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.

Best,
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?

Feb 04

#EduCon Reflection: What Ubiquitous, Necessary and Invisible Means

We’re now over a week past EduCon 2.7, and I’m still thinking a lot about what we saw this year.

What struck me was that this was the year that it really didn’t feel like an edu-tech conference at all – not because there wasn’t tech everywhere (Raghava KK said that it was the most tweeted conference he’d ever seen), but because it really wasn’t the thing we talked about much at all.

That’s what Ubiquitous, Necessary and Invisible can — and maybe even must — mean.

There’s no question in my mind that the schools we need much be technology rich. We have to make schools leverage the best of what we are and what we know. In the world we live in today, that means that we have to use the tools of the day – be they laptops, Chromebooks, smart phones, social media, Google Apps or anything else. But owning that the tools must be used is really only the very first baby step we have to take.

And once we’ve taken that baby step, we can ask the bigger and better questions that so very much need asking.

Those were the conversations I saw at EduCon – what will our classrooms and schools value? How can we make them more equitable places – especially in regard to issues of race, gender, class and sexuality? How can we ask hard questions about the world we live in and the world we hope our children will create? How can the work we do in schools help students become deeply thoughtful about the world around them? How can we empower them to believe in — and work toward — a vision of the world that is better than we have today? How do schools need to evolve to more authentically ask these questions?

And yes, how do we leverage the tools we have to do all of this better?

For eight years, we’ve tried to create a space where teachers can come together to talk about progressive pedagogy in a technology-rich environment. The eight years have seen incredible change in the world our schools inhabit – from Common Core to the rise of social media to a growing social justice movement to thousands of schools going 1:1 to unprecedented budget crisis in many districts across the country. With all of these changes, the conversations at EduCon have grown richer — and harder. Part of that is because there remains a critical mass of people who come every year, and who keep blogging and tweeting and talking, but also because there are more and more educators who have never been to EduCon before but who are looking for the difficult conversations, who are not settling for easy answers, and who know that it’s not enough just to look for edu-tech solutions, but rather are looking for the places and spaces where educators want to ask the harder questions.

The fact that we can create technology-rich spaces that aren’t about the tech but are about the next questions we have to ask is exciting to me. The fact that EduCon can be one of those spaces is tremendously humbling. The fact that these conversations will continue to happen far beyond the three days of the conference gives me hope.

See you all next year.

Nov 18

Don’t Make Presentation Day the Worst Day

When I was in the classroom as a project-oriented, I always struggled with Presentation Days. You know those days… it’s at the end of a long cycle of project-making when the students get up in front of the class, one after the other, and present their projects.

And, let’s face it, it often bores the living snot out of the kids — and the teachers.

And the frustrating thing is that can happen even when the projects the kids created are really cool. But too often, Presentation Days consist of 8 to 10 (or more) groups coming up and giving very similar styled presentations about their projects, each about 5-10 minutes long, and before you know it, your class and you have sat through a period or two of being talked at from the front of the classroom. As a teacher, I did this to the kids more times than I’d care to admit.

And the funny thing is, I’d never make my students listen to lecture for that long from me.

Presentation is a skill — and it’s not one that schools teach all that often explicitly. And before we subject our students to another day of half-listening to their peer’s projects, we should think about how we frame the act of presentation, the art of listening, and thoughtful presentation design that minimizes boredom.

Some thoughts on creating meaningful end of project cycle experiences, then…

Class structure:

There are ways to have students get the full effect of other students’ work without a parade of PowerPoint presentations at the front of the room –

Read-arounds – where each group/person has to read the work of two other groups/people and write a response. Using a learning management system can make this process transparent for everyone as well.

Teach-in stations – where students go from station to station and at each station, students are presenting work and doing a poster-session style presentation. Do this in thirds where there are three rounds of poster session and each group presents once and walks around twice. You can have students fill out exit tickets of things they learned from other students’ presentations – again, if that’s done online, it can then create a shared compendium of student learning and reflection.

Critique / Gallery Walk- take a page from the art world, and have the work either digitally or physically available to all members, and have them go from piece to piece and give feedback. (Even digitally, this can be fun to do in physical space so that students can get up and move around.)

There are ways to make the front of the room more exciting too – and there will be times when you want every student / group to do a presentation to the entire class:

Ignite-style: A sense of urgency is an awesome thing, and the Ignite style presentation (20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds) makes for a fast-paced, fun presentation that communicates ideas powerfully with a sense of energy and purpose.

Multiple manifestation of presentations: Give students the options of how they want to present – skits, simulations, videos, even PowerPoint, poster – there are many ways to communicate ideas to a crowd, and students should have the opportunity to experiment with multiple modalities. Often, SLA teachers still have students hand in a more comprehensive paper with the presentation so students can go into more depth as well.

Mini-lessons: If one of the purposes of having students present their projects is to teach their classmates, then why not have students actually create a lesson plan on how to teach their material? Students can create more progressive lesson plans for how to teach their students about what they have learned, complete with creating learning activities for their fellow students.

These are just some of the many ways to make the presentations of student work far more powerful as learning moments than having students lecture their classmates. I’ve seen SLA teachers and students create incredible learning experiences for each other using these techniques and many more. Much like every other part of project-design and inquiry-driven curriculum-design, thoughtful planning of Presentation Day on the front end will make for far more powerful learning when the day arrives.

Nov 11

Create Joyful Space

I was talking to a friend of mine about their child and school. He was talking about how much his kid really didn’t like school. And as he said it, he had that kind of sad chuckle that meant, “What are you going to do, you know?”

So I asked him, “Do you think that’s o.k.?”

And he said, “Well, most kids hate school, don’t they?”

And I can’t refute that, not really. And on some level, I get it. School is where we ask kids to do work, instead of play. And I admit it, I love SLA, but on any given day, I’d rather be at the beach or playing Ultimate or something. But that doesn’t mean we can’t create spaces kids love.

I believe deeply that kids — and adults — can work hard in service of things they care about. I believe deeply that we, as people, can understand how meaningful, powerful work can be joyful, even when it’s hard.

And school has to be that. If we accept the idea that the institution dedicated to teaching and learning is fundamentally not fun, not to be enjoyed, o.k. to hate, then we send a powerful message about the role being learned plays in the rest of our lives.

It is incumbent on the adults to not settle for the statement, “My [child/student/friend’s kid] doesn’t like school.” We have to unpack the “why” behind that statement and work to fix it.

It’s not on the kids to love school. It’s on all of us to create joyful, profound, empowering spaces in school that are easy to fall in love with.

 

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.