Feathers/Wings

IMG_8703We started them on the first day of school, the day when all students new to ACMA came to campus a day before returning students. After a welcome in the auditorium students fanned out across campus in groups, visiting the library, participating in some theatre games, and making art. That art was simple in design, but big in idea. Feathers.

Each student got to choose a bright cardstock strip to draw or write on any way they thought represented them. Faces, quotations, animals, the choices were as different as each individual student. Next, they cut these into the shapes of a feathers, and by the end of the day hundreds were piled on the art studio table.

IMG_8704Over the next couple of weeks we added to the pile of feathers. Staff took turns making their own during our preservice week, parents got to make feathers at my first principal’s coffee, and our intrepid assistant principal set up a table for returning students to make their own at lunch. The feathers filled a wicker basket to overflowing, and then…

On the wall outside my office at the front of the school those feathers became wings. On a rich blue background two swooping collections of feathers reached toward the butchers paper clouds. On those clouds, drifting about the rainbow wings, were written: “Attitude determines altitude” and “Commit to soar, ACMA.”

IMG_8701We figured it would be a nice photo opportunity for any souls willing to stand in front and make the wings their own. It was also a metaphor that captures at least a bit of who we are as a school.

Individually we are creative, divergent, and wildly individualistic. Some of us draw, some of us write, some of us express ourselves in music and movement. Those feathers showed all the colors of our rainbow, gave each person their own personal space to create, and the freedom to be themselves. And…

Together those individual feathers coalesced and created something magical and greater than any one individual. Alone we are feathers; together we are wings.

So too at our little art school. The painter, the poet, the percussionist; the dancer, the director, the dreamer; each left to our own devices can create something marvelous and individual, but how much more when the sculptor and the screenwriter, the filmmaker and the photographer, the actor and the artist support each other?

Art unifies us. Art lifts us up. Art, and each other, helps us soar.

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Mascotte

“The word ‘mascot’ comes from the French term ‘mascotte’ meaning lucky charm. The word was first recorded in 1867 and popularized by the opera ‘La Mascotte’, performed in December 1880. It then entered the English language in 1881.” -from The History of Mascots, International University Sports Federation

At ACMA we do not have a mascot. Established in 1992, Arts & Communication Magnet Academy has made it more than a quarter century without a “lucky charm” that we can put on coffee mugs, sweatshirts, and baseball caps. Still, from time to time the question rears its plush costumed head: should we?

A few paragraphs from now I’ll end this post with the line: ACMA transcends any single image, any simple definition, and any (even the most creative) mascot. But before that, just for a smile, I offer the top ten ideas I’ve heard over the past year…

Screen Shot 2018-09-28 at 12.47.30 PMACMA Tigers
A call back to history, when C.E. Mason Elementary opened in 1949 with the very midcentury mascot, the Tigers! (It just feels like a mascot like that needs an exclamation point after it.) Tigers would be a great mascot for ACMA with so many possibilities for artists to have fun with the traditional image and a nod to the plush ears and tails so many of our students wear right now. Tiger striped sweatshirts? Sure, our students could make that work. But…

We’re not really all that traditional, even with a pinch of irony, and if we were looking for an animal to represent that playful and unexpected nature that help to define us, we’d probably go with someone we know and love: Rojo!

RojoACMA Llamas
One of last year’s highlights was the visit from ACMA spirit animal Rojo the llama. Rojo came to campus, kissed some students, enjoyed the love we shared (and reflected it back in warm waves).

As she waited her turn to pet Rojo in the courtyard last year a student asked me why the llama was on campus. “It’s ACMA,” I told her. “Magical things happen here.” She smiled and nodded. That sounded right. So what better animal to go on the ACMA swag than a llama? Well…

If frequency was taken into consideration, the animal most associated with our artsy campus would have to be a unicorn.

ACMA Unicorns
From backpacks to plush horns, the unicorn is the animal embodiment of Arts & Communication Magnet Academy. Magic, fanciful, beautiful, and bringing joy, unicorns are to ACMA what ponies are to Mongolia. During a “shadow day” last fall, when fifth graders considering applying to ACMA visit campus for a day, one of our current students who was acting as a guide arrived to school in a unicorn onesie. “I just wanted the kids to know what we’re all about,” she explained. “Here you can be yourself.”

