Sep 01

Project-Based Learning and Real Life

[Our book Building School 2.0  will be released in one week! Pre-order it today!]

Now it's real. On the shelves in seven days. http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/1118076826/ #school20

My copies of the book that Zac Chase and I wrote arrived today. Not the PDF proof… not the galley print… but the thing. The actual book.

It is an incredible feeling — to hold a book you wrote in your hand. And it actually caught me by surprise how meaningful the moment felt. I mean, I’ve been showing people the galleys for a few months now… it’s been on Kindle for a few weeks… but this is the real thing. It’s really going to happen. People will be able to go into a bookstore and buy the thing that Zac and I created.

And as I was holding it, I thought back to the first time I met Larry Rosenstock of High Tech High. It was during the planning year of SLA, and he gave me a copy of the book that his students published that year. The pride and excitement he had about what his students created was palpable and inspiring. And I don’t think I fully got it then – what it meant that his kids had created something powerful and of value that was real in the world.

Over the last ten years at Science Leadership Academy, I’ve seen kids build, make, create and do in incredible ways. I’ve seen kids take incredible — and justifiable — pride in what they’ve done. It’s an incredible thing… to see people get such obvious pleasure and pride from creating something that they are proud of… that is uniquely theirs (even, yes, when it’s a group project.) And sometimes, it’s easy to forget that feeling… to forget why it’s so important to make sure that we just don’t “do projects” in school, but instead we create the conditions by which our kids can do real work that matters to the world.

I hope people read the book Zac and I wrote. I hope educators and parents sit down and talk about it together. I hope it helps people who care deeply about students and school to evolve their institutions in powerful ways. And today, I held this project I did in my hand, and I felt that sense of excitement that this thing my friend and I did together might just make a difference in the world. And I want every kid at SLA – and beyond – to know that feeling… to know that they can do real work in the world that matters. I want every student to have that moment of accomplishment of seeing a project through to completion, but more importantly, I want them to have that feeling of knowing that finishing the project is actually just the beginning.

Aug 24

How To Plan Better Professional Development

[Only 16 days until the release of our book, Building School 2.0! Pre-order it today!]

So… after yesterday’s post, several folks asked me to talk about how to make PD better.

There are as many ways to make professional development better as there are ways to make our teaching better… what follows are just a few. The overarching thing to remember is this – we have to be one school. The same set of values that we look for in our classrooms should be what we value in our professional development. With that:

  1. Root professional development in the work teachers do. Asking teachers to do exercises that are not based in the work of the day is inauthentic. For example, if your school wants to do a deep dive into reading across the curriculum, ask teachers to bring their current unit plans and work together to ensure that all readings that students are assigned have reading comprehension activities attached to them. Have teachers work together to study a text like Subjects Matter and apply lessons learned, and then come back together for reflection after the work has been implemented.
  2. Don’t come in with answers – come in with questions. Inquiry-based professional development, where teachers are working to collaborative to solve challenges the school faces is incredibly powerful. We’ve looked at issues of culture, of student performance, of cultural competence as a faculty, where we asked ourselves hard questions and then looked to solve them. You don’t solve hard questions in a single meeting, of course, but a committee of teachers can come up with a powerful lens or frame on a problem, ask challenging questions, and then take the outcomes of the conversation back into committee to then craft next steps. When real problems are taken up by the whole faculty, solutions can come from unexpected places, and often the wisdom of the room will end up solving the problem in ways that a single voice ever could have.
  3. Don’t plan professional development yourself. We have a committee structure at SLA that is fully teacher-led. Committee chairs come together to set broad professional development agendas for the semester, and then the different committees plan professional development in consultation with administration. Everyone has a stake in planning useful PD, because we all sit through each other’s sessions. When we all feel responsible for each other’s learning, people spend the time to make it meaningful.
  4. Prioritize – I’ve seen too many schools and districts that treat every single PD session as an opportunity to present a new idea, as if one two-hour PD session is ever enough to fully learn an educational idea enough to then be amazing at it in the classroom. School faculty should figure out what are the primary goals of the school that year, and then seek to weave those goals through all professional development for the year (or two.) When everything is a priority, nothing is, but when we set a few big goals and then ensure that the overwhelming majority of the professional learning is in service of those goals, amazing things can happen.
  5. Follow-up. If PD happens in a meeting, and then the work isn’t prioritized by administration, it’s a waste of time. If we want teachers to believe in collaborative professional development, then time must be set-aside for implementation and reflection. Otherwise, we’ve created yet another “one-off” professional development session that is easily ignored by those who choose to, and worse, disempowering to those who actually want to see the topic / idea implemented powerfully.

