About Chris Lehmann

Founding Principal Science Leadership Academy Philadelphia, PA
Apr 01

Exciting New SLA Partnership

As most folks who visit this blog know, these have been some very difficult years for the School District of Philadelphia. It has meant that many principals have found themselves in the role of Fundraiser-in-Chief. For me, it’s a skill-set I never really wanted to develop, but after years of cuts, it has become what was necessary to maintain the program at SLA.

Probably, we could have thought of a better financial time to open our second campus – SLA@Beeber, but so many families made it clear that an inquiry-driven, project-based education was what they wanted that, even under financial duress, we felt that we needed to move forward. And I am amazed at what the teachers, students, parents and principal, Chris Johnson, have done in such a short time.

Realistically, however, the work needs more support. SLA@Beeber needs to find a sustainable financial model to thrive as I know that it can. As such, Chris and I have been working to find ways to ensure that the incredible work of the students can continue, no matter what the outcome of Gov. Wolf’s and Mayor Nutter’s budget proposals.

It’s not easy work, and after nine years at SLA, I know how frustrating it is to chase grant after grant, donor after donor, knowing that all the time you spend fundraising is time you aren’t spending with teachers and students, doing the work you believe in the most.

Like it or not, this has become part of the job of the principal in too many under-resourced public schools all over the country. And no matter what SLA and SLA@Beeber can do as individual schools, it does not change the need for equitable and adequate funding for all of Philadelphia’s schools, and nothing changes our commitment to urging the politicians of our state to do the right thing for the children of this city and this state.

Fortunately, SLA has benefitted from the kind words of so many educators who have walked the hallways of our schools that we have been able to work with some amazing people who want nothing more than to see the schools — and the kids who do amazing work within them — thrive.

One of the challenges of fundraising is that often donors want to influence the work of the school. Too many grants, too many donors, often money with strings. We have been both very lucky and very deliberate in that all of the organizations we have worked with – whether it has been The Franklin Institute or Dell Computer – have wanted to support our work and grow and learn with us. I fully recognize the gift that has been, and I am thrilled to say that our latest donor shares the same belief.

Our dedication to our core mission – of an inquiry-driven, project-based education with a deep ethic of care is steadfast. Our donor spoke powerfully about how what he saw at our school could have saved him from making some of the bad mistakes he has made in his life. He spoke to our students, and in the midst of making his own personal, powerful changes, he saw a powerfully opportunity to give back. All he asked in return was one small change.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to announce the renaming of our second campus, now known as SLA@Bieber. Thank you, Justin!

See the full press release here.

Apr 01

A Modest Proposal

I, like many people, am horrified by the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana. And, as such, I am deeply concerned that the NCAA Final Four is going to be held in Indianapolis this weekend. I was heartened to see that three of the four teams and the NCAA itself have expressed concerns about the law.

But expressing concern isn’t enough. The Final Four is a massive money-making enterprise to the tune of over a billion dollars. And while much of the money made is due to television and advertising revenue, there’s certainly a powerful economic boost to the hosts.

So let’s take that away.

I get it… contracts, flights, hotels, etc… but right is right. Let’s move the game.

Let’s move it to South Philadelphia High School. I’ve spoken with the principal, Otis Hackney. No one is using the gym this weekend. Philadelphia has been a leading city in LGBTQ advocacy. Philadelphia is one of the great sports towns in the country. Let’s make this happen.

And the South Philly High gym has 1100 seats. Granted, that’s smaller, but we could make the seats just for students of the schools and families of players and coaches. We could allocate ten VIP seats for each school so that Ashley Judd could still attend if need be. The country will still watch. The TV cameras will still be there. But the NCAA could make the statement that no contract, no revenue is worth sacrificing the safety, dignity and honor of even one athlete, employee or fan who might be discriminated against during the Final Four.

Think of the message it would send. Think of the pride athletes could take in their schools – in the NCAA. Think of the message it would send to legislatures all over the US (I’m looking at you, Arkansas) that bigotry will not stand – will not be tolerated – and that it will hit you in your pocketbooks over and over again.

Think of the message it would send to teenage LGBTQ athletes who are questioning if their teams, their sports, the very states they live in are safe spaces for them.

South Philly High School is ready to host, NCAA. The ball, literally, is in your court.

Mar 29

Post for Admins: Question More, Solve Less

At first blush, being an administrator who is a problem solver seems like a uniquely positive trait. There are certainly enough problems in schools that require solving.

But problem-solving isn’t always as important as we think it is.

