Dec 05

Connect the Dots

Too many people, it seems, want to look at the many tragic events of the past year as isolated incidents, but it strikes me that, as teachers and as citizens, if we are to make sense of who we are as a nation right now, we must step back and see these events not as isolated, but as part of a larger system.

In short, if we are to be honest with ourselves, we must connect the dots.

And so…

When a young black man is killed by a self-appointed neighborhood vigilante and the killer is not convicted…

When a white police officer shoots an unarmed black teenager six times and is not even indicted for use of excessive force…

When a white police officer chokes an unarmed black man, causing his death, and is not indicted on any charges…

When a twelve-year-old African-American boy holding a toy gun is shot by a white police officer within two seconds of arriving on the scene…

When the unemployment rate for African-Americans is double that of white Americans…

When African-Americans are arrested for marijuana possession at three times the rate of white Americans despite having nearly the same usage rate as white Americans…

When the governor of Pennsylvania can cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the budget of the School District of Philadelphia, disproportionately affecting over one hundred of thousand of children of color and exacerbating the per pupil spending gap between Philadelphia and the majority white suburbs…

When those cuts can leave Philadelphia schools without nurses, causing the death of a young African-American girl...

When the net worth of the average white family is six times higher than a non-white family…

When marketing of sub-prime loans are targeted toward black families, continuing decades of systemic denial of the acquisition of property — and thus wealth — for black families…

When the percentage of black Americans living in poverty is more than twice the rate of white Americans living in poverty…

When every national economical, social and educational crisis I can think of disproportionately hurts African-Americans comparatively to white Americans, then the anger and frustration we are seeing in the protests is put into a context far greater than a single precipitating event. When we step back and understand that the rate of racial progress in this county has been haltingly slow at best, we understand why many people are demanding to be heard when they — when we — say that America must face that we nowhere even close to being a post-racial society, that the structural racial inequities and injustices of our nation are far from over.

And when we think of the responsibility we have as educators to help our students critical analyze our nation and our world, we must not be afraid to, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, “reckon with our compounding moral debts,” so that our children can build a better world than the one we have left them.

And when we examine structure after structure, statistics after statistic, we must understand why it is imperative that we say, over and over again, that #BlackLivesMatter.

We simply have to connect the dots.

Dec 01

McGraw Prize and What I Believe

[Kat asked me tonight if I do video blog entries, because as much as she and I talk about education, she said it always comes out differently when she hears me give a talk. I don’t v-log because I don’t want to do the post-production work that goes into a good v-log, but when other people have done that work for me….]

Back in September, the McGraw Foundation honored me with the McGraw Prize. It was an incredibly overwhelming night – one I didn’t write about at the time, because I really had no idea how to sum up how I felt. One of the most intense parts of the evening was having the opportunity to speak about the ideas we at SLA care most about to a room full of some of the most powerful people in education today.

The McGraw Foundation has made that speech (and the really lovely profile piece they did on me) public on YouTube, and in honor of Kat asking if I would do v-logs about what I believe, I’m posting it here.

(and the profile)

Nov 25

Teaching as Hope

Last night, the American system of justice let our country down.

Michael Brown’s death deserved a public reckoning in our judicial system. I wrote this last night on Facebook as part of a conversation on my page:

An indictment would have meant that there would have been a trial, in full public display, so that the public could hear testimony. An indictment – even of excessive force – would have made it clear that the responsibility we place in our police is one of the most serious and solemn trusts we have.

“We ask that you keep us safe.” That’s what we ask our police. And, yes, we ask them to go into dangerous situations every day and do things that I, frankly, could not do. But with that solemn trust comes incredible responsibility. And an indictment tonight would have sent a message that when police violate that trust – regardless of the race of the police officer and regardless of the race of the victim – there needs to be a full investigation in full light of day.

Michael Brown’s parents — and we as Americans — were denied that right tonight. 

I, along with many others across our country, woke up this morning angry and frustrated. For me, I admit, I was feeling more than a little defeated too.

And then I went to school. At this point, there didn’t need to be an email to all the teachers to tell them it was o.k. — and important — to talk about Ferguson in classes. Sadly, after Trayvon Martin… after Jordan Davis… after too many tragedies… SLA teachers know that we are a school where we talk about what needs to be talked about. Teachers were checking in with each other, making sure that kids had the chance to talk about Ferguson. Kids were seeking out their advisors to talk about it one on one when classroom discussions weren’t what was needed. Kids even sought out their principal.