These are a few ideas and values to get you started — there are many more that I encourage people to share in the comments. Simply, in all we do, be thoughtful, collaborative, and empowering when structuring professional learning. When we do that, we can create those values in every classroom – for every student – in our schools.

Aug 22

Professional Development and Collective Wisdom

An old story… a young teacher comes to his first staff meeting where he sees an veteran teacher already sitting down. He sits down next to an older teacher who says to him, “You know… when I die… I hope it’s in a faculty meeting.”

The young teacher says, “Why?”

To which the older teacher replies, “So when I cross over, I won’t know the difference.”

Most educators have been through some terrible staff meetings and professional development sessions where people took turns reading to them, talking at them and maybe giving people the odd moment or two to discuss with the person next to them. And most of the time, educators are forced to sit through meetings and professional development that, pedagogically, would get them written up if they taught that way in their classes.

That’s got to stop.

There’s a simple question we should ask when we bring teachers together:

“Does the structure of this meeting / PD / whatever leverage the collective wisdom of the room?”

And if it doesn’t, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions:

  1. Do we need to be together for this or could this information be disseminated in other ways?
  2. Are we missing the chance for people to learn together and solve the problems as a community?
  3. Who does this meeting really serve?
  4. What are the meta-lessons that the participants are learning about what teaching methods are valued by this meeting?

If we want active classrooms, we have to have active PD.

If we want teachers to create collaborative classrooms, we have to create a collaborative culture in our adult learning and problem solving.

If we want teachers to value the ideas and experiences of our students, then we must value the ideas and experiences of our teachers when they come together to learn.

And if we want our schools to find innovative, powerful solutions to the problems we face, we must all learn to seek out the collective wisdom of the room.

Aug 18

Dream Big

The start of the school year is fast upon us. (And for some folks, it’s already here.)

Soon, our days will be consumed by papers to grade, lessons to plan, practices to coach… the day-to-day of the job that makes the job alternatively awesome and frustrating.

But right now, the floors are still clean… the photocopier still works… and while we may all be wishing for a few more days of summer… now is the time to dream big.

I hope that every teacher in every school has the opportunity to sit with colleagues and dream big. Whether it is a school-wide initiative or something in an individual classroom, now is the time to set big goals and think about how to work toward them.

Now is the time to remember the best of what our classrooms can be and to plan anew to on how we can approach our best ideals every day.

Now is the time to dust off a long forgotten idea and see if this is the year that it’ll work.

For our schools to be innovative places — for our students to be inspired to take risks and do new things — we need to model that ourselves. Sometimes, the ideas will come from us, sometimes the ideas will come from our students, sometimes we’ll borrow an idea we’ve seen other people do. It doesn’t matter where the spark comes from – it matters that we take the time to dream and figure out how we might realize those dreams.

This year at SLA, we’re going to try a Challenge Week — a week without traditional class structures where there are grade-wide interdisciplinary teams working to take on big challenges and projects and work to create innovative solutions to what we see around us in our city. I have no idea if it’s going to work, and I have a ton of concerns about all the reasons it might not.

But we’re going to try it.

And this is the year we’re going to try to do our “Capstone Pitch Night.” Every year, there are a handful of seniors who realize that their capstones need some start-up funding. Our kids have sold lots of cupcakes to try to raise money for their ideas, but we’re going to try to help them this year. This winter, there will be a pitch night where we invite the larger Philly start-up and tech communities to SLA to listen to our seniors pitch their ideas, and whatever money we’ve raised (and we’ve got a little saved up) will be granted or loaned as mini-grants to the top ideas so that kids can spend less time fundraising and more time making their visions a reality. It’s something we learned about years ago from Linda Nathan and the amazing folks at Boston Arts Academy, and we had a little success with mini-grants last year, and this year, we’re ready to really go big with it.

What’s your big idea for the year? And how are you going to remember to keep that dream alive and real once the day-to-day start?

Aug 16

On the Shoulders: Nel Noddings

Borrowing from my co-author, Zac Chase, I’m writing today about one of the writer/thinkers who really influenced the thinking that went into our book – Building School 2.0. Today – Nel Noddings.