Sometimes, we can rush to solve the problem in front of us in a way that feels productive but doesn’t really help us to think deeply about what is going on in our schools. Sometimes, quickly solving the problem doesn’t allow us to see root causes. And worse, simply solving the problem in front of you quickly can have unintended consequences.

As frustrating as it can be sometimes, we need to move more slowly when we look at some of the problems in our schools.  More often than not, our schools are better served when leaders don’t merely solve the problem in front of them, but rather take the time to ask questions of a range of folks to get at the real question at hand.

What we need in our schools are more leaders who ask questions of many stakeholders. When problems arise – especially ones that seem like they could be solved by just being a little harsher, a little stricter – we need to ask better questions. And we should listen to the answers.

Just like we ask teachers to do with our students.

 

Mar 25

When Colleges Hurt Kids

This year has been a fantastic year for SLA college acceptances. We’ve seen our kids get into some of the most well-respected schools in record numbers – and many of our kids are the first SLA-ers to ever get accepted into these schools.

Whether or not they are able to go to is another question.

Today, I was sitting with one of our SLA seniors. She’s gotten into a wonderful college – her top choice. The school costs $54,000 / yr. Her mother makes less than the federal deep poverty level. She only received the Federal financial aid package with no aid from the school, which means that, should she go to this school, she would graduate with approximately $200,000 of debt.

She would graduate with approximately $200,000 of debt – for a bachelor’s degree.

Now, how in good conscience could a college do that? I’ve sat with kids as they’ve opened the emails from their top choice schools. Watching the excitement of getting into a dream school is one of the real joys of being a principal. It’s just the best feeling to see a student have that moment where a goal is reached.

And as amazing as that moment is… that’s how horrible it is to sit with a student when they get the financial aid package and counsel them that the just isn’t worth that much debt.

I sat with my student today and pulled up a student loan calculator. I showed her that $200,000 of debt would mean payments of $1500 / month until she was 52 years old – and then we pulled up a budgeting tool so she saw how much she would have to make just to be able to barely get by.

Then we looked at the state schools she’s gotten into, and we talked about what it would mean to be $60,000 in debt after four years, because PA has had so much cut from higher education that Penn State is now $27,000 / year — in state, and we’ve noticed that their financial aid packages have dropped by quite a bit.

So we have to tell the kids to apply to the private schools because the aid packages the kids get from private colleges are sometimes significantly better than what the public schools are offering.  Kids have to apply to a wide range of schools and hope. And then we sit down with kids and help them make sane choices, as the $60K / year schools send amazing brochures and promises of semesters abroad and pictures of brand new multi-million dollar campuses, all while promising that there are plenty of ways to finance their tuition.

Dear colleges – you are doing this wrong.

It doesn’t have to this way. When I was a teacher in NYC even as recently as ten years ago, I felt that kids could go to amazing and affordable CUNY and SUNY schools if the private schools didn’t give the aid the kids needed. But Pennsylvania ranks 47th out of 50 in higher ed spending by state, and as a result, seven of the top fourteen state colleges are in Pennsylvania.

And as private colleges hit times of financial crisis and public colleges become more tuition dependent, students are being asked to take out more and more loans, which is putting a generation of working class and middle class students tens — if not hundreds — of thousands of dollars in debt to start their adult lives.

And the thing is — I still powerfully agree with those who say that a college education is a worthwhile investment. And on the aggregate, it is true – especially because the union manufacturing jobs of the last century have been lost. But when we look at the individual child, and the choices that kids and families are being asked to make, we have to ask how we can ask kids to take that kind of risk and take on that kind of debt.

And of course, all of this is exacerbated for kids from economically challenged families and for kids who are the first in their families to go to college. And if you are thinking about leaving a comment about kids getting jobs in college to help make it affordable, you show me the job market for college kids to make $30,000 / yr while in school full-time. I must have missed those listings in the morning paper.

A college education can — and should — be a pathway to the middle class.

Colleges should have a moral responsibility to offer sane packages that don’t saddle students with unimaginable debt to start their adult lives.

Work hard, go to college, live a meaningful life. That is what we hear promised to children all the time from President Obama to parents across America.

Colleges and universities have to be honest and fair agents in that dream. Asking students to take out $30,000 and $40,000 of debt a year for access to that dream is a betrayal of the educational values so many of us hold dear.

Mar 01

What is Your Educational DNA?

It’s a phrase I use a lot when I talk about SLA, “It’s in my DNA.” The ideas that form the backbone of SLA are the ideas that hold most dear about what I believe school can be. Much of the work I have done over the years has been developing a language for what I believed, refining the beliefs and figuring out how to make those beliefs easy to put into practice for teacher and students.

