announcementreminderplea

One of my amazing teachers, a relationship builder who has been working remotely since last March, emailed me ahead of a staff meeting to ask if she could make an announcement at the meeting. She needed to ask the staff to share some information with students in their Ohanas, our name for homeroom, and she wondered if she could have a minute or two for an “announcement/reminder/plea” to the teachers. She knew the answer, of course; I try to always say “yes” when a teacher asks for something (with the huge caveat that sometimes that isn’t the answer I can give). This time a yes was easy.

And as I replied to her email I removed the forward slashes from her request and sat back pleased with a new word that feels like it should be part of the pandemic lexicon: announcementreminderplea.

It’s a word that’s hard to read, or understand, at least at first. It isn’t sure what it needs, though the truth may be in there somewhere. It feels hurried, almost frantic, and like it could apply to much of what I do as an educator: kids turning on cameras, teachers posting assignments in a uniform way, parents taking a deep breath before pouncing on a perceived mistake …announcementreminderplea. Please do.

The past few months have reminded us how much a people business education really is. Not that we didn’t know, but it has underscored the importance of the little interactions (at lunch, in the hallways, before and after class) and how profound it is to read body language, hear a sigh, or get that feeling that something is off.

Teachers and students alike have reached out to me as the principal with announcementreminderpleas around engagement, not feeling heard, and uncertainty about how to navigate these rough waters of remote learning. In every case they want to do well, and so often there seems no clear answer on exactly how to do that.

I’ve made more than a few announcementreminderpleas myself, to staff, to parents, to students, and our school community as a whole. Sometimes these feel like I’m shouting into the wind; sometimes I’m surprised at the overwhelming response I’m blessed to receive. Almost always I have a moment of uncertainty about how my message will land, something rare when we could see each other’s faces in the same room.

And yet we marshal on, teachers teaching, students learning, parents comforting, cajoling, and all of us doing our best. Sometimes it works. Sometimes.

So to end this short post I’ll pull out an announcementreminderplea that has been a part of my own vocabulary as an educator since long before any pandemic. It’s a line I’ve said a thousand times and believed almost all of them. “All will be well.”

Is that an announcement? A reminder? A plea? Yep. And it’s something I still believe.

Shakespeare to a Screen of Boxes

“I all alone beweep my outcast state”

I’d done the lesson before, a world away, last year. That was back in a simpler time, when we could gather in the same room with students, then, as now, a group of theater kids with the topic on hand of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The opportunity to teach came as a kindness from a generous teacher who knew how much it means to me as a principal to teach every year, the lesson a throwback to my days as an English teacher, a dozen years spent in front of a classroom.

That idea of a front of a classroom, the notion of anything today being a throwback to anything that has come before …that just feels …incorrect. Because teaching today in this first semester of 2020, is different.

Wildly different.

So when I set about teaching this fabulous group of students it wasn’t in a classroom at all, but me in my office and thirty or so students in bedrooms, at kitchen tables, and sipping chai on couches (as one student told me she was doing). We were all connected through screens, an imperfect replacement for the magic of in person teaching.

I’ve written about this connection before, about the alchemy of teaching and learning, the humanity of working with kids, the spark that comes between people in a classroom. But this time…

The teacher started the class with some theater warm-ups, a great way to begin since I hoped they’d read some of the sonnets aloud. To hear him march through stretching and zombie calls, dash trippingly through “cinnamon-aluminum, cinnamon-aluminum, cinnamon-aluminum” and the like was a delight. I scanned the boxes on my screen: icons and names …and a few student faces. It was so strange to see familiar names, but not the kids I know attached to them. I knew this would be an issue; teachers had mentioned the difficulty to students not always turning on cameras, sometimes for very legitimate reasons (technology, mental health) not just in this class, but across the remote learning experience.

And difficult it was.

We started with an introduction to Shakespeare’s sonnets, a bit of historical perspective, and a primer on prosody. The students listened …I think. The crossed out red microphone in every box kept those delightful impromptu student responses muted. Painfully muted. Teaching in person allows for reading body language, seeing students eyes, overhearing those unexpected utterances, and moving around the room to help keep students engaged. 