We talked today. We talked about how we felt. We all did a lot of listening. We cried. We hugged. Some folks debated respectfully. Other folks just needed to say how they felt. And some people just needed to be a student today – and that was o.k. too. We were, in the best ways, deeply human today.

And we talked a lot about what it meant to have a space like SLA where we could come together. It is, for so many of us there, our safe space. It is the place we come together to make sense of the world together. It is the place that gives me hope.

We talked about that idea a lot today. We talked a lot about what to do next… about how we can, as a society, make a better world. I told every student who talked to me about that today that SLA was my best answer to the question of how to make a better, kinder, more just world. And I told them all that now, all of them — and my own two boys as well — were my best hope for a better world. We talked about how, if SLA matters to them, then they have the responsibility to spread the mindset that the teachers and students come to school with every day where ever they go in the world.

I woke up today feeling hopeless and defeated. I spent the day around 500 young people and 30 adults who give me hope every day. I’m going to finish this post and go to bed, knowing that tomorrow I will be with them again. And we will struggle to make sense of the world around us. And we will push each other to be the best versions of ourselves. And we will – together – work to make the world just a little bit better because we happen to live in it together.

And that gives me hope.

Nov 20

Curriculum Design – Putting the Horse Before the Cart

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we at SLA and SLA@Beeber can keep improving on the way we teach. I am lucky enough to work with people who are incredibly reflective and thoughtful practitioners who are truly working toward being masters of their craft. Part of my job, then, is to help them get there together, which involves trying to set up structures that make it easier to engage in reflective practice together. It perhaps feels even more urgent right now as we have one campus that has been growing together for nine years and a second campus that is still in its infancy, and I’d like to think that the nine years of work we have done at Center City campus could and would accelerate the learning curve at Beeber campus.

So, as I reflect on our work, I am so incredibly awed by the amazingly thoughtful project-based work that I see in our classes, and to a person, every teacher really does powerful work around designing meaningful projects for our kids to engage in. But I still see moments where the day-to-day work could embody the core values and the ideas of student voice and student choice more deeply. But how do we get there?
We’re going to spend some time looking at daily lesson plans.

As a staff – and as the leader of SLA – we and I have focused more on unit design than lesson design. For me, the ideas of backward design, infused with our core values and a common rubric for all projects, has been the focus. And in my own life as a teacher, I’ve been deeply skeptical of those folks who focus on “tricks” for the daily lesson plan because I didn’t see it as being in service of a larger vision. But SLA has that larger vision, and we have full buy-in and amazing work done on that larger vision, so we’re in a really interesting moment to be able to now refocus on lesson planning with a specific end in mind – a deepening of our inquiry-driven, project-based culture of learning.

So in December, we’re going to launch a week of lesson planning work (Thursday to Wednesday, to coincide with our faculty workshops) where we all craft lesson plans for every day, answering prompts designed to get us to unpack the decisions we make every day. A few of us are working on the prompts, but they’ll include things like:

  • How is the work of the day relevant and powerful to the lives our kids lead now?
  • How are our five core values in play today?
  • Are there moments where the grade-wide essential questions can be accessed by the students?
  • How are you enabling the most number of students to take an active role in the class today?
  • Where is there space for all student’s voices today? What mechanisms are in place to enable all students to engage meaningfully with the work?
  • How are you creating meaningful opportunities for student choice today?

The goal will then be to unpack our answers to these questions together on a Wednesday afternoon so that we can look at the techniques we use to further our craft. It’s my hope that we can learn from each other different techniques and strategies that allow us to further deepen the best ideals we hold as a school.

I admit – as an educator, I have favored working on the big concepts and vision and, as such, unit planning and curriculum design always felt like where our energies were best spent. Moreover, too much of what I see out there about teaching strategies felt like tricks to get the kids to learn and often didn’t feel like they were in service of a specific and meaningful pedagogical vision. It felt, in short, like putting the cart before the horse.

But I’m interested to see where we go with this experiment. I think we’ve got our horse squarely in front. We at SLA know what we believe, and we know what we are working toward every day. I’m curious to see what we learn if we, as a faculty, atomize down to the daily lesson plan and, together, unpack our practice and learn together.

I’ll keep you posted.

Nov 18

Don’t Make Presentation Day the Worst Day

When I was in the classroom as a project-oriented, I always struggled with Presentation Days. You know those days… it’s at the end of a long cycle of project-making when the students get up in front of the class, one after the other, and present their projects.

And, let’s face it, it often bores the living snot out of the kids — and the teachers.

