Aug 09

Maybe We Could Just Get Better

With the start of the new school, educators around the country – especially those in schools and districts that have been labeled as failing – are learning about the new initiatives that their schools will be undertaking this school year. Many of these initiatives will be mandated – top-down – from an administrator at the school, district or state level. And many of these initiatives will be a sharp turn away from the practices of the past year.

And these new initiatives will be enacted in the name of closing the achievement gap, addressing some data-driven problem that has been identified, or somehow finding some magic bullet to raise test scores.

And many teachers go through this process year after year after year.

And it makes me ask a simple question – what if some of the problems of our school is that we never let people get good at any one thing?

This is not to say that schools should look at challenges and problems they face and address them.

This is not to say that educators should not strive to learn new ideas and new practices.

But when do we let teachers get good at stuff too?

Schools need to grow along healthy pathways. So do the teachers and students than inhabit them. When we commit to a pedagogical plan or a new structure or system, and we say, “Barring epic failure, we’re going to work on this strategy for a few years,” we honor the fact that people can learn and get better at their craft.

There are many pedagogical approaches to education. I have a favorite that I am passionate about – inquiry-based education. I have been lucky enough to work with a group of teachers and students who have dedicated themselves to getting better at that craft. And as a community, we very much have gotten better. I am also lucky enough to have been afforded the space and time to get better. I remember the first year SLA took the PSSAs and our math scores were lower than we expected them to be. I was terrified that my regional superintendent, Marilyn Perez, was going to tell me that we had to abandon our inquiry-driven math plan. I called her with the scores – we had done the calculations by hand from state score sheets, so we had the data before the district had calculated the school-wide results – and she said to me, “Now you have your baseline, and knowing SLA, you and your teachers are already thinking about how to get better at what you do.”

She held us accountable for our performance and listened to our plan on how we were going to get better at what we did… not change pedagogy or approach, but evolve and get better. To this day, if Marilyn were to call and say, “I need a favor…” the answer would be unequivocally yes, because she was willing to work with SLA to give us time to grow along a healthy path that allowed us to evolve, rather than shift gears.

We need to create more spaces for schools to define school-wide structural and pedagogical approaches to education, and then we need to give schools time and space to grow and get better at their craft as a community. In too many schools and districts, September represents a time where teachers and students have to throw out last year’s “Best Practice” in favor of the latest and greatest idea to come out of a policy office somewhere.

Perhaps we are a time where we can admit that our best practices are the ones that we actually get the time to practice.

Feb 28

School Should Be More Than This

One of the things that drives me crazy about the way we talk about school in this country is how much so many people are willing to settle for “Do no harm” when it comes to their child’s school. Even teachers struggle with this problem with their own children. When I speak to groups of teachers, I often ask the teacher-parents in the room this question – “How many of you have – at that moment of separation from your child in the morning – have thought about their school, ‘Please don’t screw them up too much today?’”

It’s scary how many teachers raise their hands.

School doesn’t have to be whiz-bang fun every day. Learning is hard work, and often times meaningful learning experiences are really hard when one is in the middle of the struggle. So this post isn’t about calling for school to be all sunshine and roses all the time – I’d worry about that too.

But what I worry about is how much school is about anything but meaningful learning experiences. How many teachers in America would reward the student who found a way to demonstrate a novel way to he learning they had done rather than just follow the directions? How many schools actively encourage students to seek out learning experiences beyond worksheets and checklists and tests as a matter of common practice? How many schools justify bad pedagogical practice by saying, “I’m just preparing you for [middle school / high school / college / the world of work?]” How many schools move to an authoritarian response to students as a matter of course, often criminalizing non-criminal behavior?

And yes, schools are under siege right now. Budget cuts, unfunded mandates, the ever-shifting sands of new standards, new tests, new policies are all making it harder, not easier, to co-create profound learning experiences for and with our kids. And when that is combined with the tired pedagogy that already exists in too many places, the result is a toxic combination that does much to quell any joy of learning for kids.

