Jul 23

Educational Colonialism

It is my hope that Jakob and Theo would want to go to SLA or a school like SLA that has an inquiry-driven, project-based, modern-schooling approach to learning.

I admit – much of the vision of SLA, both in how we originally conceived of the idea and in how we continue to evolve today is, for me, based on what I want for my own children.

I say this because there are a lot of powerful folks right now who are advocating for a pedagogy that they do not want for their own children. Some of these powerful people are running networks of schools that have a pedagogical approach that is directly counter to the educational approach they pay for for their own children. Moreover, these same powerful people tend to get upset when asked about the disconnect, saying that that question is off limits.

I don’t think it is.

I think we should ask why people of power advocate for one thing for their own children and something else for other people’s children, especially when those other children come from a lower rung on the socio-economic scale or when those children come from traditionally disenfranchised members of our society. I think that’s a very dangerous thing not to question.

Because we’ve done this before in America, and when we did that to the Native Americans, it did damage that has effects today.

To me, when you ensure your own child has an arts-enriched, small-class size, deeply humanistic education and you advocate that those families who have fewer economic resources than you have should sit straight in their chairs and do what they are told while doubling and tripling up on rote memorization and test prep, you are guilty of educational colonialism.

And it’s time we start calling that what it is.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Jul 15

A Debt of Gratitude

One of the great challenges to running SLA is the fundraising that has to happen every year to keep our 1:1 MacBook program going. Every year, the fundraising kicks into high gear with our EduCon planning, and we cobble together the $180,000 we need from EduCon, grants, donations, district-level grants and school budget when we have it. Worse, I’m a bashful fundraiser – especially when it comes to donations from citizens. I don’t like having to ask people for money, but it seems you cannot be a principal these days unless you understand that part of your job is to be head-fundraiser.

As most readers of this blog know, the past few years have been exceptionally challenging for the School District of Philadelphia, and SLA’s fundraising needs have risen dramatically at the same time that more and more schools are in more and more need, and funding dollars are getting harder and harder to come by.

This year, we worked with a Philadelphia Tech Social Entrepreneur as we used his new site – FundingWorks – in an attempt to crowd source a significant portion of the laptop funding. Funding Works works in such a way as to set a deadline for funding whereby if you do not meet your goal, you don’t get any of the donations. High-stakes fundraising, indeed. We had set an overall goal of $80,000 – because that was what we needed at the time, but we set up a $20,000 threshold that we had to hit to receive anything.

Getting the fundraising going has been tough. Emails have been sent, phone calls have been made, and we have been watching the funding thermometer grow slowly toward $20,000 for several months, but as of last week, we were still $9,000 short with the deadline of July 15th rapidly approaching.

I am humbled to say that we made our fundraising goal with three and a half hours to spare tonight. And when I look over the list of donations, I see SLA families – including many alums. I see members of the Philly Tech world who have – over and over – adopted SLA as one of their own. I see educators from all over the world who gave what they could to our funky little school. I see old friends and former students. And I see over $8,000 in anonymous donations to which I can only hope that some of those folks read this blog and know the incredible deep sense of thanks I have in my heart.

Overall, I see an incredible community, and I am reminded of how lucky I am to have such wonderful people in my life – people who support the school that is, for so many of us, a home. I am truly humbled by the fact that so many people took the time to give, to spread the word and to care about our school.

Thank you to everyone who gave. Thank you for supporting SLA. Thank you for allowing our dream of what a school can be to continue.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Jun 28

Capstones and Inquiry

[I’ve been meaning to write this post for a few weeks now, and I finally have the mindspace to clear the cobwebs and write.]

I was really blown away by our senior capstones this year. They were truly amazing. I saw students doing amazing projects that mattered to them. But most importantly, I saw kids who were ready to do so because of the four years of work that had preceded that presentation.