…or a unicorn. But…

Screen Shot 2018-09-28 at 11.34.21 AMNot every student wants to be a unicorn. Knowing you can wear a cape, or a beret, or a pair of cat ears is different than choosing to wear a cape, or a beret, or a pair of cat ears. That spirit of possibility and creativity unites us, but looks different in each of our students. It’s why maybe an animal, real or imagined, isn’t the perfect mascot. Maybe we should think about something more universal to who we are, like…

ACMA Artists
We print it on the pencils we give out at the start of the year: ACMA Artists. It’s simply who we are. Writers, dancers, sculptors, filmmakers, actors, painters, animators, singers, photographers, stage techs, musicians… we are ACMA.

So maybe that’s just a description, not a mascot. A mascot ought to be something with some symbolism, some playfulness, some history. What if we looked back at the opening of the school and tried something clever? What if we considered…

ACMA Masonites
The what? Well… when Arts & Communication High School opened in 1992 they did so in a building with the name C.E. Mason still emblazoned above the front door. Early attempts at naming the school included the original name, and looking back on photos from ACMA’s past you can see that during the first Clinton administration they were still calling themselves “Masonites.” How marvelous then to keep this throwback handle even as ACMA moves forward? A conversation piece! A curiosity! A silly idea? Perhaps.

No, our students identify less with C.E. Mason than they do more artistic spirits. Maybe, to take the senior painting from a year ago as inspiration, we could be…

bowieACMA David Bowies
Yes, some will argue, there is only one David Bowie, but is there really? Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom, that fellow in the suit singing about getting to the church on time? Bowie was not only a wild creative force, but his shapeshifting nature goes a long way to capture who we are as a collective artistic community at ACMA. Visual, musical, always in motion, Bowie embodies art in a way few did. Filmmakers and actors? Don’t forget Labyrinth! Plus, he’s the coolest cat around.

But, you’ll say, he’s a fellow and you’re 75% female at ACMA. Okay, then closer to home…

ACMA Mona Lisas
She is everywhere on campus. Painted on walls: a canine Mona Lisa, an abstract Mona Lisa, and a Mona Lisa in flannel.

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She finds her way into every hallway, her enigmatic smile as ACMA as ACMA can be. More than almost any image, Mona Lisa, or the unexpected riffs on DaVinci’s painting, capture the intersection of student creativity and classical art. Put Mona Lisa on a t-shirt and folks won’t be surprised that you’re talking about ACMA. And…

ACMA …the ACMA
Last year we asked students what they thought. We invited them to come up with an answer to the question: “What is the ACMA?” They drew and wrote out ideas, and the results were as varied as our students. One student suggested a penguin, another a ghost. Another noticed that “ACMA” as it’s so often pronounced sounds very much like “Akuma,” the word for a Japanese fire demon. All of those answers are as right as tigers, or Masonites, or David Bowies.

IMG_6246I love that at ACMA we aren’t easy to pin down. I dig that to define us defies expectations and avoids easy labeling. That we don’t have a mascot feels as right. We are possibility. We inhabit a world of change, transfiguration, and magic. Heck, we create it.

So as fun as it would be to have an ACMA sweatshirt with a picture of Mona Lisa or the Spiders from Mars on it, I like that the next week I could wear a unicorn, and the week after that an ACMA Llama. It’s the uninhibited possibility that really captures who we are.

Truth be told, ACMA transcends any single image, any simple definition, and any (even the most creative) mascot.

Rock, Paper, Scissors

RPSIn the interest of fun…

More descriptions of what educators do should begin with those five words. Teachers, counselors, classified staff, administrators… we work hard, care deeply, and sometimes wear our emotions on our sleeves. As busy as we are, it’s easy to forget to take time to laugh, a topic I’ve written about a bit lately, and something that the staff at my school has embraced changing.

Lately we’ve seen lightsaber fights and a crazy good game about culture lifted from the Peace Corps. We’ve eaten chocolate and sipped coffee, batted paper around like kids, and enjoyed a salsa cook off. Sometimes the activities that the staff came up with involved preparation or a trip to the store; today there was magic in the air as we boiled our collective activity to one word: fun.

Well, actually, our social studies department chose three words: Rock. Paper. Scissors.

Dimming the lights at the start of a staff meeting, they played the theme song to Rocky and brought up a video introducing the grand art of roshambo.

Anticipation rose.

Would we be pausing our discussion of Senior Capstones to pair up and play Rock-Paper-Scissors? Could the day have taken a cooler turn?

The lights came back on and our grinning history teachers brought out a work of art.

As they explained that over the next two weeks we’d have an opportunity to compete in the greatest Rock-Paper-Scissors competition every, two intrepid teachers rolled out a bracket that would put March Madness to shame.