We have to do to better. We can do better. Schools can be vigorously active places where students and teachers push each other to be better today than we were yesterday. Schools can be places our students want to be. Schools can be places where kids learn that they are capable of more than they thought possible.

We really should accept nothing less.

Jan 20

Both/And, Priorities and Working Toward Anti-Racist Schools

Earlier this week, Melinda Anderson wrote How Long Will We Tolerate Racial Profiling In Our Schools for Good Magazine. It’s an excellent piece that uses an experience her son had in school where an administrator chose to deal with a less-than-fantastic moment her middle-school aged son and his friends had in the lunchroom as a springboard for talking about zero-tolerance policies and the negative effect they have on all kids and especially on children of color. (For the fortunate record, the administrator in her son’s situation chose a far more appropriate way to deal with the kids’ behavior.) Go read her piece – it is outstanding.

What is interesting and frustrating is that many commenters, both on Twitter and on the site, have pushed back that this had to be about race. “Zero tolerance,” it is argued, “is bad for all kids, so why is this about race?” To make that argument is to ignore that zero tolerance — and policies like it — have created the environment where black students – primarily boys – are suspended at disproportionately high rates. And what was so wild to me was that her piece pointed out more progressive disciplinary policies such as restorative justice are good for all kids and good for kids of color… and that led to this exchange on Twitter:

And that led me to blog, because she’s right, and I wanted to explore that in greater detail.

There seems to me to be a difference between saying, “This is good for all kids, and it happens to be good for kids of color too…” and saying, “This is good for kids of color and good for all kids too.” The first doesn’t make inclusively humane practice the focus, rather putting it as an after-thought. The second recognizes that we have to understand that school – as an institution – too often is authoritarian in nature and those authoritarian practices, while bad for all kids, have disproportionately affected students whose existence is already on the margins of the dominant white culture in America.

Karen Mapp, in writing about ways schools can create better parent-school relationships, writes about the idea that parents bring the ghosts of their own experiences into their children’s school with them. We have to understand that our students do that as well. More than that, they bring all that they are — all their experiences — with them as well. For students who have reason to believe that the overarching society is not one that supports them, school cultures where punitive disciplinary policies are the norm can — and quite likely will –serve to further alienate them. We must actively work to ensure that does not happen.

As educators, therefore, we need to be cognizant of the work we have to do to create more equitable schools. It is of the utmost importance that we examine our policies, procedures and structures to ensure that they do not reinforce the worst of what we see around us in the world. Restorative justice and other progressive disciplinary policies are powerful moments of “Both/And.”  In doing so, we can make great strides to ensure that the work we do is good for students of color. What’s pretty cool is that we’ll create schools that are better for all children, too.

Sep 26

SLA @ Beeber in EdWeek

Ben Herold is doing a year-long series on the SLA @ Beeber expansion for Ed Week. His first piece is on the cover of this week’s issue, and it is a powerful piece about what it has been like to launch SLA @ Beeber in the climate we’re in right now in Philly.

It’s behind a subscription-wall, but the article is here: Philadelphia Seeks Salvation From Model School.

In some ways, getting to where we are with SLA@B has been more taxing than when we started SLA because of the incredibly challenging times in which we are trying to do this, and in some ways, seeing a second group of educators, students and parents breathe life into a dream we’ve shared is actually even more incredible than doing it the first time. And in all ways, it remains kind of incredible to me that all of us at both SLAs get to do this with our lives.

Sep 12

I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Twatching Me…

[Apologies to Rockwell for the title.]

So… this Tweet popped up on my Twitter feed yesterday:

@chrislehmann Smh I hate to admit it but you were right Mr. Lehmann. Staying positive was the right thing to do.

It was from Dalena – a senior at SLA. She’d been really negative on Twitter for several days, and I worried that negativity was more than just manifesting on Twitter, so I sought her out on Wednesday to just check in. Sure enough, she was feeling the combined weight of school and life and was convincing herself that her life, to quote her, “was always going to suck.”

