Tuesday, December 25, 2012

My Questions In Light of Sandy Hook

The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School has been covered from every conceivable angle, and like many of you, I have read nearly everything that has been written.  It’s not that I have a fascination with what happened, rather, I read because I am trying to glean some kind of insight as to how this can happen in the modern world.  Many people are piecing together bits of information trying to figure out why that young man committed such an atrocity.  There will be an explanation from experts, but like most of the times when something like this happens, the best witness – the killer – is not alive to tell, assuming they would be capable of explaining why they would do something so unthinkable.  Brenda Ann Spencer, one of the first school shooters, was taken alive and explained that she did it because “I don’t like Mondays.”  The why is important, but so is the how, and that is what is occupying my thoughts as I keep thinking about this, ten days after it happened.
How, in a democratic society, free of war on its soil for over 150 years, do we have people that arm themselves with weapons of war?  How does anyone in our country have a mindset that governmental tyranny is just a step away, thus a need for individuals to amass small arsenals of weapons?  How is it that a country that has made tremendous advances in medicine in the past 40 years done so little to address mental illness?  How have we advanced beyond a bloody civil rights movement in the middle of the previous century, yet maintain sometimes extreme intolerance of people that are “different?”  How have we as a nation lost our sense of community and perhaps humanity?  How have we become a country that in some places puts up gates to keep others out?  How does a young man, the son of highly educated parents, not receive effective treatment for obvious mental issues and also have such easy access to military grade weapons?
We are a nation of laws.  We are a nation of freedoms and responsibilities.  We are a nation that still considers itself the “caretaker of the world.”  We are a nation that is made up of people of every race, creed, color, nationality, religion, and ethnic background.  So, how do we as Americans come together to ensure that people do not need to worry about sending their children to school, going on a date to a movie, or shopping at a mall?  What I know first hand is that we have a severe lack of understanding about mental illness, and especially in rural areas, horribly little access to mental health professionals.  It is a national disgrace that we spend millions of dollars on unnecessary cosmetic enhancements, yet we come nowhere close to helping those who need professional help for mental illness.  I also know that access to military weapons by civilians is not necessary.  I do not object to people owning guns, but I fail to see any reason for people in a civilized society to have the kind of weapons used in the recent massacres that have taken place in our country.  I also know that in our country we have tremendous fears of people that are different, which is perhaps why people feel a need to arms themselves.  What happened to the “kinder and gentler nation” President George H.W. Bush referred to in his Inaugural Address?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Whole Grade Sharing -- Part I

The process of working together with folks from the Valley school district, as well as North Fayette patrons and students has been exactly what I expected: a challenging, exciting, interesting experience.  Talking to fellow principals that have gone through the same experience, I was told that there would be bumps in the road, and in the past couple of weeks, we have had the bumpy part, or at least our first bumps.  However, I think we have navigated them well and I am very confident moving on that we are going to have this agreement in place soon and we can get down to the planning for next year.  However, even though we’re still a long way from finished, there are some things that standout so far.
First off, I have been impressed by the common goal expressed by so many on the three committees I serve to pull together and create more positive learning opportunities for our children.  That is the focal point and for the vast majority of people, creating the best academic program possible is very important.  Yes, there are some loud voices out there that seem to care a lot more about things that are not quite as important.  But my experience on a daily basis is that a majority of people cares a lot about what we can do to put together a strong school for our kids.  Contrary to many of the rumors floating around, there is a commitment to make this work in both districts.
There have been a lot of emotions expressed on some topics, but I do maintain the best decisions are made when one takes emotion out of the equation.  Because of that, I am encouraged that we are going to take some more time with the school name, mascot, and colors.  I am absolutely convinced the students from both districts will be able to come together on this, and what is now a very divisive issue will be one that unites our kids.  In my opinion, it is a lot more important that our kids are united as one moving forward, and I think the majority of people agree, than what our colors are.  I have tremendous faith in young people because in reality, we need to find a balance between tradition and a new beginning, and the kids are capable of doing that.  What we have not done so far is communicate, and going forward that will happen.  We have some very talented students in both of our schools and we will see how effective our young leaders can be. 
I often pose the question “Are we preparing our kids for our past or their future?”  There is only one right answer – their future.  School, while the centerpiece for many communities, is about the students and we need to keep that are the front of all of the decisions we make.  

