Wind Tunnel

When I was young and foolish and in my second year of teaching high school English I decided that it would be a good idea to make a wind tunnel in my classroom.

We were midway through a unit on Pierre Boulle’s short 1963 novel Monkey Planet, a title that took on a life of its own when later translated into English as Planet of the Apes, and the class of juniors and seniors was rollicking good fun. We’d talked about satire (which Boulle’s book really is), animal rights (which Boulle’s book really isn’t about), and a handful of other topics, and I wanted to give them an experience to demonstrate how difficult it can be to find yourself in a culture you don’t understand. 

So, over a week or two I gathered as many fans as I could, borrowing from everyone I knew until I had a collection of box fans, oscillating fans, and odds and ends that would collectively create the windstorm I was looking for. I dug out a couple of candles, a CD player (this was the 90s) and the biggest roll of black butcher paper I could find.

After school I tipped all of the tables in my classroom on their ends, making a series of rectangles reaching toward the ceiling down the center of the room. Using the black paper I extended the wall, making sure to completely separate the two sides except for a small passageway between the two.

I set up the interior of the room, windowless, opposite from the door to the hallway, with all the fans poised and ready for me to flip the switch on a powerstrip. About six feet in front of the bank of wind machines I placed a candle on the floor, the only object on that side of the room other than the fans. I turned off the lights on that side of the room to make sure no light could get in through my makeshift wall. It couldn’t.

Once that was done I crawled through the narrow opening and pulled back the black butcher paper to seal off the dark side of the room. Here I added a couple of lamps I’d scrounged to make the room even brighter, set up the CD player with some upbeat 1960s jazz, and moved the rest of the furniture to the sides of the room to leave room for the students (on this side) to move around.

The next morning I greeted my class by randomly dividing them into two groups and handing each a fact sheet about the society they’d be a part of for the next hour or so. I’d stolen names from a philosopher I liked, and the students got to reading about the “Evets” and “Yoks,” two very different types of people.

The Evet culture was centered around silence, darkness, and their collective charge to always keep the sacred candle lit. They’d be challenged in this by occasional windstorms, but those would always be preceded by a loud noise, anathema to the Evets’ world. The Evets themselves had to remain silent, so to communicate and collaborate (as they’d need to in order to keep the candle burning) would require creativity. Their side of the room, their whole world, was dark except for the candle and quiet except for the warning noise before the wind. I encouraged them to stay as close to the ground as they could be, and make their movements as slow and deliberate as they could. It was an oddly serene world of darkness.

For the Yoks life centered around light and loudness, movement and talkative exuberance. While they could only say the word “Yok” (analogous to the character of Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy) they said it often and with great inflection. They moved around the room, music swinging, and the only charge they had was staying active and energized. 

I let the cultures find their centers for about ten minutes, or the time it took for a couple of flicks of the wind switch. My Evets’ candle survived those, but just barely. And then…

I opened the doorway and moved one student from each side to the other.

What happened next was wonderful. The students, who love to play, played. They were earnest in their inhabiting of our imaginary cultures and held to character as this new addition stepped into their world. Curiosity, attempts at understanding, more than a little misunderstanding, the range of experiences were a ball.

We kept up this artificial cultural exchange for half an hour or so, and the results were as fun as they were informative to the discussion that followed the final windstorm of the day. What that all looked like, however, isn’t the topic of this post; this modest entry is about the fact that right now no goofy ideas like this can happen in our classrooms. Our teachers are creative and our students still love to play, but right now, right now, the pandemic has us hoping our students just turn on their cameras and wondering if they have the bandwidth to connect in real time.

Classes that rely on interaction and proximity, particularly subjects like dance and theater, music and sculpture, are striving to find new ways to keep their programs moving forward and their students engaged, and…

Truth be told it’s really hard.

Comprehensive Distance Learning, as it’s called in my corner of the world, is as unlike anything we’re used to as the Evets’ world and the Yoks’.

So much of what we used to do, what has always worked so well, what we and our students love …so much of that simply doesn’t work right now, or at least not as well or in the same way. This is really stressful for our teachers and our students. Our parents feel it too; they see their kids every day and have a front row seat to the stress of remote learning.

We’re doing our best to navigate this unfamiliar landscape, but even as we try to figure out how to do our work in this very different world the worry and stress our educators are feeling shouldn’t be ignored. 

Unable to step into another teacher’s classroom, or gather in person for lunch, or walk to the copy room together, it’s easy to feel isolated. Unable to catch a colleague after a staff meeting or easily meet for coffee to talk about a challenge we’re facing, it’s easy to feel alone.

