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.

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.