Online my lesson felt decidedly one sided. A voice kept whispering in my head that my song and dance wasn’t even as good as a video the students could just be watching. Sharing my screen only exasperated the challenge; even if I could see more boxes they might be names or icons, not student faces. Four crossed out red microphones or thirty-four crossed out red microphones it still felt like it was just me as I got started. 

Was I reaching them? that whisper asked. All the ways I used to tell were gone to me. That voice of doubt was in my head, not through the computer; everyone in class was still muted and many had their cameras off.

We marshaled through sonnet 118, taking it apart quatrain by quatrain after an intrepid student turned on their camera to read it aloud. When that student turned on their camera and started reciting it was as if the heavens had opened, the clouds parted, and something miraculous had happened.

I spoke more than I should have, but even with a pretty high comfort level for extended wait time that felt like the only way to move forward. My appreciation for the teachers who do this every day, multiple times a day, grew and grew. At its worst this experience was nerve wracking; at its best it was modest in the unexpected joys that kept me teaching for a dozen years. For anyone tempted to be critical of teachers in this world of remote learning I’d say try your own hand at teaching before saying a word. You may find yourself with different words.

In modest nibbles the students began chewing on Shakespeare’s language, offering ideas, often more willing to answer my questions in the chat than with camera or voice. A couple messaged me in the chat that they were having trouble with their cameras, one that her mic didn’t work. These kinds of technical challenges aren’t unique to a handful of students. Every week I talk with parents or students who struggle with connectivity. We’re all doing what we can do. And that’s okay.

I tried breakout rooms, groups of six or seven for each of a quartet of sonnets. The theater teacher went into one group, with the well known sonnet 130, and I visited the others in turn, sonnets 29, 116, and 138. They each had some specific instructions (scanning the poem, looking for unfamiliar words, and reading for meaning) and the charge that when we returned to the main meeting we’d have someone from each group read their poem aloud.

In the first breakout room I visited only one student had his camera on. Yet, the students were encouraging to one another, collaborative voices behind the white names on black backgrounds. I stuck around until they hit a sticking point and together we dove into the lines: 

I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope

There was some resonance in those words, more than 400 years old as they are, and the students, each in their own individual box on the computer, understood what it is to feel a bit “outcast” these days. That said, the couplet at the end of the poem resonates with me as well:

For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

The second breakout room was quieter yet. One student talked me through what they’d discussed before I arrived, but overall, crickets.

When I entered the third group my heart soared. Every camera was on and the discussion was rich. They noticed discrepancies in the iambic pentameter and were speaking smartly of the poem writ large. This was so much like what school would be in person, and felt like a rare joy in this online world.

When we got back to the main meeting we had time for two awesome students to read their sonnets aloud. When I saw them turn on their cameras the whole world got a little better. 

In this compromised environment that was all it took.

The ones who spoke did marvelously, actors as they were, and many students were able to talk about the poems intelligently, as students do. It was not the experience I’d had with this lesson before, and after I signed off at the end of the lesson I texted the teacher: “THANK YOU! That was strange, but fun.” It was fun. Because…

Today I got to teach. It was not perfect. It was not bad. It was not what I’d always done or how I’d always done it. Truth be told, it was not how I’d like to do it as soon as I’m given another choice.

Remote learning is hard, and while we had to connect through screens and across miles, today we connected. At least a little. Right now, I’ll take that.

A Good Tired

For the first time in months I saw most of my students on campus yesterday. Well, saw them drive through campus, peeking at me from over masks as we passed out textbooks, ACMA t-shirts, and hundreds of pounds of clay. As an art school the drawing and painting materials, sculpture tools, instruments and sheet music occupied as much of the day as calculus, biology, or French textbooks, and sometimes inspired a slightly different reaction from the students as we reached over the (overly cute) dogs and gave them the stack as they sat in the back seat.

