Sep 15

Black Students Matter

[Articles informing this piece — The Black Family in the Age of Incarceration by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Will School Discipline Reform Really Change Anything by Melinda Anderson.]

If the last year has taught America anything, it’s that, as a nation, we have to admit that we’re nowhere near as far along in working toward racial equity as we’d like to believe ourselves to be. And as educators, we have to own that our institution – school – is part of that larger society. And as such, the schools that we love too often reinforce the inequity that we see in society at large. Whether it is the unequal rates of suspension or the unequal access to advanced classes — to name two examples — we have to own that our schools do not serve black students as well as they serve white students.

We have to be able to say that. We have to be able to own it. Because if we don’t, we will never be able to fix it.

There are parts of this that we will need help to do — inequitable and unequal funding remains, to my mind, the single most anti-democratic policy in this country — but there is plenty we can do inside our own schools and classrooms.

As educators, we have to be willing to examine every policy from the lens of equity. When we ask ourselves – with everything we do, from seating charts to grading policies to the content we teach – “Will this reinforce or lessen the inequities the black students in my class face in our society?” then we demand of ourselves actions that make our classrooms and our schools more equitable and honorable places.

And when we do so out loud, sharing our thoughts with our colleagues, with our students, engaging in reflective practice about how and why we make the choices we make, we engage others in our process, increasing the possibility that we won’t make the mistakes of hubris, thinking that we know best because, after all, we’re the teachers. Asking others, thinking together, coming from a place of inquiry helps us to see our own blind spots Because thinking about equity – and our role, unwitting or not, in reinforcing that inequity – is painful. It forces us, as teachers, to question the very thing we hold dear – our ability to positively impact the lives of the all of the children in our care.

If we are to learn from the world around us, then let this be the year that we examine our own house and commit to examining our policies, procedures and actions through the twin lenses of racial equity and racial justice. Let us make sure that the pieces of school that are within our control are just, fair and right, so that we are worthy of the best hopes of the students we teach. Let us understand that our best hopes of the American Dream has never been fully realized for black America, and let us understand that, despite the efforts of many caring educators, that has been true of our schools as well. And let this be the year that, with open eyes and intentionality, we seek to right that wrong, because, indeed, black students matter.


Sep 08

EduCon 2.8 – Call for Proposals

It’s that time again! EduCon 2.8 is open for registration!

What is EduCon, you say?

EduCon is both a conversation and a conference.

It is an innovation conference where we can come together, both in person and virtually, to discuss the future of schools. Every session will be an opportunity to discuss and debate ideas — from the very practical to the big dreams.

The Axioms

The guiding principles behind EduCon

  1. Our schools must be inquiry-driven, thoughtful and empowering for all members.
  2. Our schools must be about co-creating — together with our students — the 21st Century Citizen.
  3. Technology must serve pedagogy, not the other way around.
  4. Technology must enable students to research, create, communicate, and collaborate.
  5. Learning can — and must — be networked.

Come to Philadelphia from January 29 – 31, 2016 (yeah, we know, it’s cold) for an incredible three days of learning together where the very pedagogy of the conference is a model the learning we want for our students.

And make EduCon even better – facilitate one of our conversations. Submissions for conversations are open now until November 1st.

This year’s theme is “Empowerment.” Join us as we ask the question – “What are the conditions necessary for empowerment?”

See you in Philly at SLA!


Sep 07

On Teacher Labor

[The book is shipping! Order your copy of Building School 2.0 today!]

Today is a good day to think about all we ask of teachers.

Not the way we usually do… with stories of the martyr teacher who sacrifices all for her students. Because while that story is a powerful one, we often tell it for the wrong reason.

That story is important because many of those teachers leave the classroom after a few years. Often times, those teachers get taken advantage of by administrators who love that young teacher who can’t say no, because, let’s face it, there’s always more to do and rarely enough folks to do it. So in too many schools — especially the places where we serve children of color and children of poverty — we create systems that are unsustainable, then we work those who are willing to do the extra work until they can no longer do the work.