I’ve spent a lot of time tracing what’s formed that DNA. Certainly, being Sid and Janice Lehmann’s kid, being raised with a deep sense of social and educational justice, was a big part of it. I remember when I was in high school, and in my highly tracked high school, I had to choose between taking the Honors or the AP classes. My dad said to me, “Take the honors classes, because that’ll be the material the teacher *wants* to teach, the AP classes will be the material the teacher has to teach.” I remember my mother talking about the incredible projects she would have her students do in her classrooms. She never talked about how well they did on tests. She talked about the artist reports they did when her sixth graders came in dressed as the artists they researched, and projects such as that. It’s moments like that that resonated deeply when I went into my own classroom and thought about what and how I wanted to be teaching.

And I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because more and more, I’m coming to the realization that having a core set of beliefs about teaching and learning that is radically different from “traditional school” is rarer than I’d like to admit. Most people weren’t lucky enough to come from parents who thought deeply about pedagogy. I did, and I hope that the work I’ve done in my career has honored the privilege I had in having parents like Sid and Janice.

And it makes me wonder how often we create the space for teachers and administrators to spend the time tracing why they came to the profession believing what they believe about teaching and learning, and tracing their evolution as teachers. Certainly, there isn’t much time given inside the traditional professional development calendar for such work. And I think we should.

At the heart of teaching is the idea that we should be intentional about what happens in our classrooms. To do that requires understanding how we got to that moment with our kids ourselves.

And in that vein – I ask… what is your Educational DNA? Why and how do you believe what you now believe about teaching and learning?

Feb 06

Be The Best Version of Your Teacher Self

When I was a pre-service teacher, I had a professor who we all loved. He was this very soft-spoken man who was amazing at letting his students’ voices come to the forefront of the class. And when a student said something he liked, he would nod his head and say, “hmmm… huh… interesting.”

We lived for a “Hmmm… huh… interesting.”

After seeing me teach, he said to me, “You know, Chris, you’re going to be a great teacher once you get over thinking you have to perform.”

I was crushed.

And as a result, in both my student teaching and early in my teaching career, I would try to dial back my personality, and whenever kids would say things I thought were awesome, rather than get excited, I’d try to remember to sit back and say, “Hmmm… huh… interesting.”

But I couldn’t sustain that because I was — and am — excitable. And one day the kids called me out on it, and asked who this person was who would say, “Hmm… huh… interesting,” because they liked the person that got really excited by their ideas. The kids liked who I really was, not who I was pretending to be. And I realized that as much as I liked my professor, he was wrong. The performance wasn’t the person who was super-animated in the classroom – that was who I was (and am) and instead, the performance was trying to act like him.

That didn’t mean I needed to be in the front of the class, and it didn’t mean that I wanted to run a teacher-centric classroom. It meant that I had to figure out that if I wanted kids to bring their best selves to the classroom every day, so did I. And I’m high-energy and excitable – I just am. I had to learn how to ensure that being a big personality did not mean that who I was was more important than who the kids were. I had to make sure that I didn’t ever confuse charisma with content. I had to understand early on the difference between engaging the kids and empowering the kids. In short, I had to learn the craft of progressive teaching while bringing an authentic sense of self to the classroom – which is one of the great challenges for all of us who want to make our teaching authentic and real.

I was thinking of this story today while having a conversation with a teacher-coach today about how to help soft-spoken young teachers develop their teacher-selves. Because, on some level, it’s a lot easier as a young teacher to have a big personality and a lot of charisma. For me, being a rather animated person by nature made that transition to the classroom easier, because that energy could cover up a lot for a lot of pedagogical mistakes I made while I was just learning the craft. But I worry that many soft-spoken young teachers are taught to work on having a “bigger” personality, to learn how to perform, rather than to make who they are work for them in the classroom. And that’s too bad, because it misses a chance for that young teacher how to bring the best sense of who they are to the classroom in a way that works for them.

For teachers who don’t immediately “command” the classroom as young teachers, they have to learn how to build those relationships 1:1, because the whole classroom will be harder. For those teachers, welcoming every student as they walk in becomes a way to connect so that the kids want to make the classroom a powerful space. Making sure there is time every day to have even 10-15 seconds of personal time with every kid means far more than the ability to have the kind of voice that can reach the back row of tables in the class immediately. Developing lessons and units that place the students at the center of class, through the work and projects they do means that the thoughtfulness of the work will mean more than the charisma of the teacher. And learning the art of being the kind of teacher who has the relationships with students such that the kids want to lean in for the moments when one has to have the attention of the whole class is amazing.

