Mar 22

Schools Are Fragile

There are no shortage of ideas about how to improve schools. Zac and I wrote a book filled with them. And every year, principals and teachers come together to try to figure out how to make their schools better places – writing school improvement plans, creating sub-committees, spending time trying to make things better. It is the language of our national discussion around education – how do we fix our schools?

But there’s another thing we need to look at – throughout the last twenty or thirty years, whether it is the Gates small schools initiative, the charter movement, or any number of initiatives like the Boston Pilot schools or the New York City iZone – we’ve started thousands of schools in this country… and most of them started with incredible promise and idealism and energy, and not enough of them stayed that way.

There are many reasons for that – budget cuts, superintendency changes, leadership change, mission drift and more – and what that shows is how real regression to the mean is in education. It is the thing that we have to think about as we look to make schools better places — how will we sustain the changes we make? How will we sustain innovative ideas — or even just the best old-fashioned ideas.

A long time ago, when I was starting SLA, someone told me that leaders either had start-up energy or sustaining energy, but most people didn’t have both. I didn’t want to be a short-time founder. I wanted to be at SLA for a long, long time – and I still do. But to do that, we had to think about fragility. How were we going to nurture SLA after we’d built it? How would we keep working to make it the best version of itself while also being careful not to work people too hard, take on ideas and concepts that would pull us away from our core mission, and of course, navigate the changing winds around us. I didn’t realize that we were also going to have to get through one of the worst crises in educational history, too, but there we were.

And SLA is celebrating its ten year anniversary this year. If the ten years of our little school has taught me anything is that we have to think as deeply about sustainability as we do about start-up. We have to recognize that doing something different, something that pushes against the dominant narrative, requires eternal vigilance. There’s never the moment you can relax and think, “Whew… we’ve arrived.” Every year brings a new 9th grade class. Every year brings new challenges. And every year, you have to work to maintain what you’ve built – while always trying to figure out how to make it better too.

Because schools are fragile – no matter how strong we build them, we have to always remember that they will take just as much energy to keep them strong.

Feb 19

Building a Learning Network

I’m writing this post at the end of first ever day and a half long retreat of the Innovation Network. We had the opportunity to come down to North Bay Adventure Camp and use their guest house for our retreat.

There’s something incredible about getting away into a new environment to give everyone freedom to fully immerse in ideas. Yes, when you have eight principals all away from their schools, the reality of the cell phone is always there, but overall, everyone felt “away” and able to focus on the work at hand.

I had two goals for the retreat – One, I was hopeful that we could create the conditions by which every school would have the chance to dig deep into a challenge they were facing. And two, in leveraging the wisdom of the room, we would get the chance to really deepen our commitment to being a learning network together.

We used the National School Reform Faculty protocol Consultancy for the bulk of the day’s work. Consultancy is a really powerful protocol that creates the space for a deep dive into a challenge or dilemma that someone is facing. It really requires folks coming together in a safe way, because you are asking people to ask probing questions of each other and asking people to listen without defensiveness to critique and ideas. There has to be some real trust in both process and people for it to work well. We used some nice ice breakers to get into the work, and the fact that this group has been working together with a common mission of creating schools that are authentic, empowering, caring and modern really created the space for us to enter into the work.

Each iteration of the consultancy takes about 45-50 minutes to go through, and as the facilitator, I can say that there really has to be a premium on following the process so that the consultancy stays focused. It can end with the presenter walking away with a fresh lens on the problem and a lot of ideas to try to solve it. For us, it also meant a day that started at 8:30am and ended at 8:30pm with working lunch and dinner (and a two-hour break in the middle of the day to learn more about North Bay and to go on a truly insane ropes course that was every bit the bonding experience you’d think it was. (6th graders do that? Dang.)

Neil Guyette of @USchoolPhilly makes the big leap. #phled

A video posted by Chris Lehmann (@chrislehmann) on

 

The day was exhausting and awesome. And everyone agreed that we accomplished both goals. And it’s energized me to figure out how to better use our monthly network meetings when we come together once a month back in Philly.

