Beware the Ides of March (Minus Two)

March 15 is the Ides of March. The phrase ‘Beware the Ides of March’ is yet another Shakespeare quote still in our lives, made famous as a fortune teller’s warning to Julius Caesar about his impending death. I’ve been in a hilarious email exchange this week with about 20 high school classmates, reminiscing about our days in Latin class. Our teacher was a larger-than-life man who had very strict rules for all assigned work, a low tolerance for annoying noises mysteriously coming from the class, a strong slap to the face (or the occasional double-whammy if it was deserved) for those of us who made his life difficult, and, especially for a Catholic priest, an odd fascination with Julius Caesar. He even made us bow our heads for a moment of silence on the Ides of March, the day of Caesar’s death. I was not the best-behaved student in that class (I may or may not have been slapped a few times), but I emerged with stories that still matter. Over forty years later, my friends and I still share stories of antics from that class and how we all bonded from the experience.

But lately, the Ides of March has been nothing compared to March 13 (the Ides Minus Two), which happens to be my birthday. Let’s review my last three birthdays, shall we? At least Caesar was warned something bad was coming.

March 13, 2020. As the clock struck midnight and I turned 58 years old, my leadership team and I were meeting in my office. COVID was all everyone was talking about, there was news of cases in our community, and fear was high among our parents and employees. I am a big fan of keeping schools open, and the state was making it clear that our district would lose money if we decided to close, but there was just too much unknown. Around 1 AM, we decided to close the schools and move to remote learning. When I met with the management team later that morning, they asked me how long I thought we would be closed. Being the great future teller that I am, I boldly predicted two weeks. They still laugh at me for that one, and for every other prediction they asked me to make. They should have stopped asking me, but they took great pleasure in watching me try yet again. My birthday that year was a tough day that required tough decisions, and like all decisions I made over the next 15 months, I pleased some people with it.

March 13, 2021. My team and I were trying to work miracles in order to safely get our students back to in-person school. By this time, we had already brought back our most impacted students with disabilities, high school athletics (just training, not practicing), elementary school students, and middle school students in grade 6. But we still had to figure out how to safely move students from class to class in grades 7-12 while abiding by all health department rules. It seemed like the health department had completely forgotten how high schools work. I’m pretty sure they all went to high school, but we were constantly saying to DPH, “People! That is not how high schools work!” We were working beyond our physical (and emotional) limits, and we just kept going. I withstood the slings and arrows from those who “knew” we were moving too slow or too fast, and I was bolstered by all of the people who took the time to say thank you. Never underestimate the power of gratitude in how it energizes those who need it. Those were days when almost every minute at home was spent on email or the phone, and there was simply no time to celebrate a birthday. I look back and I am so proud of what our team accomplished, but as far as birthdays go, well, I was proud of what all of us in the district accomplished.

This will irk some people, but here’s a pet peeve. If your birthday falls on a work day, GO TO WORK! You went to school when you were a kid on your birthday. Go to work as an adult. Sorry. Where was I?

March 13, 2022. A warning I should have considered was that Daylight Savings Time started on my birthday this year. I love Daylight Savings Time, and I really don’t mind losing an hour, as it turns me from a ridiculously early riser to just an early riser. But most reasonable people loathe losing that hour. They get angry and cranky about it. And this year, because it was on my birthday, it was therefore my fault. You’re welcome, people. Back to my birthday. Finally, this was the year to celebrate. I was turning 60, and as you know, I’m not working! This was the year when I got the birthday I deserved.

We had invited a few people from the neighborhood invited to join us for a back yard bbq, where I planned to cook way more food than the attendees could possibly eat in three dinners. It was fun planning it, but then, the Ides Minus Two struck. As the week leading up to my birthday started, Jill and I learned that we had both been exposed to COVID by a friend who is highly responsible but who still tested positive. What the hell? COVID is practically gone! The rules are minimal, and I still abide by all of them. I have always abided by the rules (well, not in Latin class), and I still was living my life according to DPH guidelines, but NOW, when no one has it, I might get it? So we followed the rules and quarantined. Admittedly, in spite of Jill’s best efforts, I did so with a bit of an attitude. At first, we had no symptoms, then both Jill and I started a slight fever and a sore throat. The next day, we both tested positive and it was game-on from there. We both had extremely sore throats that made it difficult to sleep. My symptoms went away after a few days, while Jill’s got considerably worse before they finally went away.