At its root, senior capstone at SLA is a student’s opportunity to take on the blank slate of the inquiry process and fill it with content of their own passion and creation. The basic framework as represented by the document we give to parents can be found at http://bit.ly/SLACapstone. But essentially, students have to take on a topic, idea, project of their own passion and create or do something that matters, all the while defining for themselves the way they will interact with the five core values of SLA – inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection. There is a framework for the project, and there are certain “must-haves” – a proposal, a reflective paper, an annotated bibliography of their research, but beyond that, the students really have to fill in the gaps with their own ideas.

And what I love is that it doesn’t have to be an “academic” pursuit. Not every student wants to make the project something traditionally academic, in fact many don’t. But what’s amazing is to hear them talk about how they took the topic – no matter what it is – and applied our values to it. When I sat in capstone presentations, I was struck by how our seniors really did understand how to make each of those core values – the inquiry process – part of the way they both learned and lived. For me, it doesn’t really get much better than that.

Sadly for me, I can’t see all 120 senior capstone presentations – it’s just a logistical impossibility, but this year, I sat in on about twenty presentations, and every single one was a powerful representation of who that person was. I didn’t see a single presentation that I thought didn’t represent something of importance to the student. I didn’t see any student who I thought was mailing it in. Sure, I knew that some kids had worked harder than others, but every single student had invested something significant of themselves in their project. I am always skeptical of schools who say they get 100% of everything, and so I own that my data set is incomplete and anecdotal, but still… I was incredibly impressed. Here’s some of what I saw:

  • I saw Emma design a mural on our third floor, and I saw her explain how every choice was a symbolic representation of a part of her experience and belief about high school – including the part of the mural that she painted with dry erase paint so that the students who follow her can make her mural part of their experience, much as she left her mark on SLA.
  • I saw DJ create a working wind tunnel so that he could test the aero dynamics of various shapes, because he’s interested in biomechanical engineering (I hope I got that right), and he wants to design vehicles (mostly airplanes) that borrow more directly from the natural world for their design.
  • I saw Dennis write a 250+ page novel — and yes, we’ll have it up on Lulu soon.
  • I saw Mustapha – a future elementary school teacher – talk about what it was like to form a youth basketball team and coach it, and the joy he got from learning how to coach. He is a young man who will profoundly influence young people for the next forty plus years, and his capstone was a meaningful step toward that goal.
  • I saw Josh record an album of his original music – and I was lucky enough to hear him play a song live. I listened as he talked about how he used the inquiry process to learn about how to make his own music and how that process gave him the confidence he never thought he would have to do so.

I saw Newon create Liberian Inspired Beauty – her own dress company with six original dresses whose designs were inspired by her heritage. I saw her friends model her creations and I saw the confidence of a young woman as she narrated the fashion show in front of a packed room of her colleagues.

And there were so many more… and I can’t do justice to them all.

In almost every presentation I saw, kids also talked about their failures through this process. They talked about iterations of designs that didn’t work. They talked about struggle and frustration. They talked about changing tactics, and the fears that they would run out of time. And they talked about overcoming those struggles and learning from them. They talked about trying new things and pushing themselves past what they thought they were capable of. As many folks in the ed-innovation (is that a better term than ed-reform) world talk about teaching kids that it is o.k. to fail… the fail-fast and try again model… I saw first-hand how this kind of student-owned, student-designed project enabled just that. And I saw how powerful that was for our students.

And another thing I saw was, in presentation after presentation, students supporting each other, clapping for each other, crying with each other. I saw students asking amazing questions during the presentations, wanting to know more about the projects they were seeing. The students were so proud of one another, and I saw parents looking at their children with awe and wonder, seeing the incredible young adults they had become.

As I reflect on what I saw, it struck me that this is what happens after four years of engaging in this iterative process of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, reflection. Our students have a truly deep understanding of what it means to learn, create and lead. They’ve done it over and over again. I love capstone because it is our students’ opportunity to stand in front of their community and say, “This is the person I have become through my years at Science Leadership Academy.” And they were, to a person, beautiful… powerful… ready to go on to whatever comes next.

