Tag Archives: middle school

Rogue Lenses and Miniature Elephants

rogue rōɡ/ adj.

  1. Vicious and solitary.
  2. Large, destructive, and anomalous or unpredictable.
  3. Operating outside normal or desirable controls.

Twenty three minutes. That’s how long it took me to coax my contact lenses on to my eyeballs this morning. That was a pretty good split for me. I consider taking twenty three minutes to put in my contact lenses a small, but significant, victory. Made my day!

I go to war with my contact lenses almost every morning. Rarely do I walk away victorious. Yes, the contact lenses eventually show mercy and smugly lay themselves over the pupils of my baby blues. On the very worst of mornings, however, a rogue lens will sometimes flee to the deep dark corner of my eyeball. Once, after 30 minutes of poking and pressing a lens on the vicinity of my right pupil and repeatedly missing my target, I waved the flag of surrender. I assumed the lens had escaped by jumping to my bathroom floor. Defeated and discouraged, I didn’t even bother to look for the scoundrel. I just grabbed my loyal Burberry frames and ran out of my house, late for work, tense and sweating from the battle.

Later that morning, while reading a legislative update, I felt a seismic sneeze developing in my sinus. I instinctively closed my eyes as the blow reached my nostrils, bracing for the eruption. When I opened my eyes, I flinched and then grimaced, feeling what I thought was an eyelash stuck in the corner of my eye. Irritated, I walked quickly to the restroom, poking and picking at my eye once again. Standing in front of the mirror, I grabbed each eye lid with my thumb and pointer finger and pried the lids apart. I stepped closer to the mirror. Staring at my eyeball, I spied the outer edge of the runaway contact rolling into sight from the back of my eye socket! Apparently, the lens had been hiding behind my white orb for several hours. My earth-rattling sneeze dislodged it and pushed it to the surface! “A-ha! Gotcha!” I squealed, as I pinned the lens to the corner of my eye with the tip of my finger and not so skillfully slid it into its proper place. Victory, right? Well, not exactly. One lens in in one eye and no lens in the other is useless. Defeated again.

I try to keep a diverse supply of lenses at my disposal. It’s my belief that effective school leaders look at every situation through as many different lenses as there are stakeholders. As I have just demonstrated in the preceding war story, not all lenses lay on the leader’s eye as comfortably as some. But, no matter the discomfort, no matter the effort required, all lenses must be utilized to gain perspectives otherwise overlooked. Leaders make decisions based on their own perspectives as they intersect with the multiple perspectives of stakeholders. Perspective is a function of knowledge and experience. Without knowledge and experience, the view through any lens is likely to be skewed.

I am reminded of a book I read for an Ethno-music History class during my freshman year in college – The Forest People, by Colin Turnbull. The ethnographic descriptions in this book are all about perspective. One vignette comes to mind: A boy who has lived his entire life under a jungle canopy finds himself for the very first time looking at a herd of elephants in a huge clearing just at the edge of the jungle. Having never experienced any real space, having no real concept of visual distance outside of the crowded jungle foliage, he reaches out to touch the tiny elephants that appear to be just inches before his eyes. Looking through a lens limited by lack of knowledge and limited experience, he does not realize that these elephants are enormous and in fact several hundred yards away. They are not miniatures, and he struggles to make sense of this realization. But, with a new lens through which to view the elephants, a whole new world lies before him.

I struggle at times to take advantage of opportunities for impacting student learning when the view I see through any lens is limited by my lack of experience. I am currently working with our district Family and Community Engagement team to re-focus district wide efforts for increasing student learning through parent engagement. I will limit the impact of this effort if I try to view each of our 23 schools’ parent engagement needs through one lens. My lens is bias. That bias grows exponentially when I consider the intersecting perspectives of the numerous parents, teachers, administrators, and community members who are on this journey with me. The only way to battle that bias is to utilize the diverse lenses at my disposal. Take one lens out; put another lens in. Repeat. Take that lens out; put a different lens in. Repeat.