This was the first sickness I had experienced in over four years. I keep track of my colds/flus in Evernote. I used to keep track of Jill’s too. I thought I was being very helpful when I would say, “You know, this is your third cold this year. Maybe you should work on some healthier habits.” Surprisingly, she did not think it was as helpful, and in an effort to keep our marriage happy and healthy, I have stopped the public service announcements I was giving her. But I still keep track, and it has been over four years for me!

Suffice it to say, the BBQ has been postponed indefinitely. The highlights of my birthday were phone calls with friends and family (my brother Bill said, “From a little baby turkey to an old crusty gobbler, you have been a great big brother!” Sweet, right?), Facebook good wishes (my first time for that – it’s quite nice!), some outstanding email messages, and my neighborhood friends walking up the street and safely singing happy birthday from the middle of the street. At first it felt like they were singing, “Happy F’ing Birthday to You.” Then, I gave myself a well-deserved mental slap (a lesson learned from my Latin days), and truly appreciated it. It was a wonderful neighborhood moment, and I was grateful, but I still would rather have been with them in the back yard, eating food, playing backyard games, and doing what you should do on birthdays.

I spent time on March 13 doing what I recommended in last week’s blog – writing down what I’m grateful for. It’s a long, long list. Truth be told, I think birthday celebrations are overrated. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to solve big problems with bright and caring people over my past few birthdays, and I’ll take the bad with the good. Usually, the bad just turns into yet another life story to share. I think we get in trouble when we think that life owes us anything. Maya Angelou said, “Living well is an art that can be developed: a love of life and ability to take great pleasure from small offerings and assurance that the world owes you nothing, and that every gift is exactly that, a gift.”

But as I said. Beware the Ides of March, minus two.

Mike

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Critical Race Theory – A Superintendent and History Teacher’s Perspective

Critical Race Theory. It’s something I had never heard of until September of last year. And then, I began getting very angry emails and people started coming to board meetings to demand that we stop teaching it. The questions were very much like ones featured in the first-ever school board meeting parody on Saturday Night Live, where a concerned citizen stands up and says, “Hi. I’m so mad I’m literally shaking right now. Forget COVID. The real threat is Critical Race Theory being taught in our schools. My question is, what is it? And why am I mad about it?” 

First of all, those of you who read my blog know that I love their use of the word “literally.” But secondly, it’s a perfect parody, because I’m a former history teacher and school district superintendent, and until I started receiving these emails and listening to these public comments, I too had no idea what Critical Race Theory (CRT) was.

In many board meetings around the nation, mostly in more affluent school districts, this scenario has repeated itself. In speaking with many other superintendents and board members from around the country, not a single one of us, prior to all of this, ever had even a single conversation about CRT, much less about whether or not we should be teaching CRT. So why are we all being yelled at about something we are not doing and until last fall, knew nothing about?

Two trends that have occurred in the last two years help us to understand. First, the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020 galvanized anti-racism forces around the country. In addition, Asian and Pacific Islander hate incidents increased around the nation, in response to both overt and tacit commentary from national leaders condoning anti-Asian actions, making those anti-racism forces even more comprehensive. In my former district, students, former students, and adults in our community were looking for ways to make our schools better for all students – looking for ways to make schools as free from racism and discrimination as possible.

I have great faith in our youth. I have observed and interacted with thousands of students, and I have watched my own children and how they get along with their peers. I truly believe we have never seen a more open-minded generation of young adults. More than ever, they are fully accepting of persons of all races, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities, and more. I think that a big reason for this is that their desire for a discrimination-free America, though renewed, is not new. Brown vs. Board of Education, Title IX, and Special Education laws have been major forces in improving equality in American education. And it’s important to remember that when those changes started having an impact on equality of opportunity in America, then, like now, there was serious backlash. This has never been about everyone being equal – this is about everyone having true equality of opportunity for an excellent education. Our efforts have continued. When I first started teaching in the mid-1980s, we were talking about how to embrace all cultures through multicultural education. And we’ve come a long way since then.