I stopped writing to re-read that paragraph to see if it felt as much like I was channelling Boxer from Animal Farm as I thought I was. I debated re-writing it, but the metaphor works. Those teachers believe in the school and will often do anything for the school… until they can’t anymore.

There are over three million teachers in America. Most of them bring their work home with them every night. The overwhelming majority of them take the emotions of the job home with them far too often. And yet, all over America, right now, teachers are finishing lesson plans and preparing themselves to be the best version of themselves for the kids in the classes tomorrow.

All of this and we live in a political time when teachers unions are treated like a political football in ways that we haven’t seen a union treated in decades.

Every parent should want the teaching life to be sustainable. It’s in our vested interests as a society to make sure that teachers sleep more than six hours a night, and feel like they can do their jobs well. It’s in the best interests of our nation to make sure that the people who teach our children don’t feel like they have to martyr themselves to serve the children in their charge.

We want our teachers to have rich full lives outside the classroom. We want them to be amazing parents and partners. We want them to have the time to read the occasional book, take a vacation, and maybe even go to the gym every now and then.

And we should want all this because it will make them better teachers.

And that’s the thing that we should not forget this Labor Day. We are a better country when the lives of our countrymen and women are in balance. What the fight for labor rights has gotten us is a better nation – despite all the mountains we have left to climb. Nowhere should that be more powerfully obvious than in our schools.

We, as a society, must take care of our teachers and not let them labor too long. After all, our teachers are who take care of our children.


Sep 06

Adult Discipline, Not Kid Discipline

Here’s something we’ve learned over the years — the more internal discipline the adults impose on themselves, the less you have to discipline the kids.

What does that entail?

One of the challenges of schools is the myriad different ways adults interpret policies, pedagogies, rules… and on some level, that shouldn’t shock us – especially when it comes to the different ways adults react to student behavior. The human aspect of teaching means that teachers will have different thresholds for student behavior, different buttons that get pushed. It’s to be expected. But it can lead to all kinds of misunderstandings in schools.

This is why it’s so important that adults exert internal discipline on each other to be proactive as much as possible so that the space between the adults is lessened. When that happens, many of the issues that get kids into trouble can be avoided.

So how do you do it?

  • Work on owning what your buttons are, and let kids know what they are up front. Are you someone who can’t when kids are late to class? Tell the kids. And be honest, say, “I know this may not seem like a big deal, but it’s my thing.” When we admit that our hot buttons may not be other people’s we acknowledge our humanity in a way that lets the kids accept our needs — and it makes it easier for us to accept student needs as well.
  • Collaborate with colleagues. Talk to teachers about creating positive culture school-wide. Talk about creating “safety-valves” for teachers and students so that everyone knows how they can de-escalate themselves before people get into situations they cannot back away from.
  • Find consistency where ever possible. When it comes to most policies and procedures, when teachers can find common ground, it makes it easier for students to have one frame of reference all day long.
  • Don’t solve problems with more rules. Take a quick look at many school’s code of conduct, and I’m sure you can look at some of the rules and think, “Someone did something to create that rule.” Instead, look at patterns of behaviors and situations, and ask how adults can change their behavior to create the conditions that would make it easier for students to meet expectations. A simple example – every year, we notice that students are starting to stretch the time in between classes. Rather than make draconian rules, we make it a point of being at the door, greeting students. And teachers who aren’t teaching that band make a point of being in the halls at the change of classes. And every year, we forget… and we see the problem again, and we tighten up our own behaviors.

When we are intentional about our expectations and, perhaps more importantly, about the systems and structures we put in place to build a healthy culture – and then when we base our actions around that intentionality, we create the conditions in which students can thrive. By being disciplined in our actions, we get to spend a great deal less time on disciplining the kids.

It’s one more way we help students focus on their learning, rather than wasting their time trying to figure out the adults and play “the game of school.” And again, it’s one more thing we can do that will have its most profound effect on the kids who have historically been least served by school. And when we do that, we all win.

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. #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.