And the frustrating thing is that can happen even when the projects the kids created are really cool. But too often, Presentation Days consist of 8 to 10 (or more) groups coming up and giving very similar styled presentations about their projects, each about 5-10 minutes long, and before you know it, your class and you have sat through a period or two of being talked at from the front of the classroom. As a teacher, I did this to the kids more times than I’d care to admit.

And the funny thing is, I’d never make my students listen to lecture for that long from me.

Presentation is a skill — and it’s not one that schools teach all that often explicitly. And before we subject our students to another day of half-listening to their peer’s projects, we should think about how we frame the act of presentation, the art of listening, and thoughtful presentation design that minimizes boredom.

Some thoughts on creating meaningful end of project cycle experiences, then…

Class structure:

There are ways to have students get the full effect of other students’ work without a parade of PowerPoint presentations at the front of the room –

Read-arounds – where each group/person has to read the work of two other groups/people and write a response. Using a learning management system can make this process transparent for everyone as well.

Teach-in stations – where students go from station to station and at each station, students are presenting work and doing a poster-session style presentation. Do this in thirds where there are three rounds of poster session and each group presents once and walks around twice. You can have students fill out exit tickets of things they learned from other students’ presentations – again, if that’s done online, it can then create a shared compendium of student learning and reflection.

Critique / Gallery Walk- take a page from the art world, and have the work either digitally or physically available to all members, and have them go from piece to piece and give feedback. (Even digitally, this can be fun to do in physical space so that students can get up and move around.)

There are ways to make the front of the room more exciting too – and there will be times when you want every student / group to do a presentation to the entire class:

Ignite-style: A sense of urgency is an awesome thing, and the Ignite style presentation (20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds) makes for a fast-paced, fun presentation that communicates ideas powerfully with a sense of energy and purpose.

Multiple manifestation of presentations: Give students the options of how they want to present – skits, simulations, videos, even PowerPoint, poster – there are many ways to communicate ideas to a crowd, and students should have the opportunity to experiment with multiple modalities. Often, SLA teachers still have students hand in a more comprehensive paper with the presentation so students can go into more depth as well.

Mini-lessons: If one of the purposes of having students present their projects is to teach their classmates, then why not have students actually create a lesson plan on how to teach their material? Students can create more progressive lesson plans for how to teach their students about what they have learned, complete with creating learning activities for their fellow students.

These are just some of the many ways to make the presentations of student work far more powerful as learning moments than having students lecture their classmates. I’ve seen SLA teachers and students create incredible learning experiences for each other using these techniques and many more. Much like every other part of project-design and inquiry-driven curriculum-design, thoughtful planning of Presentation Day on the front end will make for far more powerful learning when the day arrives.

Nov 16

How Does Your School Deal with Student Trauma?

[Just a reminder… EduCon is in a few short months! We’ve got an incredible line-up of sessions! Register today!]

I’m writing this from a hotel room in Philadelphia because my family can’t stay in my house right now due to a rather massive plumbing issue. It is, for our family, a really annoying disruption that has thrown all our routines — including those of Jakob and Theo’s homework — out of whack. And I am a creature of habit, used to working at night in the chair in my office. It’s one of the ways I make my life make sense – routine – and all of them feel very disrupted right now.

Now, all of that being said, we’re fine. We’ll be back in our house in a couple of days, and the damage done will be fixed a few days after that. We have the resources – financial, social, etc… – to make this only annoying. But even with all of the resources to deal with it, it has me feeling really off my game. I’m behind on my to-do list, I’ve had nowhere near my usual level of focus on SLA, and I’m frustrated.

We have kids in our classrooms who deal with far worse every day – and do we create the space for them to thrive at school, even when little about the rest of their lives are stable, safe or easy?

I worry that in many schools, there are not systems in place to recognize the challenges of trauma and stress outside of school place on our students. I worry that many schools don’t have the systems in place to a) learn when students are struggling with issues of hunger, homelessness, divorce, abuse to name a few, b) appropriately communicate issues to teachers, and c) create policy that creates school as safety net, rather than being another stress point in a child’s life.

This is another example of what it means to understand the difference between “I teach math,” and “I teach kids math.” Schools need to help students deal with trauma while also helping them to assess the most important work that needs to be done. Teaching kids how to manage stress and trauma is as much a part of being a fully realized citizen and person of the world as anything that appears on the Common Core list of standards.

