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

Jun 20

What if…

[This blog post coalesced around reading the NY Times article Black Church Is Target Again for Deadly Strike at the Heart and the work and mission of my friends leading the EduColor movement are engaged in every day.]

I have a concern.

I have a concern that we exist in a cycle right now where horribly violent and racist things happen and people, whether they be newscasters, politicians or teachers, rush to decry what has happened and then things settle back to whatever we call normal in this country until the next time something horrible happens, and the cycle starts all over again.

That’s not going to bring about the change our world needs, because it is a profoundly reactionary frame of reference, and things like racial justice and equality are pro-active states of being. And while, yes, our history is dotted with positive change as a reaction to moments of pain and tragedy and hate, I worry that the change we need today requires a far more forward-thinking mode of being than what we are seeing around us.

That’s where the teachers come in.

What if all of us admitted that the institution of school is part of an American system that has not lived up to its potential – its stated ideals – of being a more perfect union for all who take part in it, and that too often, school has intentionally or not, reinforced the racial, gender, religious and socio-economic inequities that have kept our country from achieving the most idealized vision what of what it means to be America?

What would happen if all of us, every day, asked ourselves if our actions actively worked to make a more just and kind world every day?

What would happen if all of the educators who use social media and blogging to share our ideas with the world took the time to always examine our ideas through the lens of equality and justice?

What would happen if we as educators asked ourselves first, are our actions are best for children who have been long marginalized by the American educational system and second if our actions are best for all children?

What would happen if more and more educators took the risk of publicly figuring this out for themselves and wrote about it, not just when national tragedies happen but in the quiet moments, so that we could, as teachers, model the powerful notion that fairness, justice, equality are everyday pursuits, not simply grand gestures?

What would happen if we, as a nation, understood that the goal of making a better nation – a better world – was the priority of public education every bit as much, if not more so, than the goal of helping a single student?

What if we said that the idea of “each and all” meant that we had to examine our systems, our structures, our very teacher-selves to ensure that what we did every day worked to empower all young people to see the need for a better world and work to make it so?

What if we all – especially those of us who are not confronted by this reality every day – didn’t wait until the next tragedy to talk about all of this?

Apr 08

Do Real Work That Matters

This afternoon, Amy hosted the Youth Strategy Session for Philadelphia Ceasefire. All but one of the 2015 mayoral candidates came and debated ways to reduce the gun violence in our city. Students from all over the city came together to talk, listen and strategize how to make their city a safer place for all its residents.

This evening, Nikki and TJ discussed the role of standardized testing in education with Robert Pondiscio on 900am WURD. Robert is one of the toughest debaters I know – I always feel like, if I’m going into a conversation with Robert, I better bring my A game because his mind moves as quickly as anyone I know. And Nikki and TJ were amazing. They asked great questions… pushed back well when needed… and established themselves as heavyweights in the world of education in their own right.

Every day… every single day… I am awed by the work of the students at SLA. They do real work that matters. And that work builds on itself. That’s the awesome thing. Younger kids saw what Amy did today and were inspired to pick up that ball. Nikki and TJ both mentor younger students at school to be leaders all the time. And all three of them would (I think) tell you that while, yes, they are amazing young women and men (and they are), they are able to do more, be more, because they are part of a community that supports and believes in their ability to be active agents in their world.

That’s what school can be. That’s what school should be. I’ve got several emails in my inbox I have to reply to from social change organizations that are asking for SLA kids to help them with their projects. Rough Cut Productions (our video team) kids are being contracted to do work all over the city. SLA kids are in-demand as interns through our ILP program. Our SLAMedia journalists have the respect of the professional journalists when they cover the same events. And all of this is because kids can do incredible, amazing real world work that matters now.

And it starts with the idea that our classrooms have to matter. It starts with the idea that “Why do I need to know this?” is a fundamental right of every student to ask. It starts with the idea that education matters not just for “someday” but for today. We can learn about the world as we work to make it better. We can apply the skills and content we learn in our classrooms to passions and challenges and ideas we have outside of them. And when we merge the two — when we understand that the classroom is not defined by four walls and floor, but rather the physical space is the place we come together to debate, discuss, build, create so that we can then fully engage in the world around us — that’s when incredible things can — and will — happen.

And here’s the next step… today, in four different classrooms in School District of Philadelphia schools, SLA grads Freda, Sinnea, Julia and Zack were doing their student teaching practicum. All four of them are taking what they learned as students at SLA and passing it on to their students, helping other students to believe in their ability to change the world as well.

In fact, Zack is my son Theo’s student teacher. Not surprisingly, Theo has already falling in love with him.

Of course he has.

And I know that Zack will help Theo – as a second grader – build the skill and the strength of self to do real work that matters. Not someday, but today. I know that Zack will see the passion and energy and ideas that Theo has, and he will help Theo to do something that matters with those ideas.

I’d expect nothing less.

Apr 06

On Listening

I heard a student’s story today.

It was not the first story I heard from this student. It won’t be the last. On some level, it could be argued that it was only the latest chapter of this student’s life that he’s chosen to tell me. It was a particularly hard story for him to tell – as it demanded that he unpack some of the really painful parts of his life. And for various reasons, I was one of the people he’s chosen to tell this part of his story to.

I wish I could write that I had some brilliant wisdom to impart to him. I don’t think I did. I certainly tried to be helpful. And I tried to help him make sense of how his story informs who he is today and how it might affect the person he is trying to become. And I don’t think I did any harm with what I said. But what I said probably mattered a lot less than this.

I listened.

On my best days, I’m better listener than I am a talker. I wish I could tell you that I was that every day, but it’s not. But I’m working on it, because I think it’s what so many kids need.

I’ve written about this before, but I really think that deep, active listening is at the core of the difference between “care about” and “care for.” Caring about a student is hard enough, but caring for a student means really knowing them – knowing all that they are willing (or able) to share.

Listening deeply to students means learning about how their lives inside and outside our classrooms. It means learning how their racial identities, gender identities, familial identities, economic realities, religious identities, life experiences all are part of who we see in our classes every day.

In an era where, in too many schools, students are told that the secret to success is to do exactly what they are told – exactly what everyone else is doing, listening to our students and then taking the time to make sure that what we learn from our students informs our own actions is an educationally revolutionary act.

In the end, deeply listening to the stories our students tell us — and trying to be the person our students need to be in response — is nothing short of an act of radical love.

Mar 01

What is Your Educational DNA?

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

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

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

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

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

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