About Chris Lehmann

Founding Principal Science Leadership Academy Philadelphia, PA
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.

 

Dec 27

The Larger Problem

In all probability, approximately 300 African-Americans will be killed by the police in 2015. If recent events tell us anything, these deaths will be polarizing, revealing a deep divide in this country about trust in the police in our country. There will be those who will look to explain away each shooting, but to do so is to miss the larger picture of the experience that many people of color – specifically African-Americans – have with the police.

Two weeks ago, an African-American SLA alum had a really scary experience with the police. Not that it should matter, but the young man in question is roughly my height and build, and he is about as un-threatening looking as anyone I know. He’s also a senior in college majoring in pre-med. In short, for anyone who might try to look for a reason to dismiss the following words, there is none save a willingness to see a black face and make ugly assumptions.

His words:

Early this morning on the way home from a friend’s house I was racially profiled. As I was waiting for the bus I begin to see a police car riding pass me, as I continue to wait I notice that this one cop car becomes three cop cars then eventually seven. To avoid an encounter with these officers I begin to walk to the other bus stop. Three cops car then pull up on me with their guns drawn. As the officer approaches me I tell him I’m just waiting for the bus to get home, and he begins to ask me why I’m in this neighborhood and if I lived around there. They begin to ask me questions, and I ask if I am being detained. The officer says no and then proceeds to tell me that I fit the description of someone who committed a crime. When I asked him what the description was he could not answer and simply said that I had to wait because I seemed out of place and to make sure I didn’t commit the crime they suspected me of. As I told the officer that I knew my rights and that if I wasn’t being detained I would like to be on my way, I begin to walk away and he tries to grab me. I told the officer not to touch and he begin to say that I had to stay in front due to probable cause and then when I stated the statue of Pennsylvania which entitles me not to be detained without being charged of a crime I begin to walk away. Literally petrified I begin to record and called a friend to call my parents as more police begin to show up. I ask the police in the light of the recent events in our country that im afraid and on edge for my life. I told them that they should protect me not harass me as I only wanted to get home. The Sergeant is then called and then begins to laugh in my face and become very sarcastic as he says do you really even know the statues. After stating that I knew my rights yet again I walked away and the Sergeant then orders his officers to follow me as he says he just looks like he’s up to something. The police followed me for five blocks, harassing me and talking out there windows until the bus came, and because I do not come from a position of privilege I was subjugated to this type of treatment. What makes it worse is that although I did nothing I felt afraid for my life, I hear my friend’s voice on the phone and I hear that she is calling out my name as she is also scarred because she believed that they would hurt me. This hurts more than you could ever imagine but I refuse to take injustice standing down, I refuse to be treated differently because my skin color doesn’t fit that of the predominantly white neighborhood, while I refuse to succumb to increased force and fear tactics used because they label my appearance as thuggish.

Sadly, his story is nowhere near uncommon. I’ve heard versions of this stories from young men and women of color for years. And it is the stories like this that sit just beneath the surface of the #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe protests. If the fact that a young black man is 28 times more likely to die at the hands of a police officer is not enough to push this discussion, it is the frightening effects that experiences like the one above have on millions of black men and women. It is that an Ivy League educated, former professional athlete, now ESPN commentator, can be racially profiled in his own driveway, or that, years ago, when I was among a diverse group of friends, I had to have a friend explain to me what getting pulled over for DWB was… and that when it was explained to me, every non-white head nodded in agreement, or that the willingness by the mayor of New York City to suggest that there is a problem results in hundreds of police officers turning their backs when he speaks at a police funeral that should tell us that we must face this problem head on as a nation.

There are steps we must take to decrease the number of times police officers use lethal force, as the evidence suggests that lethal force is used more often when the suspect is a person of color. To me, that conversation must happen. However, there is another, perhaps even more important, conversation that has to happen around policing in our nation, and that is the unequal methods of policing that happens in this nation.

Much has been made of the difference between races in a recent Gallup poll about confidence in the police nationally, where 61% of whites and 34% of blacks expressed confidence in the police. And while that gap is significant and speaks to the very different realities that exist in America, to me the larger point of that poll is that, overall, only 57% of Americans have confidence in the police. That speaks to a growing problem that we, as a nation, no longer have faith in a fundamental institution of our society.

It is often said that America is a nation of laws. For our nation to thrive, there must be a common belief that the system by which those laws are enforced is, on the whole, fair, otherwise, we have a sickness as a nation that will slowly — if not quickly — poison our national identity. If we, as a nation, are to move to a place where we do have faith in our system of laws, we must address the problem that those laws are enforced unequally, and that there are those who are charged with enforcing those laws who do so in a way that springs from the worst of what we are and have been as a nation, not from the best of what we are and can be as a nation.

We must, as a nation, recognize that the anger and protests around #BlackLivesMatter are about the many African-American deaths at the hands of police that we have seen, but it is about more than that – it is, fundamentally, about whether or not America can – at long last – recognize that it has long been an unjust and racist nation, and that maybe, at long last, we are ready to face our history and our present, so that we can, in the future, be the nation we have long sought to be.

To miss this opportunity would mean we, as a nation, are unwilling to see the larger problem.

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.