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 18

Gratitude

It’s about three weeks until the start of school, and I spent much of this weekend cleaning my home office. That’s significant because I generally clean my home office in one of two situations:

  1. Life is so incredibly out of control that I clean in an attempt to restore some semblance of order to my life.
  2. I’m feeling caught up enough in my life that I actually notice that my office looks like the wreck of the Hesperus.

And amazingly, life isn’t out of control. Despite everything going on, both SLA and SLA@B are on-track to open in September, and while we don’t know all the pieces of the budget puzzle yet, I am confident that we will be able to serve our children well. And I have that confidence because of the incredible people I get to work with every day.

So this is just a short post to say thank you to the people who have worked hard all summer long to make sure that, in the face of the most insane financial crisis our system has ever seen, our kids would be able to come to school in September to communities that care for them. Educators, parents and students have come to school, reached out via email, worked on projects, and advocated in and for the larger system as well. It has been both inspiring and humbling to watch. It is why, despite everything, I have been able to feel confident that we will survive this crisis intact.

So I wanted to take a moment on a Sunday August afternoon to say thank you to the SLA community. As I think about all everyone has done, I am overwhelmed with gratitude, and I cannot wait for our community to start the school year.

Thank you.

Aug 14

Thoughts for a New Administrator: Simplify

I’m reading Up the Down Staircase right now, and far too much of it rings true than it should, especially when it comes to the arcane administrative details of the teaching life. And that brings me to tonight’s post – Simplify.

As much as I like to think of being a principal as being the “principal teacher,” there’s a significant portion of the job that is about management. In fact, a 2010 Calder Study suggests that organizational management may create greater change than instructional coaching. And that makes sense. Most of our schools are filled with crufty processes that make the whole add up to less than the sum of its parts. There are binders covered in dust that are filled with forms filled out by various members of the school community. There are legacy processes from forgotten initiatives – to the point where some schools still make teachers do Taylor Time-Studies.

And this isn’t exciting, but one of the things a new administrator can do is come in and simplify the lives of everyone else in the building. When we strip away the processes that are least effective, when we look to create efficiencies so that the things we have to do are easier, we allow teachers to focus on what really matters – the time they spend with students and the time they spend with the students’ work. If we have to ask teachers to take time away from that, we should ensure that we’re doing it for good reason, and we’re making it as easy for teachers to do the task as possible.

Anything we can turn into a Google Form instead of a Word Doc to fill out is a win for teachers. Any time we can link something to our internal faculty site instead of printing it out to be filed away and hunted for later, it’s a win. Any time we make it easier for parents to sign up to volunteer or meet with us, we increase good will. Any time we make the structure of school easier for students to understand, they will have more energy to invest in their learning.

So, here’s a thought for the first meetings with the various stakeholders… ask these questions:

  • For teachers: How can we simply the processes of school so that you can maximize the time you spend on teaching and learning? What do we not need to do? What can we do more easily and efficiently?
  • For parents: How can we make communication between home and school easier? How can we make sure that home and school both get the information we need in a timely fashion?
  • For students: When does the “game” of school get in the way of your learning? How can we make the structure of school more transparent, so that it is easier to focus on learning?

What would you simplify?

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.

Aug 05

Thoughts for a New Administrator: Time

[I'm headed into my ninth year for working on SLA - one planning year, and this is the school's eighth year. And while there is still a ton to learn about doing this job well, I thought that I might be reaching a point where the lessons I have learned might have something to offer to new administrators. Thus, this piece.]

There are a lot of challenges to moving from the teaching life to the administrative life. Some, I remember trying to anticipate – the idea of managing adults being the obvious one. But some I didn’t really think as much about – managing time. The rhythms of the life of a principal are very different from those of a teacher’s, both day-to-day and over time.

On the daily level, there’s the realization that your life is not dictated by the class schedule the same way everyone else’s is. And that takes getting used to. As a teacher, your professional life is based around your class schedule. As a principal, while it is important to be in the hallways during the change of classes, you get to choose when you do your walk-throughs, when you answer emails, and there’s no guarantee that your meetings will fit neatly into the class structure – in fact, there’s a pretty good chance they won’t.

For me, that meant learning a kind of time management discipline that wasn’t as necessary when I was in the classroom. I had to learn to budget my time during the day in a very different way. Goal setting and holding myself to deadlines meant that I didn’t waste time, and keeping track of what class periods I chose to be in classrooms meant that I got to see the school at different times. And for me, budgeting out lunch periods so that I could spend time with students and teachers as they needed me became really important.

On the larger level, a principal’s hardest times of the year aren’t always in line with a teacher’s. The end of the marking period grading crush was always hard for me, but as a principal, the weeks after report cards come out are more busy than the weeks before they come out. This meant that I had to make sure I paid attention to the energy levels of the folks around me, understanding that teachers and students often got tired at different times than I did. It meant learning how the administrative rhythm of the school went so that I could plan my own life accordingly. I’ve learned to block out almost every night of June for school, as there’s always some end of year event that I as the principal have to be at.

The best advice I’d give to a new administrator about time is to be aware of it. A principal’s life is unstructured, but very busy. Planning that time out, and being thoughtful about how to manage your time can mean the difference between being a pro-active leader or a reactive one.

 

Aug 01

Trayvon, Creating ‘The Other’ and the Cover of the Rolling Stone

[It has taken me a while to find the mindspace to write coherently about this. I've been talking to a lot of people about this, and while I don't think my thoughts are anywhere near fully evolved on this yet, I think I need to take some time to write about it, if I am going to be able to push my own thinking. Thanks to Jose Vilson and Bob Dillon for being early readers of this, and thanks to the summer tech girls at SLA for talking through some of these ideas with me.]

I, like many of us, been thinking a lot about Trayvon Martin lately. One of the quotes that resonated more deeply than any other was the priest who said, “I want to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride home.”

That’s the world I want to live in too. To do that, Zimmerman would have had to have seen Trayvon as a young man out in the rain, not as a threat. He would have had to seen his humanity first and foremost. He would have had to have been willing to see the young black man in a hoodie as something different than a threat… something different than “the other.” He clearly didn’t, and in my opinion, George Zimmerman’s unwillingness to see the shared humanity between two people – regardless of race – set in  motion the tragic — and yes, in my mind, criminal — events that unfolded that night.

I also have been thinking a lot about the Rolling Stone cover story about the young men who are responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings. More than anything else, what I think is perhaps truly troublesome to me about the story — and about the events of that tragic day — is that this was American terrorism. These two brothers were American kids. They had, in their upbringing, as much — if not more — in common with Timothy McVie as they did with the 9/11 bombers.

What happened to them? Why did a young man who grew up in Cambridge, MA as a seemingly ‘normal’ American teenager become a bomber? What happened such that he turned against the only country he really knew? When did he stop believing in the American Dream for himself and his family? And why? And how could he believe that a radical terrorist act, mere miles from his home, was the right thing to do?

And let me be clear here – the Boston Marathon bombers are no more a victim than George Zimmerman was. Both took a lens on the world that allowed them to see people they did not know as “other” and that allowed them to commit horrible acts. The Boston Marathon bombers made a decision that “American” meant that any runner in that Boston Marathon was guilty of crimes against the Muslim world and therefore deserved anything they got. George Zimmerman believed that “Young, Black Male” meant Trayvon Martin was up to no good, and therefore had to be stopped. Both need to be held accountable for their actions.

Both George Zimmerman and the Boston Marathon bombers felt justified in their actions because they refused to see the fundamental humanity of the people their actions would impact. Both George Zimmerman and the Tsarnaev brothers showed no empathy for people who were different than they were.

Both were powerfully and tragically wrong.

If we, as a nation, do not start to do a better job of bridging the divide between peoples… if we do not do a better job of enfranchising the disenfranchised… if we do not re-invest in ensuring that the American Dream is inclusive rather than “I got mine,” we will see more and more Jahars and we will see more Zimmermans. And while I believe that both Jahar and Zimmerman need to be punished for the actions that they undertook that caused the loss of life, I also believe we need to ask ourselves what kind of society we live in that creates the conditions that allows people to ignore the fundamental humanity of those around them, and instead reach for violence.

For me, that happens when, as a society, we too often react with fear and abandon hope.

And where this really has been resonating with me is this… as a society, are we teaching fear, lack of empathy and loss of hope?

Think of all the young African-American men and women who are learning a powerful lesson from the Trayvon Martin case — that the United States justice system will not serve them, and ask if they are learning the next lesson — that the United States will not take care of them.

Think of the young men and women who have come to this country, brought by parents before the children could choose, and think of the vitriolic rhetoric against the DREAM Act where US Congressmen state that “For every valedictorian, there are 100 drug dealers,” and ask yourself whether those young men and women believe that this country will take care of them.

Think of the young men and women in rural America who have seen their local economies dry up as we have not replaced the working-class jobs that once existed, and think of the political rhetoric that suggests that they must “defend” what they have against those who would take it away, and ask yourself whether those young men and women seeing a nation that is taking care of them.

Think of the many young men and women who are working at a minimum wage that, according to McDonalds, is a living wage as long as you are willing to work 75 hours a week, forego heating, and find health insurance for less than $20 / month.

Think about a generation that is growing up where 80% of the population fears joblessness, and the divide between rich and poor grows wider and wider.

Think of all the kids in our cities who go to under-funded schools, who watch their parents struggle to survive on sub-standard wages… think about how many indignities our children suffer…

And now ask… are we creating the next-generation of home-grown terrorists?

Are we creating a generation of kids who do not believe that America believes in them? And if so, what will some of them do? And how many Trayvon Martins have to die, how many Boston Marathon-style bombings do we have to endure before we ask ourselves what are the systems at work in our society that are creating this kind of fear, hatred and disenfranchisement?

I have been thinking a lot about MLK lately… thinking that we need both sides of his message right now… we need to increase the amount of love *and* the amount of justice in this world… and we need to understand that if we don’t, people from across the wide spectrum of America are going to get their needs met…

By any means necessary.

Jul 11

Medicating Ourselves To Death

I’m going to start this post by saying that it is really just a case of out-loud thinking. I don’t really know where this leads… I just know I’m thinking about it a lot lately, and I’m hoping that by writing, I make some sense of my thoughts.

I struggle a lot with issues of drug use among American teens– I’ve written about this before when I wrote When I Learned to Hate Drugs — and I worry about it both with the illegal drug use – with 6.5% of high school seniors smoking marijuana on a daily basis according to the NIH – and with the legal drug use where we see more and more kids getting medicated for things like ADHD. As Ken Robinson has noted, it is a bigger issue the further east you go in American, and in my home state of Pennsylvania, 5.6% of all kids between ages four and seventeen are being medicated for ADD / ADHD. And scarily, there’s a huge crossover of kids who fall into both categories, as approximately 30% of people with ADHD have a history of substance abuse.

And I can say, anecdotally, that I have seen multiple kids getting prescribed ADHD drugs without ever being asked if they are using any illegal drugs. Worse, I also know kids who have been prescribed ADHD drugs when their doctors have known they are also using recreational drugs.

And yet, a half-hour search of the internet could not find any really definitive research on what happens to teenage brains when a drug like Ritalin is used in conjunction with marijuana. There were, however, a lot of sites where teens were asking questions about what happens when these drugs are mixed. And there were a fair number of doctor sites that suggested that the symptoms of marijuana use could be mistaken for some of the symptoms of ADD.

So as we have created an adolescence for so many children that is really nothing more than a holding pattern for adulthood — where we tell them that “school is good for you some day,” rather than daring them to be engaged now, empowered now, caring now, where they are bombarded outside of school with an ever more sophisticated marketing industry that preaches instant gratification for material desires — and then we wonder why kids can’t focus or won’t focus and choose to self-medicate or end up getting medicated.

This isn’t to say that there are not kids with real attention issues that profoundly impact their lives in negative ways — there most certainly are. But I worry that there are also many students who are currently being prescribed drugs who have something more resembling situational ADHD, caused by any number of circumstances from really boring and unconnected schoolwork to marijuana use to poor eating habits.

I don’t know that we know the long-term consequences to the behaviors around drug use that are both being explicitly endorsed (major increases in the number of children in American being prescribed drugs for ADHD) and implicitly tolerated (the passive acceptance of teenage drug use which we see in so many families and so many communities.) And I certainly don’t think we know what happens, long-term, to the kids who overlap in both camps.

I want to see us combat the illegal drug use with care. Both the way we care for kids, and by daring more and more kids to care about the lives they lead now such that the allure of drug use is less powerful than the allure of all there is accomplish in front of us.

I want to see us combat the legal drug use by slowing down a bit. I want families to look at sleep patterns of kids (as I finish this blog entry at 2:36 am.) I want families to be smart about healthy dietary habits. I want kids to learn meditation as a way to quiet the mind, not a pill. And perhaps most of all, I want schools to create more work for kids that is actually worth focusing on, relevant, powerful and driven by the student, not the teacher.

There are probably lots of folks who will tell me that I’m too hyper-sensitive about marijuana use among teens. There are probably lots of folks who will tell me that ADHD medication isn’t being over-prescribed to kids today. And there are probably folks who will tell me that the reason I can’t find any red flags about what happens when kids mix these drugs is because no one has found any red flags yet.

Maybe.

But the cost-benefit analysis just doesn’t seem worth it to me. I worry that we inch closer and closer to some Huxley-like dystopia where we simply take our soma and go blithely about our day, never taking the time to really do the hard work of looking around us and taking more ownership of our society and our world.

I worry.

Jul 01

Free the Hallways

According to school architect and author of The Third Teacher, Trung Le, over 35% of the square footage of the average school are in use less than 5% of the day.

The hallways.

The reason for this is that the institutional design that schools most resemble are prisons.

Think about it — we move kids from cell to cell, we monitor their coming and going whenever they leave their cells at anything but the designated time, often giving them a pass so that other adults can know immediately that the student is allowed in the common space, and many principals are taught that the secret of success as an administrator is to clear the hallways as soon as the bell rings at the start of class, and most schools give three or four minutes to get from class to class, no matter how big the campus is or how crowded the hallways get at the change of classes.

And we wonder why kids feel like school feel like prison.

If we want kids to feel that schools are more human places, let’s start by making every space a learning space, every space a social space. Let’s free the hallways. It makes sense from a practical point, if nothing else. Authentic learning tends to require more square footage than traditional schooling. When a class of 30 high school students start collaborating, the average classroom can get loud quickly. Letting a few groups work in the hallways is not only a way of letting students own where and how they learn, it also just makes learning easier by simply giving kids more room to work.

But it makes sense from a philosophical sense as well. We can shift our thinking from  When kids are not herded from classes to class with three minutes but are given a little more time to transition, they feel more valued. When kids do not view learning as tethered only to a specific classroom space, they are more likely to see school as a continuum of social learning that is an intrinsic part of their lives, not just something that is done to them.

And yes, there will be times when the kids get louder than we want them to. And yes, this will make it easier for some students to check out of the learning when they want to. And yes, it will mean that “classroom management” can be a little harder when our classrooms does not end at the door of the physical class space. These are some of the negative consequences of what can be a very good idea. And while we need to do things to mitigate those issues, they will never go away. The question we need to ask ourselves is always this:

Is it better to deal with the issues that arise from allowing students more ownership over where and how they learn than dealing with the issues that arise from making sure students know that the adults tell them where and when to be at all times?

If the answer is yes, then schools need to prepare for a major culture shift.

But let’s be clear — this is hard.

This does challenge many of the assumptions we have made about school and how schools function as organizations, and this is a very difficult challenge for many educators to make. Thinking through the questions, challenges, issues and consequences – both positive and negative – of a shift like this requires honoring the concerns of everyone involved.

  • What happens when we put tables and chairs along the halls and make it space that kids can use?
  • What happens when students do not have to stay only in the cafeteria to eat lunch?
  • What happens when we create spaces that are shared between teachers and students?
  • What are the ways we can create third spaces for kids to be that are lightly supervised with a lot of space for student ownership over community standards of behavior?
  • How can the community keep the best goals of this shift in mind, even when there are frustrations with the shift?
  • How do we balance what can be competing needs of teachers and students in the use of physical space?