The results are sobering. As great as much of the work is, as hard as the teachers are working to make their classrooms inviting, engaging, and challenging to every student, the results don’t always match the efforts. Sometimes it’s the students being unable to connect online (bandwidth, home circumstances, and mental health compromised by stressors beyond the school all can get in the way). Sometimes it’s the feeling of overwhelm that our kids report they’re experiencing, not only a result of school, but also of their own sense of disequilibrium that the current state of the world is pushing on them). Sometimes we simply don’t know why the student’s camera is off, why they’re not participating, or even if they are why they’re not able to engage in the same way they would if we were on campus together.

That lack of knowing is another challenge. We as educators are good at solving problems, but right now it feels like we’re working in the dark, our collaboration compromised by the sensible and prudent rules imposed by the pandemic. We’re used to creating a world of laughter, learning, and light, and right now we’re simply doing our best to keep the candle of learning burning in the wind tunnel in which we find ourselves.

As a principal I wish I had the answers to these challenges that my school needs right now. I don’t. Instead I’m working with my staff to develop ideas that might help. None of us can do this alone, but together we have a chance to better adapt and maybe even end up with a better experience than those human astronauts landing on a planet of talking apes. And…

We don’t have to throw our hands in the air and let Dr. Zaius rule the world. We can work together to make some kind of difference.

Just like those students from my second year of teaching, who are now in their 40s, many with kids of their own, we arrived at school this year and were presented with something unfamiliar and a little uncomfortable. It’s disorienting to find ourselves in a different world, but I remain tenaciously optimistic that we can adjust, work together (despite the challenges), and make our way forward, even when the winds blow the hardest.

Riffing with Cavafy

“It does not bother me if outside
winter spreads fog, clouds, and cold.
Spring is within me, true joy.”
          -CP Cavafy

Last week I got to teach.

It has long been a promise I’ve made to myself that every year of being a principal I will set aside time to step back into classrooms and embrace the reason I got into education in the first place: to teach. Over the past few years I’ve had the pleasure of working with middle schoolers and high schoolers, walking the foggy streets with Sherlock Holmes, talking hope with Emily Dickinson and Emily Brontë, and even teaching a little cartooning. This engagement with students is far more than magical; for me connecting with kids is a fundamental reminder of the reason I do what I do, the rationale behind my decisions as a principal, the “why” of my work.

Last week that work brought be to the plains of Troy and five classes of juniors and seniors who had just finished reading Homer’s Iliad. I’d taught the epic a lifetime ago, or at least large swaths of it, in a unit I called the ALIliad, a mashup of Homer’s heroes and Muhammad Ali. It was rollicking fun, perfect for spring term Senior English, and I had fond memories of those busted brain-pans and ancient heroes. For my return to Troy, however, I opted for something more …traditional: CP Cavafy.

Cavafy is an early 20th century Greek poet who lived and wrote in Alexandria. His work, seemingly simple and certainly powerful, captures ideas political, passionate, and personal, and his ability to discuss history and epic in very human ways suggested him as a nice follow up to the hard work the students had already done with Homer. Cavafy builds on the traditional as well as anyone, and I figured some of the students might dig making connections, juxtapositions, and discoveries between and about the two poets.

IMG_1359As rain battered the classroom windows, we started with a little music. To set up the notion of a modern artist riffing on something grand and established I’d given the students the homework of listening to “My Favorite Things,” first the recognizable Julie Andrews version from The Sound of Music film and then John Coltrane’s take on the tune in all its modal glory.

The students, particularly those ridiculously talented student musicians brought amazing perspective to a discussion of the two versions of the tune, juxtaposing Coltrane and the Rodgers and Hammerstein original like professional critics. They led us to where I’d hoped they would: the idea of an artist, to use Coltrane’s line, “looking back at the old things to see them in a new light” and creating something new, something different, something meaningful.

That ACMA is filled with passionate student artists made our discussion richer than I’d imagined.

We followed this Coltrane preface with two essential questions and dove into Cavafy with aplomb. After reading “Trojans” together, students broke into groups and wrestled with four of Cavafy’s poems: “The Horses of Achilles,” “The Funeral of Sarpedon,” “Night March of Priam,” and “When the Watchman Saw the Light.”

I wanted the students to see not only a different take on Homer, but also understand the humanizing Cavafy does to the familiar characters, even immortal ones, and dig how this more modern Greek poet looked “back at the old things and [saw] them in a new light.”

Discussion sparkled, creative students applying their intelligence and spirit to Cavafy’s texts. That they brought insight I hadn’t thought of when planning the lesson shouldn’t have come as a surprise; some of the best things about teaching are those moments when students startle you with an unexpected perspective and creative approach.