And of course, all of those techniques are important for any inquiry-driven teacher to develop, no matter how big their personality is. The trap for the charismatic young teacher is to forget that charisma isn’t a substitute for thoughtful pedagogy, and it’s not a substitute for real, meaningful connections with students. The trap is using a big personality as a crutch or an excuse not to keep working on your craft. And in that sense, my old professor was right – performance isn’t the point of teaching, substance is. But equally, a big personality isn’t necessarily a performance if that’s actually who you are.

We bring who we are to the classroom every day. Our teacher-selves has to be a recognizable version of who we are in all our moments outside the classroom. The trick is to be intentional as we learn how who we are as people impacts the style and structure of how we teach, and to make sure that our personality works in service of pedagogy, so that we bring the best of who we are to help the kids every day.

Feb 05

Be Your Own Awesome – We Need More Awesome

I’ve noticed something lately.

There seem to be a lot of people in the education social media space who are defining what they are doing as being better than what other people are doing. Without naming names, I’ve seen too many instances lately of saying, “We’re great, and other people are less great than us.” And it hasn’t been framed in the space of “let’s discuss the relative merits of different educational ideas,” which is a conversation we still need to be having, but rather, as a way to elevate one’s own work at the expense of others.

And that is really too bad, because awesome is not a finite resource. In fact, the best of what all these amazing tools can mean is that we can share. We can make each other better by learning from what we do and building on each other’s work. But the spirit of collaboration and sharing necessary to do that kind of work is very difficult to do when others are treating the amount of awesome in the world as a zero-sum game.

If social media is a metaphor for our classroom, think about the kind of classroom we want… do we want the kind of classroom where students don’t share with one another because no one wants to give another classmate an advantage? Do we want the kind of classroom where, when grades are distributed, kids are saying, “I got a 93…” “Oh yeah, well I got a 94!!!” I don’t think we do. Those kinds of classes were toxic for too many kids, and the students who felt insecure about their abilities were made to feel worse.

Let’s have the humility necessary to celebrate our own successes without needing to tear down others when we do.

Because it’s my hope that we remember that we still need so much more awesome in the world of education than we currently have. And that every single school, teacher, student, district, conference, etc… that is able to do really amazing things is increasing the amount of awesome in the edu-space which is great. Every time someone shares something with an honest desire to share and learn, we all get a chance to learn and apply those lessons in our own spaces.

Let’s share with an open heart and an open mind. Let’s remember that there’s plenty of work to go around. Let’s remember that if the only way we can elevate ourselves is by belittling the work of others, any gains we may have made are illusory and fragile at best.

Let’s keep working to learn from each other and be as awesome as we can for the kids in all of our spaces. And let’s celebrate the awesome that others are doing, both where we live and all over the world.

We need more awesome.

 

Feb 04

#EduCon Reflection: What Ubiquitous, Necessary and Invisible Means

We’re now over a week past EduCon 2.7, and I’m still thinking a lot about what we saw this year.

What struck me was that this was the year that it really didn’t feel like an edu-tech conference at all – not because there wasn’t tech everywhere (Raghava KK said that it was the most tweeted conference he’d ever seen), but because it really wasn’t the thing we talked about much at all.

That’s what Ubiquitous, Necessary and Invisible can — and maybe even must — mean.

There’s no question in my mind that the schools we need much be technology rich. We have to make schools leverage the best of what we are and what we know. In the world we live in today, that means that we have to use the tools of the day – be they laptops, Chromebooks, smart phones, social media, Google Apps or anything else. But owning that the tools must be used is really only the very first baby step we have to take.

And once we’ve taken that baby step, we can ask the bigger and better questions that so very much need asking.

Those were the conversations I saw at EduCon – what will our classrooms and schools value? How can we make them more equitable places – especially in regard to issues of race, gender, class and sexuality? How can we ask hard questions about the world we live in and the world we hope our children will create? How can the work we do in schools help students become deeply thoughtful about the world around them? How can we empower them to believe in — and work toward — a vision of the world that is better than we have today? How do schools need to evolve to more authentically ask these questions?

And yes, how do we leverage the tools we have to do all of this better?