When we talk with teachers and administrators about how parents perceive our schools (do they see partnership schools or fortress schools?) we must remove the educator lenses from our eyes and replace them with parent lenses. Some educators who are not also parents might find themselves in a lens war, poking and pressing to properly place the lens onto the pupil. When we partner with parents to ensure that all diverse students are valued and provided equitable learning opportunities, we must put an advocacy lens in one eye and a cultural competency lens in the other. These are not soft lenses. For some, these lenses are not easily worn. They are not even easy to find. Many cultural competency lenses go rogue, hiding behind our white orbs, hindering a clear view of what is real. Some lenses have to be taken captive. “Capturing the contact lens” is actually the technique I’ve developed for securely placing rogue lenses in my eyes each morning. When that sucker just refuses to go in, I literally grab the lens off my fingertips with muscled eyelids, and like a Venus flytrap, clamp my eyes shut. After a little eyelid massage from my finger, the lens, no matter how reluctant, always finds its resting place on my pupil.

We must keep many lenses of all shapes, shades, and sizes at our disposal if we are to build strong parent-school partnerships. We must constantly change those lenses so that we don’t mistake huge elephants as miniature. And, whatever we do, we must never give in to a rogue lense. Even if it takes a battle to get that lens onto my eye, and even if it is uncomfortable to wear, it must be worn. If we allow a rogue lens to jump on to the floor, never to be found, then we risk not seeing from a unique perspective that could have helped one more parent be engaged and one more child succeed.

How many different lenses have you had in your eyes today?

In My Ear, In the Moment, In 2015

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, which makes both figurative and literal sense when the picture is a photo of an actual thousand pieces. The thousand pieces you see in the picture above is from my dismantled iPhone.  Most of those pieces are not visible to you, because they are tiny. I mean tiny like fleas on a dog tiny, and equally aggravating. And by the way, some of those tiny screws are now forever lost in the forest of my bedroom carpet.  What you are really looking at is a bona fide near miss #holidaycatastrophe. But, lucky for me, I had Jason Mraz in my ear.

I like to listen to NPR on my car radio in the morning while driving to work.  My favorite NPR segment is “In Your Ear”. Guests on the program share the music they currently are listening to on their iPods, and describe why their picks inspire them, move them, or just plain make them happy.  This past week, along with the usual Christmas carols and Fa-la-la-la-las, this Jason Mraz song was in “In My Ear.”:

Living in the moment.
Living my life.
Easy and breezy.
With peace in my mind.
I got peace in my heart.
Got peace in my soul.
Wherever I’m goin’,
I’m already home.
Living in the moment.

That’s a lot of peace.  We can never have too much peace.  In fact, like many educators, I was more than ready for some peace of mind when my Holiday break rolled around last week.  Educators experience a mad flurry of “have to get done” projects and events at the end of December. My mad flurry was no exception, and to slow things down a bit, I decided to cut some Christmas shopping corners.

For a variety of practical reasons, I wanted Santa to give each of my children phones. I did not want, however, to spend any money to get there. My fifteen year-old already owned a beat-up early generation iPhone with a shattered screen that was barely held together with duct tape. My eleven year-old did not have a phone. My wife had recently purchased a new iPhone 6, and my work phone was scheduled to arrive any day. In hindsight, I probably should have just purchased new phones for each of them.  Instead, I succumbed to the evil Daddy Cheap Skate standing on my left shoulder whispering in my ear, “You can spend $30 on two new screens and a tool kit to replace the cracked screens on your phone and Gwen’s phone, and slyly pass them off as new to your children on Christmas morning! Bwwwaaahhhh ha ha! ”  Tempting me further, Daddy Santa Claus Wannabe was standing on my right shoulder whispering, “Picture it! Your beautiful grateful children on Christmas morning, wide-eyed, smiling broadly, and in perfect gleeful unison exclaiming, “Thank you Mommy! Thank you Daddy!” with Karen Carpenter crooning “Happy Holidays! Happy Holidays!” in the background.” A Norman Rockwell moment, right?  Not exactly.