We talked about art and grief and love and beauty, and class after class I found myself more and more thankful for the opportunity to spend this time with the students. Classrooms truly are where the magic of education happens.

We ended with “Ithaca,” of course, because, well, Cavafy.

And in that poem of appreciation I heard echoes of last week’s teaching journey.

…do not hurry the voyage at all.
it is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way…”

Last week’s lessons were best when they were unhurried, a luxury limited to the first day and compromised on the second by a shortened schedule and looming assignment justifiably on the students’ minds. But even then, even when the minute hand pushed me forward like a Trojan into an Achaean spear, the experience of connecting with students is one that I am profoundly thankful for.

I walked out of the classroom tired, energized, and happy. For a principal to step back in front of a classroom is a reminder of what an exhausting and exhilarating job being a teacher really is. It is a reminder that the interaction between students and teachers is unique, magical, and (sometimes) profound.

It was raining outside, but my spirit was there on the plains of Troy with Homer, Cavafy, and some of the best students I’ve ever known.

Expectedly Unexpected

poeThey read Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Pit and the Pendulum” and discussed the math behind the swinging of the titular blade. It was math class, after all.

Math class at SDA.

Things at San Dieguito feel different than they do at some other high schools. Some folks say the students are nicer. Some talk about the kindness of the teachers. Others notice that it’s not unusual to see a student walking around in a onesie Pikachu costume or wearing a cape.

Those are all true observations, but as a proud principal, I’d add that one of the things so special about our school is a willingness to try something different.

This could be casting bronze in art class, choosing to do a winter concert without any holiday songs, or staging an evening of student-written one acts early in the fall.


Trying something different might look like physics classes presenting portfolios to community members about both what and how they learned this term, our alumni raising money to reinstall the Metal Mustang in the front of our school, or the AP Art History class staging art flash mobs during homeroom. Degas? Surprise!

It’s not unusual to see something delightfully non-sequitur here at San Dieguito.

We’re a school of poetry slams, musical theater, and a student art gallery.

At SDA “different” is part of our DNA.

Trying something different might be ASB students hanging window boxes from the plywood walls around the construction site of our new classroom building, our fans bringing a sign promoting veganism to a basketball game, or our instrumental music class deciding to put on a concert for the public during finals week.

A rallying cry at San Dieguito is “Keep SDA Funky.”

photo-2We do.

And today, the final day of the first term, when I looked out my office window I saw that sometimes San Dieguito’s funky spirit extends beyond our campus borders.

That math teacher who read Edgar Allan Poe with his class did more than talk about the mathematics of a pendulum. After discussing arcs and differentials, he made a phone call. To the fire department.

I like to imagine that it was the excitement in that teacher’s voice that prompted the firefighter on the other line to say “yes” when asked if there was any way they could come out and help the class create a real life thirty foot pendulum to try out their equations.

Maybe the firefighter was a San Diegutio grad.

So it was a surprise, but not surprising when I stepped out of my office and walked up to see a hook and ladder truck next to our bell tower, a student wearing a red helmet suspended and swinging, and a line of students timing the swing of the pendulum …and smiling.

photo 1 (4).JPG

Moon Knight

moon-knight-23-cover-bill-sienkiewiczThis one’s about Moon Knight.

If you’re less a geek than me, feel free to stop reading now, or at least be warned that these are the musings of a middle aged educator…about comic books. Dulce est desipere in loco.

Not long ago a tweet floated across my computer screen asking about comics. It came from Gwyneth Jones, a librarian and educator I respect, and asked for help for a teacher. The call: “HS ELA teacher wants straight-up comic books. Any ideas?”

As a former English teacher, now principal, I miss the collaboration I had with colleagues around what books to teach and ways we could help students connect with literature. Our conversations could be spirited, offbeat, and inspiring. This request smacked of such adventure and I fired off a quick response: “This may be a little nutty, but the new Moon Knight (and old) could prompt discussion.”

comic-postThen I got thinking.

The phrase “straight-up comic books” stuck with me. I couldn’t shake the creative bug that buzzed in my brain every week of the thirteen years I taught English.

I’ve written about teaching graphic novels before, and even about one of my favorite comic book heroes, Moon Knight. Fresh off reading the latest collection of “The Fist of Khonshu,” the daring librarian’s tweet got me thinking about what it might really look like to use “straight-up comic books” in the classroom today.

As a first year teacher I used a copy of a Batman comic that reprinted the character’s first appearance and then retold the same story in a contemporary style. Juxtaposing the two versions of the same story prompted a discussion of narrative view and characterization that parlayed into the other literature we were reading. I thought it was a neat lesson, but truth be told, it was a bit of a throwaway.

