Oct 19

How Leaders Can Improve Their Cultural Competence

[I wrote a piece for Edutopia about cultural competence. Here’s how it starts…]

We live in an increasingly pluralistic society where people run up against the thoughts and beliefs of others more and more frequently. Helping children learn to navigate the space between what they believe and what others believe is perhaps one of the best ways we can overcome the hate we see in so many facets of our society today.

Cultural competence isn’t tolerance. It’s not that easy. Cultural competence is not simply ensuring that your school has a rich and varied Black History Month or letting students start a Gay-Straight Alliance — although those can be powerfully important pieces of a culturally competent school. Cultural competence means first understanding, as educational leaders, that we come to school with our sense of who we are, and that unless we are reflective about our own identity and how it creates a lens through which we view the world, we will not be able to honor the identities of the students and faculty we serve.

But that is only the beginning of cultural competence. As we go through the process of understanding who we are and the place we occupy as administrators of our buildings, we also have to listen deeply to those around us — students, parents, faculty, and staff — to understand who they are and what their experiences are, so that we can relate to them fully as people, without preconceived notions of what it means to have an identity that is different — or even the same — as ours. And it means subjecting the processes of our schools to what we learn when we listen, always working to ensure that our schools are accessible to all, equitable for all.

Read the rest at Edutopia…. 

Sep 28

EduCon 2.9: Call for Proposals

Yes everyone, it’s that time again! EduCon time! You can go to the website and register and propose a conversation today!

Once again, everyone at SLA is so excited to host EduCon, our favorite education conference of the year! And EduCon is awesome because of everyone who shows up to make it awesome! This year’s theme — fitting for our tenth EduCon — is sustainability. And as we put together our panels, I think we’re going to have some incredible conversations about how to sustain the innovations we create, even as we all keep pushing toward new ideas.

So, please think about facilitating a conversation this year! Proposals are due November 1st.

For those folks who have never been… some information about EduCon:

What is EduCon?

EduCon is both a conversation and a conference.

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

The guiding principles behind EduCon:

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

Hope to see you there!


Mar 24

Join Philadelphia’s Innovation Network!

This is an exciting time in the School District of Philadelphia as we seek to hire 800 new teachers to join us this fall to teach the children of this city, and the Innovation Network is part of that effort!

On Wednesday, March 30th from 2pm – 6pm in the School District of Philadelphia Auditorium at 440 N. Broad St., we will host the Innovation Network Recruitment Fair! All of the schools of our network will be there to meet prospective teachers. All of our schools are hiring for next year, and we are looking for teachers who want to be part of a network of schools dedicated to the idea that schools can be authentic, empowering, caring and modern for all its members – students and teachers alike. Our schools are:

You can also download our Innovation Network Recruitment Flyer.

In addition to our teacher hiring, we are looking for a Professional Learning Specialist to join our network! This person will work with our principals, our network team, the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel and other partners to re-think what pre- and in-service teacher development can mean in an innovative school culture. It’s an exciting opportunity for someone to really help us re-think what adult learning can look like in innovative school models.

Come join us in the Innovative Network of the School District of Philadelphia and help us to build some of the most exciting schools in the nation!

Mar 22

Schools Are Fragile

There are no shortage of ideas about how to improve schools. Zac and I wrote a book filled with them. And every year, principals and teachers come together to try to figure out how to make their schools better places – writing school improvement plans, creating sub-committees, spending time trying to make things better. It is the language of our national discussion around education – how do we fix our schools?

But there’s another thing we need to look at – throughout the last twenty or thirty years, whether it is the Gates small schools initiative, the charter movement, or any number of initiatives like the Boston Pilot schools or the New York City iZone – we’ve started thousands of schools in this country… and most of them started with incredible promise and idealism and energy, and not enough of them stayed that way.

There are many reasons for that – budget cuts, superintendency changes, leadership change, mission drift and more – and what that shows is how real regression to the mean is in education. It is the thing that we have to think about as we look to make schools better places — how will we sustain the changes we make? How will we sustain innovative ideas — or even just the best old-fashioned ideas.

A long time ago, when I was starting SLA, someone told me that leaders either had start-up energy or sustaining energy, but most people didn’t have both. I didn’t want to be a short-time founder. I wanted to be at SLA for a long, long time – and I still do. But to do that, we had to think about fragility. How were we going to nurture SLA after we’d built it? How would we keep working to make it the best version of itself while also being careful not to work people too hard, take on ideas and concepts that would pull us away from our core mission, and of course, navigate the changing winds around us. I didn’t realize that we were also going to have to get through one of the worst crises in educational history, too, but there we were.

And SLA is celebrating its ten year anniversary this year. If the ten years of our little school has taught me anything is that we have to think as deeply about sustainability as we do about start-up. We have to recognize that doing something different, something that pushes against the dominant narrative, requires eternal vigilance. There’s never the moment you can relax and think, “Whew… we’ve arrived.” Every year brings a new 9th grade class. Every year brings new challenges. And every year, you have to work to maintain what you’ve built – while always trying to figure out how to make it better too.

Because schools are fragile – no matter how strong we build them, we have to always remember that they will take just as much energy to keep them strong.

Sep 15

Black Students Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sep 08

EduCon 2.8 – Call for Proposals

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

What is EduCon, you say?

EduCon is both a conversation and a conference.

