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.

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Hope

photo-1-4On the day Carrie Fisher died I took my son to see the newest Star Wars movie. We were seven days into a road trip, tired from a week of hotel hopping, and worn out after a day that ended with an hour of LA traffic. He’d been sick, a flu that arrived on the 24th of December and had my wife and I spending part of Christmas deep in a discussion about the best way to remove vomit from a hotel carpet.

As we lugged our bags into the final room of the trip, my son, recently recovered, looked at his coughing mom and sister whose own eyes had the glassy redness of a youthful fever, and asked if we could go see Rogue One. It seemed like a really good idea.

So in an unfamiliar town, we left two sleeping loved ones and headed for the movies, our hopes set on some sort of relief from a rough patch of travel and sickness.

2016 has had a touch of that same feeling to it. Carrie Fisher’s death reminded me of the long line of artists and inspirations we’ve lost over the past calendar year: Leonard Cohen, Prince, Sharon Jones, and David Bowie. My favorite living novelist, Umberto Eco, living no longer, passed away the day after Harper Lee. Election season was rough on many of us, and even for a confessed optimist, I’ll admit that there have been days I’ve felt the spiritual equivalent of a long drive on the 210.

As an educator, however, I know how important it is to nurture that little bird that Emily Dickinson claimed “perches in the soul.” In our work with students, and teacher too, that we maintain a spirit of hope that Dickinson explains “sings the tune without the words/ and never stops at all.”

My students often remind me that even when things feel bleak in the alleged adult world, from the eyes of someone with so much life ahead of them the promise of the future more than outweighs any transitory struggles of the immediate present.

I wonder, did my generation give the same perspective to my parents the year they lost John Wayne, or Lucille Ball, or Wallace Stegner?

Whatever the case, it was my eight year old who coaxed me out of a comfortable hotel room, the tragic news of Princess Leia still new. His smile as we sat in the theater and saw those familiar words: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” brought to mind the importance of seeing a perspective beyond our own.

I enjoyed Rogue One, an action movie in the Star Wars universe, through my son’s eyes, eyes that invited me to see a world of possibility. He in turn saw a diverse group of characters working together to make a difference, and doing so not because of their individual strength, but because they cared deeply, worked together, and never gave up.

How fitting that the final scene of the movie provided a familiar face, a young Princess Leia, smiling at the camera and talking about “hope.”

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Yoda Silences His Phone

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A gentle rain pushed through San Diego today, graying the skies enough to justify a pot of tea, a sweatshirt, and curling up on the couch to watch Star Wars with my eight year old son.

As educators, and maybe as humans, it’s easy to push and push and push and lose track of the importance of slowing to almost stopping and renewing ourselves. A good wet day helps.

So as Chewbacca howled and Han Solo shot stormtroopers, my son and I took time to be together and relax as more people took to computers and tablets, picked up their phones, and made Sunday a work day.

photo-2Back in 1977, when the first Star Wars movie came out, technology wouldn’t support seven day work weeks. My dad, who worked hard, left his work phone on his desk; any connection with his office was severed by the time he pulled into our driveway.

Email had arrived by the time of the prequels, though fewer phones than today allowed folks to search “Darth Maul.”

By the time the force awakened, technology was so enmeshed in our lives that the line between home and work, free time and time on the clock, had a blurrier edge than Kylo Ren’s lightsaber. Left unchecked, it could cut as deep.

photo-3This isn’t to decry technology; good things aren’t limited to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. What these changes mean for me is that I need to set up boundaries on how much I stay connected to work in the evenings and on weekends. Being a high school principal means the opportunity to work is always there. Emails slow, but don’t stop, on Saturdays and Sundays, social media always beckons, and a text messages about school is perpetually ready to ping.

What would Yoda do?

He told Luke, that confused youngster of the first trilogy, “You will know when you are calm, at peace.”

That’s not plugged in. That’s not forgetting where we are or what we are doing.

I’m no Jedi, but slowing down and allowing myself to leave work at work, at least for a little while, is a lesson I’m ready to learn on a rainy day like today.

When Surrounded by Stormtroopers

I looked up from a cup of tea in the easy chair by my fireplace to realize that I was surrounded by stormtroopers. Scores of the little plastic menaces looked up at me from the hearth, an end table, and where they lay scattered across the rug like a scene from the battle of Agincourt.

photo 5Busy, distracted, or focused on other things, I hadn’t noticed the steady infiltration of white helmeted soldiers. Yet here they were.

It’s like that sometimes with change, the lobster boiled as the water in the pot goes from cold to hot. We don’t always notice how different things are until we blink hard in surprise at what we see around us.

