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 01

Exciting New SLA Partnership

As most folks who visit this blog know, these have been some very difficult years for the School District of Philadelphia. It has meant that many principals have found themselves in the role of Fundraiser-in-Chief. For me, it’s a skill-set I never really wanted to develop, but after years of cuts, it has become what was necessary to maintain the program at SLA.

Probably, we could have thought of a better financial time to open our second campus – SLA@Beeber, but so many families made it clear that an inquiry-driven, project-based education was what they wanted that, even under financial duress, we felt that we needed to move forward. And I am amazed at what the teachers, students, parents and principal, Chris Johnson, have done in such a short time.

Realistically, however, the work needs more support. SLA@Beeber needs to find a sustainable financial model to thrive as I know that it can. As such, Chris and I have been working to find ways to ensure that the incredible work of the students can continue, no matter what the outcome of Gov. Wolf’s and Mayor Nutter’s budget proposals.

It’s not easy work, and after nine years at SLA, I know how frustrating it is to chase grant after grant, donor after donor, knowing that all the time you spend fundraising is time you aren’t spending with teachers and students, doing the work you believe in the most.

Like it or not, this has become part of the job of the principal in too many under-resourced public schools all over the country. And no matter what SLA and SLA@Beeber can do as individual schools, it does not change the need for equitable and adequate funding for all of Philadelphia’s schools, and nothing changes our commitment to urging the politicians of our state to do the right thing for the children of this city and this state.

Fortunately, SLA has benefitted from the kind words of so many educators who have walked the hallways of our schools that we have been able to work with some amazing people who want nothing more than to see the schools — and the kids who do amazing work within them — thrive.

One of the challenges of fundraising is that often donors want to influence the work of the school. Too many grants, too many donors, often money with strings. We have been both very lucky and very deliberate in that all of the organizations we have worked with – whether it has been The Franklin Institute or Dell Computer – have wanted to support our work and grow and learn with us. I fully recognize the gift that has been, and I am thrilled to say that our latest donor shares the same belief.

Our dedication to our core mission – of an inquiry-driven, project-based education with a deep ethic of care is steadfast. Our donor spoke powerfully about how what he saw at our school could have saved him from making some of the bad mistakes he has made in his life. He spoke to our students, and in the midst of making his own personal, powerful changes, he saw a powerfully opportunity to give back. All he asked in return was one small change.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to announce the renaming of our second campus, now known as SLA@Bieber. Thank you, Justin!

See the full press release here.

Jan 29

See Your Students

[This post has been rattling around in my head after EduCon and really had to be written after a truly wonderful conversation I had with a parent today.]

“The teachers here really know my child.”

I’ve heard many parents tell me some version of that. What is amazing is that parents take this as something rare or unique – and that always makes me sad. The reason all of us at SLA really are so adamant about saying “We teach kids <subject>” instead of “We teach <subject>” is that we never want us to lose sight of the child in front of us. Because when we lose sight of the humanity of our students, we lose the soul of what it means to be a teacher.

“Tell me about my child in your class.”

The answer to that question has to be more than a line in a gradebook or a purely academic answer. As a parent, I am certainly concerned with my children’s academic progress, but I also want to know that you see that Jakob is slyly funny and deeply kind or that Theo has a truly creative mind that comes out powerfully when he draws and that he loves to tell jokes, even when the punchline seems to make sense only to him.

When we see the kids we teach as only students in our classes, we can see what value our classes hold for each of them, rather than just assume that all kids will “need this some day.”

When we see the kids we teach as full people, we can help them develop passion, interests and strengths, rather than just seeing kids as data to be mined, deficits to be remediated, or vessels to be filled.

When we understand that our students have vital and vibrant lives outside of the moments we see them, we can understand that they have racial, gender, religious, economic and social identities that they bring with them to the classroom and that our students bring all that they are to the classroom every day – just like we do.

