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March 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 6

Voices: The Principal / And Now, A Word from Your Principal

"Remarkable writing! Please send me a copy." Such was my instructor's comment on my final paper for Advanced Composition, a terrific course I took at the University of California at Berkeley to earn my elementary school teaching credential.
Based on the findings of the then brand new Bay Area Writing Project, the course was designed to improve student writing by first improving the writing skills and writing attitudes of their teachers. It was also memorable for giving me a taste of what my students would go through. Each class meeting we wrote something, read it aloud, and responded to one another's work. But thinking my writing wasn't good enough, I read nothing aloud.
In the years since, I've seen the importance of experiencing school life from a student's point of view. As a principal at two northern California elementary schools, it's made me a better instructional coach of the teachers on my staff. I've also discovered the importance of modeling the tasks we expect of our students.

Showing and Telling

Here at the Bullis-Purissima Elementary School, children are often asked to read their essays or other writing aloud and to listen to the response. I know first-hand how difficult this can be—even for a reasonably confident adult. To rise to the challenge of modeling this task, I resolved to include a personal essay in the principal's newsletter I publish.
Each week I dutifully present announcements, notices of upcoming events, opinions, and student quotes. I try to avoid the distant, dry tone that so often creeps into a principal's communications. Students, after all, are urged to let their own voices through in their writings; as their principal, I also attempt to personalize and humanize my newsletter.
In introducing my new essay feature, I didn't promise to address anything in particular, nor did I promise to entertain or to inform. What have I written about? I have given my candid opinion of a popular television show: I hate The Simpsons. I know that TV Guide rated it one of the best shows of all time, and that it is full of clever satire. Although my son will never believe it, I have laughed while watching it. But I hate it because of what I fear our students take away from it—namely, the incredible rudeness the Simpsons display. I see such rudeness mimicked often on our playground; a quick putdown has become the norm when someone interferes with what someone else is doing.
  • I get more feedback when I'm humorous than when I'm serious.
  • Sometimes what I think is not good enough is.
  • Sometimes what I think is good enough isn't.
  • Writing is a wonderful opportunity for thinking precisely.
  • If you want to understand something, it helps to write about it.
I have accounted for the presence of a Canadian goose on our playground: Around the school grounds you'll hear lots of opinions about why it's here: it's grieving for a lost mate, it's retarded, it's been wounded by a hunter, it's discovered a rare breed of tasty insect, it's our new yard duty. But geese and I go way back, and I want you to know the real reason that it's here.My family believed in home remedies, of which my father's favorite was goose grease. That's right, the grease that drips into the pan when you roast a goose. My grandmother would cook a goose for a large family gathering, and my father would collect the grease in a jar and store it in our refrigerator. There it would sit, available to torture me if I should claim to be sick. If I was coughing, someone would rub goose grease all over my chest. If I had that all-over achy feeling described in Alka Seltzer ads, I could count on a nighttime cocktail of warm milk and goose grease.I share this to explain my affinity toward geese. Live geese, that is. A live goose could not contribute to the supply of goose grease. I see a live goose as a friend, and geese sense this. So that's the real reason it's here.
The act of publicly modeling a task we expect of our students has been a powerful one for me. It isn't easy to write a weekly essay; doing it has put me in closer touch with the children as they struggle to complete their writing assignments. As instructional leaders, we need to undertake such modeling more often. We might find that participating in such assignments leads us to modify our activities for children based on what we learn.
I chose to write weekly essays, but you may do something else in front of your students that you expect them to do. Dress up as a historical figure for a day or begin learning another language. Then write about it. You may find, as I did, that more students are paying attention, and that they—and their parents—finally see you as a real person. And someone may well say, "That's remarkable! Please send me a copy."

George Manthey has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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