It was so good to see so many students and parents, and even though it was really only seeing their eyes and the top of their noses, it was enough to remind all of us just how important a part of our lives the people are who make up our little art school, our ACMA family.

For hours an intrepid group of classified staff and a handful of teachers, counselors, and I dashed from cars to tables to pick up supplies, did our best to solve problems, and reveled in the opportunity to make brief, but meaningful connections.

I don’t know about everyone else, but I ended the day tired. A good tired.

This distance learning model, as safe and sensible as it is —and right now I know it’s the right choice— still feels so strange. I love talking with students and staff. I miss full hallways and impromptu conversations. Being able to visit classrooms is a highlight for me every day, at least it was when I could slip in through an open door and sit down next to a student studying Spanish, or dissecting a pig, or painting a still life. 

How much I missed that was brought home yesterday as I saw face after face (well, mask after mask) drive by. I could see the smiles in those eyes, and I hope they could see the smile in mine.

And while my legs are sore and I can feel it in my back, I can honestly say that yesterday was more than just me and our school team distributing supplies; it was all of us getting something precious back in return, connection, hope, and a touch of joy.

Five Jobs

I’m a dad as well as a principal, with the perspective of both during this time of pandemic and comprehensive distance learning. When other parents share their concerns about their kids’ social isolation, depression, and loneliness I get it, and I share that parental anxiety about how all this is impacting the young people I love. 

Last spring was hard, a complete shift to online learning without much time to process or prepare. We all did our best to learn how to support our students, but without grades, or attendance, or a fully developed system in place, very often it felt more like crisis management than online learning.

Summer was tough too. So many of the usual activities we enjoy were off limits, smiles were hidden behind masks, and so much of the joy of summer, like spending time with friends, was limited by the reality in which we live. The kids felt it at least as much as the adults, maybe more, and while I saw more than a few packs of middle schoolers on bikes in July and August, the truth is that the most socializing I saw this summer happened in the world of Minecraft. 

And now fall. This week we’re diving into classes, albeit 100% remotely, and once again parents and kids are gathered around kitchen tables, on couches, and corners of bedrooms where they are least likely to be interrupted by whatever else is happening at home, attempting to “do school” in some way or another. That’s stressful.

But as separate as we all are, parents and educators share the goal of helping our students succeed. There are lots of ways we do that, and one idea I shared from a teacher a couple of weeks ago that seemed to resonate with a few parents, was to take the pressure of teaching off the parents and encourage them to see themselves in a role of facilitation and support.

That teacher used the language of parent as assistant principal, certainly an eye-catching image, and boiled the task down to “five jobs.”

  • Establish an appropriate balance between work and free time
  • Minimize distractions during work time and persist through challenges
  • Make the most of free time 
  • Verify completion of assignments
  • Formulate questions for kids to ask their teacher

These are worth unpacking, and to start that conversation I offer a few modest thoughts.

Many of us have seen our work/home balance blur during these months at home. Too often since last March I’ve looked up from my work computer, often sitting at a TV tray out of the way of my family, and been surprised that it’s already dark outside. Unlike before, there is less delineation between being at home and being at work, and I know (from experience with my own kids) that isn’t different for our students. While comprehensive distance learning will have asynchronous elements, helping our kids step away from the computer will be vital to their mental health and success. Whether it’s making sure they unplug from 11-12 every day, the time our district has set aside for a lunch and stretch break, or monitoring to be sure that they don’t get sucked down the rabbit hole of never being done with schoolwork, it is a challenge worth meeting to help our kids see that some time has to be down time.

Complicating that balance will be the fact that for most of us, teachers and students and families, this is our first foray into full online learning, grades and attendance included. We didn’t sign up for this; if we had, we’d know it was for us and we’d already have an understanding of how to navigate these waters. 

Teachers will be learning as we go, answering questions like: how much work is appropriate? How do students best get answers to questions? How can I support the kids, assess the kids learning, and reach them when I only see them through a computer screen? Students, who so often are so earnest in their desire to do well, will be learning too. It’s already tough to know how much time an assignment should take to complete, but now… Open communication, clear expectations, patience, and grace will all need to be on display now more than ever.