Friday, November 16, 2012

What Say You?

Hunh?  ‘Sup?  Dude!  Duuuuuuuudddddddee!  Nice!  ‘Cuz.  It seems that our English language is shrinking!  Listen to a group of high school students have a conversation and they have evolved with the ability to communicate in one-word sentences.  Throw in a little inflection and they can change the context.  Toss in a little emotion and they can change the intent of their message.  Of course, that is if you can actually be so lucky to hear them talk rather than just communicate with their thumbs across the table from one another with their portable electronic devise in hand!  In reality, it is not just the kids today.  Our English language has changed a lot over the years, and part of me questions whether that is a good thing, but more important, are we just more efficient in regard to expressing ourselves? Or, are we not as smart?
A few years ago I watched the movie remake of True Grit.  I am a huge western buff and love the genre.  What has struck me about westerns in recent years is the attention that the directors and producers pay to detail, making certain to make it as realistic as possible.  In True Grit one of the things that stood out to me was the language and how “fancy” the characters spoke using words and phrasing more like I read in Shakespeare than what I hear spoken today.  And then it struck me: the characters in the movie were for the most part uneducated individuals, or had a lot less formal education than we have today.  For example, take a look at this statement by 14-year old Mattie Ross, one of the main characters:
I had hated these ponies for the part they played in my father's death but now I realized the notion was fanciful, that it was wrong to charge blame to these pretty beasts who knew neither good nor evil but only innocence.  I say that of these ponies.  I have known some horses and a good many more pigs who I believe harbored evil intent in their hearts.  I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful.  Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces?  Some preachers will say,  well, that is superstitious 'claptrap.'  My answer is this : Preacher, go to you Bible and read Luke 8: 26-33.
At another point in the movie, another character answers a question posed by young Mattie about possible individuals that she may contact to help her find her father’s killers:
I would have to weigh that proposition. There is near about two hundred of them. I reckon William Waters is the best tracker. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now LT Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say that Quinn is about the best they have.

Highbrow educators will say that we have “dumbed down” the English language, and when you sit and listen to teenagers talk sometimes, it is hard to argue with that.  Knowledge of vocabulary among school age kids is not near what it was, which is troubling because words give meaning to our culture, our civilization.  How can we have a learned society if we do not know the meaning of language?  But then you look at the fact that we have streamlined every aspect of society that we can with fast food and Quick Lube, why shouldn’t we streamline our language?  Skilled “texters” do not even spell out the entire work, using “how r u” rather than taking the additional two seconds to write “How are you?” 

I didn’t need a dictionary to understand the conversations when I watched True Grit, though I did have to listen very close so that I didn’t miss what was said.  However, I am not sure that is the case for younger generations.  Is that a bad thing?  Well, when so much of our history is passed down through written and spoken language, I think it is.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

So What’s Up With School Lunch?

The one complaint that I have heard around school this year that has been repeated over and over, and has come from more than one source, has been about school lunch, more specific, the changes in school lunch. My first year as principal at North Fayette three years ago, I met with student council members, primarily seniors, to discuss matters relative to them at school. We discussed a number of things, and when I gave them a chance to bring up things that they were concerned about, I was surprised that no one brought up lunch. Every other place I had been as an educator, there were at one time or another, issues with lunch. I had seen walk-outs, I had seen “bring a cooler to lunch day,” I had eaten far too many meals myself that were simply something thawed and warmed up next to something out of a can. For full disclosure, I also was a principal at a school with awesome lunches, so good that my wife came to school for lunch with me every other Wednesday for French dip sandwiches on fresh-baked buns! But at that meeting, no one brought it up, so I did. And, after some quizzical looks, the students told me that they were fine with the lunches, and in fact, they thought they were much better than they had been in years past. Carol Stanbrough was new to the position of food service director at that time, and she had made some very good upgrades, at least in the eyes of the students.