A decade later I tried to use an Avengers comic to set up The Scarlet Letter, but the less said about that the better. It was not one of my more successful adventures.

As I thought about the notion of using comic books today, not graphic novels (those purposeful volumes that blend text and images and are designed to be book length, not episodic) but “straight-up comic books,” two things struck me as rich with possibility: comic books are serial, and at their best they invite unbridled creativity.

moon-knight-t6f6m1sd_0403151336141Enter Moon Knight.

I grew up on comic books, Fantastic Four, Batman, and the rest, and I remember the first time I saw something that blew apart the standard and felt different: Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Moon Knight.

Theirs were odd and interesting stories, unafraid to vary in length, eschew the mores of superhero monthlies, quote Blake, explore religion, stretch the boundaries of a comic page, and present real issues from child abuse to mental illness. …all under the guise of a comic book.

Like many superheroes, Moon Knight went through phases, the ‘90s and early 2000s turning him this way and that, dragging him closer to conventionality than his earlier incarnations, occasionally sliding him toward ridiculousness, but in 2014 he sprang back with a retro vengeance as Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire brought back the spirit of innovation that had typified the comic in the gritty 70s and experimental 80s.


As a (recovering) English teacher, it’s both the richness and complexity of this history that adds layers of depth to the possibility of using Moon Knight in an English class.

What then, to do with it?

I’m more than a little out of practice with lesson planning, so for any teacher types still reading, imagine this as my end of a discussion we’re having while on a hike in the woods. We’re walking along a trail, trees reaching up all around, and as we fall into conversation about how we could teach “straight-up comic books,” I suggest that…

start-of-mkI’d start, as all good comic stories do, with brief intro of the character’s origin story, succinctly told. We’d look at the first renderings of Marc Spector’s death and rebirth beneath the statue of Egyptian god Khonshu; his adoption of not one, but three identities outside the white suit: mercenary Marc Spector, cabbie Jake Lockley, and millionaire Steven Grant; and the cast of characters who form the stable of support for the character: Marlene, Crawley, Frenchie, and Gena.

We’d talk about the standards in a superhero story (capes, secret identities, and other expectations) and look at how those expectations can be turned upside down. I’d follow with the class reading “Hit It” to see how that story explodes convention, mirroring perhaps a poet who interrupts the contract with the reader to break a sonnet or upend an established form.

maskBecause comics are visual by nature, a brief foray into art makes sense, and an article on negative space in one of the most recent runs of Moon Knight does a nice job of capturing the importance of the choices illustrators make. As the author of the article notes: “The utilization of all that negative space is not just a brilliant visual concept, it’s also an exceptional thematic choice. Held in a mental institution and informed that his entire life is a fabrication, Marc Spector must reevaluate everything he thought he knew about Moon Knight, Khonshu, his other personalities, and himself.” Thoughtful analysis of a comic book? Yep. And for those young artists in my class, a nice opportunity to talk about the finer points of another discipline.

Armed with this history, possibility, and artistic vernacular, the students would be ready to engage with new texts, and it would be fun to provide different groups with different versions of the silver and jet hero.


Neatly packaged are the four most recent story arcs of Moon Knight as well as some of the best of the Moench and Sienkiewicz issues in the collection Shadows of the Moon. Six copies of each could provide a half dozen groups of students in (comic) book groups with enough to talk about to make things interesting.

Helping to frame their group reading and discussion, I’d need to come up with some guiding questions and challenges that apply to all the collections.  What this would look like would take some conversation with fellow English teachers. Certainly students would benefit from noting the real-world issues they see reflected in the stories. It would be smart to ask them to look for motifs either visual or thematic. Art. Color. Language.

On our imaginary hike, it’s on this point that I’d listen most and try to capture the ideas beyond my own that raise teaching and learning past what any individual teacher can come up with.

Along with each collection, I’d ask students to read a bit of non-fiction, an interview, or analysis of the work they are engaging with. I could point them toward an overview of the Moench and Sienkiewicz years, an interview with Declan Shalvey, a discussion with Cullen Bunn, or a Q&A with Greg Smallwood.

smallwood-allusionI’d also push them to make connections between the books they’ve read in class and the comics they are reading. I could see students finding parallels between One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the Moon Knight collection Lunatic or between In the Night and Edgar Allan Poe.

Beyond links to fiction or nonfiction texts, Moon Knight comics have a long tradition of addressing real-life issues, and prompting students to make connections between the story arcs they read and issues like mental illness, political crises, or fanaticism would be a worthy adjunct activity. Dead Will Rise, for instance, takes on issues suggested by homeland security and Guantanamo Bay. In the Night covers a range of topics, providing rich catalysts for discussion and thought provoking hooks on which to hang research into everything from religious belief to animal cruelty.

ghostsAny of the collections, particularly From the Dead provide a good source of allusions, and just as I’d pair up the Bunn and first Smallwood groups, I’d have the Moench team work with those reading Ellis to see the many connections drawn between the two.