For parents “establishing an appropriate balance between work and free time” could involve some argument, anxiety, and tears. Any parent who has tried to get her son to unplug from Fortnite knows what that’s like. But knowing our kids and helping them understand when a walk is more important than another half hour typing an essay about poetry is going to make a big difference this school year.

A schedule might help this. It’s always easier to point to something agreed on and in writing when stress is filling the air. When I was an assistant principal one of the best things my school did was install signs around campus stating obvious things like “No Dogs” or “No Smoking on School Property.” It was always easier to confront a community member who was breaking one of these rules if we could literally point at a sign. This could also help reinforce that “free time” is as valuable in the greater scheme of things as “work.”

Even when we get that balance right, when we’re on, we’re on, and the students who succeed most have the ability to focus on the matter at hand, particularly when they’re Zooming with it. Learning from home brings different challenges than learning in a classroom. Whether it’s trying to type with a dog on your lap or interruptions to online meetings from siblings, cats, or Amazon deliveries, finding a way to overcome the distractions is a job that parents can certainly help their kids with.

There is lots of good advice about how to create a learning space for kids, but the truth of it is that not everyone has a table, desk, or quiet space for kids. It’s not fair, but it is. As a school we’re trying to help; we offered a greenscreen (well a big green sheet of paper) to each of our kids, so they could have a bit more privacy when they did video conferencing, and as parents we can support our kids if we help them in whatever way we’re able to have the privacy they need for school.

That privacy, however, is complemented by an extra pair of eyes checking to see that things get done. My experience has been that this is best accomplished when a parent or guardian sits down with a student and asks her to show them what they did for school. There is a big difference between a parent checking a student’s grades or that they did the assignment that the teacher gave them and a student showing that same adult what she did and learned. The second can empower a student; the first can sow seeds of distrust.

So I would offer that a conversation between a parent (or grandparent or aunt or caring adult person) and student can be one of the best ways we can support learning. In that conversation you can learn what’s happening, how the student is feeling, and talk about what kinds of questions it might be smart to ask in class or in an email to the teacher. These follow up questions not only show that a student is invested, but can help build a strong foundation of skills on which to build future learning.

It’s that learning that is the primary job of all of us, students, teachers, and families. We can do this, to the best of our ability, if we do this together. Will it be perfect? No, but it can be positive. And when we return, which we will, the habits of supporting one another may help us even as we readjust to life after the pandemic.

Stay positive, stay strong, stay connected. We’re partners in this.

Frus-xcited

It’s the best word I’ve heard invented to describe what a lot of us are feeling. Frus-xcited. So mixed, some of these emotions. There’s the usual anticipation of the beginning of the school year, the joy of seeing teachers I haven’t seen since last spring, reconnecting with students who have grown like nobody’s business over the summer, and settling in to the wild rumpus that is the start of school. This year that “seeing and reconnecting” is being done through a computer screen, or in rare face(mask) to face(mask) events like the drive through materials pick up or outdoor school photo day. Those connections are certainly better than nothing, but still. We’re all yearning to be together, but know that we can’t be, not in the same way anyway, and that leaves some of us feeling a little off balance, disconnected, anxious.

I think both sets of feelings are valid, and the reality is that they both coexist in many of us right now. Frus-xcited. Yep. That’s the new normal.

And… 

What we do with those emotions is our choice. If we reach out to others, allow ourselves to look forward to some of the possibilities that lie ahead, and take the time to think about how we can help those around us feel better, then maybe, just maybe, the emphasis can be on the second syllable of our newly imagined word.

Because the start of the school year, no matter how it starts, is a chance for a new beginning. It brings with it opportunities to meet new people, learn new things, and change in ways we couldn’t have imagined a year before.

The start of a school year is a chance to shout: “Happy New Year!” and be met with smiles from the educators and students who know the truth: this is a new year. This is the start of a winding path that we get to travel together, maybe through some sinister woods, perhaps meeting a dragon or two along the way, but ultimately ending in something that we’ll look back on in the years ahead as a grand adventure.