We’re not perfect, and we still want to do this better. I want to get better at cataloging digital artifacts of these capstones. Many students created them, but we don’t have a unified way of collecting them yet. I want to find a better way to do a school-wide exhibition of capstones, so that we can celebrate these works together. I want to ask students to journal through this process more than we have, but I can’t decide if that’s for the students or for us, so I don’t know that we will. I want to find a way to formally include more underclass students in the capstone presentation process, not just the juniors. Many 9th and 10th graders came on their lunch breaks, but we should make that more formalized, I think, because the underclass students would – as Larry Rosenstock says about High Tech High students – see themselves in those powerful roles. And I do want to find ways to help students to spread the work out a bit more, because as I am sure you can imagine, there was a lot more work done on many of the capstones in May than there was in December. Maybe that’s inevitable and o.k., I don’t know… and maybe SLA students have learned procrastination from at least one of the adults at SLA… maybe from the guy who has nice office in the front of the building. Sigh.

But even though I know we have more work to do as the adults who shepherd the students through this process, I’m thrilled with our evolution now three years into senior capstones. Much of that success can and should be laid directly at the feet of Roz Echols who has taken on the role of Capstone Coordinator every year, and the clarity with which students can undertake their projects is because of the framework she has put together. And that’s no mean feat – the capstone process has to have enough structure, enough signposts such that students can undertake a year-long project without getting lost along the way while also having enough flexibility and freedom to encompass the diversity of the kinds of projects I listed above and another 115 more. It is a yeoman’s task, and I am always in awe with how well Roz does it. This year, as soon as the presentations were done, I saw Roz in the library, reflecting on how the process went, talking to other teachers about their experience in mentoring students and watching presentations and already making notes about how she wants to tweak the structure for next year. Her work has been simply incredible.

But the other reason the process works is because every teacher at SLA has such a deep commitment to our core values, to those deep pathways of curriculum design and pedagogical thought so that when the time comes for the students to design their own, the students – the scholars, the activists – have so deeply lived that process for four years that they are set up to succeed, because, of course, they already have.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Jun 28

Personalization

There is a lot of talk in ed-tech and ed-reform about personalization right now. There are a lot of folks on the vendor floor of places like ISTE and NCTM who will sell you products that are supposedly personalized, and much of the buzz around something like Khan Academy is that it personalizes the learning for kids.

We should be careful about how we use that term, and we should be very skeptical of how well computerized programs can really personalize for kids. Most of what I see – especially from curriculum and assessment vendors – involves personalization of pace while still maintaining standardization of content. That’s not good enough. While a program that allows you to take a pre-test and then get practice problems and tutorials and videos that are specifically tailored to the things you did poorly on and allows you to practice those things until you can pass the test a) might raise test scores (and it is easy imagine it would), and b) might be marginally better than a "traditional" classroom that did not offer choice of content or pace (and I put "traditional" in quotes because there have been legions of teachers who have been giving kids real choice for decades,) that doesn’t mean we should settle for that. I’ll even grant that these programs have a place in helping students to master the concepts that someone else tells them (and us) they have to learn — and to that end, SLA uses one of these programs, Study Island, to help kids get ready for the PSSAs — but let’s not call it personalized, and let’s not think that it is good enough. Here’s why.

First, this notion of personalization of learning removes student choice from learning what they most want to learn. It still assumes that kids have to learn everything we want them to learn. I don’t know how, in this era of high-stakes tests and corporate education "reform," where test scores are the profit and loss statements for schools, we can get away from this systemically, but we have to, and because language matters, I don’t think we should call self-paced tutorials real personalization. (It also isn’t necessarily anything new. The old SRA learning modules did much the same thing in the 1970s, but they just weren’t computerized.) We have to get to a place where we understand that while there are skills that students do need and content they do need to at least be exposed to, that both those lists of "must haves" are probably far more expansive than they need to be right now at the expense of all kinds of things that students could do, create and learn that would ignite their passion and their minds in ways that mandated content consumption doesn’t.