Much as I ran “Bistro Days” as an English teacher, a day of tablecloths, croissants, and conversation, during which students had an opportunity to talk about independent reading books that shared common themes (as they sipped coffee and listened to accordion music), I’d invite students to take a class period and cross pollinate, explain their reading to others from other groups, and find the connections between the various versions of the lunar avenger.

Each of these slim volumes has enough story, characterization, and innovation to spark discussion and prepare the students to make one last literary jump, to the present.

crazyComics are our twenty first century version of serial stories. Read “live” they force readers to finish a segment and wait a month to see what happens next. Like Dickens’ or Collins’ Victorian audience, the contemporary comic book reader has time to mull over what has happened and anticipate what will happen next. With the 2016 run of Moon Knight, prediction is nearly impossible.

The current run of Moon Knight, as of me writing this today, is a whirlwind of storytelling, part homage, part fever dream, all unexpected fun. Following the issues collected in Lunatic, the story of Moon Knight has veered into a mashup of religion, mental health, and unreliable narration.

moon_knight-22After our collective introduction to the character, their group interaction with a specific Moon Knight text, and the discussions that brought them up to date on the character’s story, we’d be ready to take a look at the current story as it is being written. A lesson or two could catch us up with issue #9, which sees the various personalities of Moon Knight and his alter egos in confrontation. Some might notice that this isn’t the first time such a thing has happened in the Moon Knight canon; back in 1982 the fellows in Moon Knight’s head scrapped a bit; meet the new boss same as the old boss.

But the new boss isn’t simply reworking old stories. Even as he pays homage to the legacy of the character, writer Jeff Lemire is fashioning a story as trippy as it is innovative. For old Moon Knight fans like me, who appreciate the nods toward the past, and for new readers alike the question of “what happens next?” looms large over every panel.

Taking the students up through the story arc so far and then allowing them a few months to experience the dynamic storytelling of a monthly comic would be a nice way to extend our discussion of narrative, perspective, and author (and illustrator) voice.

9It would be fun to teach a living text as it was being written, a text that could be downloaded every month and shared with the class. Discussing what we anticipate will happen, while none of us (even the teacher) can know what that will be, would be energizing and (it seems to me) have that tightrope feel that good teaching and learning often does.

Maybe all this is dreamier than it is possible. I honestly don’t know. It’s days like today that I realize how long I’ve been out of the classroom and how invigorating it can be to be a part of a dynamic teaching community.

That kind of professional and creative connection really is, in its twitterish way, what the tweet that started this all invited. That, and it invited the inner comic book nerd in all of us to come out.

Are there lots of comic books that would be great in the classroom? Sure, and I’d wager that teachers far, far more insightful than I am have a thousand ideas of comics that would work brilliantly with students. I wish I had a few hours with each to talk capes and masks and teaching over a pot of coffee. Thanks, Gwyneth Jones for your question, and thanks teachers everywhere willing to acknowledge their inner geekiness, try new things in the classroom, and swing into action like a superheroes!

For only the nerdiest of us…

Seriously, deep geek here…

I’ll note that I’d ignore the earliest versions of MK, back in his werewolf fighting days, when his cape was still connected to his wrists. I gloss over his time wearing armor, carving moons into foreheads, and living in LA. West Coast Avengers? Nope (though I dug those comics as a kid). There’s something to be said for some sort of discretion after all …though for that one student, and there’s always one intrepid soul, who digs a little deeper, I’d be ready for a lively, old school discussion of The Committee, The Slasher, and Stained Glass Scarlet!

A Fish Story

My son is excited about learning.

At eight years old, his passion for knowing more about fishing is matched only by his excitement to go to Lake Dixon with his grandpa in a few days. They’ve been planning the trip for weeks, and as a result I’ve seen my son’s taste in bedtime stories take a turn from the Hardy Boys to a paperback his grandma got him called Incredible and True Fishing Stories.

Out back I found a tree branch with a string tied around it that he has been using to practice, my own Huck Finn, missing only a straw hat and corncob pipe. Saturday morning I came downstairs to find him binge watching Monster Fish. He knew everything about the piraiba catfish and tiger sharks …and wanted to tell me about them.

DSC04212My dad is excited about teaching.

At eighty, the light that I’ve seen in his eyes as he talks with his grandson about casting and catching fish inspires me to believe that no matter what our age there is always something to look forward to.

