and empower, expect great things, believe in our students, and remember that truth, as simple as a circle, that what we do is, you know, for kids.

Rogue Pies

photo 1 (6)I began my teaching career at Hood River Valley High School, an embarrassingly fresh faced twenty five year old out to change the world. Hood River was home for two years, before a job offer at the school where I’d student taught lured us out of the Columbia Gorge and on to the next step in a career in education that has ranged from Oregon to the Bay Area to San Diego County. When my wife and I left Hood River we were still in our twenties with no kids, big dreams, and a spirit of adventure.

I like to think that our dreams haven’t diminished and that our spirit is the same, even now after twenty years and a family of our own. Even so, it was plainly clear how much we’d changed since the mid 90s when this summer’s family trip brought us back up the Gorge and we settled in for four days along the Columbia River.

It seems we’ve grown up.

I say that without a scrap of remorse or the faintest hint of regret for lost youth. The truth is that I’m a better person than I was when I left Hood River, more patient, happier, and quicker to be kind. I can still be grouchy when I get hungry and tend to focus on school so much I forget to change the oil in my car, but the accumulation of adventures that have filled the last two decades of my life have taught me the value of listening, the importance of seeing other points of view, and the satisfaction that comes not from being clever, but from treating others well.

I didn’t know who I was when I started teaching, though teaching helped to show me who I was. I look back at photos of my first year in the classroom and wonder at how young I was, how inexperienced, and how passionate about teaching.

Twenty years later I love teaching and have become even more passionate about learning and helping others learn.

photo 2 (5)I wouldn’t be who I have become without Hood River Valley High and my time teaching and coaching in the shadow of Mt. Hood. It was a truth I thought about today as I drove up to the campus with my kids.

How the trees had grown.

Two decades ago HRV was a hive of new construction. Today it has the comfortable look of an established campus, complete with the same amazing views of Mt. Adams to the north and Mt. Hood to the south.

I found the window to my first classroom, but held off peeking inside. My memories of the time spent there are rich and I didn’t want to see someone else’s posters up on the walls.

Instead, I thought about the successes and failures that defined my time at HRV. The wind tunnel I made in my classroom with teaching Pierre Boule’s Planet of the Apes, the nature walks near campus when studying Wordsworth, and the first truly goofy thing I did as a teacher, a confessedly silly thing that set the tone for a career filled with a spirit of play: Goggle Day.

It started as a lark, a way to shake things up in the midst of a long, cold winter. Our English Department, a curious and creative collection of good humored free spirits were kicking around ideas so zany they might be fun. I can’t take credit for any part of the idea that turned out well, though I suppose my name would be the likeliest to deserve blame, particularly when things went decidedly out of control.

We called it Goggle Day. Did we expect things wouldn’t go sideways?

The scheme was simple enough. On a particular day everyone in the department would come to work wearing goggles, ski, swim, what you will. We designated one of my students as “Goggle Boy” and armed him with a coconut cream pie. At some point in the day, completely of his own choosing, he would deliver the pie into an English teacher’s face.

This was a time before everyone had a cell phone; no one expected the event to live on in shaky video or on social media. Goggle Day’s pie would simply be the delicious delivery we’d talk about in the English workroom, something to laugh about together.

But we were not, truth be told, a group of people likely to follow all the rules.

Early in the day, in fact, the swell of cheers from two separate classrooms proved that it was not just Goggle Boy who was delivering creamy splats.

We had rogue pies.

Now I should pause this story long enough to explain that Hood River Valley High was a well run and professional place in 1994, as I’m sure it is today. Our principal was a strong and kind woman, the epitome of professionalism. Her assistant principal was a former head football coach whose scowl could melt concrete. It was a newly remodeled school, clean and orderly, a perfect place to learn.

We had not mentioned Goggle Day to anyone in a position of authority, and had fully expected that one pie could be filed under the heading: HARMLESS FUN.

Another loud cheer next to my classroom told me that we were barreling well past that heading and into the territory of: NOT ON MY WATCH.

It was at this point that I realized that the day was so far beyond my control that the best I could do was simply keep my goggles on and hope for the best. If Goggle Boy opened my classroom door, I’d smile and take it in the face.

But that wasn’t what happened.

Instead, midway through my prep period, as I was sitting at my desk, goggled atop my forehead, the back door of my classroom opened. In leaned a tall young English teacher with a smile on his face and a whip cream pie in his hand.

I did the only sensible thing.

I ran.