But in spite of that progress, there are still acts of hate that continue to occur in our schools and in our communities. There are racial slurs, anti-Semitic comments, hateful graffiti, and more. I don’t know of any educational leaders who, when confronted by incidents of hate, will accept or ignore those incidents and just say, “Kids will be kids.” That’s why districts like Manhattan Beach and others took an even harder look at what they can proactively do to make schools as hate-free as possible. In Manhattan Beach, this movement kicked into high gear in 2015 when someone firebombed the front door of one of the few black families living in the city. The community rallied around the Clinton family, gathering together for a powerful candlelight vigil to support them. Malissia Clinton’s powerful TED talk on how she was raised, the firebombing, and the aftermath should tell you all you need to know about why this work needs to continue. You can call the firebombing an isolated incident perpetrated by an outlier, but when you start hearing about the common experiences of so many people of color – our students, co-workers, colleagues, and friends – it’s different. I can’t tell you how much it hurt when, at a Board meeting while I was superintendent, I heard from some of our recent graduates about widespread discrimination they experienced while they were in MBUSD. We can and should build better and more inclusive schools.

Enter Christopher Rufo. Wikipedia describes Rufo as an “American Conservative Activist.” He appeared on the Tucker Carlson show in September of 2020 and made the case that Critical Race Theory was an existential threat against our nation. He gave evidence of government trainings on racial sensitivity that were aimed at understanding concepts such as white privilege and systemic racism, and he called on the President of the United States to immediately take action against this threat. Three days later, at the President’s request, Rufo flew to New York to meet on the topic. The President quickly issued memos and even an executive order banning the use of Critical Race Theory in our government. That’s precisely when the emails started, and the board meeting chaos began shortly after.

I’ve received messages stating that by addressing the issues of racism in our community, we are (1) calling our entire community racist, (2) pushing for a Marxist agenda, (3) shaming white students, and (4) being anti-American. All four of those accusations are blatantly false. This is what is happening in districts around the nation, and now states are getting involved. At least seven states have already passed laws making it illegal to teach Critical Race Theory, and 13 more have bills in process. Here’s the problem – I’m a history teacher, and I still have no idea what it means to “not teach critical race theory.”

The least effective history teachers see history as memorizing names, dates, places, and facts. But highly effective history teachers teach students to view the past from different perspectives, to analyze events in terms of who benefited or who suffered from the decisions and actions, and to draw conclusions about why events happened and how they shaped who we are as a nation today. These new laws make teachers question whether or not they can do that. In one Texas school district, teachers were told that if they were going to teach controversial issues, like racism or even the Holocaust, they should present multiple perspectives. A district administrator said, “If you have a book on the Holocaust, [make sure] that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.” The district has since then apologized, but come on people! This is what bad laws do.

Like the Holocaust, there are plenty of events in American history which do not, in my opinion, deserve a different perspective. But they do deserve serious inquiry and investigation to see how they occurred, the impact they had, and what we can learn from them. Here’s just a few of them.

  • Slavery
  • The Japanese Internment
  • The My Lai Massacre
  • The rise, resurgences, and continued existence of the KKK
  • The Sand Creek Massacre
  • The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
  • The racist restrictions on immigration in the 1920s
  • The racist Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision and all the Jim Crow laws that were commonplace throughout the South well into the 2nd half of the 20th century.

It’s OK to teach, and not in the least bit anti-American to say, that America has made tragic mistakes in our past. And it is untruthful to teach students that racism no longer exists in our country or in our community. Our students know better. Our students want to learn from multiple perspectives and read from a diverse group of writers, not just white and male perspectives. We should all know that even though our nation is one of the greatest nations ever for providing equality of opportunity, that opportunity is not as universal as we might think.

And by the way, what is Critical Race Theory? I have researched it, because I wanted to understand, and here is what I gather. CRT is an academic premise postulating that, in examining laws in our country, it is helpful to use the lens of racism to better understand how those laws came to be, as well as what impact they had.  To me, it’s similar to techniques of my history teachers in college, who asked us to examine historical events using an economic lens, a political power lens (by far the most common), a social lens, or a technological lens. Adding the lens of racism might also be helpful. And who makes the decision on what the right answer is? The student. The grade is not based on what a student’s conclusion is, rather it is based on how well a student defends their position.

CRT is not an existential threat against the United States. And it certainly is not something infiltrating our schools. But our schools are not and should not be ignoring incidents of racism and discrimination that are continuing to happen. No one will argue that discrimination is far less of a problem in our schools now than it was a century ago. But to say it no longer exists is putting your head in the sand. Teachers and school boards enter their positions to make life for their students, all students, better. Many of them are taking steps to do just that. Without lowering rigorous standards for achievement, educators are learning how to better address these issues in their classrooms.