We didn’t talk long, and I certainly didn’t offer up any brilliant new insight that other teachers and principals haven’t offered up to students who were feeling bad about life before. We talked about how negativity can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and talked about finding good spaces, and working hard to stay positive, even when you don’t feel positive. Again, nothing earth-shatteringly awesome. And honestly, when we ended the conversation, I wasn’t sure what I said made any difference to Dalena at all.

And then, the next day, that tweet showed up. And I tweeted back that she made my day, which she favorited and retweeted, because, as it turns out, we both cared that we made a difference for each other. And that’s kind of awesome. And even more awesome was when she stopped by my office today for a quick follow-up talk and a hug.

I follow every open Twitter account my students have. Any student who friends me on Facebook, I friend back. And yes, SLA students tweet and post all sorts of things I really don’t want to see or know, and trying to figure out how to filter that and decide what to do with all that information is a challenge. But the purpose of following the students isn’t to spy on them to get them in trouble, but to look after them, and be more aware of who they are and what they need. And importantly, I’ve also virtually watched dozens of Philly pro-sports games with students, celebrated triumphs, and been a virtual shoulder to cry on. And they have been for me as well. They have cheered on Jakob’s soccer games, favorited Theo’s drawings, and enjoyed the SLA photos that pop up on my feed.

The kids love to tease me that I’m twatching them, but at its best, doing a quick skim read of what kids are thinking and feeling allows me to care for them and approach them when they don’t even know they need it. And what always humbles me and makes me smile is when students are willing to tell us – social media or face to face – that those moments matter to them as much as they matter to me.

Sep 04

Shana Tova

It is Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – tonight. (For those folks who don’t know, I am Jewish.)

Today was the last professional development day for Science Leadership Academy and Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber. On Monday, SLA @ B will open with 125 9th graders, and the educators and students and families will embark on a four-year journey that will build a school community where none existed before. It has been humbling all summer long to watch the community come together, learning with SLA teachers and students. It has been incredible to watch the educators create new UbDs, plan projects, and think about what it means to create an inquiry-driven, project-based school – and how to do it in the context of some very challenging educational times in Philadelphia.

And of course, the new year is a time for reflection. It is time to look back about what got us to this moment… not just the last year, with grants and hiring and facilities planning, but the eight years of the journey of SLA. The goal is to learn from what we did so that the SLA@B folks can make new and more interesting mistakes than the ones we did. The goal is to make it just a little easier than it was for us through the wisdom we’ve tried to accumulate. The goal is to always keep growing, not just outward, but inward as well.

And so while tonight is Rosh Hashanah, for the schools, Monday is the New Year. Kids will be at the door. Teachers will be in their classrooms. And Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber will launch. It’ll be messy. There will be days where people doubt their decision to try to do this. And there will be days when something incredible happens, and everyone wonders how exactly it did.

I get to take a role in this new community… I get to help from a few miles away and offer up the lessons we’ve learned at SLA over the past seven years…. I get to find ways to support a new community within the SLA world. And  I get to do the thing I love more than anything else I’ve done in my professional life, I get to be the principal of Science Leadership Academy.

We are going to learn some incredible lessons this year. We are going to face some profound challenges. And we’re going to try to remember to have a lot of fun, no matter what happens around us.

Shana Tova. Happy New Year.

Aug 31

EduCon 2.6 – Register and Call for Proposals!

The seventh annual EduCon conference will be held at Science Leadership Academy from January 24th through January 26th, 2014! We are gearing up for a the conference again this year, and everyone at SLA is excited to make the experience a memorable one! Tickets are on sale and you can purchase them at http://educonphilly.org/register.

EduCon is a special kind of conference where the pedagogy of the conference is a mirror of the pedagogy we hope to see in our schools. As such, the conference is built around the following ideas:

  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.