This week he brought a fishing pole to our house that he used to teach me to fish with forty years ago. To see him talking my son through the basics, sharing everything about drag and bobbers brings a wave of nostalgia that takes me back to shores of my childhood.

I wish my son was excited about school.

We were at the grocery store yesterday and found ourselves in line behind a teacher from my kids’ elementary school. She smiled at him and asked, on this week before classes resume: “Are you excited for school to start?” He shrugged and looked at the ground.

All of us knew the answer behind that shrug.

That he has a capacity for curiosity and a love of learning is apparent in the catalog of fishing facts and string of library books he’s checked out over the summer with titles like Saltwater Angling and The Freshwater Fisherman’s Bible. From Monster Fish he’s accumulated more information about African rivers than anyone this side of Dr. Livingstone, I presume. He took time last weekend to explain to his sister the difference between a Nile perch and an alligator gar.

photoHe has patience too. As I watched my dad show him how the reel worked, my son’s eight year old hands soon discovered the Gordian capabilities of fishing line. The tangles profound, his teacher allowed him to experiment to find a solution, and stepped in to offer patient advice when that was the right thing to do.

That most of his first casts didn’t go too far didn’t seem to bother him. He tried and failed and tried and failed and tried and threw one that bounced off the wooden fence. The sound of that red and white plastic bobber hitting the wood could not have been more satisfying if it had come with a cash prize.

Through it all, he stayed captivated. Watching, trying, learning, he wanted to know more.

When Papa took a turn at the tangled fishing line, my son took the opportunity to read aloud from Incredible and True Fishing Stories and explain to him the difference between a marlin and a tarpon.

This inspiring learning was so unlike that shrug at the grocery store.

I know I’m sentimental, and so moved as to be almost teary watching my son learn on that familiar fishing rod. I understand that my own memory of fishing for bonito out of Long beach and trout in the Santiam River make me prone to romanticize things, but…

…but I wish so much that my son, and my daughter, and every son, and every daughter gets a teacher this year who inspires in them the same feelings of curiosity, joy for learning, and imagination.

Great teachers do this, and I can say from the experience of a dozen years of teaching, it’s not easy. Creating a classroom that validates, celebrates, and inspires students is hard work, and even the best intentions aren’t enough; it takes effort, and energy, and optimism. It takes a love of learning and love of teaching kids.

We stand on the shore of a new school year, ready to push our proverbial boats into the water. Will our kids get that teacher who connects with and inspires them? Will those of us who are educators be those teachers?

DSC04206Fishing, like education, is about hope.

And as I watched my dad and my son wrestling with that reel, I hoped that a day would come when he was as excited about going to school, and every teacher was as excited about helping each student learn, as he was about learning to cast.

Eight and eighty, these two showed me much about teaching and learning, or maybe love and curiosity, fish and fun, which may after all be what the best education really is. Well, minus the fish.

I don’t know if we’ll catch anything when we go to Lake Dixon, but I don’t think that matters anywhere near as much as the learning that has already taken place.

And this school year? This one could be the best yet. I hope.

Expedition Unknown

We’ve been watching a lot of Expedition Unknown at our house lately. With an eleven year old girl and eight year old boy, this Travel Channel show that follows an engaging adventurer as he searches archaeological sites for answers to historical mysteries is one of the few programs everyone can agree on.

Over the summer we’ve sat together on the couch and learned about Viking sunstones, Mayan cenotes, and Henry Morgan’s attack on Panama City.

expedition unknownThe kids watch, wide eyed, curious about worlds they never knew existed, my wife and I chuckle at host Josh Gates’ humor, and we all learn a little together.

As a high school principal, and teacher of more than a dozen years, I appreciate Expedition Unknown’s ability to craft an entertaining hour that keeps my kids’ attention while teaching them to appreciate the grandness of human history.

Josh Gates brings a boyish energy and smiling charm to the adventures, as we’re led through caves and up mountains, across deserts and into jungles, and entertained with pinch of archaeology and dollop of wonder.

This concept of wonder has the potential to be one of the most powerful motivators in education today. I’d argue it has been a cornerstone of education since before Socrates.

Good teachers are able to help students understand the context of what they’re learning and see science, or history, or math, or any subject as a part of the greater human story. Students sparked to be curious are students who will learn; teachers able to inspire this desire to know more are the heroes who make our world a better place.

In a culture so focused on testing and accountability, so concerned about college applications and building academic resumes, I find inspiration in the teachers who follow Socrates’ advice: “Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds…”

This might be building rockets or throwing pottery, designing buildings or designing t-shirts, egg drops, one act plays, Pi Day, or poetry. At its best, this kind of learning takes place in an environment where students of diverse interests learn, laugh, work, and wonder with teachers who care deeply about them.