When we make the attempt to see our children for all that they are, we can listen to all that they say, and we can care for them, not just care about them.

And then, when their families ask us to tell them what we know, our hearts, our minds and our voices will overflow with all we cannot wait to share.

 

Jan 23

The Night Before

I’m going to bed as soon as I hit publish on this post.

I’m going to bed because in about 10 hours, hundreds of educators from all over the continent are going to be showing up at SLA for EduCon. EduCon is a special conference where educators from many different roles within the education world come together to dream big about what education can be. It is, as Ben Herold of EdWeek noted today a vendor-free space to talk about pedagogy.

It’s also a ton of work. EduCon is planned and run by SLA students, parents, teachers and me. The planning starts in August and ended tonight when we proof-read the program one… last… time. And this is our eighth year hosting the conference.

There are moments every year when I think to myself, “We can’t keep doing this.” But we do. And there are some really good reasons for it. So many attendees have told us that EduCon is one of their favorite professional learning of their year. And we at SLA learn a ton as well. It’s kind of wonderful to have an amazing PD experience with brilliant educators from all over the country right in your school. And yes, the conference raises important money for us every year that serves as the start of my fundraising every year as we try to stave off the Philadelphia budget cuts.

But the best reason for us to keep doing EduCon every year is watching the kids see themselves and their school as important voices in the national discussion about the future of education. This evening, as I was answering emails from attendees about the weather forecast, potential dinner spots, travel plans and what have you, dozens of SLA students were setting up classrooms, prepping coffee stations, running last-minute checks on the video feed and prepping their sessions. And I was listening as they talked about being proud of their school and the role it plays.

And that’s why we do it. Because our kids look at all of you who have come to learn with and from them and they realize that they really can help to change the world. EduCon is that moment for many of our students when they prove to themselves that they can be active, authentic agents in the world beyond their school.

As powerful as the learning all the educators will do over the next three days can be, for me, that lesson may be the powerful thing that any of us learn all weekend.

Thank you to all of the hundreds of students, teachers and parents who have worked tireless to prep for EduCon. Thank you to everyone who got in a car, train or plane to come learn with us this weekend. And thank you my co-chairs, Meenoo Rami, Amal Giknis, Julian Makarechi, Alisha Rothwell, Jasmin Gilliam and Zee Driggers for all the time you’ve spent. Thank you to the amazing Diana Laufenberg who came in this week and troubleshot everything so that the weekend would be awesome.

Welcome to EduCon everyone. Welcome to our school.

 

Dec 01

McGraw Prize and What I Believe

[Kat asked me tonight if I do video blog entries, because as much as she and I talk about education, she said it always comes out differently when she hears me give a talk. I don’t v-log because I don’t want to do the post-production work that goes into a good v-log, but when other people have done that work for me….]

Back in September, the McGraw Foundation honored me with the McGraw Prize. It was an incredibly overwhelming night – one I didn’t write about at the time, because I really had no idea how to sum up how I felt. One of the most intense parts of the evening was having the opportunity to speak about the ideas we at SLA care most about to a room full of some of the most powerful people in education today.

The McGraw Foundation has made that speech (and the really lovely profile piece they did on me) public on YouTube, and in honor of Kat asking if I would do v-logs about what I believe, I’m posting it here.

(and the profile)

Nov 25

Teaching as Hope

Last night, the American system of justice let our country down.

Michael Brown’s death deserved a public reckoning in our judicial system. I wrote this last night on Facebook as part of a conversation on my page:

An indictment would have meant that there would have been a trial, in full public display, so that the public could hear testimony. An indictment – even of excessive force – would have made it clear that the responsibility we place in our police is one of the most serious and solemn trusts we have.

“We ask that you keep us safe.” That’s what we ask our police. And, yes, we ask them to go into dangerous situations every day and do things that I, frankly, could not do. But with that solemn trust comes incredible responsibility. And an indictment tonight would have sent a message that when police violate that trust – regardless of the race of the police officer and regardless of the race of the victim – there needs to be a full investigation in full light of day.