Out the front door of my classroom I bolted into the hallway. Behind me I heard the roar of thirty five students, my wild colleague’s class, as they followed him through my classroom and after me. They poured into the hallway, picking up speed. At the head of the smiling mob their begoggled teacher loped forward, holding a pie above his head.

I tore out of the English wing and into the next hallway of the school. They were gaining ground and would catch me soon.

Turning a corner near the art room I could feel the pounding of their feet.

I raced down the main hall and in front of the office felt a hand on my shoulder.

There was no escape.

I turned, saw the wide eyed smiles of the students and the crazy glee of my colleague, and watched through my goggles as the pie hit my face.

SPLAT

…and then I heard the assistant principal’s yell.

He had been a head football coach and this was the tone his players must have feared.

With a flick of my hands I cleared my goggles, my face still white with whip cream. I couldn’t see the AP; the class was between us. My colleague’s back was to me.

And once again, I did the only sensible thing.

Without waiting to see what happened next, I stepped into the faculty restroom next to the office and locked the door.

It took a long, long time to wash my face.

When I opened the door again the hallway was empty.

It had been a glorious Goggle Day.

photo 5 (2).JPG

I didn’t see any of the teachers I worked with so many years ago when I visited campus today. It’s July and any still at HRV who might remember me are off enjoying summer.

The fact is that they’re as alive in my memory today as they were when we said our goodbyes so long ago. Dave, Chauna, Jeff, and so many others helped me to become who I am now. My affection for them has only grown.

Instead, with a head full of memories and heart filled with gratitude, I passed through campus today like a ghost, smiling.

What’s the Score?

photo 3When the little league game is 24 to 13, the adults should stop keeping score.

To the kids, it’s still a game, even if spectators want to classify it as competition. Runs, hits, throws and catches are all part of the game; the score only happens when the need for some sort of outcome means more than the process of playing.

Playing.

Playing, which is different than winning or losing. Playing, which is what kids do.

A hundred years ago, when I dedicated the summers of my elementary school years to the art and science of wiffleball, my friends and I took the game seriously. I grew up on an untamed acre that had been an orchard before my parents bought the land and built a house. In the space between the back of house and a towering black cherry tree was enough room to build a ball field.

We scrounged bases, mowed foul lines into the tall weeds, and fashioned the remainder of a stout wooden fence post into a permanent ballplayer who stood in shallow right field, a mitt attached to the diagonal two by four we’d nailed there are arms. We pulled a cap over the top of the post, painted on a face, and took to calling him Cool Hand Luke.

My dad became a hero when he brought home a length of mesh fencing that we turned into an outfield wall and an actual home plate salvaged from the college where he worked.

It was a labor of love, and a stadium as grand in our minds as Wrigley Field.

All of us played little league as well, and loved baseball, but wiffleball was something different. This was ours.

No adults were ever involved in our wiffleball obsession, except when my mom would bring out snacks or occasionally pick up a bat while I honed my curveball and slider.

We certainly kept score, played tenaciously, and took what we were doing as seriously as Pete Rose did an all star game, but it was also a childhood world of “ghost runners” and quirky home field rules (hit Cool Hand Luke and you got a home run).

I know my memories of those summers are tinted with the sepia tones of nostalgia, but even so, it was wiffleball that I thought about when I sat at my son’s little league game last week and watched a parent from the opposing team assiduously keep score.

Earnest in her work, she tromped up to the scoreboard she’d brought with her every time a six or seven year old crossed home plate and flipped the plastic number to show the crowd the score.

The crowd, not the players. The players didn’t seem to care.

photo 2 (1)It reminded me, in its way, of a parent who once came up to me at a student award ceremony. She carried her son’s certificate and held it up to me as she made eye contact. “This doesn’t have a date on it,” she said. “Some of the other people’s do,” I assured her that it was okay; these were department and teacher awards, nothing overly formal. “But,” she frowned, “what about colleges?”

Her son, who had stayed behind, might have been happy to have his teacher recognize that he’d done some good work. She was keeping score, or worried that Stanford was.

I’m not bemoaning the world today, or suggesting that there was something uniquely magical about my own growing up. What does strike me, however, is the parallel between the parent keeping score in a lopsided little league game and the adult attitude that everything that can be measured, recorded, and put on a college resume should be.

Sometimes play is play.

Sometimes good work earns congratulations and nothing more.

Sometimes it’s the experiences of childhood that matter more than the accomplishments of childhood.

photo 1I’m certain that a week after the fact my son does not know whether it was his team that scored 24 or 13 runs, though I’ll bet he could describe what it felt like to hit the ball out of the infield.