Finally, to those who think that the anti-racism efforts are going too far, I urge you to follow the advice of Steven Covey, and seek first to understand, then be understood. Schools are trying to help our students to think for themselves, and a curriculum that reflects diversity and diverse ideas is essential to that effort. We educators are not aiming to make any student feel shame about who they are. In fact, wasn’t it just a few years ago that many were criticizing schools’ efforts to build students’ self-esteem? We want all students to emerge from our schools prepared for their future, confident about themselves, and caring about all others. And in spite of all of our progress, we have miles to go before we sleep.

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Leaving a Place Better Than You Found It

Pop-tops. Some call them pull tabs. What a lousy invention. But they were everywhere when I was growing up. Today, when you open a soda or beer can, you use a Sta-tab, which is what you find on nearly every can in the world these days. Daniel F. Cudzik was the engineer working at Reynolds Metals who invented the Sta-Tab. His picture should be on environmental flags wherever they wave. But he did not invent those until 1975.

This means that from 1959, just before I was born, until the late 1970s, when I was finishing high school, pop-tops were everywhere. To give you an idea, I saw a stat that said the estimated annual recycling weight of Sta-tabs alone was 4 million tons. And I believe it. Over my childhood years, I bet my siblings and I literally picked up at least 1 million tons of them after every trip! (I know I mis-used literally there – I just want to join almost everyone who does the same. Whenever I hear someone use literally in a sentence, I cringe, waiting for the misuse, then I am pleasantly surprised if it’s used correctly. When in doubt, follow Weird Al’s advice, and don’t commit that word crime!

What is it about free people that they feel entitled, or inclined, to leave trash everywhere? China, Singapore, and Russia have clean streets, but in those countries there’s a harsh penalty for being a litterbug. Does Ron Burgundy, who threw away a half-eaten burrito on a San Diego freeway causing Jack Black to wreck his motorcycle which then caused the near death of his beloved dog Baxter, represent all of us? And why don’t Canadians litter like we do? These are important questions! Ask anyone who’s been a public high school principal about kids leaving trash around campus- none of us can walk by candy wrapper or any piece of paper that we spot on the ground without picking it up and throwing it away. I’m not recommending caning, but come on free people!

Whenever my parents took us to a public place, an act that took great courage on their part, whether it was a campground, a picnic spot, one of the islands at Lake Ouachita (Pronounced Wah-shə-taw – and yes, I am a big fan of the schwa!) in Arkansas where we would spend the weekends water skiing, or anywhere else, we always ended the trip the same way. Our parents would start packing the car, and they would tell us to start cleaning up.  And not only the area we had been using, but the surrounding areas as well. We would each have a bag, or even a box, and we picked up every bit of trash there was.

It wasn’t stuff you noticed until you looked for it. Then it was everywhere. Pieces of paper, pieces of foil, broken glass, some occasional big items, but mostly it was two things: cigarette butts and pop-tops. Don’t get me started on cigarettes – an invention that has brought overwhelming death and misery to humanity. We picked up hundreds of discarded butts every time. But those pop-tops, they were everywhere! No wonder Jimmy Buffet stepped on one! As usual, with tasks forced upon us by our parents, we grumbled about it. But we usually felt a begrudging sense of pride when we finished.

My dad and I were reminiscing about those days last week, and as I reflected on it, I thought that the “Leave a place better than you found it” adage is a great life rule as well. I recently left my job as Superintendent of the Manhattan Beach Unified School District. I loved that job. It gave me a great sense of purpose, required all of my leadership skills, helped me to grow as a person, and gave me the opportunity to work with spectacular board members, educators, parents, community members, and students. And in return, I believe I left MBUSD better than I found it. It wasn’t by my efforts alone of course, but it was in coordination with almost everyone there. For those of us rowing together, we should all be proud of what we accomplished over eleven years in terms of curriculum, Advanced Placement success, sustainability (yes – we reduced how much trash we produced!), construction projects, and technology. For a full list click here

As I enter this gap year after 37 years in public education, I am going to keep finding ways to employ the “leave it better than you found it” rule, even though the instrument for that may not be with a job. For the next few months, my focus will be on my health and my home, two aspects of my life that have needed a little more TLC and attention for a while. And then who knows! But I am certain that even without those annoying pull tabs all around me (thanks Mr. Cudzik for doing your part!), there are still all too many cigarette butts, and all of us have many opportunities to leave this world better than we found it.