Second, this model of "personalization" is still building off of a deficit model where students no longer have to do the things they are good at so they can focus on the things they are bad at. We have to move to a system where we create more space for students to play to their strengths while mitigating their weaknesses. Instead, we create system after system where kids are told to keep working on the things they are worst at, often at the expense of the things they are good at. And then we wonder why kids don’t like school or worse – think they don’t like learning.

Finally, too much of this model of "personalization" misses another one of the most personal pieces of learning – the artifacts of learning we create when we learn. I want students to be able to own their learning by creating stuff that matters to them. At SLA this year, I saw students build bio-walls, make movies, apply complicated mathematical concepts as they built trebuchets and robots, write and enact public action campaigns and form book clubs around genre studies of their own definition. At ISTE this week, I watched as Larry Rosenstock showed project after project of student work that showed their ability to synthesize powerful ideas into gorgeous products of their own design. All of these examples are mapped to standards, all of these are ways for students to demonstrate mastery of the same concepts that we test on, but in ways that are truly personal to the student, because they choose them. That’s the model of personalization I want to see schools move toward.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Jun 28

ISTE 2012 – Why ISTE Still Matters To Me

I just finished up five days at ISTE 2012 – the International Society for Technology in Education conference. ISTE has been a must-attend function for me for the past six years, and I imagine it will stay that way for years to come. ISTE isn’t perfect – nothing is – but it is an important event for me every year.

Last year, I was the closing keynote at the conference, so the conference was on my mind a lot in the days ramping up to it. But this year, we had a crazy ramp up to the end of the year, where graduation was followed the next day by meeting the President of the United States, followed by some wonderful end of year work by the SLA faculty, followed immediately by district meetings where we discussed how much of the work of the spring – figuring out how to help schools become more autonomous – was brought one step closer to fruition, and as a result, I was wholly unprepared when the "ISTE is almost here!" tweets came across my twitter stream.

I think, on some level, this would have been an easy year for me to hang out in the Blogger Cafe, chat with a lot of old friends, meet a bunch of new ones, and take only a passing interest in going to sessions. I’m tired, and there’s never enough time to see everyone I want to see, and, indeed, some of the best learning I have is still in the conversations over meals. But I decided on Monday that I wanted to be fully invested in sessions this year, that while on one level, I needed a break from the craziness of the year, on another level, I needed space to re-immerse myself in the ideas that I really love. I needed to focus on being a learner.

So I went to sessions about student journalism, sessions about thoughtfully engaging in conversations about change, sessions about data visualization and sessions about designing curriculum that spurs students to innovate. I had conversations about working with teachers to help them change their practice, and I had conversations about the policy environment.

But also, my takeaway from ISTE is how important this community is to me. Some of the friendship I’ve made from the world of ed-tech are more than ten years old. (For example, I’m writing this post sitting next to Kathy Schrock who I first started emailing with back in the mid-90s and who I first met when she interviewed me for the Today Show about the cyber-mentoring project at Beacon back in ’97 or so.) With many folks here, we’ve known each other through marriages and births and deaths, and the use of social media like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and Instagram (and good old fashioned phone calls) has allowed those face to face friendships to stay vibrant even if we are scattered across the globe.

In the end, I count myself incredibly lucky to be part of a community of educator / learners who share their ideas, their passions and their lives, both on-line and off, and I am thankful for the moments like ISTE where we get to learn and laugh together. And I am thankful that this is a community that is very good at doing both of those things at the same time.

See you online… and see you next year.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Jun 27

Beyond Googling: Structuring Inquiry – A Beginning

I did my ISTE session yesterday, Beyond Googling: Structuring Inquiry. It was the first time I’ve that session (and I’ll embed the session soon, but I couldn’t capture the embed code on the iPad.) It’s always interesting to try to do a session in a big room that is something other than a talk. And I thought I’d try to write down a little bit about what I think about inquiry.