The ethic of care is a foundational idea to both our book and to the Science Leadership Academy schools. It was Noddings who gave me language and clarity about how to think about my relationship with students. My first exposure to her work was Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. She is very much an academic writer, and there are times when I had to set the book down to digest what I was reading, but at the end of it, I found that I had a whole new language for how I thought about my relationship with students. The difference between “care about” and “care for” can be traced directly to her work. Her text Educating Moral People was one of the texts we read together as a staff when we founded SLA.

Noddings is powerful because she makes the case for caring for children, and then spends the time to really delve into all the reasons it is both really important and really challenging. She doesn’t pretend this is easy or perfect. She addresses how and why to avoid co-dependency and unhealthy relationships, and she writes about what it looks like — and feels like — when teachers and schools get it right.

For teachers and schools thinking about how they can think differently about what it means to really take care of the children they teach, Nel Noddings is foundational reading. Her ideas can be found on almost every page of our book – and more importantly, in every decision we make at SLA.

Aug 08

Making Advisory Work

[This post comes out of Friday’s work session with the Innovative Schools network where principals and counselors and teachers and social workers came together to talk about how they care for the children in their schools. It was wonderful to spend the day with caring, committed educators, planning for ways to better care for the children in their charge.]

Lots of schools have Advisory programs, but there are many schools where Advisory is little more than homeroom. For some reason, Advisory – despite being something that many educators will tell you can / should be a great thing – remains an elusive success in too many places. And with the proliferation of education books out there, it’s telling that the quintessential book on Advisory – The Advisory Guide by Poliner and Lieber – is over ten years old.

But done right, Advisory is nothing less than the soul of a school. It is where Noddings’ ideas of the ethic of care can live and breathe in the structure and schedule of a school. Done right, Advisory guarantees that every student in a school will know they are cared for, and that they have an advocate. Done right, Advisory levels the power dynamic between teachers and students that can transform school culture from authoritarian to authoritative. Of all the things SLA does, Advisory strikes me as one of the most important pieces of our culture — and one of the most easily poachable by other schools.

But it has to be nurtured. I think in many schools, working on being a good Advisor doesn’t get the necessary professional development time, and too many teachers (myself included, more often than I care to admit) often plan Advisory last because it’s not an “academic” class. And those two things can combine to kill effective Advisory programs.

And we have to help teachers be good Advisors? There’s nothing about the typical teacher preparation program that does this. Those programs (especially at the secondary level) focus on how to help teachers be great teachers of their content, not great teachers of their children. So how do you plan for care? How do you help teachers become Advisors? What are the big ideas and questions we have to ask if we are to create powerful Advisory programs in schools?

  • How do you develop caring relationships with kids? What does that look like? How do we care for kids? Fundamentally, teachers have to grapple with this question to be good Advisors. One of our teachers at SLA says that he is “School Dad” for his Advisees, which may be one way to start to answer that question. And yes, that answer can look different for different teachers, but we have to be willing to tackle the question to make Advisory successful. Aspects of this question also include helping teachers to be good listeners to kids and helping teachers to understand the different cultures and communities that students come from, and helping them to examine issues of implicit bias so that they can respect and care for all students in a way that doesn’t simply mean that teachers look to impose their own value systems on their students and Advisees.
  • How do you make Advisory class time successful / useful? (Full disclosure here – I don’t think I did this all that well as an Advisor. I was good at the one-to-one with kids, but I don’t think I maximized the time we spent together.) Schools can and should give PD time for Advisors to meet together by grade-group to co-plan, develop themes, share activities, etc… this takes the onus off of the individual teacher to always come up with activities. Also, some of the best Advisors I’ve seen have co-planned some of the class time with the students, which also creates powerful buy-in from students.
  • How do we develop our ability to act as advocates and mediators for our Advisees? One of the core functions of a high-level Advisory is the ability for Advisors to help navigate the spaces when students and teachers come into conflict. In traditional schooling, the power dynamic between students and teachers is such that students can often feel shut down when they have conflict with a teacher. Advisors can level that playing field and help students and teachers build healthier relationships inside the academic classroom by moderating and mediating those hard conversations. Engaging in professional development where teachers role play how to be on both ends of that conversation can prepare teachers to fundamentally change the dynamics of the classroom to create more equitable, healthier schools for everyone.
  • How do we build partnerships with families? Helping advisors work with families is key to a successful Advisory program. Making sure that parents know that Advisors are there for them – as well as their children – is powerful. Helping advisors learn how to talk with families in positive ways that respects the different cultures and communities that families come from is another piece of the work that must go into building a positive Advisory culture.
  • How do you prevent “bunker mentality” between Advisors and Advisees? This one falls under the category of “What is the worst consequence of your best idea?” It can be too easy for Advisors to think they are the only adult who can help an Advisee… and it can be too easy for Advisees to be think that and Advisor is going to keep their secrets for them in unhealthy ways. Advisory professional development can — and should — engage in discussions about what can be dealt with within the context of the Advisor-Advisee relationship and what needs to involve other adults and why. And Advisors need to be open and honest with their kids up front when they say, “I cannot keep things confidential if that would jeopardize your well-being.” Learning how a trusting relationship with students must include other adults is a powerful part of building a healthy Advisory program.