Have you ever tried to replace an iPhone LCD screen?  Well, don’t.  Contrary to what the nice man on the ten-minute  YouTube video says in his best Bob Ross annoyingly calm voice, it is nearly impossible. Just to get to the tiny screws that hold the iPhone together, you have to remove each and every minuscule Silicone Valley part from the belly of that phone.  AND THEN YOU HAVE TO PUT THEM BACK TOGETHER, if you can find each of the removed screws.  Not going to happen!  In the end, one of our phones powered on, but the touch screen did not work.  The other phone’s screen stubbornly remained black, even though it did power on, as evidenced by the two short vibrations coughed from the phone when we flipped the ringer switch.  My wife and I spent seven hours – I am not exaggerating – SEVEN hours locked in a very tense room trying to create the perfect Christmas moment.  Seven hours we will never get back.  Our Christmas happy disappeared somewhere around hour three.  There was no “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me” in that room.  My wife was crying and I was on the verge of tears myself.  Christmas was ruined.  Then I remembered…I had Jason Mraz in my ear:

If this life is one act,
Why do we lay all these traps?
We put them right in our path
When we just wanna be free.
I will not waste my days
Making up all kinds of ways
To worry about some things
That will not happen to me.

Of course Christmas was not ruined.  But, I had set myself up for failure. I had laid this trap myself and led my wife and me right into it.  I was not “easy and breezy” with peace in my mind, heart and soul.  Instead, I viewed every passing moment as a threat to a happy family Christmas.  Instead of living in those moments, taking on the challenge with joy, I batted defensively at each one and watched them fly by with despair.  Once those moments passed, I didn’t feel relieved; I felt defeated. Those moments became part of the past, lost to time, never to return again. Some argue that the past and the future are really just creations of man, ideas that cannot be proven. The only thing we can prove, they say, is that we are here right now, in THIS moment.  And, now, actually THAT moment is gone. And, THAT one.  Get ready…here comes the next moment…and there it goes.

When I think of life as a series of precious moments strung together, one after the other, it gives me a renewed sense of purpose and empowerment.  I can choose to live in those moments, even the most difficult moments, breath them in and taste them, soak in them and experience them as the gift of life itself.  This includes moments in my personal and professional lives. An educator’s day consists of a stream of quickly moving and high energy overlapping moments.  According to Shawn Achor (@shawnachor) of GoodThink, Inc. and author of The Happiness Advantage, the key to my happiness as a school leader depends on whether I live in each moment as if it is a threat or a challenge.  I chose school leadership (or did it choose me?) because of its problem-solving focus, so I know I can live happily in the moment of any challenge.  In the moment of a perceived threat, however, I just react and miss the moment altogether. Peace of mind, heart and soul will flow only from my choice to accept a difficult moment as a challenge rather than a threat to merely survive.

As I head into 2015, I’m choosing to live in each moment, viewing tiny little screws and thousand piece problems as challenges rather than threats.  Instead of trying to create perfect Norman Rockwell moments to live in, I’ll live in the moments I’m dealt.  With peace in my mind, in my heart, and in my soul!  If I get a little off course at work or at home, I’ll pay closer attention to that song in my ear.

I’m letting myself off the hook for things I’ve done.
I let my past go past
And now I’m having more fun.
I’m letting go of the thoughts
That do not make me strong.
And I believe this way can be the same for everyone…
Living in the moment.

If  you’d like to have Jason Mraz’s song in your ear, go to

 