And importantly – we did it ourselves. We used smart resources from other places. We shared some readings, we used ice breakers that we learned from other folks, and we agreed to use a protocol that can feel a little forced the first time you use it. But we didn’t assume that someone was going to come in and solve our problems for us. We agreed to be our own best resources for each other, and that made all of us better, not just because of the trust we gained, and not just because we all were able to see how the problems everyone was struggling with had application in our own schools, but because there’s something amazing about learning together, solving problems together, and gaining belief and trust in the idea that if we just keep asking hard questions together, we can come up with the answers we need together.

And when adults can do that for one another, doesn’t that reinforce how important it is that we do that with our students as well?

 

Feb 06

Unspoken Rules

I love using this clip as a way to spur people to think about the unspoken rules, policies and procedures that exist in schools.

The overwhelming majority of schools have a student handbook, codes of conduct, etc… but often, those are only the stated policies, and often, the unstated policies are as much what govern the school as anything else.

And while it’s my contention that we don’t want to create schools where every last behavior / idea / action is regulated by some 400 page handbook of student and teacher behavior, we also want to be aware of — and reflective about — the unspoken rules and practices of our schools. When we are, we create more intentional schools where the ideas and systems that power our communities are transparent and understood.

It’s worth noting, as well, another reason it is so very important to unpack unspoken policies. Schools live in the world – and that world is one where issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism continue to do great harm. One very powerful way to combat the inequities of our world is through intentionality. When we examine the unspoken practices of our schools, we can unpack the questions, “Who is benefiting from this behavior? Who is harmed by it? And how can we ensure that the practices of our school are equitable?”

And, for me, this practice starts with adult behaviors and practices. It’s why I care so deeply about the relationship between a school’s mission and vision and the systems and structures that enable that mission. When mission and vision are shared and deeply understood and believed by everyone, and when the systems and structures that govern the school are aligned with that mission, then the practices – both those in the handbook and those that are not – can align and be understood by all.

There are ways to unpack the invisible or unspoken policies. Some questions a faculty can ask itself to spur the process:

  • How are “everyday” decisions made at the school?
  • Who is tapped to get work done when it falls outside the scope of an established job description?
  • What voices are around the table when an issue arises?
  • What is our first reaction to student behavioral issues?
  • How are parents involved in the decisions of our school?
  • Do we examine the mission of the school when we make big decisions? Small decisions?

And, inside the individual classroom, teachers can do this work as well with questions such as this (and these can be asked school-wide as well):

  • How is the mission of the school made manifest in my class?
  • Who does my grading policy benefit?
  • How do students figure out how to succeed in my class?
  • Why are the seats arranged in my classroom the way they are?
  • Where is there space for students to influence the governance of my classroom?
  • How does every student find space for their voice in my classroom?

And so on… I’m sure everyone can think of more questions to add to the list.

The purpose is that every school can be intentional in their process. We can unpack the unspoken (and spoken) rules such that we can create schools that more purposeful and more equitable in the ways in which they function.

[Oh… and I promise not to go months without writing again…]

Oct 31

Why Care Matters #SpringValleyAssault

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Spring Valley assault. Lots of people have written about it in important ways. What that video showed in the context of racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement is of paramount importance. The larger socio-political ramifications of that video – of what happened to that young woman – are a devastating example of how our schools fall far short of the promise of equity and justice that so many of us who are teachers aspire to. 

And, as others have written, this clearly was not a one-time event. The reaction of the students showed they had seen behavior like this before. There was no reaction of shock, as there should have been, when seeing a classmate thrown to the floor violently. 

But beyond whether or not the administration knew they had a police officer known as “Officer Slam” in their building… or even what it means to have police officers in schools… there’s a question that needs to be asked — would this have happened if there was a system in place so that every student in that school was powerfully cared for?

Because, as horrible as the actions of the officer were, the school failed that young woman before the officer ever put his hands on her. They failed her because the adults cared more that she left the classroom than they did about what was causing her to shut down in that way. 

This event is why it is of the utmost importance that we as educators understand the difference between “care about” and “care for,” why it is important that we say “We teach students,” rather than “We teach subjects.” Because when we acknowledge, understand and truly believe that no subject we teach is more important than the child in front of us, then there’s no way that the teacher or the administrator makes the wrong-headed decision that getting her out of the room was far more important than finding out what was wrong. And there was no way that the teacher and the administrator would not have known that the young woman had just lost her mother. 

This is why it is essential that we create systems in our schools where every child is known and every child is cared for. In our schools, every child should know who their advocate is, and that advocate should ensure that students in crisis are known and cared for by all. At SLA, that is our Advisory program. At other schools, they call it family group. In some middle schools, it’s a looping program so that students and teachers stay together. But in every school, there should be a structure in the school day so that the adults— all of the adults, not just the counselors — have the time to care for the children.

And this is most important for students who have been underserved by our schools, because oftentimes, those students who have been underserved feel that no one cares about them at school. And too often, those students are the same students who are sent a message every day that our society doesn’t care enough about them either. We need to couple the structures like Advisory with professional development toward cultural competency so that all teachers understand what it means to truly know and respect students, no matter the differences (or honestly, sometimes similarities) between teacher and student. We can build systems and structures that cross racial, gender, socio-economic boundaries and allow everyone in our schools to be seen for all that they are in powerful, positive, humanistic ways.

Because every child deserves to be known in school. Every child deserves an advocate. It cannot happen by luck or fiat. We can’t just hope it happens. We can’t just tell the stories of the teacher who has some of the kids eat lunch in her classroom every day… or the coach who drives her players home from practice. To do that and to not systematize it so that every child is known is to all but guarantee that some children will go through school isolated and uncared for. And, in the world we live in, we can be sure that that will disproportionately happen to children of color and children of poverty. 

We can do better. We can do it now. In all our schools. We owe it to every child we teach. We owe it to her. 

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 07

On Teacher Labor

[The book is shipping! Order your copy of Building School 2.0 today!]

Today is a good day to think about all we ask of teachers.

Not the way we usually do… with stories of the martyr teacher who sacrifices all for her students. Because while that story is a powerful one, we often tell it for the wrong reason.

That story is important because many of those teachers leave the classroom after a few years. Often times, those teachers get taken advantage of by administrators who love that young teacher who can’t say no, because, let’s face it, there’s always more to do and rarely enough folks to do it. So in too many schools — especially the places where we serve children of color and children of poverty — we create systems that are unsustainable, then we work those who are willing to do the extra work until they can no longer do the work.

I stopped writing to re-read that paragraph to see if it felt as much like I was channelling Boxer from Animal Farm as I thought I was. I debated re-writing it, but the metaphor works. Those teachers believe in the school and will often do anything for the school… until they can’t anymore.

There are over three million teachers in America. Most of them bring their work home with them every night. The overwhelming majority of them take the emotions of the job home with them far too often. And yet, all over America, right now, teachers are finishing lesson plans and preparing themselves to be the best version of themselves for the kids in the classes tomorrow.

All of this and we live in a political time when teachers unions are treated like a political football in ways that we haven’t seen a union treated in decades.

Every parent should want the teaching life to be sustainable. It’s in our vested interests as a society to make sure that teachers sleep more than six hours a night, and feel like they can do their jobs well. It’s in the best interests of our nation to make sure that the people who teach our children don’t feel like they have to martyr themselves to serve the children in their charge.

We want our teachers to have rich full lives outside the classroom. We want them to be amazing parents and partners. We want them to have the time to read the occasional book, take a vacation, and maybe even go to the gym every now and then.

And we should want all this because it will make them better teachers.

And that’s the thing that we should not forget this Labor Day. We are a better country when the lives of our countrymen and women are in balance. What the fight for labor rights has gotten us is a better nation – despite all the mountains we have left to climb. Nowhere should that be more powerfully obvious than in our schools.

We, as a society, must take care of our teachers and not let them labor too long. After all, our teachers are who take care of our children.

 

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.

Sep 01

Project-Based Learning and Real Life

[Our book Building School 2.0  will be released in one week! Pre-order it today!]

Now it's real. On the shelves in seven days. http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/1118076826/ #school20

My copies of the book that Zac Chase and I wrote arrived today. Not the PDF proof… not the galley print… but the thing. The actual book.

It is an incredible feeling — to hold a book you wrote in your hand. And it actually caught me by surprise how meaningful the moment felt. I mean, I’ve been showing people the galleys for a few months now… it’s been on Kindle for a few weeks… but this is the real thing. It’s really going to happen. People will be able to go into a bookstore and buy the thing that Zac and I created.

And as I was holding it, I thought back to the first time I met Larry Rosenstock of High Tech High. It was during the planning year of SLA, and he gave me a copy of the book that his students published that year. The pride and excitement he had about what his students created was palpable and inspiring. And I don’t think I fully got it then – what it meant that his kids had created something powerful and of value that was real in the world.

Over the last ten years at Science Leadership Academy, I’ve seen kids build, make, create and do in incredible ways. I’ve seen kids take incredible — and justifiable — pride in what they’ve done. It’s an incredible thing… to see people get such obvious pleasure and pride from creating something that they are proud of… that is uniquely theirs (even, yes, when it’s a group project.) And sometimes, it’s easy to forget that feeling… to forget why it’s so important to make sure that we just don’t “do projects” in school, but instead we create the conditions by which our kids can do real work that matters to the world.

I hope people read the book Zac and I wrote. I hope educators and parents sit down and talk about it together. I hope it helps people who care deeply about students and school to evolve their institutions in powerful ways. And today, I held this project I did in my hand, and I felt that sense of excitement that this thing my friend and I did together might just make a difference in the world. And I want every kid at SLA – and beyond – to know that feeling… to know that they can do real work in the world that matters. I want every student to have that moment of accomplishment of seeing a project through to completion, but more importantly, I want them to have that feeling of knowing that finishing the project is actually just the beginning.

Aug 24

How To Plan Better Professional Development

[Only 16 days until the release of our book, Building School 2.0! Pre-order it today!]

So… after yesterday’s post, several folks asked me to talk about how to make PD better.

There are as many ways to make professional development better as there are ways to make our teaching better… what follows are just a few. The overarching thing to remember is this – we have to be one school. The same set of values that we look for in our classrooms should be what we value in our professional development. With that:

  1. Root professional development in the work teachers do. Asking teachers to do exercises that are not based in the work of the day is inauthentic. For example, if your school wants to do a deep dive into reading across the curriculum, ask teachers to bring their current unit plans and work together to ensure that all readings that students are assigned have reading comprehension activities attached to them. Have teachers work together to study a text like Subjects Matter and apply lessons learned, and then come back together for reflection after the work has been implemented.
  2. Don’t come in with answers – come in with questions. Inquiry-based professional development, where teachers are working to collaborative to solve challenges the school faces is incredibly powerful. We’ve looked at issues of culture, of student performance, of cultural competence as a faculty, where we asked ourselves hard questions and then looked to solve them. You don’t solve hard questions in a single meeting, of course, but a committee of teachers can come up with a powerful lens or frame on a problem, ask challenging questions, and then take the outcomes of the conversation back into committee to then craft next steps. When real problems are taken up by the whole faculty, solutions can come from unexpected places, and often the wisdom of the room will end up solving the problem in ways that a single voice ever could have.
  3. Don’t plan professional development yourself. We have a committee structure at SLA that is fully teacher-led. Committee chairs come together to set broad professional development agendas for the semester, and then the different committees plan professional development in consultation with administration. Everyone has a stake in planning useful PD, because we all sit through each other’s sessions. When we all feel responsible for each other’s learning, people spend the time to make it meaningful.
  4. Prioritize – I’ve seen too many schools and districts that treat every single PD session as an opportunity to present a new idea, as if one two-hour PD session is ever enough to fully learn an educational idea enough to then be amazing at it in the classroom. School faculty should figure out what are the primary goals of the school that year, and then seek to weave those goals through all professional development for the year (or two.) When everything is a priority, nothing is, but when we set a few big goals and then ensure that the overwhelming majority of the professional learning is in service of those goals, amazing things can happen.
  5. Follow-up. If PD happens in a meeting, and then the work isn’t prioritized by administration, it’s a waste of time. If we want teachers to believe in collaborative professional development, then time must be set-aside for implementation and reflection. Otherwise, we’ve created yet another “one-off” professional development session that is easily ignored by those who choose to, and worse, disempowering to those who actually want to see the topic / idea implemented powerfully.

These are a few ideas and values to get you started — there are many more that I encourage people to share in the comments. Simply, in all we do, be thoughtful, collaborative, and empowering when structuring professional learning. When we do that, we can create those values in every classroom – for every student – in our schools.