The hard part about all these questions is that there are few concrete answers, and schools (and individual Advisors within schools) will come to different places on how they answer them. But these questions must be engaged in openly, honestly and often for schools to have powerful, transformative Advisory programs. There is no such thing as the “add water and stir” Advisory program. They are as different as the students we teach and the schools we teach in. But, at root, Advisory programs can be living proof of the ethic of care in our schools. They can make sure that we do, indeed, teach the whole child for every child. And they can be, as we strive to make it at SLA, the soul of our schools.

 

Jul 07

Old Hat, New Hat

[This is a note I just sent to the families of SLA. I present it here – with a more whimsical title that references one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books – to let everyone know what I’ll be up to next school year.]

To the families of Science Leadership Academy,

Science Leadership Academy was founded as a research and development school for the School District. For the past nine years, students and teachers from SLA have worked with hundreds of teachers and principals from the School District and beyond on how to change their practice to be more inquiry-driven and caring educators. Under Dr. Hite’s leadership, the School District of Philadelphia is starting the Innovative Schools Network – a hub for powerful new ideas for schools. As part of this network, dedicated to nurturing new models of education, SLA is well positioned to continue its work as a national leader for creating empowering educational experiences.

Today, Dr. Hite is announcing that my role in the School District of Philadelphia is expanding to oversee the Innovative Schools Network. Beginning August 1, I will serve the students of Philadelphia in a dual capacity – both principal of Science Leadership Academy and Assistant Superintendent of the Innovative Schools Network. And, because there are just so many hours in the day, I am delighted to announce that Aaron Gerwer will join us full-time at SLA as co-principal. Many of you will know Aaron as our principal fellow this past year. It has been a pleasure to see him grow into this new role, and I look forward to partnering with him this coming year.

Working with the students and teachers and families of the Science Leadership Academy continues to be the most rewarding experience of my professional career. The work your children do every day is what inspired the School District of Philadelphia to authorize the foundation of Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber and our upcoming effort, the Science Leadership Academy Middle School.

The work we will now do as part of the Innovative Schools Network is a continuation of the belief in the agency and ability of the students and families of Philadelphia. It is my pleasure to be able to continue to serve as principal of SLA and to now help other school communities serve their students in powerful, modern ways.

Best,
Mr. Lehmann

Jul 07

Gender Equity and Schools – One Easy Change

Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I have watched many… many… hours of the recently concluded Women’s World Cup. The soccer was just brilliant, and of course, seeing the US win their third World Cup was just awesome.

And as a former Girls Basketball coach (and huge soccer fan,) it was incredible to see so many people get excited to watch a women’s soccer match. And while FIFA’s behavior – from turf fields to ridiculously unequal and inequitable monetary awards – shows we still have a long way to go for women’s sports, this was a fantastic moment for all of us who care about seeing women’s sports get the respect they deserve.

And there’s an easy change our high schools can make to take this further:

We can stop calling the girls’ teams at our schools the “Lady <Mascots>.”

This matters more than it seems. When we make the girls teams have a qualifying descriptor but we don’t make the boys teams do the same, we send a none-too-subtle message about which team is the “real” school team. And that message can serve to undermine all of the incredible lessons students – young women and men – can learn from playing on a high school team. In too many schools, the girls teams have had to fight for court time, field time, fans, legitimacy, or even the right to exist. No longer should they also have to fight to have their team name be the mascot of the school with no need to qualify it.

Our language matters, and I’ve yet to see the school that has “Gentlemen <Mascots>” on their uniforms. The era of high school girls teams having “Lady” in front of their name or worse “-ettes” at the end of it needs to end. Our girls teams are Tigers and Rockets and Lancers and Falcons. They need no qualifier in their names. There’s no reason anymore to send the message that the boys teams have any more claim to legitimacy than the girls teams do.