Schools need to have systems and structures in place to help students through the challenges they face. For us at SLA, it begins with our Advisory system so that every student has an advocate and a safe space. It allows us to create the space for students and teachers to see each other as whole people who can celebrate success and deal with challenges together. Do we learn everything that we should about what kids are dealing with? Probably not. Do we always do as well as we should at figuring out how to mitigate the stress of the work of SLA when kids are in pain from the rest of their lives? Probably not. Do we always remind ourselves to see the student in front of us and remember their lives exist far beyond our walls? We certainly try.

All it took for me to feel out of sorts and off my game as principal was a plumbing emergency that displaced my family for a few days. It made me think about all the kids at SLA who are dealing with so much more. It behooves all of us who teach kids to ask ourselves — how do we ensure that our school has humane systems for helping students who are facing trauma?

Nov 11

Create Joyful Space

I was talking to a friend of mine about their child and school. He was talking about how much his kid really didn’t like school. And as he said it, he had that kind of sad chuckle that meant, “What are you going to do, you know?”

So I asked him, “Do you think that’s o.k.?”

And he said, “Well, most kids hate school, don’t they?”

And I can’t refute that, not really. And on some level, I get it. School is where we ask kids to do work, instead of play. And I admit it, I love SLA, but on any given day, I’d rather be at the beach or playing Ultimate or something. But that doesn’t mean we can’t create spaces kids love.

I believe deeply that kids — and adults — can work hard in service of things they care about. I believe deeply that we, as people, can understand how meaningful, powerful work can be joyful, even when it’s hard.

And school has to be that. If we accept the idea that the institution dedicated to teaching and learning is fundamentally not fun, not to be enjoyed, o.k. to hate, then we send a powerful message about the role being learned plays in the rest of our lives.

It is incumbent on the adults to not settle for the statement, “My [child/student/friend’s kid] doesn’t like school.” We have to unpack the “why” behind that statement and work to fix it.

It’s not on the kids to love school. It’s on all of us to create joyful, profound, empowering spaces in school that are easy to fall in love with.

 

Oct 04

The Kids Are As Smart As You

Back when I was in the classroom full-time, a student paid me what I thought was about the best compliment I’d ever been paid as a teacher.

“Mr. Lehmann, other teachers try to prove to us how smart they are. We know you’re really smart, but in your class, you’re always making us feel that we’re as smart as you. Thank you.”

The coolest thing about being an educator is and should be that you get to spend your life with amazing young people every single day. And if you do it right, you get to view the world through their eyes and listen as they explain their views of the world to you and to their classmates.

When we do that, we learn about how many different views on the world there are, and that, no matter how smart you may think you are as a teacher, the kids bring ideas and intelligences and experiences that are every bit as powerful and important — and smart — as your own. And when we listen with an open mind, an open heart, and a true excitement for those ideas and experiences, we model social learning in the best possible way – by learning from our students.

Learning how to listen hard to the kids is a skill we all need to practice every day. From Zac Chase I learned the difference between “What do you mean?” and “Say more….” The second opens the door to more than just explanation, but to a deepening of the ideas, which – I have learned – can be infinitely more powerful.

And when we listen deeply to all our students, we open ourselves up to the powerful intelligence that exists in every classroom. We honor the wisdom and intelligence of the room when we build communities of practice where everyone – students and teachers alike – are better and smarter for the fact that they all have spent the time together.

The power of a classroom should never been that kids walk away thinking about how smart their teacher is… the power of a classroom is best when the students walk away with the confidence of knowing how smart and capable they — and all their classmates — are.

Aug 24

American History — American Story

Matt Baird teachers SLA-ers 11th grade American History. He and I sat down this summer to think about how he could re-frame American History so that we could create an even more direct sense of urgency on why American history can be such a powerful field of study for high school students. Both of us believe that we teach history so that kids can make sense of the world they live in, and therefore, be more informed and active and engaged citizens of that world. That’s not exactly a revolutionary concept, and there are many, many social studies teachers who share that view.

So if that is one of the primary underlying tenets for teaching the class, the question becomes how do you structure the class to engender that sense of urgency? We tossed around this idea, with the idea that the 11th grade theme at SLA is “Change” —

What if we started an American History class with an analysis of the present day? What if we asked students to examine present day society through several intersecting lenses such as the political lens, the demographic lens, the economic lens and the geo-political lens. Kids could start the year reading commentary on the world we live in now from a variety perspectives. That opening unit could serve as frame to now examine our history. Then, as the class dove into our country’s history, there would be a deep context for always examining the events of the past through the lens of questioning how that has shaped the nation we are today. I could even imagine a culminating unit where students had to look forward with a vision of where we are going from here and how and why.