This year’s panel themes are centered around the concept of Openness – and we will be announcing some really wonderful panelists very soon!

And, as always, EduCon is only as good as the community makes it. We are calling for proposals for conversations. EduCon sessions should be interactive and conversational – facilitations rather than presentations. Proposals are due November 1st, and you can submit your proposal at http://educonphilly.org/propose.

We hope to see you at EduCon 2.6!

Aug 12

Building Hope

So… it has not been a great time in the School District of Philadelphia of late. Today, many of the conversations at the principal meetings were around how we were going to deal with this crisis in our schools. As an educator, as a parent, as a citizen of Philadelphia, it has been really hard lately to maintain a sense of optimism – and generally, I like to think of myself as an optimistic person.

But… last week, a group of educators sat in the SLA library and planned a school. The SLA @ Beeber faculty worked together, wrote UbDs, planned projects, fiddled around with Canvas, and generally took the next big step toward starting our second campus. SLA teachers came in and worked with the SLA @ Beeber crew, and while there were definitely a few “drink from the firehose” moments, all in all, no one ran screaming from the room wondering why they had signed on with this group of crazy people. And that’s a good sign.

And it kind of makes sense that I was thinking a lot about the summer of 2006 when the founders of SLA came together at The Franklin Institute to plan. Back then, we really were making it up as we went along. Yes, we had a vision, and yes, we had a plan to enact that vision, but we didn’t really have a sense of what it would look like in practice. And while the community of SLA@B will make it their own and make it different from what we built, we have a sense of what it will look like.

In the past, when I’d thought about the idea that we might some day get to scale SLA, I’ve thought about how my hope was that we could build a structure that was thoughtful and strong enough to let another group of educators and students to learn from what we’ve done, to use that structure, and then to breathe life into it themselves, making it their own. And that’s what it felt like to watch the SLA @ Beeber teachers make the structure their own over the course of the week.

As hard as this summer has been, as much as we don’t know if we will start the year with counselors or with any money for supplies, I watched a group of educators work together to build the structure necessary so that 125 kids can breathe life into our second campus. I saw parents and teachers and students of SLA give of their time to help make SLA@B a success. And all summer long, we’ve spoken to families who are so excited to walk this walk with us, and that is why we even tried to do it in the first place.

I cannot wait to see what the SLA @ Beeber community does this year. They are literally building hope.

Jul 01

Free the Hallways

According to school architect and author of The Third Teacher, Trung Le, over 35% of the square footage of the average school are in use less than 5% of the day.

The hallways.

The reason for this is that the institutional design that schools most resemble are prisons.

Think about it — we move kids from cell to cell, we monitor their coming and going whenever they leave their cells at anything but the designated time, often giving them a pass so that other adults can know immediately that the student is allowed in the common space, and many principals are taught that the secret of success as an administrator is to clear the hallways as soon as the bell rings at the start of class, and most schools give three or four minutes to get from class to class, no matter how big the campus is or how crowded the hallways get at the change of classes.

And we wonder why kids feel like school feel like prison.

If we want kids to feel that schools are more human places, let’s start by making every space a learning space, every space a social space. Let’s free the hallways. It makes sense from a practical point, if nothing else. Authentic learning tends to require more square footage than traditional schooling. When a class of 30 high school students start collaborating, the average classroom can get loud quickly. Letting a few groups work in the hallways is not only a way of letting students own where and how they learn, it also just makes learning easier by simply giving kids more room to work.

But it makes sense from a philosophical sense as well. We can shift our thinking from  When kids are not herded from classes to class with three minutes but are given a little more time to transition, they feel more valued. When kids do not view learning as tethered only to a specific classroom space, they are more likely to see school as a continuum of social learning that is an intrinsic part of their lives, not just something that is done to them.