JRR Tolkien’s words from The Lord of the Rings, an epic from an earlier time, resonate with me today: “The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”

So to anyone feeling frus-xcited, welcome to the 2020-2021 school year. Allow yourself to feel, give yourself permission to speak honestly, and know you are not alone. We can do this, whatever this is, if we do this together.

“When you mess with the bull…”

Parents and educators, we’re partners in this. As we navigate this odd, unusual, and unfamiliar world of Comprehensive Distance Learning (CDL) one of the best ways we can support our kids is to work together. What does that look like? Well, at its heart it means caring for students, communicating frequently and honestly, and staying as connected as we can around academics and social and emotional health. On the ground (or around the kitchen table) this can look different from day to day.

Last week one of my amazing teachers came to me with an idea that felt different than others I’d seen about parents supporting students, and I thought it would be worth sharing with families as another way to think about how we partner this fall. It sounds a little unconventional at first, but when the dust settles on his proposal what’s left makes some sense.

“As we know,” he wrote me, “most teenagers often require extra motivation, cajoling, and encouragement in order to do things they don’t want to do. Teenagers definitely need to be pushed through academically rigorous material. If it was just stuff they were interested in, they wouldn’t grow. If they could do it all on their own, it wouldn’t be hard enough. They are supposed to struggle and the work of education is continually adjusting the amount of struggle. In the classroom, I have an ability to see kids working and I can make adjustments. I can see when kids need to be redirected or helped or complimented. I can dole out rewards and inflict consequences. All for the sake of pushing a kid to try and work and grow.  

“All teachers can do now is present information and grade work. As we saw in the spring, this led to generally poor results for all stakeholders. Generally, the only one in a position to properly push these kids now are parents. This is not ideal or even fair, but it is the situation. If a parent is not in a position to administer their child’s education, due to work or other circumstances, that kid needs to be identified and we need to figure out how to provide them with educational guidance and support.  

“I heard a lot of frustration from parents that distance learning was overwhelming for them as well. We need to be sensitive to this and figure out how to keep their morale up and keep them engaged in this partnership. I believe that clarifying their role and helping them learn how to do it can make this manageable. I wonder if shifting terminology and asking parents to think of themselves as vice-principals rather than teachers would help.”

Wait, what? some of you might be thinking. That’s not the job I signed up for! His suggestion caught my attention too. But listen, this isn’t a scheme that asks you to put on a suit or dish out lines like “If you mess with the bull, you get the horns.” It’s more thoughtful than that. (Though of course you are still welcome to tell your own son or daughter that if they mess with the bull…)

Bull and horns

He continued: “Most parents don’t know how to teach math and literature and chemistry, but they do know how to enforce rules, redirect behavior, and support someone through a struggle.  You administrators do an awesome job of this stuff when we’re in the building, but I’d imagine your capabilities during CDL have greatly diminished.

“I would like to clarify and support the parental role in CDL by asking them to focus on five main jobs:

  • Establish an appropriate balance between work and free time
  • Minimize distractions during work time and persist through challenges
  • Make the most of free time 
  • Verify completion of assignments
  • Formulate questions for kids to ask their teacher

“We could have trainings and support sessions on each of these jobs ranging from “beginner” to “advanced.” These are things that parents should be able to do and ways they can be an integral partner. And again, if they aren’t in a position to do the above, we should identify those students and figure out how we can support those households. This role is critically important.”

So, parent as administrator, not instructor. Does that mean you don’t answer your kid’s question about the periodic table? No, but it shifts the focus of parent support to areas not limited to academics.

All five of the “jobs” this teacher suggested are vital to student success, and I’d like to unpack them over the next few weeks. Until then I invite you to think about ways parents and educators can work together to help make this school year as positive and productive as it can be. None of us can do this alone, but we’re not alone; we have each other, and the kids need that.