Michael Brown’s parents — and we as Americans — were denied that right tonight. 

I, along with many others across our country, woke up this morning angry and frustrated. For me, I admit, I was feeling more than a little defeated too.

And then I went to school. At this point, there didn’t need to be an email to all the teachers to tell them it was o.k. — and important — to talk about Ferguson in classes. Sadly, after Trayvon Martin… after Jordan Davis… after too many tragedies… SLA teachers know that we are a school where we talk about what needs to be talked about. Teachers were checking in with each other, making sure that kids had the chance to talk about Ferguson. Kids were seeking out their advisors to talk about it one on one when classroom discussions weren’t what was needed. Kids even sought out their principal.

We talked today. We talked about how we felt. We all did a lot of listening. We cried. We hugged. Some folks debated respectfully. Other folks just needed to say how they felt. And some people just needed to be a student today – and that was o.k. too. We were, in the best ways, deeply human today.

And we talked a lot about what it meant to have a space like SLA where we could come together. It is, for so many of us there, our safe space. It is the place we come together to make sense of the world together. It is the place that gives me hope.

We talked about that idea a lot today. We talked a lot about what to do next… about how we can, as a society, make a better world. I told every student who talked to me about that today that SLA was my best answer to the question of how to make a better, kinder, more just world. And I told them all that now, all of them — and my own two boys as well — were my best hope for a better world. We talked about how, if SLA matters to them, then they have the responsibility to spread the mindset that the teachers and students come to school with every day where ever they go in the world.

I woke up today feeling hopeless and defeated. I spent the day around 500 young people and 30 adults who give me hope every day. I’m going to finish this post and go to bed, knowing that tomorrow I will be with them again. And we will struggle to make sense of the world around us. And we will push each other to be the best versions of ourselves. And we will – together – work to make the world just a little bit better because we happen to live in it together.

And that gives me hope.

Nov 20

Curriculum Design – Putting the Horse Before the Cart

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we at SLA and SLA@Beeber can keep improving on the way we teach. I am lucky enough to work with people who are incredibly reflective and thoughtful practitioners who are truly working toward being masters of their craft. Part of my job, then, is to help them get there together, which involves trying to set up structures that make it easier to engage in reflective practice together. It perhaps feels even more urgent right now as we have one campus that has been growing together for nine years and a second campus that is still in its infancy, and I’d like to think that the nine years of work we have done at Center City campus could and would accelerate the learning curve at Beeber campus.

So, as I reflect on our work, I am so incredibly awed by the amazingly thoughtful project-based work that I see in our classes, and to a person, every teacher really does powerful work around designing meaningful projects for our kids to engage in. But I still see moments where the day-to-day work could embody the core values and the ideas of student voice and student choice more deeply. But how do we get there?
We’re going to spend some time looking at daily lesson plans.

As a staff – and as the leader of SLA – we and I have focused more on unit design than lesson design. For me, the ideas of backward design, infused with our core values and a common rubric for all projects, has been the focus. And in my own life as a teacher, I’ve been deeply skeptical of those folks who focus on “tricks” for the daily lesson plan because I didn’t see it as being in service of a larger vision. But SLA has that larger vision, and we have full buy-in and amazing work done on that larger vision, so we’re in a really interesting moment to be able to now refocus on lesson planning with a specific end in mind – a deepening of our inquiry-driven, project-based culture of learning.

So in December, we’re going to launch a week of lesson planning work (Thursday to Wednesday, to coincide with our faculty workshops) where we all craft lesson plans for every day, answering prompts designed to get us to unpack the decisions we make every day. A few of us are working on the prompts, but they’ll include things like:

  • How is the work of the day relevant and powerful to the lives our kids lead now?
  • How are our five core values in play today?
  • Are there moments where the grade-wide essential questions can be accessed by the students?
  • How are you enabling the most number of students to take an active role in the class today?
  • Where is there space for all student’s voices today? What mechanisms are in place to enable all students to engage meaningfully with the work?
  • How are you creating meaningful opportunities for student choice today?