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Ladybugs and Dogs( Reflections of School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 (#9, April 25, 2020)

It may have been the most thoughtless senior prank I ever experienced.

As a former high school principal, I don’t love senior pranks. Usually, very little thought goes into them, and they end up being destructive, damaging, or time consuming. Occasionally though — and I mean very occasionally —  a group of seniors pulls off a truly clever idea that is not at all destructive, damaging, or time consuming. A few years ago, seniors brought their pets to school. It brought a lot of smiles to campus, and some students declared it the best day ever. My mistake was not saying it was a one-time only event, which I had to say when the next year’s students tried to do the same thing. Clever one year, and inconvenient after that. I know that with my cat allergies, I would not like Bring Your Cat to School Day. But we all know the cats wouldn’t like it either.

During my time as a high school principal, the second-best senior prank was when some students, with inside help, moved my entire office, desk, chairs, bookshelves, everything, into the quad. I “had to” work outside the whole day, holding meetings in the bright sun, and making a spectacle of it all.

But the best prank was when a group of seniors spent months deconstructing a Volkswagen Beetle and then one night rebuilt and secured it around the flagpole in the quad. When I came to work, students and employees were admiring a VW Bug in Malibu High School colors with the campus flagpole rising through the middle of it. It was awesome, and I let it stay there for a week. And when I asked the students to take it down and leave the quad in perfect condition, they did just that. Spectacular.

Back to the thoughtless prank. Some seniors at Santa Monica High School had released about 200,000 ladybugs on campus. I’m not sure that was the number, but that was the rumor. It was a lot. Ladybugs blanketed several hallways and just didn’t know what to do. I’m sure there were rose bushes all around town that would have loved them, and local aphids should have been fearful, but instead the ladybugs were just clogging up the hallways, getting stepped on by people trying to leave the building, and eventually being removed by custodians. It was a needless loss of life for some beautiful and extremely useful creatures, and I hated it. In the course of helping to deal with the prank, I mentioned to one of the office assistants that my then-five-year-old son loved ladybugs, and he would have hated to see this. As I was leaving, the assistant gave me an emptied plastic liter bottle, punched with air holes, containing about 50 ladybugs to give to Dawson. Her unsolicited act of kindness gave me the only smile I had that afternoon, and I am still grateful.

When I came home, Dawson came outside to greet me and I gave him the bottle-o-bugs. He looked at it with big eyes, then looked at me and said these now famous words: “Thanks, Dad. I finally have a pet.

Oh boy.

Dawson had been bugging us for a while for a dog, but he’s such an easy-going kid, that he figured lady bugs must be the next best thing. I turned to Jill and said, “It’s time to get a dog.”

That weekend we went to the local animal shelter and spotted a Pekingese that someone had dropped off at the pound’s front gate. We saw her as she was being taken out of her cage for the first time and walked around. There’s a Kenny Chesney song about his adopted dog, where he sings, “Lying there like a lost string of pearls.”  It’s a perfect line for a beautiful abandoned dog. Dawson and Jill fell in love, I quickly gave up any hope of looking the least bit masculine as I walked this white fluff ball through the neighborhood, and Penelope (Penny) was ours. That was October 18, 2008.

Last Saturday, exactly 11 and one half years later, our Penny died of old age in our arms.

Those of you who have lost beloved pets know that in these deaths you lose a family member and a friend. It hurts.

But it was a great run.

There’s a touching book called The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein. The movie is OK, but the book is special. It features the relationship between the main character, Denny, and his dog Enzo. Their close friendship is almost human in nature, and the dog understands emotions, illness, auto racing, and the meaning of the universe. I don’t think Penny understood any of those things, but she was still a wonderful dog. More from Enzo later.

Pets have been a great source of companionship during this COVID-19 era. There are plenty of Facebook posts about dogs tired of walks and belly rubs, of happy dogs, or dogs imploring their humans to go back to work. I Zoom regularly with two colleagues, one of whom has a dog always begging to get picked up so he can co-Zoom from her lap, and another who has a cat who lurks behind her, ready to attack, like Cato in the Pink Panther movies.  Our pets and companions, intelligent, loving, or diabolically crazy, make our lives so much more full, which is particularly reassuring while we are spending so much time at home with plenty to worry about.