Lost In a Daydream

“The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.”  – Anatole France
My family and I followed my wife to Europe a few summers ago while she was teaching opera students in Spoleto, Italy. Her teaching schedule allowed one weekend of free time, so we made the most of it using the rail system to see as much of Europe that we could pack into 3 days. It turned into quite the adventure. After spending an evening in a sleeper car on a train from Paris that broke down in the Alps, we found ourselves somewhere between Milan and Rome on a bullet train that was sitting painfully motionless on the track in the middle of grape vineyards. Our trip was halted  because the train terminal in Rome several miles ahead was reportedly on fire. Seriously. The Griswolds’ “European Vacation” had nothing on us.
My daughter, Katelyn, 8-years old at the time, was bored out of her mind sitting on that motionless train. I glanced at her in the seat next to me.  Her eyes told me that she was lost in a daydream as she slowly and smoothly turned a bottle half filled with water over and over.  I watched her for about 10 minutes.  Then, without stopping, she said quietly, “I wonder why the water in this bottle doesn’t just clump up; I wonder why it follows the shape of the bottle.”  I started to say something to her about molecules and blah, blah, blah, but she quickly stopped me: “No Daddy! I don’t actually want to know the answer.  I just want to wonder about it.”  And, she went back to twirling her bottle.
Wow. Out of the mouths of babes!  I learned a lot from my daughter in those 10 minutes.  I saw the seeds of inquiry-based learning up close and personal.  I saw what intrinsic curiosity and a drive to learn looks like disguised as an 8 year-old’s daydream.  I imagined how this same scene might play out in a classroom. How might a teacher huddle up next to a daydreamer, tap into her curiosity and activate inspired learning? 
I stumbled upon such a teacher – a character in a Newbery Award winning book from 1954: The Wheel On the School by Meindert DeJong, illustrated by Maurice Sendak.  I had never heard of this book, but Sendak’s name caught my eye in a pile of books a teacher put on an “up for grabs table” at the end of a school year, so I claimed it for my own.  In the story, a teacher challenges his students to wonder: 
“We can’t think much when we don’t know much.  But, we can wonder! From now until tomorrow morning when you come to school, will you do that?  Will you wonder why and wonder why? Will you wonder why storks don’t come to Shora to build their nests on the roofs, the way they do in all the little villages around?  For sometimes when we wonder, we can make things begin to happen.”
 
As the story unfolds, these children DO wonder and they DO make extraordinary things happen.  Is this true of our own students: our quiet thinkers who sit on the corner of the playground and our classroom daydreamers who frustrate us to no end because they appear to not be engaged in learning?  Maybe our daydreamers are wondering about things that are more educationally rich than the so-called knowledge we expound. Maybe they are poised to “make things happen”. How can we incorporate into our school day the freedom to daydream about the “whys?” the “what ifs?”  and then provide opportunity for daydreamers to examine ideas that spring from their wonderment?  
 
“But, the school day is short” we all say. Yes, it is. So, why would we waste any bit of it?  We should use that valuable time looking for opportunities to jump into a child’s daydream and awaken their natural curiosity. It comes down to choices about what we value about learning. Can we carve out some instructional time for the daydream, find ways to gently shake it up, and then through artful teaching satisfy student curiosity and guide students to make things happen?  I wonder…

Change Is…(You Fill In the Blank)

I am a visual person.  I like art and images with sharp angles and clean lines.  Angles are strong.  Lines are reliable, predictable.  I am drawn to Frank Lloyd Wright’s use of line and angles in his architecture and stained glass.  I can stare at long stretches of city skyline for hours, mesmerized by the tall vertical lines of the buildings and the linear expanse of horizon beneath.  A line represents decisiveness and control of self, as in “This is where I draw the line.”

I often photograph objects that are defined by prominent lines.  I took the photo for this blog’s title page (take a look above), with its clean lines defining perspective and sense of predictable destination. Some of my friends have asked me about the photo subject: “Is it a retro disco bowling alley?” No, it is not. “Is it an airport runway at night?” No. Although, now that you mention it, rows of runway lights at night would make for an exciting photo shoot! “Did you snap this photo during a near death experience as you slowly moved toward the light?” That one made me laugh. No. That didn’t happen either.

I shot this photograph in Pittsburgh.  The photo is from inside the Fort Pitt Tunnels – or, as the locals call them, “the tubes” – that cut through Mount Washington. I grew up in Beaver, Pennsylvania, about 35 miles north of “the tubes”.  Going into the city was always a treat when I was a kid. Weekend day trips to see Willie Stargell and the Pirates beat the Phillies at Three Rivers Stadium, the Barnum and Bailey circus at the Civic Arena, or the annual river regatta always began with a trip through the tubes.