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Every staff members’ name was on the huge rectangle of butcher paper, and as we leaned forward and squinted to see who we’d be matched up against, our organizers explained that every two days we’d report our winners and watch as staff moved through a sweet sixteen, elite eight, and final four on their way to a final showdown at our next staff meeting.

It was awesome.

Inevitable side conversations arose: Was it Rock-Paper-Scissors or Rock-Paper-Scissors-Shoot. (It’s Rock-Paper-Scissors.) How many rounds was each match? (Three. Duh.)

Two math teachers spotted that they were matched up, and we had our first victor on the bracket. A science teacher asked if when we got to the sweet sixteen we could pause and fill out our own brackets with predictions.

IMG_7043And as we laughed, a history teacher explained that behind this grand scheme was a hope that we would all get out of our rooms and talk with each other. At least for three rounds every couple of days we would leave our silos and find our friends, or those who may be our friends.

Without spending a dime this group of teachers spun gold.

We went on to our planned discussions at the meeting, and we’ll all come back tomorrow ready to do the hard and meaningful work of education, but even as we do, for the next two weeks we’ll all have one eye on the bracket, and be thinking about what a great group of teachers started today …in the interest of fun.

Jedi Academy

IMG_6774What if we hit each other with pool noodles?

It seemed like a sensible question.

A few weeks back a couple of my teachers got to talking about morale. It ebbs and flows at every school, even the best of them, as the demands of the day pile up and the pressures of making a difference in a job that matters so much grow and grow until very good people find themselves sleeping too little, eating too much, and not taking time for themselves.

The educators I know sometimes need to be reminded to give to themselves as much as they give to their students. They need to be encouraged to breathe and relax, go for a walk, laugh at something silly. Play.

So these intrepid teachers fell into conversation about what we could do at work to make our professional lives …happier.

They weren’t talking about a swelling soundtrack and larger than life event, just adding more of a sense of fun to what we do.

And then, like angels, or middle school teachers (and I believe the terms are very often interchangeable), they did something about it.

It started with crumpled paper, a couple of books, and a trash can. Making a game of it, they got together to bat a ball of paper back and forth, racing another team of hastily gathered teachers, to see who could get the paper in the can first. No double hitting! No catching the ball! Rules piled up to add a little challenge to the game.

And they laughed.

Hard.

IMG_6069Later that afternoon they came into  my office with a suggestion I couldn’t refuse.

After school a week later the empty halls echoed with the laughter of teachers playing. Our staff meeting paused long enough for us to break into teams, choose our own books, and get to slapping a ball of paper back and forth as we rushed toward garbage cans and victory.

Being the amazing organizers they are, those angels/middle school teachers ended the meeting with a chart inviting departments to sign up on to do “something fun.”

IMG_6733Since then we’ve had a salsa contest during a staff meeting and a chocolate tasting extravaganza that ran all day. One morning our counselors turned their office into a coffeehouse.

…and then…

The day arrived when our staff gathered in the theater, the lights dimmed, and the words appeared on the screen: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away…” Cue music (we did). Roll yellow words (we did). Welcome the staff to a day of lightsaber duels (heck, yeah).

We called teachers to the stage by random numbers, three at a time, each handed a pool noodle decorated to look like a lightsaber. They positioned themselves within small squares of blue tape situated onstage in front of the screen displaying scenes from Star Wars movies, sized up the opposition, and on the count of three-two-one started whapping each other.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 4.52.45 PMThe goal was to stay in the blue squares. Some did.

And on the way they laughed. The audience cheered, chomping on red vines as if they were watching a summer blockbuster, seeing their colleagues, now intrepid Jedi, wailing away.

After the first round we brought in double sided lightsabers and let them have at it again.

At the end of the afternoon, just fifteen minutes out of a busy day, applause.

The staff took time to appreciate our receptionist and my secretary, who had put so much effort into the event, and whose Princess Leia hair buns were one of the stars of the show.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 4.32.49 PMThey left smiling.

Those last three words matter so much. In a profession that can be taxing (important, life changing, rewarding, but difficult) to create opportunities for the adults who work with students to play, to laugh, to connect is vital to the health of a school.

To care for our schools we must care for our teachers.

This means many things: Teacher Appreciation Week, thank you notes, lunches provided by the parent organization, and more. It also means opportunities to be silly.