Over the journey that has been SLA, I’ve become really deeply aware of how inquiry is a process. The five core values of Inquiry, Research, Collaboration, Presentation and Reflection are at the heart of the inquiry process for me. (And analysis… that’s probably the unnamed sixth core value.) And it is an iterative process that we engage in. But also at the heart of the inquiry process is that the person engaging in the inquiry – the learner – actually
cares about the questions they are asking. I think it’s possible to "fake it," and yes, our level of investment in different projects can and does change, but at root, the inquiry process sets the stage for kids to care about their learning.

And, for me, the inquiry process isn’t just asking questions. And it certainly isn’t us asking questions we know the answers to. It is about creating the environment where kids can see the connections between what they are learning and their lives… and for me, they can do that by asking questions that matter to them, find answers to those questions, and then build stuff that matters around that answer. David Jakes and I were talking about this, and we teased out a short idea of how that could look using cell mitosis. (And remember, I’m an English teacher, so be kind.)

Traditional: Use a combination of lecture, textbook, video to teach kids about cell mitosis, students may have to draw examples, take a test, etc…

Something closer to inquiry: Give kids access to all the information, so they can learn it themselves, teacher can work with small groups, address mis-steps and misunderstandings, have them create artifacts about cell mitosis that they can present, etc…

Inquiry: Give a short explanation of cell mitosis and then explain how cell mitosis, unchecked, can cause a tumor / cancer. Give kids ways to investigate how cell mitosis functions within the body. And have them pick one system / phenomenon within the body where cell mitosis is important and have them create an artifact of their learning around that, explaining cell mitosis through the lens of the questions they asked and answered around that process. How many more students might be more interested in learning about cell mitosis if it allows them to ask questions about how and why they lost someone close to them?

Now, inquiry isn’t at all a perfect way to structure a classroom. It can take more time, it can be harder to cover every last piece of a subject, and it can make assessment more difficult for teachers because student work can vary greatly. Importantly, it can also be really complex for students too. But there ways to mitigate those problems. And they are the problems that, for me, I want to grapple with because the benefits are so great.

This post really just scratches the surface, but these ideas formed the basis of what I talked about in my session at ISTE. And I realize that as much as I talk about inquiry, I haven’t written much about it. I’m going to try to change that in the coming days.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Jun 15

Meeting President Obama

[So I’ve been a terrible blogger of late, and there’s been a lot to say, but I wanted to at least get this out to everyone because it was so amazing.]

PresidentPresident Barack Obama spoke to the Science Leadership Academy Class of 2012 on Tuesday night. His remarks spoke to the potential of the students, to the incredible diversity of the children in front of him, to the challenges that lie ahead for our country. To say that his words were inspiring is an understatement of near epic proportion.

To be 18 years old and hear the President of the United States speak of how proud he is of you and then challenge you to go further, do more, change the world – how can that not resonate? How can you not strive to be worthy of that.And more than that, to be a child of color and to hear those words from the first African-American President of the United States challenge you to change the world, what an inspiring moment. To have the President tell you that you will be able to study topics that have long been denied to children of color, long been discouraged for women, how could you let anything stand in your way?

At one point during President Obama’s remarks, I turned around to look at the faces of the students of the Class of 2012. Not only did I see their joy and awe in being in the room with the President, not only did I see his message resonate in their eyes, I also saw the same potential that he saw. He is right – these children will change the world.

[President Obama’s remarks are below:]

THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary


For Immediate Release — June 12, 2012

REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
TO GRADUATING STUDENTS OF THE SCIENCE LEADERSHIP ACADEMY

The Franklin Institute
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

5:50 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: Hello, everybody! (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you so much. Everybody, have a seat. Have a seat. Well, this is so exciting to have a chance to see all of you. Congratulations on your graduation. (Applause.) I know I kind of messed up graduation a little bit, but it turned out that it was beautiful yesterday. So we had this all planned out. (Laughter.) We knew there was going to be sun yesterday; it’s a little cloudier today. We wanted to make sure you guys looked good in your caps and gowns and didn’t get too wet.