I think – I hope – a class with this frame would deeply communicate the idea of active history for students, and it would solve the classic problem of the American History class that treats American History as stopping sometime between World War II and the Civil Rights Movement. And most importantly, I think the class could – done right – center on the students themselves. A class like this is not about the dusty dates of history, but about their lives – our lives – our country today, seen through the lens of time.

Thoughts?

Aug 23

Community

[This probably isn’t all that different from some things I’ve written before, but right now, I’ve thinking about many edu-things through the lens of what we see going on in Ferguson, and while I am not naive enough to think that school can single-handedly fix what is broken in America right now, I also think that schools can do much more to create spaces that do not exacerbate the problems we are seeing.]

This week, the SLA@Beeber staff was working together as our second cohort of teachers were learning about the philosophies and systems and structures that inform what we do at SLA. We were talking about advisory and how we try to look at student behavior through a therapeutic lens, rather than a punitive. One of our teachers who is coming from a very different school, and she talked about what a different frame of reference that was for her, because at her old school, it felt like students were suspended for every minor infraction. We were talking about what it meant for every student to have an advocate (their advisor) who could work with the student to navigate the often challenging world of high school, and how we all have to work to create the kind of community where everyone takes care of everyone – students, teachers – everyone. We were talking about what it means when everyone is known, where people truly know one another.

And it struck me that was what was one of the things that was missing in Ferguson. Now, I am not Pollyanna enough to think that if we just all held hands and cared about each other, all that went wrong in Ferguson – institutional racism, abuse of power, fear, militarization of the police… just to name a few – suddenly goes away. There are deep societal and policy issues that need to examined and changed to greatly reduce the chances that what we are seeing in Ferguson – from the changing racial demographics that did not result in a change in political power dynamics, to Mike Brown’s death, to the police reaction to the anger and grief of that town, to the national polls that suggest a wider-than-we-want-to-admit divide between how whites and blacks are viewing every aspect of what has happened.

But also missing was a lack of care – a lack of being known. What if Ferguson had a community policing program where Darren Wilson wasn’t in his car, but was on foot in the neighborhood and knew Mike Brown? Would this have played out the same way? What if the police had thought for a moment about the deeply traumatic effect leaving Mike Brown’s body uncovered in the street for hours would have on the community? What if there had been any thought given to the effect of snipers and military tanks rolling through the streets in the name of order? What if anyone thought about what it does to the humanity of all involved to turn a police force into an occupying army?

I don’t have answers to those questions. I can’t imagine many do. But I want to live in a world where those questions are asked before, not after, tragedy.

And then I start to think about school. I think about how in many schools – especially schools where the majority of children are kids of color and are poor – there exists the educational equivalent of “shoot first, ask questions later.” The message that the citizens of Ferguson received both in the killing of Mike Brown and near martial law that was enforced in the days after his death is communicated in so many of the schools like the one our new teacher described.

It is communicated when suspensions are the first response to any problem.

It is communicated when students of color are suspended at rates far higher than white students.

It is communicated when schools house thousands of kids in a building, and there’s no guarantee that a student who connects with a teacher one year will ever do more than pass that teacher in the hall from time to time for the rest of their time.

It is communicated when teachers have teaching loads of over 150 kids, so that the chance of knowing a child beyond being a student in a seat in a cinder block classroom is reduced even further.

It is communicated when teachers pass off disciplinary problems to a dean or an assistant principal or a school police officer who then simply deals with “the problem,” because listening and responding therapeutically is time-consuming and hard and messy, and the pink slip and the suspension form take less time to fill out.

It happens everywhere the policies and procedures and actions of a school send the message to students that the content of the curriculum is more important than the content of the student’s character.

We can change that. That is within our control.

We can all redouble our efforts to make schools humane and human places where students are known and cared for. We can build the systems and structures that enable students and teachers to talk to one another. We can create policies — and carve out the time — that make it possible for teachers to see students for who they are, to understand the flawed, wonderful people they are and can be, and to understand that there are more ways to deal with the mistakes that kids make than suspensions and the criminalization of non-criminal behaviors.

These are things we should do because they are the right things to do. They are not easy, nor are they silver bullets that will magically cure what ails us. But they might help. And they can’t hurt. And as we continue to watch the events of Ferguson unfold, as educators, it is incumbent upon us to think about how we can help the next generation do better than we have done, and help them see the prospects of a better world than the one in which we currently live.

Doing a better job of caring for one another in schools might be one good place to start.