The goal will then be to unpack our answers to these questions together on a Wednesday afternoon so that we can look at the techniques we use to further our craft. It’s my hope that we can learn from each other different techniques and strategies that allow us to further deepen the best ideals we hold as a school.

I admit – as an educator, I have favored working on the big concepts and vision and, as such, unit planning and curriculum design always felt like where our energies were best spent. Moreover, too much of what I see out there about teaching strategies felt like tricks to get the kids to learn and often didn’t feel like they were in service of a specific and meaningful pedagogical vision. It felt, in short, like putting the cart before the horse.

But I’m interested to see where we go with this experiment. I think we’ve got our horse squarely in front. We at SLA know what we believe, and we know what we are working toward every day. I’m curious to see what we learn if we, as a faculty, atomize down to the daily lesson plan and, together, unpack our practice and learn together.

I’ll keep you posted.

Aug 24

American History — American Story

Matt Baird teachers SLA-ers 11th grade American History. He and I sat down this summer to think about how he could re-frame American History so that we could create an even more direct sense of urgency on why American history can be such a powerful field of study for high school students. Both of us believe that we teach history so that kids can make sense of the world they live in, and therefore, be more informed and active and engaged citizens of that world. That’s not exactly a revolutionary concept, and there are many, many social studies teachers who share that view.

So if that is one of the primary underlying tenets for teaching the class, the question becomes how do you structure the class to engender that sense of urgency? We tossed around this idea, with the idea that the 11th grade theme at SLA is “Change” —

What if we started an American History class with an analysis of the present day? What if we asked students to examine present day society through several intersecting lenses such as the political lens, the demographic lens, the economic lens and the geo-political lens. Kids could start the year reading commentary on the world we live in now from a variety perspectives. That opening unit could serve as frame to now examine our history. Then, as the class dove into our country’s history, there would be a deep context for always examining the events of the past through the lens of questioning how that has shaped the nation we are today. I could even imagine a culminating unit where students had to look forward with a vision of where we are going from here and how and why.

I think – I hope – a class with this frame would deeply communicate the idea of active history for students, and it would solve the classic problem of the American History class that treats American History as stopping sometime between World War II and the Civil Rights Movement. And most importantly, I think the class could – done right – center on the students themselves. A class like this is not about the dusty dates of history, but about their lives – our lives – our country today, seen through the lens of time.

Thoughts?

Aug 02

Community and Gratitude

This week, it was announced that I have won the 2014 McGraw Prize in Education. It’s an incredible honor, and I am beyond humbled and honored to win an award that heroes of mine — Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, Dr. James Comer, Larry Rosenstock, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, just to name a few —  have won. To see my name listed with theirs is incredible.

And it’s important to note that this is not an award one wins alone. The work we do at SLA is always about the incredible community of people who come together to breathe life into our school every day. The educators, students and families of Science Leadership Academy and Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber make our schools work every day. Our partners at The Franklin Institute have been there to plan with us, work with us, learn with us from the beginning. And while the district has been through many changes in the past nine years, the people of the School District of Philadelphia have been supportive of SLA, creating the conditions through which we could innovate. And, of course, on a personal level, I am incredibly lucky to be married to someone as smart (and as patient) as Kat.

I am incredibly lucky to be the principal of Science Leadership Academy. The past nine years have afforded me the opportunity to work with some of the most incredible people I have ever known. A moment of recognition like this is a wonderful moment to step back and celebrate with all the people who own a piece of this award. It has been amazing to receive emails and tweets and Facebook posts from former students, current families, and colleagues from so many parts of the journey.

I want to simply thank everyone who has helped to make SLA a school that matters. This is a moment of celebration for all of us. Thank you for everything you do.

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.