Kind of like Expedition Unknown and our couch.

Balloons Flying

It wbelafonteas one of those summer mornings when the sun was hot early, the breakfast dishes were put away, and it felt like the right thing to do was put on a Harry Belafonte album. The kids were outside filling water balloons and making big plans, experimenting with a newly unwrapped birthday present: a water balloon slingshot.

Counterintuitively, this Y of plastic weaponry has inspired more cooperation and agreement in my kids than the miniature foosball table, which proved more a cry to war than birthday gift.

Looking out the window this morning, I saw the water balloons flying, heard the laughter after each SPLAT, and only saw a couple of wobbling latex spheres flying into the neighbor’s yard.

I didn’t hear a scream from the other side of the fence; I don’t think it would have hurt my mood if I had.

Watching my kids play in this timeless way reminded me that sometimes the most successful things we do in our classrooms aren’t newfangled. I love seeing students collaborate on a shared Google Doc, really engage in review using Kahoot, and plot graphs with the latest tools in science, but as simple as it is, I also recognize that I see as much engagement when students are outside drawing geometrical shapes in chalk, building boats out of cardboard and duct tape, and making rockets out of two liter bottles.

When I taught, I was sometimes surprised by the way the simple things worked. In my first job at Hood River Valley High School a nature trail behind the school provided a perfect venue for a walking discussion of Wordsworth. Later in my career, a box of costumes gave students the freedom to perform Tennessee Williams one acts. And once a class dug five foot deep trenches in the Oregon mud as we learned about World War I and trench warfare.

Like that water balloon slingshot, those creative, but not technological experiences resonated with kids, even as some of my more complicated classroom ideas sometimes played out as well as my own kids’ foosball game.

This isn’t to say that we should avoid technology rich lesson plans or shy away from complicated schemes. Variety, as the old saw goes, is the spice of life. But seeing the (almost) guilty smiles as a water balloon cleared the fence this morning provided inspiration to celebrate the simple things. In a classroom or on the patio, it’s okay to hum a little calypso music and pull back (proverbially) the water balloon slingshot.


The best compliment I’ve gotten this summer came from my wife when she saw me with Wes Moore’s book The Work: My Search for a Life that Matters and she said: “Why are you reading that? You already do work that matters.”

the workI’ve been an educator all of my adult life. Beyond unloading trucks at Bi-Mart and sorting broccoli at a cannery the summer before my senior year in high school, teaching (and now being an administrator) is about all I’ve ever done as work.

There are days when I feel like I make a difference, that what I do really does matter, but there are also days I feel tired and a little beaten up. Those tough days are the minority, but they’re real, and I was speaking the truth when I answered my wife’s question of “why?” by answering that I was reading The Work for “inspiration.”

It’s summer and as a principal I’m on the hunt for stories and experiences that renew and replenish hope. The Work is rich with these.

Moore tells his own story of time at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, of serving in combat in Afghanistan, and returning to the US to find a path of meaning. Throughout, he weaves in the stories of inspirational people living lives of service and meaning: an entrepreneur, a leader in the Peace Corps, and even a grade school principal.

Each of these individuals saw a purpose greater than themselves and crafted a life that did more than simply earn an income. They’re the direct opposite of the line from Citizen Kane: “It’s no trick to make a lot of money …if all you want is to a lot of money.” The meaningful work Moore describes does more than fill bank accounts.

One example that resonated with me on this score came in Moore’s description of his grandfather’s funeral.

At the time of his death, he had almost no money in his bank account, less than a thousand dollars to leave behind, but hundreds and hundreds of people came out on a rainy day in December to pay their final respects to a man who had devoted a portion of his life to helping them with theirs.”

This ability to impact lives is at the heart of most educators. We get into the business of teaching to help students learn, and stay because we feel like we may be able to help others, our students, live meaningful lives.

Along the way, many of us look for what Moore calls “fellow travelers.” Describing his own rich experiences in the military and at Oxford, two very different places to say the least, he writes about the way the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives led to “an invaluable collateral education.”

A great term, “collateral education” captures the truth that spending time with others who bring real differences to the pursuit of meaningful work not only makes our lives richer, but has the potential to make the work we do more effective.

Yet Moore’s book acknowledges that following one’s calling isn’t always easy, and seldom comes in a straight line. In an insightful recollection of a conversation he had with William Brody, then president of Johns Hopkins, Moore quotes this mentor as having told him:

If you feel the need to go and do something you are not passionate about, for whatever reason, then that is a decision you have to make. But I am going to tell you, the day you feel you have accomplished what you need to accomplish there, leave. Because every day you stay longer than you have to, you become extraordinarily ordinary.”