YoungPenny

We adopted Penny when she was four or five, when Dawson was also four or five. They grew up together. She slept at the foot of Dawson’s bed, they played together in their younger years, and when they were older, you could usually find her lying on a soft pillow next to Dawson as he sat at the computer. She didn’t need much: a little food, occasionally with some cheese mixed in, clean water, access to the back yard, and short bursts of companionship. She spent most of her time just looking for a soft place to sit, close to us, but not too close. We called her a cat-dog. She liked us, but didn’t need us, except when she did. We loved her in spite of or because of all of that.

OldPenny

“Dogs’ lives are too short. Their only fault really.” I found that quote from Agnes Turnbull, and I couldn’t agree more.

I have never spent more time at home than in the past few weeks. Never. One of the gifts of that time was getting to spend so much time with Penny in what turned out to be her final weeks with us. All of us being with her at 3 a.m. when she breathed her last breath was powerful and emotional. She knew she was loved, and though I was not ready, I believe she was.

Back to our dog philosopher hero Enzo, who philosophized, as only dogs can do, “To live every day as if it had been stolen from death, that is how I would like to live. To feel the joy of life, … to separate oneself from the burden, the angst, the anguish that we all encounter every day. To say I am alive, I am wonderful, I am. I am. That is something to aspire to.

I am convinced that many of us, when it comes to the pursuit of happiness, are our own worst enemies. We humans overthink things, and the more leisure time we have, the more we overthink our lives. We should learn from our dogs.

One last quote from Enzo the wise sage/dog: “That which is around me does not affect my mood; my mood affects that which is around me.”

We are living in the midst a very challenging time. If we can take the time to step back from our challenges, feel the joy of life, and seek to improve the moods of those around us, that’s good stuff.

Thank you, Penny, for making our moods better every day of your 12 years with us.

May all of your animal friends, dogs, cats, horses, and even ladybugs, past, present, and future, ease your burdens and bring smiles to your faces throughout your lives.

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Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 – (#6, Counselors, April 7, 2020)

I did not have any counselors in my high school. We had an English teacher, Mr. Bersey, who offered to help students in the college application process, but that was about it. Overnight, he went from being my sophomore year English teacher who taught me words like zephyr and zenith and who also gave me many days of Saturday school for my smart aleck comments, to the person I went to for advice when I had questions about college application process. It wasn’t much, but having someone who knew something, as opposed to relying only on the heavily dogeared college application books I was reading, was helpful.

With the exception of what seemed like 37 years in middle school, I led a pretty charmed life through high school and never had anything close to a need for counseling. My parents divorced immediately after I left for college, and the 2000 miles of distance spared me from having that pain in my face every day. My younger brothers and sister were not so fortunate. But life has a way of eventually bringing its share of pain to all of us. The longer you live and the more you listen, the more you know that. I’ve had my share of pain since my twenties, and counseling helped me get through the hardest times. Having someone to talk with, to listen objectively, to question and push, and to call me on the carpet on some of my thinking has helped me tremendously at key points in my life.

As a high school principal, I got to work closely with school counselors. I considered our counselors to be a vital part of my leadership team. In many cases, counselors know students better than anyone, and their insight is often essential to making high quality instruction possible. I spoke last week with the counseling teams that support the students at Mira Costa High School and Manhattan Beach Middle School. I am grateful for the time they shared with me and loved being able to spend an hour with each team, hearing about how they are transitioning to “distance counseling.” I continue to love how Zoom connects us during this crazy time. I have spoken with our counselors many times, but seeing them working from their homes, talking with the group while also attending to the needs of their sometimes very young children, and balancing work and life in this new environment made me feel even more connected with this team of very caring people. All of us smiled when we heard that one of our counselors just witnessed her oldest son take his first steps.

MBMSCounselors
The MBMS Counseling Team

MCHSCounselors
The Mira Costa HS Counseling Team

What a critical thing it is to have people in an organization who are solely devoted to helping students make good decisions and helping them get through difficult times. I wanted to speak with our counselors to learn how they are able to do this without the in-person connections and day to day interactions of regular school.

One of their top priorities has been supporting students who were already in crisis while they were in school prior to March 13, our last day of normal school. Stress and anxiety are real in our high-pressure community. Expectations are high. Some students seemingly thrive on that, but it can be too much for others. It’s often hidden, but many of our students, and students across the country, are in a lot of pain. It made the cover of Time Magazine a few years ago. All of our counselors see students who are in crisis, and this move to distance learning creates an even less connected world that could be even tougher on students. Our counselors recognize this, and when we moved to our distance learning model they immediately began reaching out to these students to try to maintain the connections they have already built and to provide a familiar touchpoint for students who need one. Their conversations are often about school, but they are more about emotions, mindsets, and the tools that students can use to process and cope with self-doubts and sometimes giant challenges in their lives. It is reassuring and comforting to know that our counselors are taking the initiative and maintaining relationships with students during this COVID-19 time.