Listen, I just want to say to all of you how incredibly proud I am of the work that you guys have accomplished, because some of you may have heard — in between studying you may have listened to a speech that I’ve given or remarks that I’ve made in the past — the nation that excels in science and math and technology, that’s going to be the nation that rises to the top in the 21st century. Almost everything we do is based on our capacity to innovate. And America became a economic superpower because we were constantly able to tap into the incredible talents and ingenuity of young people like you who decided — why can’t we fly? Why can’t we cure diseases? Why can’t we make sure that the energy that we use is able to make life a little bit better and a little bit easier for people?

And so throughout our history we’ve constantly had innovators who have been able to not only excel in basic science and basic research, but have then been able to translate it into practical things that we now take for granted. And obviously, there was a pretty good scientist here in Philadelphia named Benjamin Franklin, who was able to tool around with kites and keys and all kinds of stuff before he helped to write our Constitution. So you’ve got a pretty good legacy, here in Philadelphia, of innovation.

And the fact that, as I look around this auditorium, we are tapping into the talents of everybody — women as well as men; folks from every ethnic group, every background — that’s also this incredible strength for the United States, because innovation, brainpower does not discriminate by gender or race or faith or background. Everybody has got the capacity to create and improve our lives in so many ways.

So you guys are representative of the future. This is a great postcard for what America is all about. And as you take your next steps — I’m assuming that everybody here is going to some sort of post-high school education, everybody here is going to be going to college, and some of you are going to continue beyond college — I just want you to know that you are going to be succeeding not just for yourself — and that’s important — your parents are going to want you to have a job, so they’re very pleased about the fact that you’re taking a path that is almost assured to provide you with extraordinary opportunities in the future — but you’re also going to be making a difference for the country as a whole.

So my expectation is, is that somebody in this auditorium is going to figure out new sources of energy that help not only make us more energy independent, but also deals with problems like climate change. There is somebody in this room who’s going to help make sure that we are defeating diseases like Alzheimer’s or cancer. There is somebody in this room who is going to help revolutionize our agricultural sector, or our transportation sectors, or will invent some entire new industry that we don’t even know about yet.

And the pace of change these days is so rapid — I’m reminded when I talk to Malia and Sasha that when Sasha was born, most people weren’t on the Internet and now she knows more about it than I do. (Laughter.) And so, in many ways, your youth and the fact that you’ve come of age in this new information age gives you an enormous advantage over old fogies like us.

So the bottom line is, we’re proud of you. You are going to succeed. You’re well on your way. The last thing I’d ask of you, even as you focus on your chosen field and you are moving forward, is to make sure that you also give back, that for a lot of you in your neighborhoods there may not be as many kids who are interested in math and science. And you need to make sure that wherever you have the opportunity, you’re mentoring and serving as a good role model to the next generation coming up behind you.

For the women who are here, a lot of you know that historically we haven’t had as many women in math and science and engineering fields. So as you succeed, hopefully you’re going to go back and mentor some people, and encourage them to get involved in these fields as well. If you do that then I have extraordinary optimism for the future. And I think that not only will you succeed, but you’re going to help your country succeed as well.

So thank you very much, everybody. Appreciate you. Thank you. (Applause.)

END 5:57 P.M. EDT

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

May 27

The Book Is Coming: What School Administrators Need to Know about Digital Technologies and Social Media

So, this October, the book What School Administrators Need to Know about Digital Technologies and Social Media, co-edited by Scott McLeod and… well, me… will be out in print. (You can pre-order now.)