As an educator and a dad, I celebrate the times when our kids -both youngsters like my son and high school students like those I work with- don’t keep score.

I love it when we adults get out of the way and allow them to play for play’s sake, learn for the love of learning, and experience life not because it will look good to a college admissions officer, but because those experiences are theirs.

I don’t fault the parent who brought the scoreboard to my son’s game, but a part to me wishes she could have stopped flipping numbers and enjoyed watching the kids play.

Second Time Through

They arrived in capes and spandex, wearing matching shirts, bandannas, and smiles. While classic rock filled the grassy area behind the softball diamond, they applied face paint, surveyed the inflatables, and wrestled with the decision: shoes or no shoes.

This was San Dieguito’s “Senior Olympics,” and in a synecdoche of what makes our school special, hundreds of 12th graders stayed after school on the Friday before spring break to have fun and play.

photo 2 (6).JPGThese amazing students might have started the day in AP Art History, Concert Band, Auto Shop, or Culinary Arts. Here, however, as they worked in spirited teams to run relays, play tug-of-war, and shoot baskets into inflatable hoops, they exuded the energy of delighted seven year olds.

It was awesome.

At our Student Forum earlier in the week a senior had brought up the idea of recess. While her comment had been half in jest, it resonated with me as an honest and inadvertently profound idea. Here, as these seniors burst into celebration when teammates crossed the finish line of the blindfolded three legged race, the truth of the value of play showed its teeth with a smile.

photo 1 (5)The importance of play has been talked about by people more knowledgeable than I. Heck, a lifetime ago I had the pleasure of doing a book club with parents and teachers on Dr. Stuart Brown’s book Play. In the competitive world our students inhabit, it takes reminders like Brown’s book and our Senior Olympics to hold up examples of why we, and our kids, need to laugh more.

Some might suggest that competition had something to do with today’s event, and it’s true that the burly team of boys who lost the first tug-of-war were crestfallen in the seconds after they were pulled beyond the line, but as I walked around to the different events I realized that that wasn’t it.

photo 3 (6)Watching the kids, even in events as competitive as bouncy jousting, I saw that they cheered no matter who won.

I saw the smiles on the faces of the parent volunteers too, as they saw their kids acting like …kids. Everyone over forty knows how much time these seniors have to be adults, and seeing them clap and laugh spontaneously as they did so regularly in kindergarten reminded us of the joy that teenage angst withers before when that joy is given a chance to shine.

I said something to a dad who was there helping to manage a bouncy slide relay, pointing to a group of seniors jumping up and down and screaming as if they’d won the World Series.

“Yeah,” he smiled, “and this is their second time through. The first race was the one that counted. They’re doing this one just for fun.”

photo (2)How important it is to have things in our lives that we do just for fun.

Today’s Senior Olympics, this amazing opportunity to release joy, celebrate play, and be a community filled with laughter, gave all of us who were there a glimpse of a kind of happiness we can never have too much of.

Let’s play!

Horse Feathers

GrouchoThere’s a point in Horse Feathers, the classic Marx Brothers football comedy, when Groucho, Harpo, and Chico join the college football team, three completely out of place buffoons who strap on uniforms and leather helmets and create a scene that makes people laugh. I’m afraid that this week that will be me.

It’s a homecoming tradition here at San Dieguito High School Academy for faculty to challenge students in a flag football game. I’m told the teachers haven’t won in almost a decade.

The annual flag football game is well loved here at our school, capturing the playful spirit of the student body and the willingness to join in the fun that helps to define our staff. This year more than five hundred students will play in a tournament that begins at 3:30 tomorrow and ends when the top four student teams play our faculty squad under the lights at 7:15.

What that brouhaha will look like, I’m not sure.

I do know that a few of our teachers pulled together for an after school practice last week, earnest educators whose glory days are fondly remembered. Spirals flew and a few were caught. If laughter was talent, this team would win the superbowl.

photo 1 (2)At the end of practice I asked a veteran of the game why we played the top four student teams. “Don’t we want the kids to be tired?” I asked.

“More students get to play us this way,” he explained. “And they like that. It’s fun.”

Motivated by this spirit of fun, I’ll join the teachers tomorrow night. I’d like to imagine muscle memory from a youth of playing football will return, but truth be told, the last time I competed some of my newest teachers hadn’t yet been born.

So instead, I’ll set my sights on joining the students and teachers in an evening of laughter, play, and connection. I’ll happily add my name to the proud tradition of flag football, and while gridiron glory is as likely as horse feathers, smiles promise to stretch from the field to the stands.