And yes, there will be times when the kids get louder than we want them to. And yes, this will make it easier for some students to check out of the learning when they want to. And yes, it will mean that “classroom management” can be a little harder when our classrooms does not end at the door of the physical class space. These are some of the negative consequences of what can be a very good idea. And while we need to do things to mitigate those issues, they will never go away. The question we need to ask ourselves is always this:

Is it better to deal with the issues that arise from allowing students more ownership over where and how they learn than dealing with the issues that arise from making sure students know that the adults tell them where and when to be at all times?

If the answer is yes, then schools need to prepare for a major culture shift.

But let’s be clear — this is hard.

This does challenge many of the assumptions we have made about school and how schools function as organizations, and this is a very difficult challenge for many educators to make. Thinking through the questions, challenges, issues and consequences – both positive and negative – of a shift like this requires honoring the concerns of everyone involved.

  • What happens when we put tables and chairs along the halls and make it space that kids can use?
  • What happens when students do not have to stay only in the cafeteria to eat lunch?
  • What happens when we create spaces that are shared between teachers and students?
  • What are the ways we can create third spaces for kids to be that are lightly supervised with a lot of space for student ownership over community standards of behavior?
  • How can the community keep the best goals of this shift in mind, even when there are frustrations with the shift?
  • How do we balance what can be competing needs of teachers and students in the use of physical space?

Autonomy and agency can be really hard, because people make bad decisions from time to time — not just kids, but all of us. And this is not about giving total autonomy to students — everyone has a responsibility to each other to be responsible to the learning process, especially if much of the learning is collaborative. It is about collaborative agency, where decisions can be made together. And when we give kids more agency over how they use the space, we challenge many of the assumptions we make about school. That’s not easy, but the rewards can be one more powerful way we move from compulsory schooling to a more democratic and empowering education. Schools are not prisons, and every step we move away from that model of institutional design, the better.

Jun 30

Why Do We Need to Know This?

“Why Do We Need to Know This?”

It is the question that many teachers hate to hear from students in their classrooms. Whether it is the format of the Shakespearean Sonnet, the Pythagorean theorem, or why the Periodic Table of Elements is organized the way that it is, kids spend a lot of time in schools wondering why they are learning what seems like a disconnected series of facts and skills that don’t seem to have much importance to the lives they are leading. And from time to time, the bravest of students will screw up the courage to ask that question.

Sadly, too often, the answers (when a teacher is even willing to engage with the question) students range from “It is going to be on the test,” to “It will help you some day,” to “It’ll help you get into college.” When really, more often than not, it’s because the subject matter in question is “part of the curriculum.” If a student is lucky, the teacher is teaching that particular thing because the teacher has a real passion for the subject, but even that really doesn’t answer the question in any meaningful way.

Students deserve an answer to the question. And we, as educators, need to understand that if we can’t answer the question powerfully, we have to start questioning what we teach and how we teach it.

We live in a fascinating world. There’s more really interesting stuff to learn, understand and do than any one person has in a lifetime — or probably ten lifetimes. Helping students to see the power and beauty of all that stuff is one of the most important, if not the most important, job of a teacher. That is where an inquiry-driven, project-based approached to learning is so essential. Questions like, “How do I be a better boyfriend / girlfriend,” “What pollutants are in the drinking water in my home,” and “How do we build my ideal learning space?” all give powerful answers to the questions of “Why do I need to know this?” for any of the information from the first paragraph. And all of them are questions that could have relevance to the students in our classes, and all of them open students up to the received wisdom, not just of the teacher of the world at large. Equally as important, all of those questions could lead students to engage in powerful problem-solving, artifact-building, and reflection as they consider their personal answers to those questions.

If we remember that the time students spend in school is supposed to be about helping them to become better citizens, then the question of “Why do we need to know this?” becomes essential to what and why we teach. The questions and answers that follow the asking of the question should and will have profound implications on both our content and our pedagogy. And if we create our learning spaces as places where the question, “Why do I need to know this?” is actually the right of every student to ask, but is the first, most exciting question of every day, we can create vibrant, powerfully relevant classes that engage and empower everyone in it.