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.

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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.

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!

Friday Night

photo 1 (4)There’s always something happening after school on a high school campus. Performances, sporting events, tutoring, art shows, movie nights …pick any evening and you’re likely to find students extending their school days by doing something they love.

I’ve been asked about the biggest difference between being a middle school principal and working at a high school, and while it’s easy to talk about the explosion of academic options (engineering classes, art electives, advanced study in everything from bio-tech to art history), I think perhaps the greatest difference is the enormous amount of opportunity students enjoy outside of the classroom.

Here at San Dieguito, students create their own clubs, a dizzying array of options from Skateboarding to Girls Who Code, from the Creative Writing Club to Midwives in the Making. With these kindred spirits, students organize food drives, lunchtime activities, and trips to learn more. They seek out cultural events and opportunities to help those in need. Clubs make a difference in students’ lives, and together those students make a difference on our campus and beyond.

Along with clubs, extracurricular activities abound in high school. Beyond the limited palette of middle school athletics, high school sports burst into technicolor with multiple options for student athletes from field hockey to basketball to water polo.

photo 3 (10)The arts in high school take center stage, giving students a chance to join musical theater, orchestra, and opportunities to play guitar. Heck, at San Dieguito, add learn to build a guitar in our wood shop to the list of options.

On Friday I was reminded of just how bustling campus life is every night. I split time between a hard played basketball doubleheader and a rousing Comedy Sportz performance. At a school without football, Fridays at San Dieguito take on a kaleidoscopic tone; no single sport or activity dominates the after school landscape. Students are as likely to come to “Cabaret Night” as they are to cheer on our volleyball team with the familiar “S-D-Ace!

photo (2)So Friday I found myself in the booth overlooking the stage in our performing arts center, peeking over the shoulders of the students coordinating lighting and sound. Below, a packed house chatted excitedly, ready for the annual alumni game where past graduates return to campus to challenge present students in an improv contest.

The evening was a blur of wit and motion. With the crowd applauding, these student comedians mixed intelligence and perfect timing as marvelously as Dan Aykroyd once blended a fish in his bass-o-matic. Unselfconscious, positive, and really, really funny, this, I thought, was the spirit of San Dieguito.

And then I went to the gym.

photo 2 (1)There on the court were student athletes working together, cheering for each other, and representing our school with sportsmanship and class. These students, who had put in so many hours of practice, showed that the same collaboration that helped them complete labs in science and skits in Spanish on the basketball court is simply called teamwork. Performing in front of a crowd, taking chances, and giving their all, these student athletes were the epitome of what is right with teenagers today.

These actors and athletes don’t just come alive on stage or on the court. As I watched them on Friday night, I recognized students who I’d seen collaborate on successful egg drops in Physics, others who had participated in our Student Forum, and even our ASB representative to the school board. The students who participate in extracurricular activities are the same who participate in class discussions.

Involved students are often the most successful students. Whether they love building robots or dancing, are on the academic team or tennis team, come to campus for a school dance or movie night, students always keep a light burning at San Dieguito. It’s a place where students always have an opportunity to be part of something special.