In education I’ve seen this myself with regard to technology, professional growth, and even the culture of pressure that looks to overwhelm our campuses. I haven’t always been the first to notice changes, though I do work to wake up to the changed world around me.

That technology changes comes as no surprise; at one point technological advancement was a lice infested Viking pointing and grunting: “Hey, Thor made a spoon!” What can sneak up on us, however, are the new uses of technology, which sometimes come on ninja feet to scare us with their suddenness. Waking up to the potential of technology, or seeing others use technology in new ways, challenges us to make changes ourselves. We may be late to the party, I was with regard to Twitter, for instance, but we can move beyond our familiarity and expectations and see the advancements as a way to transform what we do.

The SAMR model articulates this well, urging that we not simply do the same things without paper, but do different things. This can be more difficult to put into practice than understand. I’m a principal now, but on the occasions that I have to develop lessons and teach classes, I find that it’s easier to use technology to support my preconceived ideas than it is to act on the potential of technology to unshackle me to try something entirely new. “Mind forged manacles,” Blake would call them. Stormtroopers.

photo 4 (2)As transformative as technology is, it accounts for just some of the difference in the professional lives of educators. Many have written more eloquently than I about the changes in culture that have brought teachers out of their isolated classrooms and into greater collaboration. For some this is PLCs, for others the emergence of Twitter and other online professional communities. I was never a teacher in the interconnected world of social media, but as a principal (who came to Twitter just a few years ago, late to the party, really) I’m continually amazed at the inspiration and information available around the clock.

Not only has blogging and using Twitter allowed me to access other points of view, it has also led to meaningful connections with educators around the country and around the world that make my practice richer.

If I were isolated now, it would be by choice, and not a very good choice. It’s being aware the world of education looks different than it did five or ten years ago, and that if I changed to embrace it I would have opportunities I couldn’t have had before, that has made a huge difference in who I am as an educator. No teacher or administrator has to think she is alone. We can find support, kindred spirits, and ongoing inspiration at the click of a mouse.

But not every change leads to greater connections and reassurance. About three years ago I looked up and realized just how much the pressure my students face has increased with regard to college admissions and academic success. Discussions about “too many AP classes” and the “Honors or no honors” debate aren’t new, but I realized that while I’d been busy with building a career and dealing with the day to day business of running a high school the world my students lived in had transformed into something very unlike the high school I knew as a kid.

Parents and students feel the pressure to succeed, and respond with good intentions and sometimes disastrous results. Defining where the pressure comes from is a tricky job, and one that may not have a certain answer, but what I did realize was that as a site administrator I needed to pay attention, take inventory of the true lay of the land, and get about the work of trying to help.

That I wasn’t on the forefront of technology, social media, or recognizing trends in adolescence wasn’t a damning failure, but could have been had I not recognized that I needed to adjust to new reality.

It’s okay to come out of our caves and look around. No one worth listening to will judge us for blinking in the light of the new day and trying to catch up with a world different than the one we grew up in.

If it is a little scary –the kids all have phones and they expect to use them in class, and on top of that my principal seems okay with it– there is no reason to panic.

photo 1 (9)The stormtroopers never win, at least not until they take off their helmets, hijack a TIE fighter, and try something unexpected, dangerous, and different.

Change.

It’s a reality full of potential, full of opportunity, and no more alarming than we let it be.

When you realize that you’re surrounded by stormtroopers, try something different.

Chewbacca in a Rocking Chair

photo 1I find it funny.

My ten year old daughter does not.

Even though her doll house sees less action than it did when she was younger, she still always notices when an uninvited houseguest takes up residence in the lovely pink plastic living room. I understand that nobody likes breaking and entering, but it’s hard to be too angry when the mysterious stranger in the rocking chair is Chewbacca.

These mixings of worlds never end well; find an Ovion in your purple minivan and he’s going to get thrown across the room into the basket of action figures. Yet, there is something to be said for embracing the unexpected.

photo 1 (7)We live in a world with less certainty than we’d like to imagine, good and bad. As educators, we do well to model a way of dealing with surprises by keeping a level head and open mind. Do we want the water main to break on a school day? Did we prepare for a tornado warning as school was about to let out? Probably not. It’s happening. We’re going to be okay.

Not all surprises are bad, nor are all unplanned.

I remember being surprised at a high school wrestling match I was supervising a few years ago when the band and cheerleaders showed up to support the team. Completely out of context, these well meaning masters of pep arrived at the gym in time to see the house lights turned off and a spotlight descend over the mat in the center of the floor.

The band hurried through the school fight song before being quieted by the referee; wrestling meets are no place for trumpets and drums. The cheerleaders found that none of their basketball cheers worked. In context of the action on the mat, a few even sounded naughty. And then something cool happened.

The wrestling team brought out team shirts for all the girls on the cheer squad. They put them on and sat at the edge of the mat, eschewing coordinated cheers, and clapping and shouting encouragement along with the rest of the crowd.

They were in an unexpected situation, but adapted, and I like to believe that the experience was good for both the cheerleaders and the wrestlers.

In the same way, I believe that it’s good when students see their teachers (or, in my case, their principal) out in the real world. It may feel disarming to spot one of us in the aisle at Target, but there’s something humanizing about knowing that the principal buys cat food, goes to the same burrito joint, or takes his kids to the same beach as they go to.

photo 2The unexpected has a place on campus too. Just this winter our homeroom classes have been delighted by a school wide scavenger hunt, our ASB organized an event that saw our entire student body encircle campus holding hands, and our Spanish Club put on a “snow day” (on one of our sunny and 70 degree days). All brought a sense of fun to our students, and in their own ways made our school life richer.

And so I raise my glass to the unexpected. Here’s to finding Chewbacca in our rocking chairs!

Young Jedi

I was eight when Star Wars came out in 1977, captivated by Darth Vader, enamored with my action figures, and astounded (and secretly delighted) that Han shot first.

Somewhere in my parents’ garage I’m certain there is a shoebox of old Topps cards with stills from the movie. Long ago my seven year old son pirated the action figures he found at Grandma and Papa’s and they now play alongside his more contemporary Jedi and Sith.

What’s the same between my response to Star Wars and my son’s is the stirring of imagination and creativity. Just as my eight year old self laid out Star Wars cards in a facsimile storyboard, mapping out new adventures for the heroes, my son builds Lego spaceships not yet seen in a movie.

photo 2Later this week he and I will go to our first Star Wars movie in a theater, and beyond looking forward to watching his eyes widen above his tub of popcorn, I’m excited to see the adventures it inspires when we get home and he whooshes his X-wing through the living room.

It was that rollicking spirit of adventure that pushed me as a teacher. Learning is doing, and I always felt like some of what I did as a teacher was building a set and setting a scene that my students could flesh out with their own imaginations.

I lectured little and questioned much. I sought out the poems and stories I brought to my English classes from the less visited corners of the universe. A favorite of mine was “Autobiography” by John Barth, a marvelous little short story that got students really thinking. Borges and Murakami joined Walker and Morrison for Bistro Day. Students left the classes we shared knowing Kurosawa as well as Keats.

Along the way, I felt confident that I could help them be stronger writers and readers through the work I did with students every day, but to get them to really be creative and critical thinkers I felt I had to do more. I had to reach for that magical feeling I’d felt sparked by the Mos Eisley cantina and the ice planet Hoth.

photo 2 (1)So…

On a stage purchased for my classroom with a grant one of my seniors wrote, we acted out Shakespeare, pausing to ask questions and understand characters. Then, even better than me directing, students broke into groups and staged their own Tennessee Williams one acts. They brought to what they did imagination, interpretation, and the energy that comes when the ideas are their own and they know that there will be an audience.

We went outside to read Wordsworth beneath trees, to the track to run a stade or two during our ALIlliad unit (a mashup of Greek epic and Muhammad Ali worthy of a future post all its own), and we worked (and played) together to form experiences designed to spark that feeling of magic that can happen with great art and good company.

It was that feeling I first got in 1977, and sometimes felt I helped my students feel too …occasionally in space.

Every other February my classes and I celebrated “Space Week.” All fall and early winter I asked my students for ideas. What could they bring to Space Week? What should we do this year?

How young is too young for Space Week? My then one year old daughter visited wearing a Space Fez!

How young is too young for Space Week? My then one year old daughter visited wearing a Space Fez!

As the countdown ticked away -we started a hundred days out- students thought about the possibilities. Light saber battles, alien abductions, and a celebration of Valentina Tereshkova all found their way into one Space Week or another. Once I grew a beard and dressed as Obi Wan Kenobi for a student video. Caroling “Fly Me to the Moon” became a Space Week tradition.

Year after year my students embraced the spirit of adventure. They looked into the unknown and said “I want to try this.”

And we did.

Now, as a principal, I see similar forays into the greater galaxy all around me: great teachers whose students build rockets, design robots, and sculpt public art. Gifted and inspiring teachers celebrate their students’ imaginations and help provide opportunities (from poetry slams to pottery wheels) to take the controls of their own learning. Those teachers are always nearby, sometimes offering the wisdom of Yoda, and sometimes making subtle adjustments with the quiet beeps and whirs of R2-D2 tucked behind the cockpit.

At its best, education is a lot like a seven year old holding a toy spaceship and whooshing through the living room.

I wish for my own kids an education that is filled with teachers who choose to inspire and nurture creativity, a sense of wonder, and an appreciation for adventure. I spent most of my teaching life trying to make my classroom feel like the Millennium Falcon, and I’m given hope as I see the teachers at my school and the inspiring work they do with students every day.

photo 5Kindle our imaginations and we’re all second graders walking out of Star Wars. Give us freedom to play as we learn, to imagine, to dream, and to pilot our own ship. Give students that and…

Whoosh!

C3PO

photo (58)When I was eight years old I saved my allowance to buy all things Star Wars. A few weeks of saving got me the double album movie soundtrack, another week or two the hardcover storybook, and then… action figures! My first, in 1977, was the first character I’d seen on screen: C3PO.

That gold plated robot made a reappearance this summer when my six year old son, Henry, found that he loved Star Wars and that my parents still had a few figures tucked away in a box in  their garage. Now, side by side with their 21st century cousins, Greedo, C3PO, and a couple of yellowing stormtroopers dash through the galaxy of my son’s imagination.

Looking at the old droid, my own youth seems a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. C3PO in one hand and Henry’s new General Grievous in the other, I’m struck by how different technology is today. Where my old toys struggled to mimic what was on screen, Henry’s action figures bring an amazing realism to their much lighter frames.

It’s analogous to something I see at work, with clunky computer labs replaced by more nimble Chromebooks, smartphones, and laptops. Today’s students have come to expect a level of technological perfection unheard of just a couple of decades ago. Their essays now carry a professional sheen my college papers lacked (even though I loved my Mac). Their presentations can be as polished as any businessperson’s and their connectivity would have made the visionary George Lucas of 1977 shake his head in wonder.

I see students at my school use technology with an ease sprung from the expectation that technology is an integral part of their lives. “Can I do this?” is a question less often asked than “How can I do this?” It’s a way of looking at the world that science fiction writers (and filmmakers) brought to the middle of the last century, and one I’m proud to see in the young minds that will shape this century of their own.

As we talk about technology in education we do well to embrace our students’ propensity to take leaps of …not faith so much as …fancy. Students are willing to take daring chances, and as a result they discover new ways of looking at the familiar and unexpected ways to engage the curriculum at hand. They don’t always follow the path we show them; sometimes they find more interesting ways of learning. Uninhibited by the expectations that fettered past generations, whether stereotypes about what kind of student could do what or how limited the circle of their world might be, today’s students interact with the world with their eyes open to possibility.

Nurturing this sense of possibility means giving students opportunities to collaborate, create, and communicate. Teachers (and schools) are vital to students’ growth, and can inspire, guide, and inform even as they allow students to experiment and experience. It helps to be able to suspend disbelief long enough to know that sometimes these strides forward will use technology our generation isn’t a master of.

This isn’t to say that our students will leave everything we know behind. Even my son allows his Star Wars figures to ride in a 35 year old landspeeder. But these ways of an older world aren’t theirs.

I’m interested in how technology will help change education. No app can replace a good teacher, and no machine can be what a human can be (sorry, C3PO), but as a much as iEverything has changed the world around us, so too it seems that to prepare our students for life beyond the classroom we must not limit ourselves, or our kids, to a way of moving through life that is no longer up to date.

And how do we, the pre CGI crowd, help this next generation of learners use technology learn?

I think we’ll do so by understanding that the tools change and the rules change, but in the end what stays the same is the spark that drives all learning: curiosity.

As we acknowledge our students’ gifts and accept their comfort with technologies that would have struck us as science fiction when we were kids, we can help provide them with the broader perspective won with reflection over time. Our advice about creating a digital profile comes with a wisdom absent in the under 17 crowd. The questions we can ask to get students thinking about online sources they use are an important part of the lesson independent of the specific technology. If we remain unafraid, our hand can guide their learning.

Our students live technology; we’ve lived life. And a big part of our collective job is to steer our kids in the right direction even as we allow them to move in hyperdrive.

If we do it right we may even learn and live in this emerging world with them. Who knows, maybe we’ll even be surprised to find that the scope of their imagination is broad enough to include the nostalgia of our past, just not the flip phones and dot matrix printers. Those aren’t the droids they’re looking for.