I’m really excited about the book because it contains chapter after chapter from some of the best minds in educational technology, all writing to give a school administrator who wants to know more about the tools and how to use them perspective. It really does provide a thoughtful entry into the world of ed-tech. And for those folks who are beyond the entry point, I think there’s still enough in the text to be provocative, interesting and useful.

This is the first book that has my name on the cover as an editor or author, and it was an incredible process going from idea to book. (And yes, we’re hoping that there will be a Kindle version.) What an incredible learning experience… and I hope that everyone who reads it enjoys it and finds it useful. A quick look at the topics and authors should show why I am so excited that this book will be of use:

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Introduction, Chris Lehmann & Scott McLeod
Foreword, David Warlick

Learning Tools

  • Blogs, Kristin Hokanson & Christian Long
  • Wikis, Stephanie Sandifer & Vicki Davis
  • Podcasts and webinars, Steve Dembo & Wes Fryer
  • RSS and RSS readers, Will Richardson & Karl Fisch
  • Digital video, Mathew Needleman
  • Virtual schooling, Michael Barbour & Rick Ferdig
  • One-to-one computing, Chris Lehmann & Pamela Livingston
  • Open source software, Tom Hoffman
  • Educational gaming, John Rice

Interlude

  • Social media is changing the way we live and learn, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach
  • See Sally research: Evolving notions of information literacy, Joyce Valenza & Doug Johnson

More Learning Tools

  • Social bookmarking, Dean Shareski & Mary Beth Hertz
  • Online mind mapping, Carl Anderson & Richard Byrne
  • Course management systems, Scott Floyd & Miguel Guhlin
  • Online office tool suites, Diana Laufenberg & Mark Wagner
  • Twitter, Alec Couros & Kevin Jarrett
  • Online images and visual literacy, Kim Cofino & David Jakes
  • Mobile phones, Liz Kolb & Sharon Tonner
  • Social networking, Ewan McIntosh & Jeff Utecht
  • Afterword, Christopher Sessums

Mar 29

Enlightened Self-Interest (or Send Mr. Chase to Harvard)

One of the hardest things about leadership is that the job is never finished, and healthy organizations never stop changing.

I love the team of teachers we have at SLA. If I had my druthers, we’d keep this group of people together for many, many years to come.

The world doesn’t work that way. People move on. And I knew that before I ever started SLA. My hope is that teachers don’t leave SLA to go be teachers somewhere else – unless they have to leave Philadelphia because of life changes and such. It is my hope that some of the amazing, amazing teachers we have at SLA want to stay in the classroom — and in the SLA classroom — for the rest of their career. But I’ve always known that being at SLA, being part of starting the school, and now being part of a school that has a place in the national debate about education would allow all of us at SLA a window into a world outside our classrooms – and for some folks, that would mean wanting an opportunity to have an impact beyond the work they do at SLA.

For some, that means doing the kind of work that Gamal Sherif does with the Center for Teaching Quality or the work that Matt VanKouwenberg does with local organizations around creating better science and engineering curriculum or doing what Matt Kay does by starting the Philly Youth Poetry Movement… the list goes on. For the teacher-activists who want to stay at SLA, that means I have to create the time and space for them to do that kind of work… and it is the right thing to do for any number of reasons – they give back to the world in powerful ways, it enriches their practice which in turn makes them better teachers at SLA, and by honoring the other interests teachers have, I stand a better chance of keeping them around SLA for longer – and that’s decidedly in the best interests of the school.

For others, it means that they will do an Advisory cycle (four years) or two and then leave to start their own schools or work in ed-policy or teach teachers, etc… supporting the people who want to leave is harder. It requires caring about teachers as people, even when that care, that support, comes at the short-term expense of SLA.

That’s hard. Sometimes exceedingly so.