There’s no reason other than tradition not to change, and if the past weeks have taught us anything, it is that tradition cannot be a reason to resist change.

Jun 20

What if…

[This blog post coalesced around reading the NY Times article Black Church Is Target Again for Deadly Strike at the Heart and the work and mission of my friends leading the EduColor movement are engaged in every day.]

I have a concern.

I have a concern that we exist in a cycle right now where horribly violent and racist things happen and people, whether they be newscasters, politicians or teachers, rush to decry what has happened and then things settle back to whatever we call normal in this country until the next time something horrible happens, and the cycle starts all over again.

That’s not going to bring about the change our world needs, because it is a profoundly reactionary frame of reference, and things like racial justice and equality are pro-active states of being. And while, yes, our history is dotted with positive change as a reaction to moments of pain and tragedy and hate, I worry that the change we need today requires a far more forward-thinking mode of being than what we are seeing around us.

That’s where the teachers come in.

What if all of us admitted that the institution of school is part of an American system that has not lived up to its potential – its stated ideals – of being a more perfect union for all who take part in it, and that too often, school has intentionally or not, reinforced the racial, gender, religious and socio-economic inequities that have kept our country from achieving the most idealized vision what of what it means to be America?

What would happen if all of us, every day, asked ourselves if our actions actively worked to make a more just and kind world every day?

What would happen if all of the educators who use social media and blogging to share our ideas with the world took the time to always examine our ideas through the lens of equality and justice?

What would happen if we as educators asked ourselves first, are our actions are best for children who have been long marginalized by the American educational system and second if our actions are best for all children?

What would happen if more and more educators took the risk of publicly figuring this out for themselves and wrote about it, not just when national tragedies happen but in the quiet moments, so that we could, as teachers, model the powerful notion that fairness, justice, equality are everyday pursuits, not simply grand gestures?

What would happen if we, as a nation, understood that the goal of making a better nation – a better world – was the priority of public education every bit as much, if not more so, than the goal of helping a single student?

What if we said that the idea of “each and all” meant that we had to examine our systems, our structures, our very teacher-selves to ensure that what we did every day worked to empower all young people to see the need for a better world and work to make it so?

What if we all – especially those of us who are not confronted by this reality every day – didn’t wait until the next tragedy to talk about all of this?

Jun 18

Charleston and Teaching Children

I’ve run out of ways to write about this.

I don’t think I’m going write anything I haven’t said before.

I’m certain that I’m not going to write anything that other people haven’t already said – and said better.

Maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe the important thing is, simply, that I write.

Last night, a white 21-year-old man walked into a historic African-American church, sat and listened to Bible study for an hour before opening fire – apparently with a gun his father bought him for his birthday – and killing nine members of the congregation including the pastor.

It doesn’t matter if no organized hate group takes “credit” for this heinous action – this was domestic terrorism.

We can not afford, as a nation, to treat the continued hatred, prejudice, and violence against those who do not neatly fit into the dominant paradigm – racially, sexually, religiously – in this country as isolated incidents. To do so is to perpetuate the myth that there’s nothing anyone can do to stop the violence and make a better, more just, world.

As teachers, we have an obligation to teach our children to examine the systems of thought that perpetuate hate and prejudice so that our students can work to change them.

As teachers, we have an obligation to teach all our children that equity and justice are not just the cause of those who face oppression, but the cause of all people who believe in the promise of a better world.

As teachers, we have an obligation to teach all our children that it is not enough to passively hope for change, rather we must speak to the world we wish to create, work for the world we want to see.

Today, I have tried to use social media to speak to the hurt and anger I feel, not because I think I have much to add, but simply because I want all SLA students and families — especially our African-American students — to know that I stand with them. In a moment of tragedy, I would never want any student — especially our African-American students — to have to question for a moment where I stood or if I cared. And I am writing this now in the hope that students know that I never think it is enough for me to exhort them to action, rather that they understand I, too, will use my voice to demand a world where being black no longer means fearing for your safety anywhere you go — even in sanctuary – in church.

Last week, I told our graduates that the world could not wait for their voice, their action, because the problems we face are far too great. Last night, I was reminded how true that really is. Today, I hope that all of us who are lucky enough to teach children remember that we must teach our children to critically analyze the world around them and then have the voice, skill, and courage to be the change our world needs them to be. And today, I hope all of us who would claim the mantle of teacher realize that it is imperative that we model that voice, skill, and courage for them as well.