Autonomy and agency can be really hard, because people make bad decisions from time to time — not just kids, but all of us. And this is not about giving total autonomy to students — everyone has a responsibility to each other to be responsible to the learning process, especially if much of the learning is collaborative. It is about collaborative agency, where decisions can be made together. And when we give kids more agency over how they use the space, we challenge many of the assumptions we make about school. That’s not easy, but the rewards can be one more powerful way we move from compulsory schooling to a more democratic and empowering education. Schools are not prisons, and every step we move away from that model of institutional design, the better.

Jun 30

Why Do We Need to Know This?

“Why Do We Need to Know This?”

It is the question that many teachers hate to hear from students in their classrooms. Whether it is the format of the Shakespearean Sonnet, the Pythagorean theorem, or why the Periodic Table of Elements is organized the way that it is, kids spend a lot of time in schools wondering why they are learning what seems like a disconnected series of facts and skills that don’t seem to have much importance to the lives they are leading. And from time to time, the bravest of students will screw up the courage to ask that question.

Sadly, too often, the answers (when a teacher is even willing to engage with the question) students range from “It is going to be on the test,” to “It will help you some day,” to “It’ll help you get into college.” When really, more often than not, it’s because the subject matter in question is “part of the curriculum.” If a student is lucky, the teacher is teaching that particular thing because the teacher has a real passion for the subject, but even that really doesn’t answer the question in any meaningful way.

Students deserve an answer to the question. And we, as educators, need to understand that if we can’t answer the question powerfully, we have to start questioning what we teach and how we teach it.

We live in a fascinating world. There’s more really interesting stuff to learn, understand and do than any one person has in a lifetime — or probably ten lifetimes. Helping students to see the power and beauty of all that stuff is one of the most important, if not the most important, job of a teacher. That is where an inquiry-driven, project-based approached to learning is so essential. Questions like, “How do I be a better boyfriend / girlfriend,” “What pollutants are in the drinking water in my home,” and “How do we build my ideal learning space?” all give powerful answers to the questions of “Why do I need to know this?” for any of the information from the first paragraph. And all of them are questions that could have relevance to the students in our classes, and all of them open students up to the received wisdom, not just of the teacher of the world at large. Equally as important, all of those questions could lead students to engage in powerful problem-solving, artifact-building, and reflection as they consider their personal answers to those questions.

If we remember that the time students spend in school is supposed to be about helping them to become better citizens, then the question of “Why do we need to know this?” becomes essential to what and why we teach. The questions and answers that follow the asking of the question should and will have profound implications on both our content and our pedagogy. And if we create our learning spaces as places where the question, “Why do I need to know this?” is actually the right of every student to ask, but is the first, most exciting question of every day, we can create vibrant, powerfully relevant classes that engage and empower everyone in it.

Jun 26

Technology Transforms Pedagogy: ISTE Session

My ISTE session this year was Technology Transforms Pedagogy: Combining the Tools and the Vision. I didn’t want it to be the same as many of the workshops I have given in the past, but at the same time, I still believe what I believe, and so finding a new way to take people through some of these ideas was a challenge.

I’ve found, especially when I’m at a conference in a big hall, getting people to tackle prompts is a challenge. People don’t necessarily know each other, and the big hall isn’t really set up for conversations. But I also didn’t want to just talk at people for an hour.

I also have found that open-ended prompts can sometimes lead people into the weeds quickly. So I decided to try to put some constraints on how people were going to answer and leverage social media to  move the conversation. The prompts we used were all meant to be a series of ten-word answers that would / could serve to help people drill down to a simple statement of purpose while also given them the building blocks for larger answers later. For the folks who had Twitter, I asked them to tweet their answers to the #istetransforms hashtag.

From the feedback I received, people found it to be a powerful way to attack these ideas. The prompts we used were as follows:

  • Schools should help students become…
  • Technology helps me realize my vision by…
  • Technology means that I have to let go of…
  • [A system I employ] can now change in this way…
  • In 2013-14, learning can be…

And as a presenter, what I loved about it, is that it forced me to re-examine how I think about framing these issues, and the incredible stream of ideas that we were able to share and think through will provide me with plenty of things to think about as well.

The issues we face are, without a doubt, far too complex for ten words, but sometimes, working to simply delineate what we think and what we believe will help us figure out what the ideas, policies and systems that follow must be. Thanks to ISTE for a wonderful conference and for the ability to think through and deepen my understanding of what I believe.