Our College and Career Counselors have been busy as well. Mira Costa seniors have heard from colleges and are making decisions on where to attend, without the ability to visit their prospective colleges, on where to attend. Counselors have been having telephone or Zoom meetings with the families of our junior students, who are starting the college application process now. It is a crazy time for them, too. Our college and career counselors recently sent out the April edition of the CCC Newsletter as another way of keeping our students and families informed. My son Dawson is a junior. He took the SAT back in January, and now we are not even sure if schools will be accepting SATs. I’m not certain my older son Ryan would have gotten into any competitive university without his SATs. He was not a big believer in turning in homework, and his GPA reflected a stubborn adherence to that lack of belief. But he was born to take tests, and that helped him. As he still tells me regularly when we reflect on those high school days, “It all worked out, didn’t it Dad?”

LawSchoolGrad
Our family celebrating Ryan’s law school graduation. Yes, Ryan, it all worked out!

It worked out for Ryan, but for Dawson, and for all of our juniors, the college application process has never been more uncertain. Our counselors are trying to guide students and families, meeting with them and their families through Zoom to help them navigate a process that none of us yet understands and that is changing as we go. To me, the main point we need to remember is the point that Frank Bruni repeatedly makes in Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. Successful people are not successful because of the college they attended. It’s about their desire to learn, to improve, to take chances, and to work hard through all of it. Bruni writes, “What drives earnings isn’t the luster of the diploma but the type of person in possession of it…A good student can get a good education just about anywhere, and a student who’s not that serious about learning isn’t going to get much benefit.” Channeling Frank Bruni to all of our high school students, our middle school students, and parents – it’s going to be OK.

Our counselors reminded me that life goes on even in this time of social distancing, and that sometimes brings hardship and pain. As they learn about new and sometimes very heavy circumstances that our students are facing, our counselors are reaching out to support them as well. One of our students just learned that his mother has cancer. Other students have witnessed a parent or grandparent go through COVID-19. We have students whose parents are on the front lines in the medical profession, risking their health every day. Financial stresses are straining our families. The health, the emotions, and the lives of the ones we love matter more than anything. Having a trusted adult to talk with outside of the small circle of people with whom we are sheltering in place is sometimes critical to being able to get through difficult situations. Our counselors are working to provide this for students as they go through these real challenges, and I know that it helps.

I’m also grateful that our counselors are not alone in this work. We have so many teachers, instructional assistants, school staff, and administrators who have connections with our students, who love and care for them, and who are still connecting and listening. I know that these trusted adults are providing important and much-needed support, sometimes explicitly and sometimes just by letting students know they are still here. I have often said that teaching is not solely based on traditional content and that the best teaching happens when teachers focus on growth – and not just on academic growth but also on students’ growth as people. My wife used to be an AP Calculus teacher, and now she’s a 5th grade teacher. She talks about how people ask her, “What do you teach?” and for many years her answer was, “Math!” Now when people ask, “What do you teach?” she says, “It’s not a ‘what,’ it’s a ‘who’….I teach 30 individual students.” Meeting each student where they are, knowing what makes them tick, and helping them to grow into the people they will become is way more important than making sure that they remember every single fact and figure that we teach. As Paul Simon sang, “When I think back on all that crap I learned in high school. It’s a wonder I can think at all.” I’m a big fan of the idea that as many adults in the school as possible should teach students to think, to be creative, and to solve problems (that is not the crap that Paul Simon was talking about), help students to grow into good and caring human beings, and support students so that they know without a doubt that adults in their school care about their success a person.

Thank you to our counselors for caring for our students, particularly in this time of social distancing. Thank you to everyone in our schools who is reaching out to do the same. And let’s all remind ourselves that we are in the midst of a brutal time, and that kindness and love are more important than ever.

 

 

 

Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 – (#4, Distance Learning, March 28, 2020)

I am writing this entry on Saturday, March 28, 2020 – after two weeks of distance learning. When I first started visualizing what teaching using distance learning would look like, I mistakenly imagined it would be very similar to classroom teaching. I pictured students spending the day from 8:00 to 3:00 either listening to their teacher providing direct instruction, interacting with their teacher and their classmates, reading, or working on skills or materials. I pictured teachers prepping as usual, giving directions, and being available during their normal work hours. I did not take in all of the complexities that being home due to an epidemic brings. It is remarkably complicated.