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

The Axioms

The guiding principles behind EduCon

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

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

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

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

See you in Philly at SLA!


Sep 06

Adult Discipline, Not Kid Discipline

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

What does that entail?

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

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

So how do you do it?

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

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

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

Aug 18

Dream Big

The start of the school year is fast upon us. (And for some folks, it’s already here.)

Soon, our days will be consumed by papers to grade, lessons to plan, practices to coach… the day-to-day of the job that makes the job alternatively awesome and frustrating.

But right now, the floors are still clean… the photocopier still works… and while we may all be wishing for a few more days of summer… now is the time to dream big.

I hope that every teacher in every school has the opportunity to sit with colleagues and dream big. Whether it is a school-wide initiative or something in an individual classroom, now is the time to set big goals and think about how to work toward them.

Now is the time to remember the best of what our classrooms can be and to plan anew to on how we can approach our best ideals every day.

Now is the time to dust off a long forgotten idea and see if this is the year that it’ll work.

For our schools to be innovative places — for our students to be inspired to take risks and do new things — we need to model that ourselves. Sometimes, the ideas will come from us, sometimes the ideas will come from our students, sometimes we’ll borrow an idea we’ve seen other people do. It doesn’t matter where the spark comes from – it matters that we take the time to dream and figure out how we might realize those dreams.

This year at SLA, we’re going to try a Challenge Week — a week without traditional class structures where there are grade-wide interdisciplinary teams working to take on big challenges and projects and work to create innovative solutions to what we see around us in our city. I have no idea if it’s going to work, and I have a ton of concerns about all the reasons it might not.

But we’re going to try it.

And this is the year we’re going to try to do our “Capstone Pitch Night.” Every year, there are a handful of seniors who realize that their capstones need some start-up funding. Our kids have sold lots of cupcakes to try to raise money for their ideas, but we’re going to try to help them this year. This winter, there will be a pitch night where we invite the larger Philly start-up and tech communities to SLA to listen to our seniors pitch their ideas, and whatever money we’ve raised (and we’ve got a little saved up) will be granted or loaned as mini-grants to the top ideas so that kids can spend less time fundraising and more time making their visions a reality. It’s something we learned about years ago from Linda Nathan and the amazing folks at Boston Arts Academy, and we had a little success with mini-grants last year, and this year, we’re ready to really go big with it.

What’s your big idea for the year? And how are you going to remember to keep that dream alive and real once the day-to-day start?

Aug 16

On the Shoulders: Nel Noddings

Borrowing from my co-author, Zac Chase, I’m writing today about one of the writer/thinkers who really influenced the thinking that went into our book – Building School 2.0. Today – Nel Noddings.

The ethic of care is a foundational idea to both our book and to the Science Leadership Academy schools. It was Noddings who gave me language and clarity about how to think about my relationship with students. My first exposure to her work was Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. She is very much an academic writer, and there are times when I had to set the book down to digest what I was reading, but at the end of it, I found that I had a whole new language for how I thought about my relationship with students. The difference between “care about” and “care for” can be traced directly to her work. Her text Educating Moral People was one of the texts we read together as a staff when we founded SLA.

Noddings is powerful because she makes the case for caring for children, and then spends the time to really delve into all the reasons it is both really important and really challenging. She doesn’t pretend this is easy or perfect. She addresses how and why to avoid co-dependency and unhealthy relationships, and she writes about what it looks like — and feels like — when teachers and schools get it right.

For teachers and schools thinking about how they can think differently about what it means to really take care of the children they teach, Nel Noddings is foundational reading. Her ideas can be found on almost every page of our book – and more importantly, in every decision we make at SLA.

Jul 07

Old Hat, New Hat

[This is a note I just sent to the families of SLA. I present it here – with a more whimsical title that references one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books – to let everyone know what I’ll be up to next school year.]

To the families of Science Leadership Academy,

Science Leadership Academy was founded as a research and development school for the School District. For the past nine years, students and teachers from SLA have worked with hundreds of teachers and principals from the School District and beyond on how to change their practice to be more inquiry-driven and caring educators. Under Dr. Hite’s leadership, the School District of Philadelphia is starting the Innovative Schools Network – a hub for powerful new ideas for schools. As part of this network, dedicated to nurturing new models of education, SLA is well positioned to continue its work as a national leader for creating empowering educational experiences.

Today, Dr. Hite is announcing that my role in the School District of Philadelphia is expanding to oversee the Innovative Schools Network. Beginning August 1, I will serve the students of Philadelphia in a dual capacity – both principal of Science Leadership Academy and Assistant Superintendent of the Innovative Schools Network. And, because there are just so many hours in the day, I am delighted to announce that Aaron Gerwer will join us full-time at SLA as co-principal. Many of you will know Aaron as our principal fellow this past year. It has been a pleasure to see him grow into this new role, and I look forward to partnering with him this coming year.

Working with the students and teachers and families of the Science Leadership Academy continues to be the most rewarding experience of my professional career. The work your children do every day is what inspired the School District of Philadelphia to authorize the foundation of Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber and our upcoming effort, the Science Leadership Academy Middle School.

The work we will now do as part of the Innovative Schools Network is a continuation of the belief in the agency and ability of the students and families of Philadelphia. It is my pleasure to be able to continue to serve as principal of SLA and to now help other school communities serve their students in powerful, modern ways.

Mr. Lehmann