Something that has impressed me in the three years I have been here has been Mrs. Stanbrough’s willingness to try new things to provide students with options that they will find attractive. I see and hear her on a regular basis asking students what they think, getting feedback so that she can put together menus and offerings that the students will like. Believe me, that is not common among food service directors. And, I choose to eat at the school quite often, compared to other schools where I worked. Our cooks provide quality food for our students to eat, and a lot of variety. And yes, there have been changes to what is served.

To understand the changes that have been made, we really do not have to look much further than our hallways. Actually, North Fayette is in better shape than most, pun intended! But the reality is that the youth of our nation are fat. Heck the adults of this nation are fat! I’m fat! According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2008 20% of children age 6-11 are obese, which is an increase of 13% from 1980. For older kids, age 12-19, 5% were obese in 1980, compared to 18% in 2008. While those are the obesity numbers, when you add in those kids that are overweight, in our nation over 1/3 of all kids are going to fall into the category of obese or overweight. That does not bode well for their future, and if you want to get crass, it does not bode well for our health care system in the future, which will be stressed by patients with problems related to poor nutrition and the effects of being overweight or obese. I have no way of knowing what the percentages are at North Fayette, but I can tell you that we have kids that are overweight, and a few that would quality as obese.

What is frustrating to me is that this is yet another example where the school is being asked to do the parent's job. There is no way that kids are obese because of the school lunches that have been provided in recent years. It has been years since we served a lot of the “fatty foods.” Yes, we need to take responsibility for kids having access to vending machines and all of the goodies that were sold, and we did exploit kids with easy access to those items in order to subsidize some of our programs. However, when you add up to the total at the end of the day, kids consumed a lot more calories at home than they did at school. The quality of food that many parents are putting in front of their kids is not good! Toss in the lack of exercise kids get outside of the school day, and we have a health crisis! On the exercise front, we are shifting toward more exercise in P.E. I find it ironic that some parents and kids question why they should have to take P.E. It’s for their health! It won’t matter how much they learn in other classes if they don’t live to use it!

It does bother me a great deal that we have been forced to reduce portion size for our student athletes, or they have been required to purchase more than one lunch at a time. Those kids are burning up a lot of energy at practice. That is a huge Catch-22 that will need to figure out. However, the food that is being put on student’s plates is very healthy, with a lot of vegetables and fruits available for the kids. Some of the “rules” seem to reach too far, such as portion size for ketchup. Like a lot of legislation, it seems like it gets messy in the details. Hopefully a little common sense prevails as we get a little more comfortable with these new rules.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Great School Lunch Debate

There have been some noticeable changes with school lunch this year, not only at North Fayette, but throughout the State of Iowa and the country.  New regulations developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been implemented with the goal of providing healthy, nutritional meals for the nation's youth.  Because of this, very strict rules of what must be put on a plate are in place that are leaving students with different choices, and in many instances, new food items on their plate.  Most obvious is the presence of a lot more fruit and vegetables.  At NFHS, there has been a lot of fresh produce items available for the students.  At the same time, there are noticeably smaller portions of meat/protein and grains, primarily bread.  My intent is to provide more information in the coming weeks to try and explain the new regulations, as well as to explain why this has happened to our students and community.  For the time being, I encourage you to read the linked article from the September 11, 2012 Des Moines Register.