And it’s not one size fits all. Not one bit. We have students whose families have stresses that prevent them from being available. We have teachers in the same situation. We have teachers who now have to learn a whole new way of teaching, with entirely different uses of technology. In general, the teachers who are doing their best are spending far more hours than they were spending in the normal jobs. There are long hours of learning, preparation, trial and error, collaboration, research, and more. It’s tough on everyone.

Two weeks in, people are seeking to know the expectations and objectives this new distance learning paradigm. I drafted a set of objectives for our district, then received feedback from a number of teachers and instructional leaders, and together we have developed version one of the MBUSD Objectives for Distance Learning. We will be using this as an overall framework for the teaching and learning we want to see with distance learning. It is clear in its objectives, but leaves the “how” up to the teacher. I already have seen plenty of highly effective strategies and uses of technology that teachers are using to achieve these objectives, and I look forward to seeing more. We will learn together.

MBUSD DISTANCE LEARNING OBJECTIVES

 

Students will continue to learn. This is the message from the Governor of California, and it remains our primary objective in MBUSD. Our teachers have made spectacular efforts to be a source of strength, normalcy, care, and connection in our students’ lives. Teaching and learning will continue in MBUSD through distance learning. 

Teachers will be streamlining the curriculum and focusing on what is most critical for students to learn. Our commitment is to utilize distance learning to prepare students for next year while understanding the evolving challenges that all of us face in the circumstances in which we find ourselves today. We will seek ways to focus our content on our essential standards, so we can better keep all of our learners engaged, and in order to have more opportunities to support students who are not meeting the standards. When we begin the 2020-21 school year, teachers will need to keep this unique year in mind and will teach or review critical concepts as needed before moving to new concepts.

Teachers will strive to help students regularly connect with their classmates and their teacher. The amount of isolation we are all experiencing during this epidemic presents a major challenge to our social and emotional well-being. Our students need opportunities to remain connected with their classmates and their teachers. Teachers will be using a variety of methods to achieve this.


Students will receive feedback on their assignments. We are continuing to communicate with other local districts, the county, and the state regarding report cards, final grades, and, for high school, grades on transcripts. This is an evolving discussion, and one that will place at its center the best way to reflect student learning in circumstances that are far from normal. Unless students are failing multiple courses or are notified that they are not meeting standards or are at risk of failure/retention, they will be progressing to the next level in 2020-21.


Teachers will receive additional time each week to collaborate with colleagues, discuss curriculum, and to share and learn best distance learning practices. Our teachers have done an amazing job in moving to online instruction. But there is still so much to learn, so we will build in one half day of time during one school day each week for additional learning, as this remains an extraordinarily new and evolving world of teaching. MBUSD supports each school in developing its own schedule to provide this time. Each school site will be in touch with its families once that is done.


Everyone needs to be patient and flexible with themselves and each other. Our teachers are working to adjust to a whole new method of instructional delivery and are learning as they plan, often while dealing with the same challenges that all of us face as we adjust to working from home and caring for ourselves and our families in this new reality. We will all work together to help provide students with the ability to plan, manage, and structure their day to the best of our ability. We understand that lessons and assignments may take a little longer or turn out differently than we expect. We know that flexibility is important – for students as well as teachers – and we will seek to provide that flexibility when it is needed.


We will strive to provide assignments and directions to students and families in a timely and consistent manner. Our community has many working parents, including teachers, who appreciate having the lesson plans ahead of time so they can prepare their students for the day/week, which is particularly helpful to students who may need more support from their parents to plan their day. As everyone begins to settle into this new structure, teachers will be more and more able to establish a routine for posting assignments and schedules for upcoming activities so that students (and their parents, when needed) can plan ahead. 


These Distance Learning Objectives will evolve. As we receive feedback from teachers, employees, students, and families, we will learn more about effective and meaningful practices for teaching and learning through distance learning, as well as ways to maintain strong connections within our classroom and school communities. This will be a living document that evolves as we learn.


We will get through this together. With kindness, compassion, creativity, support from the MBUSD community, and a commitment to teach and learn in a sea of change, our teachers and our students will prevail through this epidemic, and our community will emerge stronger and more together than ever.