 

Come root on all our Mustangs Friday, November 6th, starting at 3:30! Kickoff for the student v. staff game is at 7:15. Go Mustangs!

Books, Badminton, and Beautiful Conversation

You know it’s a good meeting when a majority of the parents and teachers are barefoot.

It was our final gathering of the year for the Diegueño Book Club, and laughter filled the grassy area in the center of campus. We threw foam horseshoes without much success, if success is measured in ringers or leaners. If, however, the yardstick for accomplishment is having a good time, we were wildly successful.

The laughter continued as we batted a birdie to one another, our badminton skills inversely proportional to the amount of fun we were having.

There in the quad, beneath the flagpole, parents, teachers, and I were playing. Our smiles and talk of what we’d been like as kids brought us closer together, and the heart pumping lunges to reach that birdie made me feel happy to be at Diegueño, surrounded by great people, and having fun.

photo (7)After our most successful volley of the night, seven continuous bounces of shuttlecock against badminton rackets (it was windy; volleys were tough), we sat down in the shade of one of Diegueño’s trees and shared a jug of water one of our teachers brought from her classroom and a plastic container of chocolate chip cookies. Circled on the grass, we brought out our copies of Stuart Brown’s book Play and started to talk.

We talked about the importance of play, both structured and unstructured, and how different school was today than when we were students. Discussion led to play as it happens on our campus, both in big events like Spirit Day and in classes every week, as students enjoy time and space to be creative, collaborative, and come up with their own approaches to the challenges they face.

Two parents mentioned the “POM” or “problem of the module” that has entered the lexicon of the Diegueño Math Department. Not open ended so much as “open middled,” a math teacher explained, the POM encourages students to notice and wonder, to bring critical thinking to a purposeful challenge, and to work together to find an answer. The result is different than run of the mill “homework,” though the POMs are done outside of the classroom.

I’ll save the homework discussion for another post, but suffice it to say that we all could speak to the difference between daily assignments and more complex opportunities for students to apply the skills they are learning and have learned in class.

The kind folks in our book group listened as I yarned a bit about some of the things I did as a teacher, including Pirate Week and Space Week. Beyond the fun of talking about times when I got to play in the classroom (and beyond), this discussion blossomed into talk of a more academic success we’d seen just a couple of months ago at Diegueño: Pi Day.

Pi Day is really a misnomer; here at Diegueño we celebrated math for a full week in March. Beyond the thoughtful and student driven activities, for me the anticipation, the brainstorming, the excitement to create something fun (and Pi related) were as important as the flashier successes of the event. In the fortnight before the celebration I saw kids engaged, inspired, and showing the sparks of creativity that brought to life unexpected accomplishments.

Acknowledging that not every day can be Pi Day, we talked about everything from PE classes to History, and the value of engagement, hands on activities, and opportunities for the kids to have a voice in how they demonstrate what they are learning. As Brown suggests, “play isn’t the enemy of learning, it’s learning’s partner.” Our group agreed.

Conversation ranged from how we as parents play with kids to the importance of family and community. I won’t tip my hand on all the ideas flying around that tupperware container of diminishing cookies, but as we talked about balance, building community, and helping everyone feel at home, I was inspired by the specific suggestions about how we could do even more to bring parents, students, and all of our school community closer together.

This balance, especially in a world increasingly competitive, and a society that puts extreme pressure on students (as well as moms and dads) around grades, high school classes, and college acceptance, is important, and part of the answer to the question “How can we help families?” comes in the word: play.

I know that as the principal I might raise an eyebrow or two with this next line from Brown’s book, but it resonated with me, and I think with the other folks who were with me on the grass. “Play, by its very nature,” Brown writes, “is a little anarchic. It’s about stepping outside of normal life and breaking normal patterns. It’s about bending rules of thought, action, and behavior.” Within in the safety of school, and under the guidance of adults who care about them, a little unstructured play might just be the balm some kids need to ease the stress they face every day.

This isn’t to say that school should only be games, or that structure is anathema to learning. As our Diegueño Book Club talked, however, we recognized that how we frame what we do on campus (and in the work we assign beyond the schoolhouse walls) matters a lot.

A teacher in our group remembered aloud a quotation from Tom Sawyer: “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” I thought about what that meant to me as someone who has chosen to be an educator. It’s a topic I’ll continue to discuss with my staff and school community.

Reading a book and talking about it at school… I guess I could see how someone might consider that work, but for me, that evening on the lawn, it was most certainly engaging, enlightening, and enjoyable play.