Morale will ebb and flow, that’s the world we live in, and it’s also the challenge we’re given to face those emotional highs and lows by supporting one another, taking the time to be kind, and doing our best to see the best in ourselves and each other.

…and sometimes it’s fun just to whap fellow Jedi with pool noodles.

M-I-C… see the best in others

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

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

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

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

It is.

And it matters so much.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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“Today you’re a lot stronger…”

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

I know; I’m the new principal.

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

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

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

Inside I found a message of comfort and hope:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who

We all change, when you think about it. We’re all different people all through our lives. And that’s OK, that’s good, you gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.”       -The Doctor

A lifetime ago when I was a young teacher fresh out of college I taught a lesson on Essence and Experience that used Jean-Paul Sartre, Gottfried Leibniz, and the Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror” to challenge students to think about what really made them them. I loved the lesson and the conversations it sparked: Would I be “Bjorn” if my name were “Pete?” Is being a teacher, or a husband, or a male, or an Oregonian essential to who I am or an attribute that is really transitory or unimportant? At twenty-three I was a brash young teacher using my degree in philosophy to push my students to think and it felt great.

FullSizeRender (4)Some of them dug it. I think.

I hadn’t thought about that lesson for years, just one of the many experiences that time slowly buries under the immediacy of life, until the afternoon after I’d had a great discussion with my assistant principal about the importance of knowing who we are as a school and, later that day, the happenstance of seeing my daughter watching an episode of Dr. Who.

“Regeneration,” she explained to me when we fell into talking about why the 11th Doctor looked so different than the 12th. “They always change …but they’re still The Doctor.”

Essence. Experience.

For those who aren’t familiar with the show, a long running BBC extravaganza that has evolved in the years since my youth from a campy romp through time and space into a plucky, witty, and well crafted experiment of wonder, the premise is simple: A “time lord,” The Doctor, travels through time in a blue police box, often accompanied by a human companion, always game for adventure and usually finding it. His looks, gender, attire, and catchphrases are different with each incarnation (which occur every few seasons when the actor playing The Doctor switches).

That The Doctor is The Doctor is never in question, though David Tennant, Peter Capaldi, and (my daughter’s favorite) Matt Smith are as different as can be.

FullSizeRenderThe Doctor is different in attributes, that is, in experiences, but not different in essence.

And I thought back to that conversation my AP and I had shared earlier in the afternoon. What is the essence of our school?

I’ve been in education long enough to know it isn’t simply the building or the school colors, the principal or any particular program.

When I was in third grade I moved to a brand new elementary school and the administration had the great idea to let the kids choose the mascot and school colors. We chose silver and black for colors and Eagles as our mascot. Our school t-shirts made us look like a miniature biker gang. Within a couple of years the principal made the sensible decision to change the color to blue and made our mascot the dolphins. We were still the same school.

As a teacher I worked in several schools, rural and urban, large and small, affluent and not so much. Each had its own history, its own traditions, and its own attitude. There was a distinctly different feeling walking on the campus of each, an “it” factor that only that school had.

I thought about these experiences when I was talking with my AP, and I’d been prone to say that the essence of our school was not just what we did, or who were are, but why we did what we did as a school, our DNA, our expectations, our fundamental beliefs.

We talked about mission and vision statements, which sometimes capture a sense of a school’s essence, or at least make an attempt to put that essence into the nomenclature of the current day. Yet those statements, so lovingly posted in hallways or appended to a school’s letterhead, so often seem incomplete.

To really understand those fundamental truths that define who we are is a tougher job, and a more important job, than simply listing what we do and how we do it.

Who are we? This is the greater question, and the challenge of discovering a school’s essence may find a part of its answer in the process of inquiry itself, in adding to that question: “Who have we been?” and “Who will we be?”

IMG_3876As we peel away the attributes and experiences that make up a bit of who we are, not unlike The Doctor’s TARDIS, screwdriver, scarf, occasional fez, or sneakers, we are challenged to determine what are fundamental to who we are and what are mere circumstances of our existence.

Put simply, the more we can do to define our best collective self, the essence of the school that will exist even after we’ve individually gone, the more we can push ourselves to be meaningful contributors to that greater self.

And in the end, if there ever is such a thing, the pursuit of understanding who we are as a school, why we do what we do, and what is essential to our existence has the potential to help us embrace both our individual roles in this grand and collective adventure and the importance of each other as we work together to be part of something greater than ourselves.

Schools, like people, are always changing. Sometimes there’s value in pausing and asking:

Who have we been? Who are we now? And who will we be?

…Who?