Sunday, September 2, 2012

Ten Things I Want To Tell Teenage Girls

The following come from Kate Elizabeth Conner and was published in her Lily Pads blog March 25, 2012.  When I first read this I wanted to pull all of the young ladies at the high school together and read it to them, and then race down to the middle school and do the same with the 7th and 8th graders.  Then I thought, “Am I comfortable standing up in front of a group of teenage girls and having this conversation?  Am I crossing any kind of a line?  Should I just share the article with my own daughter and call it good?”  Then I shared it with a couple of other dads that have daughters and they encouraged me to share it with other parents.  So, that is what I am doing.  I would guess that if you share this with your daughter, you will have some interesting conversation, as I did.  If you are a female student reading this, these are things I really do want to tell you because far too often I see young ladies marginalize themselves without knowing it.  Far too often high school girls get caught up in all kinds of image issues that are destructive and detrimental.  I hope that this makes sense!
1. Don’t go to the tanning bed.  You’ll thank me when you go to your high school reunion and you look like you’ve been airbrushed and then photoshopped compared to the tanning bed train wrecks formerly known as classmates – well, at least next to the ones that haven’t died from skin cancer.
2.  If you choose to wear shirts that show off your breasts, you will attract boys.  To be more specific, you will attract the kind of boys that like to look down girls’ shirts.  If you want to date a guy who likes to look at other girls’ boobs and chase skirts, then great job; keep it up.  If you don’t want to date a guy who ogles at the breasts of other women, then maybe you should stop offering your own breasts up for the ogling.  All attention is not equal.  You think you want attention, but you don’t.  You want respect.  All attention is not equal.
3.  When you talk about your friends “anonymously” on Facebook, we know exactly who you’re talking about.  People are smarter than you think they are.  Stop posting passive-aggressive statuses about the myriad of ways your friends disappoint you.
4. Newsflash: the number of times you say “I hate drama” is a pretty good indicator of how much you love drama.  Non-dramatic people don’t feel the need to discuss all the drama they didn’t start and aren’t involved in.
5.  “Follow your heart” is probably the worst advice ever. 
6. Never let a man make you feel weak or inferior because you are an emotional being.  Emotion is good; it is nothing to be ashamed of.  Emotion makes us better – so long as it remains in it’s proper place: subject to truth and reason.
7.  Smoking is not cool.
8.  Stop saying things like, “I don’t care what anyone thinks about me.”  First of all, that’s not true.  And second of all, if it is true, you need a perspective shift.  Your reputation matters – greatly.  You should care what people think of you.
9. Don’t play coy or stupid or helpless to get attention.  Don’t pretend something is too heavy so that a boy will carry it for you.  Don’t play dumb to stroke someone’s ego.  Don’t bat your eyelashes in exchange for attention and expect to be taken seriously, ever.  You can’t have it both ways.  Either you show the world that you have a brain and passions and skills, or you don’t.  There are no damsels in distress managing corporations, running countries, or managing households.  The minute you start batting eyelashes, eyelashes is all you’ve got.
10.  You are beautiful.  You are enough.  The world we live in is twisted and broken and for your entire life you will be subjected to all kinds of lies that tell you that you are not enough.  You are not thin enough.  You are not tan enough.  You are not smooth, soft, shiny, firm, tight, fit, silky, blonde, hairless enough.  Your teeth are not white enough.  Your legs are not long enough.  Your clothes are not stylish enough.  You are not educated enough.  You don’t have enough experience.  You are not creative enough.  There is a beauty industry, a fashion industry, a television industry, (and most unfortunately) a pornography industry: and all of these have unique ways of communicating to bright young women: you are not beautiful, sexy, smart or valuable enough.  You must have the clarity and common sense to know that none of that is true. None of it!  You were created for a purpose, exactly so.  You have innate value.  You are loved more than you could ever comprehend; it is mind-boggling how much you are adored.  There has never been, and there will never be another you.  Therefore, you have unique thoughts to offer the world.  They are only yours, and we all lose out if you are too fearful to share them.
You are beautiful.  You are valuable.  You are enough.