Buggles

I hear that video killed the radio star, and (if the kids today are to be believed) that if any principals like me want to capture the attention of our school communities we need to do more than churn out long winded blog posts like mine and get about the business of making movies. Well, short videos anyway, that just might be more appealing than a short reading assignment.

I’m taking that call for video to heart, particularly in this time of physical separation prompted by the ongoing pandemic. Even if I can’t see my students and families face to face every morning at least I can put my face out there to help keep the connection between home and school.

To do this I’m aiming for short hellos every Monday as a part of our ACMA Monday Message, a one page update with what to look forward to that week. In addition I’m filming some silly little shorts with specific topics (Zoom, support, stress reduction), and plan on a couple of “Fireside Chats” every month while we’re away from campus.

Screen Shot 2020-08-09 at 9.22.29 PMI know that seeing someone’s face, hearing their voice, and watching them as they communicate can help make the message clear. Sure there’s a bit of theatricality to it all, but at the end of the day I work at an art school and a little theatre is just fine.

It also means that I may be building a catalogue of buffoonery that I’ll look back on in a few years and shake my head about. That’s okay. Sometimes it’s okay to play the fool, particularly when it’s done with an open heart and desire to do the right thing.

Will anyone watch? We’ll see. If they do I can promise information, a window into ACMA, and a face that was made for radio.

Dog Days

I wonder what the dog will think when, eventually, I go back to work full time …outside my house, I mean. 

It’s August and I’m going to campus now several days a week, but I’m home more than I usually would be at this time of summer, plugging away on my laptop at the kitchen table, in the family room, or back in the bedroom when I have a meeting that the family doesn’t need to hear. As a principal those meetings are more and more frequent these days; the pace seems to be picking up (as it usually does in August) though preparations for the upcoming school year are now accomplished (mostly) through a computer screen. 

Right now, as I type, the dog is sleeping underneath the chair by my desk. She seems happy enough, though I know she’ll nose my ankle in a minute or two to prompt me into a walk. That will be good for both of us. We’re getting to know each other’s routines now, and while I’m still frustrated by not being able to go back to school, my canine friend seems just fine with the lay of the land. 

The lay of the land at school, however, is something more complicated.

Ankle nudge.

IMG_6535 2

…and now we’re back from a walk. So many interesting trees.

That hope of getting back to school is very real, but not something that is likely to happen before the rains of winter begin. Which means we’ve got to invest the time and commitment to making our remote experience as good as it can be. Not perfect, but as good as it can be.

To help with that I’m working with my staff to develop the best instruction we can. They come back in earnest in less than two weeks (though a great many of them have been preparing ever since June for this fall’s opening) and when they log in for our first preservice meeting one of the most important topics will be the alchemy involved in making teaching and learning meaningful, positive, and productive in this age of COVID-19. I know practices will evolve as we all find our rhythm, but as we start the school year we will do so with as much preparation, collaboration, and dedication as we can.

Beyond the classroom we’re already ramping up communication. In addition to our monthly Hello from ACMA… we’ll add Monday Messages with video, upcoming dates, and information families need for the week ahead. Our first is slated for next week and I’m hopeful students and parents will find them both useful and a point of connection with our school.

I’ll keep up coffees with the principal, even after our last installment was Zoom bombed we don’t want to let go of this important two way communication. I love hearing parent questions in real time and doing my best to give answers that can help.

We’ll also start scheduling student events like Open Mic Night. Our theater department is planning online shows, our dance department is developing ideas for remote recitals, and the creative artists who fill our school are thinking about the ways we can keep students engaged in this time away from campus by capitalizing on the passion for creativity that brought them to ACMA.

Will there be successes? Yes. Will there be missteps? I’m certain there will. Is all this effort worth it? It has to be. The kids, the staff, the entire enterprise of education is so important.

In An Oregon Message poet William Stafford wrote about his craft, saying: “I must be willingly fallible in order to deserve a place in the realm where miracles happen.” This fall is a little like that.

And if miracles don’t happen every day, well, then I’m very, very lucky to have a dog to come home to.