For eight years, we’ve tried to create a space where teachers can come together to talk about progressive pedagogy in a technology-rich environment. The eight years have seen incredible change in the world our schools inhabit – from Common Core to the rise of social media to a growing social justice movement to thousands of schools going 1:1 to unprecedented budget crisis in many districts across the country. With all of these changes, the conversations at EduCon have grown richer — and harder. Part of that is because there remains a critical mass of people who come every year, and who keep blogging and tweeting and talking, but also because there are more and more educators who have never been to EduCon before but who are looking for the difficult conversations, who are not settling for easy answers, and who know that it’s not enough just to look for edu-tech solutions, but rather are looking for the places and spaces where educators want to ask the harder questions.

The fact that we can create technology-rich spaces that aren’t about the tech but are about the next questions we have to ask is exciting to me. The fact that EduCon can be one of those spaces is tremendously humbling. The fact that these conversations will continue to happen far beyond the three days of the conference gives me hope.

See you all next year.

Jan 29

See Your Students

[This post has been rattling around in my head after EduCon and really had to be written after a truly wonderful conversation I had with a parent today.]

“The teachers here really know my child.”

I’ve heard many parents tell me some version of that. What is amazing is that parents take this as something rare or unique – and that always makes me sad. The reason all of us at SLA really are so adamant about saying “We teach kids <subject>” instead of “We teach <subject>” is that we never want us to lose sight of the child in front of us. Because when we lose sight of the humanity of our students, we lose the soul of what it means to be a teacher.

“Tell me about my child in your class.”

The answer to that question has to be more than a line in a gradebook or a purely academic answer. As a parent, I am certainly concerned with my children’s academic progress, but I also want to know that you see that Jakob is slyly funny and deeply kind or that Theo has a truly creative mind that comes out powerfully when he draws and that he loves to tell jokes, even when the punchline seems to make sense only to him.

When we see the kids we teach as only students in our classes, we can see what value our classes hold for each of them, rather than just assume that all kids will “need this some day.”

When we see the kids we teach as full people, we can help them develop passion, interests and strengths, rather than just seeing kids as data to be mined, deficits to be remediated, or vessels to be filled.

When we understand that our students have vital and vibrant lives outside of the moments we see them, we can understand that they have racial, gender, religious, economic and social identities that they bring with them to the classroom and that our students bring all that they are to the classroom every day – just like we do.

When we make the attempt to see our children for all that they are, we can listen to all that they say, and we can care for them, not just care about them.

And then, when their families ask us to tell them what we know, our hearts, our minds and our voices will overflow with all we cannot wait to share.

 

Jan 23

The Night Before

I’m going to bed as soon as I hit publish on this post.

I’m going to bed because in about 10 hours, hundreds of educators from all over the continent are going to be showing up at SLA for EduCon. EduCon is a special conference where educators from many different roles within the education world come together to dream big about what education can be. It is, as Ben Herold of EdWeek noted today a vendor-free space to talk about pedagogy.

It’s also a ton of work. EduCon is planned and run by SLA students, parents, teachers and me. The planning starts in August and ended tonight when we proof-read the program one… last… time. And this is our eighth year hosting the conference.

There are moments every year when I think to myself, “We can’t keep doing this.” But we do. And there are some really good reasons for it. So many attendees have told us that EduCon is one of their favorite professional learning of their year. And we at SLA learn a ton as well. It’s kind of wonderful to have an amazing PD experience with brilliant educators from all over the country right in your school. And yes, the conference raises important money for us every year that serves as the start of my fundraising every year as we try to stave off the Philadelphia budget cuts.

But the best reason for us to keep doing EduCon every year is watching the kids see themselves and their school as important voices in the national discussion about the future of education. This evening, as I was answering emails from attendees about the weather forecast, potential dinner spots, travel plans and what have you, dozens of SLA students were setting up classrooms, prepping coffee stations, running last-minute checks on the video feed and prepping their sessions. And I was listening as they talked about being proud of their school and the role it plays.

And that’s why we do it. Because our kids look at all of you who have come to learn with and from them and they realize that they really can help to change the world. EduCon is that moment for many of our students when they prove to themselves that they can be active, authentic agents in the world beyond their school.

As powerful as the learning all the educators will do over the next three days can be, for me, that lesson may be the powerful thing that any of us learn all weekend.

Thank you to all of the hundreds of students, teachers and parents who have worked tireless to prep for EduCon. Thank you to everyone who got in a car, train or plane to come learn with us this weekend. And thank you my co-chairs, Meenoo Rami, Amal Giknis, Julian Makarechi, Alisha Rothwell, Jasmin Gilliam and Zee Driggers for all the time you’ve spent. Thank you to the amazing Diana Laufenberg who came in this week and troubleshot everything so that the weekend would be awesome.

Welcome to EduCon everyone. Welcome to our school.