As a kid, the drive through the tubes was magical. Still is. If you are from Pittsburgh, you know what I am talking about: Entering the tubes, light momentarily turns to darkness. Eyes adjust to the glow from pale yellow lamps lining the tunnel ceiling. The AM radio station goes static, replaced by the hum of the car wheels bouncing off and between tunnel walls.  Looking ahead through the windshield, a small hole of light in the distance grows bigger, and bigger, until a sudden blinding flash accompanied by the blare of returning radio music announce the majestic downtown Pittsburgh skyline and its adorning three rivers. The way the city just appears, poof!, as if out of nowhere takes your breath away.  I’ve made that thrilling trip hundreds of times, each time with obvious and absolute certainty about where the tunnel leads. Completely predictable, familiar, and safe.  Confining walls serve as guiding lines and provide a sense of control over where I am headed . Tunnel vision, I suppose. I like to know where I am going.

My mom is the same way.  My dad often lovingly says of her, “The woman knows what she wants.”  Mom relies upon predictability and control of her space. My children went to visit my mom and dad for a weekend this summer.  When they returned home, the first thing my daughter reported was a description of going to church with Grandma.  Apparently, even at church, Grandma tries to control her space.  My daughter recounted: “Dad, there was a pillow on the pew.”  I replied, “I’m not surprised. I remember those pews being hard on the hind end.”  My daughter clarified, “No.  Dad. It was Grandma’s pillow, one from her living room, waiting there for us. Dad, she saves that seat by leaving a macrame-covered pillow on that same pew each week. A pillow from her living room. Did you know that?  She leaves it there, Dad.  Each week. Don’t you find that weird?”  Aside from the macrame, I honestly did not.  It makes perfect sense to me. Grandma, like me, finds great comfort in the predictable and in the familiar.  And, if she can control her space by marking it with a tacky pillow from her living room, by golly she will do it!

The problem with permanent pillows on pews and predictable trips through tunnels is that inevitably one day Grandma’s pillow will be moved to another pew and my tunnel vision will limit a view of what could or might be.  Then what?  And, those reliable lines? Illusion. They are not really all that reliable.  There are no straight lines in life.  While I may be able drive through a tunnel and look in the rear view mirror to see where I have been, there really is no telling with certainty where I am headed.

I took this photo in the bathroom at the Pinewood Social in Nashville, TN.
I took this photo in the bathroom at the Pinewood Social in Nashville, TN. Great food!

Life is full of uncertainties.  Life is the sum of a succession of uncertainties and constant change.  Change simply IS.  And, because change IS, we can’t see the future and we can’t control what will or will not be waiting at the end of the tunnel.  When we experience unexpected change, we can choose to fold or we can adapt and embrace the change as an opportunity.

I am currently experiencing unexpected change.  Six weeks ago, I thought that I was on one path, only to find that God had a different plan for me.  In my case, the change presented a career opportunity.  And, while I struggled mightily with the absence of a clear line, I seized the opportunity.  As a school leader, I am trained to lead adaptive change, to encourage and guide my school community through necessary change for the benefit of student learning.  I feel very comfortable in that role, and I enjoy it.   But, when the shoe is put the other foot, and I am experiencing unexpected change, I find it unsettling. This is a good lesson for me as school leader.  It teaches me empathy for educators who experience disequilibrium when change, planned or unplanned, flips their teaching worlds upside down.

Take one more look at the photo of the Fort Pitt tunnel at the top of this page.  The photo is actually upside down, as if we were driving alongside the ceiling lights.  When I set up this blog several months ago, I intentionally flipped the photo to remind me that even the most familiar and seemingly predictable of life comforts will eventually, and probably without warning, be someday turned upside down.  When that day arrives, I will have to adapt to that change and still find my way to the light at the end of that tunnel.

So, filing in the blank in the title of this post, for me Change is . . . like traveling through a tunnel toward a destination I’ve chosen, and suddenly realizing that the tunnel has been turned upside town creating disequilibrium and life uncertainty.  If I view this topsy-turvy ride as liberation from tunnel vision and an opportunity to grow and learn and contribute, I will adapt and thrive.  I can experiment and take risks, and give myself permission to fail. I can redirect my line of vision and refocus my sight on a new light at the end of my tunnel.

Epilogue:   Hoping to gain some different perspectives regarding “change”, I recently asked my #PTcamp PLN, educators from across the US, to send me Voxer audio clips finishing the sentence, “Change is …”  and to provide insight regarding the change process in education. They gladly accepted the request.  You can listen to their comments on Coloring Outside the Lines at BAM Radio Pulse here.