But the ethic of care is a funny thing. It means that you have to do act in the best interests of those you care for… even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard. But to try to keep someone from leaving SLA when you can see that they are ready for a different path would be to dishonor the very relationships that allow the kids to trust us to work in their best interests. And I remember a time in my own career when people tried to tell me I wasn’t ready to move on to my next challenges, because of their own fears and choices and visions… and I decided back then that I wouldn’t do that to others. That I would work to be humble enough, honest enough, mature enough to know when I had to support the teachers who were so vital to what we do at SLA, even when that support meant letting them leave with my blessing.

So with that… I ask people to support Zac Chase, SLA teacher extraordinaire, as he makes his bid to afford Harvard Graduate School of Education next year. Zac is as fine an English teacher as I have ever known – he is a better English teacher than I was – and his energy and intelligence and passion for teaching kids has made SLA a better school from the day he stepped foot in the school. Harvard GSE has accepted him, but they haven’t given him the financial support he needs – or that I think he deserves. So he has started Chasing Harvard – an attempt to crowd-source his financial aid and create transparent graduate school experience in the process.

The easiest thing to do would be for me to counsel him not to do this… that it is too hard… that the loans would be too big… and that he’s happy and successful at SLA, and hey, he can always try again. But to do that would be to dishonor the spirit of SLA and the ethic of care. And to do that would be, in time, to poison the relationship and to cheapen the work he – and we – have done. And so while there is a selfish part of me that wants Zac back next year, I support his attempt to Chase Harvard, and I know that if he is back at SLA it won’t be for lack of trying to take this next step… which means if he does end up back at SLA it will be with the knowledge that, for now, it will remain where he needs to be.

And if Chasing Harvard works, I will have lost an incredible English teacher at SLA, but we all will have gained a powerful and profound ally on the policy side of things. And that is in my own enlightened self-interest, too.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Feb 22

Enjoying Language

I am reading Sam Chaltain’s American Schools – a fantastic text about creating more democratic schools. It is a wonderful read… one that I had started before EduCon, but after meeting Sam at EduCon and being completely inspired by everything he had to say on the Sunday morning panel, it was a text I had to return to.

In the text, Sam talks about creating a democratic culture that can create and sustain change through the three civic habits of mind, heart and voice (pg. 74.) The mind signifies the understandings we have about the communities we want to have, the heart signifies our motivation and voice signifies the skills we need. It is a lovely frame for the kind of work Sam is writing about – the kind of work it took to build SLA, and the kind of work that I advocate for when I go out and speak. It reminded me of the lens and language I use when I talk about students and teachers doing the work of their own head, heart and hands.

And here’s where it gets fun. (Or I get waaaaaaaay too into language – take your pick.) I really started to question the space between "voice" and "hands." In the end, I think Sam and I both meant much the same thing – the stuff we can do… build… say… but what was the difference? Was there a difference? Voice traditionally has been a powerful signifier of agency, especially when one looks at the civil rights struggles, so in that respect – especially since Sam’s book is about democratic schools – "voice" was a more powerful word for skills than "hands."

But I run a school where kids make stuff. And in that context… in a more constructivist context… "hands" is about the artifacts of learning that kids (and teachers) can create. Hands is about the ability to do things, and I wouldn’t want to lose that in the context of what we do… and it feels very different to me to say "hands" than "voice." Is "voice" encompassed within "head?" No. Clearly not. All one has to do is look at who has agency in the world to know that they are not the same thing.

So does it matter? Is one of us wrong? Who knows… what I love is finding someone whose ideas pushed mine in great ways and forced me to examine my own language. How will I change mine? I don’t know yet… the ideas are still running around in the brain. But Sam’s book, even though — perhaps because — it is so close to the stuff I believe has pushed me to refine what I believe even more deeply. And that’s a good thing.

So perhaps then, there are two meta-takeaways for me in this blog post. The first – language is joyous, fun and important. When people say, "That’s just semantics," I have always thought, "Just?" And second – as much as we decry the echo chamber, there are times when the folks whose views are closely aligned to your own are the ones who can push you, shape you, challenge you in ways that few others can.

And oh yeah, read Sam’s book. It really is wonderful.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad