What are you going to be?

A decade into its life, C.E. Mason Elementary was an established school showing children how to behave in the world around them. Kids studied hard, played hard, and got the kind of advice you can imagine a serious adult might wag a finger at the youngsters and deploy. Hearing stories of the school from the 1950s and early 1960s is a reminder that the anxieties and playfulness kids bring to school with them today are the same their parents and grandparents brought with them when they were youngsters, and the concern and care educators and parents have for kids isn’t all that different now than it was when Eisenhower was president.

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Back then, however, the voice of education echoed over the school intercom.

“I could nearly write the message the principal read over the intercom every morning,” a C.E. Mason alum told me this fall, recounting word for word the stentorian adult voice that filled the school to start the day.

Are you going to be ‘Mr or Miss Daydreamer?’ Are you going to stare out the window all day, thinking about your horse or favorite TV show and ignore your teacher? Or you going to be ‘Mr or Miss Ants-in-your-Pants?’  Are you going to wander around the room and not to your school work?”

“Same speech nearly every day,” he remembered, the words as fresh in his mind today as they were almost sixty years ago.

Richard and his brother came to C.E. Mason Elementary as fifth and fourth graders, transferring when their neighbor put up a fence to keep kids from walking through his driveway. New to the school, he remembered sitting in Mr. Miller’s class and thinking that all the kids knew each other. “I just wanted to fit in,” he told me. “Not stick out.”

The “Playshed” was Richard’s favorite place at C.E. Mason. “It was the big round topped play area,” he recalled, describing the Quonset Hut that still stands just northwest of the main building. “We played four-square, which was quite competitive and serious at C.E. Mason, compared to Raleigh Hills. I had a friend named Larry who was overweight, but quite good. His mom was a cook in the cafeteria at BHS. I didn’t see him again until our 20th High School Reunion. Everyone was raving how great Larry looked.  He’s lost weight and was very virile and good-looking. He is now a physical therapist in Alaska. He told me that he was embarrassed that everyone commented about his appearance. I asked him when he lost all the weight. He said, “Years ago. I lost weight as soon as I got away from my mom’s cooking.”

Lunches were a big deal at C.E. Mason, which had a cafeteria in an age when not every school did. Richard remembered once coming home from school and telling his mother that he had discovered that he really liked beets. “I asked her why we never had them,” he said. “She was silent for awhile and then admitted my dad hated them, and that’s why we had never had them in my childhood.” Thank goodness for the C.E. Mason cafeteria.

But it was more than beets that stuck with Richard most from his days at C.E. Mason. For a student who just wanted to be a part of the crowd and not stick out he had one major strike against him.

On Richard’s first day in Mr. Miller’s class the principal did more than just quiz the kids about what they were going to be. Richard remembered: “The principal announced on the intercom on the first day of school that for the first time in the school’s history, there were grandchildren of C.E. Mason attending the school.” Richard and his brother.

To be the grandson of Dr. C.E. Mason meant more than a little notoriety. It also led to an incident Richard remembered with fifth grade “horror.”

“The school had some kind of contest for being quiet on the bus, or not leaving litter, I forget the specifics.  The winning bus, we were told on the intercom, would have “C.E. Mason ride on the bus with them.” I was horrified. My grandfather was about 83. He had thick glasses, a big gut and he shuffled when he walked. I doubted he could even climb the stairs of the bus. I couldn’t believe they would subject me to that kind of humiliation. I learned a few days later that C.E. Mason was actually a stuffed tiger mascot that the principal kept in her office.  She really had me worried for a few days.”

Richard Mason’s memories paint a vivid picture of C.E. Mason Elementary. Like so many who attended the school in those first dozen years, his are recollections of a time when order and high expectations pushed up against the exuberance of youth. Competitive four-square, beets, and stuffed tigers, 1960 feels a world away, and still just like yesterday.

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School Cultures …with an “s”

My grandmother was Swedish. She came to the United States when she was sixteen and had her name Americanized from Selda to Zelda.

My other grandmother was the first child born in a little town in the heart of the Canadian plains, the daughter of immigrants from England who struck out to a new land before the First World War. My great grandfather returned to fight at Vimy Ridge as a part of the Canadian Corps.

IMG_7015I grew up hearing their stories.

My own red hair, redder as a child than it is today, reminded those on my father’s side of the family of my great grandmother’s fiery locks, which according to family legend she used to attract customers to her father’s London barbershop by sitting on the steps out front as a child.

My mom liked to say that my stubbornness, like her own, came from Grandma Zelda, a righteous Swede who always said that a Norwegian was nothing but a Swede with his brains kicked out. Later in life when she found a branch of Norwegian in her family tree, family stories have it that she said “Well maybe that’s why I’m so stubborn.”

My folks showed me old photos of Abby and Father, that London barber and his wife, who were early members of the Salvation Army. They were positively Victorian, and look back at me from the old photos with expressions I recognize in my own family and myself.

A painting by my grandmother, finished with a little help from my Uncle Rod, a gifted artist, of her childhood home in Sweden hangs in my parents’ guest room. I’ve stayed in that room with my own kids and showed them the scene from my grandmother’s memory.

All of their stories inform my story. Who I am is, in part, a continuation of who they were.

I thought about that after a wonderful conversation two gifted teachers and I shared about the importance of culture last week.

As an educator I know the importance of creating an accepting and welcoming school, and I’ve had the great fortune to be a part of more than one school community where students know that they can be themselves, and know they are valued and cared for who they are.

I love that I get to go to work every day at a school where plush ears, tails, and horns are a regular part of the established dress, where a student in a top hat or a unicorn onesie is a student, not a student seen as acting out. I’m proud to be a part of a community where skirts aren’t limited to those born biologically female, and where the study body values, as they say, “hearts, not parts.”

We rightly celebrate individuality and nobly honor differences, even as we encourage the choices each of us make every day to be the people we want to be. We are actively in the business of making culture, school culture.

…but this is different than honoring the cultures each of us carry with us.

All of those wonderfully welcoming and inclusive attitudes; the value placed on kindness; the celebration of artistic spirits, not just works of art; and the belief that everyone can become who they want to be …and then change their mind …and then change their mind again, all of those attitudes, it struck me, were not about the same sort of culture I’d been talking about with my teachers.

They had been talking about countries, traditions, and heritage.

If my history includes a London barbershop and a Swedish painting, then what about the stories that each of us bring to our creative collective present? If I am not only defined by the choices I make for myself, but also by the rich cultural heritage that I’m right to honor and embrace, then isn’t part of creating a welcoming school community also developing ways for each of us to share our own family’s stories as well as writing our own?

That was what my teachers had been talking about. Like me, their family stories and cultural heritages were foundational to who they are. What might we do, they asked, to invite, articulate, and celebrate our students’ family stories? What could we as a school do to give the artistic souls who fill our school both the invitation and encouragement to share their cultures with each other?

For anyone noticing, I’ve used more than a couple of questions in this post …so far. That’s not clever rhetoric; it’s that I’m still figuring this out. Being the principal doesn’t mean you always have the right answers. Done right, it often means you try to ask the right questions.

I took some of my questions to Sho Shigeoka, a sage in the realm of equity and honoring cultures, cornering her at a district meeting with the swirl of thoughts I’d been wrestling with throughout the week.

She smiled at me and said: “Ask the kids.”

I walk the halls every lunch, sit in on classes often, and chat with students all the time, but I’ll confess that in that moment with Sho I couldn’t remember a single time this year when heritage came up as a topic of discussion.

“Gather a group,” Sho said patiently. “Ask them how they think they could celebrate their stories.”

I will.

Over the next few months I look forward to hearing my students (and staff too) answer those questions. I’m excited to work with those two caring teachers who started this line of thought and the diverse and creative students to find ways for each of us to share who we are.

This post promises to be the first of a few looking forward and joining others to look back on family, culture, and the stories of our lives. I want to help create a healthy school culture for all of us that honors the cultures each of us. It’s time to start asking, and time to start listening.

A Great Hall of Reflection

“Art … is a great hall of reflection where we can all meet and where everything under the sun can be examined and considered.”
                                  -Iris Murdoch

Just about every morning I take a walk. At 7:30 my amazing assistant, Margaret, and I cue up a song, turn on the PA, and let music fill ACMA. For the next five minutes, as students hurry to classes to the sound of Miles Davis or Ella Fitzgerald, Sharon Jones or David Bowie, Mozart or Edie Brickell and Steve Martin, I walk.

coffeeA cup of coffee in hand, I navigate the front hall by the main office, zigging around the trophy case filled with ceramics, dodging kids wrapped in fleece blankets (a thing at ACMA during these cold winter months) and turn the corner by the door of the dance studio at the mouth of ACMA’s Hallway of Hope and Justice.

Every morning I see teachers standing at doorways greeting students, I see kids carrying projects (a canvas, a sculpture, the makings of a robotic hand), and I find myself surrounded not just by art on every wall, but by the creative student artists who make our school the work of art that it is.

Ours is a school of plush ears, horns, and tails. We are a place that exudes the creative spirit, a place where students create their identities as well as their art. At ACMA we laugh often, dream big, and are comfortable being just a little bit different. Seeing this creativity made manifest every morning is an inspiration.

To walk down ACMA’s hallways first thing in the morning, The Clash, The Bangles, or The Beatles filling the air, is to see hope.

At 7:30 in the morning students are focused on what’s ahead. They’re not performing; they’re preparing. As these artists, writers, dancers, and musicians move together through the hallways, nodding hellos to one another, smiling, and toting instruments, cameras, and portfolios, they seem to me less a disconnected collection of individuals and more the cohesive colors of a creative rainbow. They share a desire to make art and a poetic way of seeing the world.

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My walk takes me to the end of the hallway, past paintings and wire sculpture, past displays about LBGTQ pride and announcements for upcoming productions, beneath student murals reaching back for decades and temporary installations on kindness, body image, and environmental issues.

Each step, to the strains of Mendelssohn or the bounce of Billie Holiday, takes me through a sea of anticipation. The day is about to begin. In the next hours together students will dance, and sing, and draw, and sculpt. They will write, and act, and make films. They will discuss literature and math, debate history, experiment in science (and maybe artistically too). They will support one another, encourage one another, and help each other be the best artists (and people) they can be.

Well, once they’ve wiped the sleep from their eyes; 7:30 am is awfully early for artists.

To help them wake up we may cue up some Prince or Buckshot LeFonque, Pink Martini or Johnny Cash. Whatever the soundtrack for the morning, the feeling is the same: gratitude for being at ACMA, excitement for the creative process, and a belief that today great things may happen.

I never take that morning walk for granted. Never. It’s a time to connect with students and staff, absorb the inspiration of our vibrant school, and witness first hand the profound power of creativity.

Young at Heart

TEDxI like to believe that it’s because I’m seen as young at heart that I got the invitation to emcee TEDx Encinitas this April, though if I’m honest it’s just as likely that it’s because I have the ability to simply be immature.

The call came after a wonderfully talented student and I hosted San Dieguito’s Winter Assembly. We’d pulled out all the stops, dressing as each other, sporting Pikachu and Team Paradox costumes, and ending with a number from The Blues Brothers that literally had us singing and dancing. There’s no business like show business, I’m told, no business I know.

But the TEDx event was different; we were not the show; we were brought in to support the show. Daunting. Inspiring. It was a challenge we looked forward to.

photo 5TEDx Encinitas was designed to flip the traditional TED experience on its head. Rather than have a series of people with vast life experience talk to a students, a group of students, from ages 11 to 21, was gathered to present their stories to an all adult audience. Titled “Changing Voices,” the evening would give youth a chance to speak to adults, all kids on stage, all grown ups in the audience.

Except me. Young at heart. Maybe not quite mature enough to warrant a seat at the grown up’s table. Flattered to be given a chance to join an articulate, insightful, and passionate group of students on stage.

Rehearsal took place the night before, a great opportunity to see the young presenters, serious, focused, and filled with anticipation, preparing for the show. In addition, I got to watch scores of student volunteers helping behind the scenes, running lights, sound, cameras, managing the house, wrangling performers, and showing that maturity of ability that nestles side by side with youthful exuberance.

photo 4 (1)My eight year old son came by the theater and Austin, the senior who was my fellow emcee, took him on a tour of the tech booth and catwalks. My son has a new hero.

That ability to be inspired, however, isn’t limited by age. I have the great good fortune to see teenagers every day, and bear witness to the profound curiosity, passion, and kindness that so many show. Certainly the trials of youth are real; the existence of angst, arrogance, and anguish are just as true in 2017 as they were when I was in school, or my grandparents, or my grandparents’ grandparents, but those who focus on the negative behaviors of “kids today” are missing a message that informs everything educators like me do: the students filling our schools now have the capability of greatness.

The day of the event saw more than a dozen students step onto the red circle of carpet and speak from their hearts. They sang, and spoke, and sent the audience of adults into genuine laughter, lip thinning thoughtfulness, and swallowed tears. Their stories of making a difference, of caring, and of being true, resonated with the audience. Six hours in, none of us really wanted it to end.

photo 1 (2)How important it is for us as adults to value the perspective of our students. The adolescent speakers, so thoughtful and remarkable, had much to teach those of us who call ourselves adults. So too did the many hands that worked behind the scenes, teenagers who cared deeply about the messages that their peers presented and the idea that adults would take the time to listen to youth.

I’m blessed with an opportunity to work with amazing students every day, and I was proud to be a part of an event that allowed so many to share their voices with adults who don’t always see such profundity in person.

That today’s youth are promising stewards of our planet; that teenagers are capable, conscientious, and curious explorers of life; and that the future is more than promising was captured in the essence of these student presenters and performers, as well as in my partner in emceeing, whose quiet kindness to my son served as a reminder of the depth of empathy that exists in so many kids today.

photo 2 (1)All of us who were in the theater that Saturday have the potential to take some of these students’ spirit with us. All of us who heard what these kids had to say couldn’t help but be inspired.

For anyone who wasn’t able to attend the event, in the weeks ahead you will be able to see clips at the TEDx Encinitas site.

Until then, for anyone who wants a dose of inspiration, I’d encourage you to seek out some students you know and ask them to tell you their stories. Kids don’t need to stand on stage to have something to say. Adults don’t need to be in an audience to listen. So ask. Talk. Really pay attention.

At best you may be seen as young at heart; at worst being a little sophomoric isn’t bad at all.

A Nostalgic Streak

Every spring San Dieguito hosts a reunion for former faculty and staff. Guests from across the decades arrive to the library to socialize and share stories from their time on campus. The smiles and hugs are inspiring and the tales told are like something out of a surfer friendly Arabian Nights.

San Dieguito is unique, among other reasons, for its longstanding place in the local community. Eighty years of graduates have passed through its breezeways and many of those souls make the decision to stay close to home to raise their own kids. Lots of our current students are the second or even third generation to come through San Dieguito. This is their town; San Diegutio is their school.

That sense of ownership is true for faculty too. At this year’s Faculty and Staff Reunion I spotted two SDUHSD superintendents, three San Dieguito principals, and more former teachers than I could count.

staff 3Mary and Jay, two former San Dieguito teachers who spoke at the soiree, telling stories about the bus barn fire and the bank that was once on campus, also graduated from San Dieguito …in 1940 and 1942 respectively.

More recent graduates attended as well; alumni are always welcome. They listened as staff from across the school’s history told stories, laughed, and enjoyed the company of others with whom they shared the bond of working at this special school.

Toward the end of the night, as I was grabbing a last cookie and making my way toward the door, a graduate from 1974 stopped me. Pointing her finger at me she said: “Mr. Paige, I have a story.”

I leaned against a nearby table, curious. My time at San Dieguito has taught me the importance of stories in a school’s history. More than anything else, more than buildings or photographs or trophies or even art, it is the stories of those people who make up a school that matter most.

“Remember that post you wrote about the streakers?” she asked. I did. Bonnie Wren, San Dieguito’s Alumni Coordinator had been kind enough to reprint Buns, a post about some marvelous stories by Mike Koslowski, in the alumni newsletter.

“Those streakers weren’t all guys.” She smiled. “What Koz was talking about was me and my girls.”

I must have smiled back.

“You see we had it all planned and were getting ready at lunchtime,” she went on. “Our getaway driver was a fella. I won’t tell you his name. He’s pretty prominent in the community now. Anyway, we were up in the bathroom here by the library.” She motioned to a spot that is still a girls bathroom today. “He was at the far end of the parking lot. We all gave our clothes to another person, who took them out to the car. Then, as the lunch crowd was breaking up, we ran!”

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I could picture the route she was talking about: down the “San Dieguito Ten Step,” past the door to the principal’s office, and out through the archway at the front of the school.

“You got away?” I asked, hopeful.

“Of course.” She smiled again. “Though the fella who was riding shotgun in the getaway car brings up the story at every reunion. It was a …memorable experience for him.”

To have a school that remembers its alumni and former staff, makes time for them to come together and reminisce, and honors their many and diverse experiences makes our school community stronger.

San Dieguito is a land of stories, some told with a smile and a streak of nostalgia.

Mr. Roboto

Attending a robotics competition is like stepping into another world. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to watch San Dieguito HS Academy’s Robotics team, “Team Paradox,” participate in the FIRST Robotics Tournament at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. It was astounding.

Scores of students in quirky costumes hurried between the village of tool stocked booths, the testing area, and the competition ring. As I walked from the entrance to the Team Paradox “pit,” as our roboticists called it, I spotted students wearing matching gladiator outfits, “Pi-rate” costumes, and one team outfitted as Egyptian Pharaohs. I was happy our San Dieguito team had opted for whimsical t-shirts.

Bjorn and BotMascots strolled through the event. Safety goggles covered every eye. There were more capes than a San Dieguito lunchtime.

Not sure what to do first, I visited our home base, a 10 by 10 foot area outfitted like Doc Brown’s laboratory in Back to the Future. Team Paradox buttons lined one shelf, yellow, blue, and red vinyl flooring defined the area, and an amazing student video played on a loop. They handed me a pair of goggles, saying: “You’ll need these.”

From there, I walked over to where other members of the team were adjusting the 2102* robot to better respond to the varied conditions of the venue. Unlike previous indoor events, this arena challenged participants with wind and ever changing lighting. This meant adapting the sensors and camera on their ‘bot, which they controlled remotely through a computer and an interface that reminded me of a flight simulator.

These are, I thought to myself, talented and innovative people who will make our world better.

Beyond outrageous technical skills, Team Paradox displayed something else: an ability and inclination to work collaboratively. They needed to work together as a team to create and compete, and beyond that they understood that part of the world of robotics is working with other teams as well.

Coöpertition,” you’ll hear them call it, acknowledging that working in isolation is less effective than working together, and that winning at the expense of others isn’t winning at all.

In robotics, alliances are part of every competition, and these alliances are fluid. Teams know that the robot they’re competing against in the morning could be their ally later that afternoon.

How unlike so many of the teams we see in high school. How very much like life.

robotics tweetTeam Paradox embraced this. Leading up to the competition, San Dieguito students worked with a cross town high school to help them establish their own robotics team. As mentors, they welcomed this new team to a world they loved, seeing them not as rivals, but as kindred spirits. When Team Paradox won the event this weekend, one of the first tweets of congratulations came from this team.

Even so, robotics is much more than an intellectual carnival. Teams work hard to design and drive the best robots they can, competing cleanly with strategy and spirit.

photo 1 (7)Along those lines, on Team Paradox member explained to me that a teammate had designed an app that they used when they scouted other teams. “We enter data into our phones,” he said, “and it’s put into this program so we can pull up graphs and disaggregate data on specific teams.”

Um. Yeah.

Do we ask these same students to do less in classes? Do we recognize their abilities and help them achieve even more?

Seeing the robot, the app, the pit… seeing the students so focused and gifted, and at the same time so able to have fun, jolted my notions of rigor and engagement.

As I walked up to the stands to sit with the coach, parents, and other team members, I kept thinking about how vibrant this event was. Kids, laughing as they demonstrated an uncanny ability to put learning into practice, filled the arena. This was education at its best, and an example of so much of what’s right about youth today. It was, too, a challenge to push all of our students to achieve at their highest potential, to believe in what they can do, and give them opportunities, whether in art, English, or math, to be their own best selves.

photo 3 (8)A sea of yellow Team Paradox t-shirts greeted me when I sat down next to the coach. Among the crowd of mentors, parents, alumni, and teammates were two teachers who had driven down to the event. One Team Paradoxer offered to paint wings on my face, a show of team solidarity. A meeting later in the day precluded it; next year I’ll keep my afternoon open and leave with wings.

Then match time came and Team Paradox gave us something to see.

The students in the stands migrated to the floor, many with pom-poms, one with a megaphone, one dressed as the team mascot. They whooped. They cheered. They celebrated.

The robot began the match by taking to the air, hurdling over the obstacle on the way to its target.

The robot got stuck.

The team worked at their controls to right the problem, and the robot began again.

In all that, a metaphor for life.

I’m proud that at the end of the weekend Team Paradox won the competition and will head to St. Louis for the national competition, but even if they hadn’t I would have been just as pleased. At last week’s robotics competition it wasn’t victory that impressed me, it was students.

Team Paradox

*They explained to me that the number assigned each team, and so prominently displayed on each robot, is determined by the order in which the team joined the world of robotics. 2102 then means our team started later than 2099, but long before 3200.

“Senior Sunrise”

This morning at 6:45 San Dieguito seniors wrapped in blankets and sporting pyjamas gathered together at our “Senior Sunrise” to share bagels, coffee, orange juice, and community. Laughing and leaning into each other, they watched the sun come up over campus and enjoyed each other’s company. These are the memories that will stick with them for decades.

It’s something I’ve noticed about San Dieguito; graduates I talk with feel a connection to the school and each other in a profound way.

I saw it at our “Founders’ Reception” early in the year, when alumni from as far back as the class of 1940 gathered to remember their time at San Dieguito and celebrate their connection to the school. The stories they told painted a picture of a vibrant campus, once home to livestock, Latin class, and the laid back lifestyle of a Southern California beach town.

We still have that surfer spirit, though robotics has replaced animal husbandry, and students are more likely to learn coding than Latin.

koz2I saw that San Dieguito spirit when former Mustang (and former Miami Dolphin) Mike Kozlowski came to campus to present his alma mater with a golden football, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Super Bowl. He’d been dubious at first about making the presentation; San Dieguito no longer has a football team, but after coming back to campus and talking with folks here he felt that magic of reconnection. San Dieguito is his school. When he met with current students, telling stories of his time on campus (about everything from streakers to cinnamon rolls) the flame of memory burned bright.

Looking back four decades, his memories were as real as if they’d happened this morning at 6:45.

Ours is a school rich with history and abundant in stories. Just yesterday a current science teacher told me a story that was as heartwarming as it was typical of San Dieguito. I’m giving a presentation at the school board meeting tonight, and I asked my teachers what I ought to be sure to mention. He sent me this:

“Last Friday, during my second period chem class, a man about 65 or so walked in with a visitors badge and introduced himself as a former student of SDHS. He had stopped in the office to ask Lois for any information about how to contact Shirley Richardson, a former chemistry teacher in the district.

“Shirley began teaching at SDHS in the early 60’s and worked for several years until transferring over to TPHS. She retired from Torrey in 92. Since that time she has come in for several days a week, volunteering as a lab assistant in chemistry. Some years 3 days a week for 9 hours and some years only one, but always regularly, like clockwork, Shirley shows up to help out.

“Back to the action:

“This gentleman, upon asking Lois if she had contact info, was surprised to learn from Lois that, not only did she have contact info for Shirley, but that Shirley was actually at SDA helping out in the chem lab stock room. She was setting up the titration experiment that I am doing tomorrow with my students.

“After coming in and asking for Mrs. Richardson, I directed him to the back and my class listened in. Before closing the door we all overheard him say, “Mrs. Richardson? You probably don’t remember me, but I was your lab assistant in 1969. I just retired from a chemical company and wanted to get in touch with you to let you know that you were the reason I went on to study science and pursue a career in chemistry….”

“They met for several minutes, exchanging stories and catching up. Afterwards he left with an enormous and satisfied grin on his face.”

…and that is San Dieguito.

photo 2The connections our students are making with their current teachers are not unlike that connection this graduate made with his chemistry teacher 45 years ago. The connections they are making with their peers, over coffee before the sun comes up, in class, at assemblies, in the Homeroom Olympics, and in the thousand ways they spend time together are what make our school the special place that it is.

Watching the kids share breakfast this morning I got a feeling of exuberance and nostalgia. This is San Dieguito, a place where students can be themselves and be part of something exceedingly special.