The profundity of that statement has stuck with me long after I finished The Work. Not every step we make is forward, but keeping our minds set on what matters most, and having the courage to pursue it can make the difference between “extraordinarily ordinary” and extraordinary.

Moore’s book, a thought provoking and emotion stirring narrative, reinforces the value of professions like education. His respect for others and love of learning illuminate every page, and I finished The Work inspired to return to campus this fall and do work that matters.

“An Old Man’s Thought of School”

whitmanThere’s a line in Walt Whitman’s poem “An Old Man’s Thought of School” that hits home for me as a principal who blogs. He describes “an old man gathering youthful memories and blooms that youth itself cannot.”

Like other poets before him, Whitman looks at childhood and childhood education through middle aged eyes. From this perspective he finds the beauty of learning and the “stores of mystic meaning” in the eyes of the students.

That the pupils in Whitman’s imagined school might see “only the tiresome spelling, writing, ciphering classes” doesn’t stop the poet from recognizing that, just as the church was once described not as a “pile of brick and mortar” but as “living, ever living souls,” so too the school is made up not of lessons or desks or buildings, but of the people who populate it, the instructors and students, the living souls who teach and learn.

How true this is today, just as it was when Whitman penned the lines in 1874. The gift that is education comes not from any of the objects one might purchase, then a slate, now a chromebook, nor any of the initiatives that reflect the current zeitgeist, but from the connections students make with each other and those who teach them.

photo 1 (3)Whitman ends his poem with two questions and an answer, lines worth reflecting on beneath today’s summer sun:

Cast you the real reckoning for your present?
The lights and shadows of your future—good or evil?

To girlhood, boyhood look—the teacher and the School.”

As a principal well past his own schooldays, I see in the students at my school great opportunities and amazing support. I watch them, class by class, choice by choice, create their own present realities and paint their diverse futures with all they experience, all they attempt, and all they achieve, and I see those experiences of building “mystic meaning” happen here at school.

Candy’s Dog

I’m in a room surrounded by bloggers.

Thirty fourteen year olds and I are all working on laptops and chromebooks writing posts that we hope might entertain and tell a meaningful story. Constantly circling us, like a benevolent shark, an inspiring English teacher peeks over shoulders, offers prompting and praise, asks questions, and challenges us to “stretch ourselves” as writers.

photo 1It’s Freshman English, and midway through Of Mice and Men students have paused long enough to do a bit of flash-research and creative writing on a post called: “Candy’s Dog: An Alternative Ending.”

In-class blogging has emerged as an interesting variation on the kind of writing English teachers have been assigning since before Steinbeck wrote his novella. It’s nothing new to see students answering writing prompts, but as I’m learning first hand today, putting their answers into a blog has every student in class focused on developing an “answer” that they feel proud enough to post.

This class is using a program that allows the teacher to share the posts as much or as little as she likes. This could be with peers within the class, students from multiple of her classes, or students across the school. The students seem aware that their audience might be more than their teacher sitting alone at her desk after the bell has rung. the result seems to be a greater level of care and focus.

dogPart of today’s assignment includes finding a picture of a dog and putting it in with the text, a task our teacher has warned us shouldn’t take all of the half hour or so we have to build our post. I went with a picture of a dog I had the pleasure of escorting off campus a couple of years ago; a friend had snapped our photo when he saw how much joy that pup had brought to my morning.

After an initial ten minutes of laughter, searching for photos and quick research on how elderly dogs get treated in contemporary society, the volume of the class has sunk to zero. Keyboards quietly tick as students, and I, hurry to finish our posts before the end of the period.

I leaned over to ask the fellow at my elbow what program they were using to blog; a few minutes later he leaned my way to ask how to spell “infinite.” I’m curious to read his post. We’re working side by side, a teacher never far away, and an audience for our work just around the corner.

I see the hands of the clock sweeping closer to 1:30, when we’ll need to bring an end to our work and send our posts out into the broader world. I’ve promised myself that I’ll live within the same constraints as the students in the class, allowing myself a similar experience and the joy of camaraderie that a challenge like this offers.

We haven’t used words like “paperless” or “21st century learning” today. Students haven’t marveled at something new or different. Instead, today’s blogging challenge feels natural, a simple manifestation of the world in which they learn and live.

I taught English for more than a decade, and wish I would have had the flexibility to share student work that blogging allows. I wish my students might have known that the audience for their work could extend beyond me. If blogging in the classroom is transformative, and it very well might be, it’s a quiet transformation, and one that doesn’t feel as revolutionary as it does a normal part of our world.

Blogging, in the classroom or out, isn’t a new trick, but it seems a nice way to celebrate learning, even for an old dog like me.