Apr 08

Do Real Work That Matters

This afternoon, Amy hosted the Youth Strategy Session for Philadelphia Ceasefire. All but one of the 2015 mayoral candidates came and debated ways to reduce the gun violence in our city. Students from all over the city came together to talk, listen and strategize how to make their city a safer place for all its residents.

This evening, Nikki and TJ discussed the role of standardized testing in education with Robert Pondiscio on 900am WURD. Robert is one of the toughest debaters I know – I always feel like, if I’m going into a conversation with Robert, I better bring my A game because his mind moves as quickly as anyone I know. And Nikki and TJ were amazing. They asked great questions… pushed back well when needed… and established themselves as heavyweights in the world of education in their own right.

Every day… every single day… I am awed by the work of the students at SLA. They do real work that matters. And that work builds on itself. That’s the awesome thing. Younger kids saw what Amy did today and were inspired to pick up that ball. Nikki and TJ both mentor younger students at school to be leaders all the time. And all three of them would (I think) tell you that while, yes, they are amazing young women and men (and they are), they are able to do more, be more, because they are part of a community that supports and believes in their ability to be active agents in their world.

That’s what school can be. That’s what school should be. I’ve got several emails in my inbox I have to reply to from social change organizations that are asking for SLA kids to help them with their projects. Rough Cut Productions (our video team) kids are being contracted to do work all over the city. SLA kids are in-demand as interns through our ILP program. Our SLAMedia journalists have the respect of the professional journalists when they cover the same events. And all of this is because kids can do incredible, amazing real world work that matters now.

And it starts with the idea that our classrooms have to matter. It starts with the idea that “Why do I need to know this?” is a fundamental right of every student to ask. It starts with the idea that education matters not just for “someday” but for today. We can learn about the world as we work to make it better. We can apply the skills and content we learn in our classrooms to passions and challenges and ideas we have outside of them. And when we merge the two — when we understand that the classroom is not defined by four walls and floor, but rather the physical space is the place we come together to debate, discuss, build, create so that we can then fully engage in the world around us — that’s when incredible things can — and will — happen.

And here’s the next step… today, in four different classrooms in School District of Philadelphia schools, SLA grads Freda, Sinnea, Julia and Zack were doing their student teaching practicum. All four of them are taking what they learned as students at SLA and passing it on to their students, helping other students to believe in their ability to change the world as well.

In fact, Zack is my son Theo’s student teacher. Not surprisingly, Theo has already falling in love with him.

Of course he has.

And I know that Zack will help Theo – as a second grader – build the skill and the strength of self to do real work that matters. Not someday, but today. I know that Zack will see the passion and energy and ideas that Theo has, and he will help Theo to do something that matters with those ideas.

I’d expect nothing less.

Apr 06

On Listening

I heard a student’s story today.

It was not the first story I heard from this student. It won’t be the last. On some level, it could be argued that it was only the latest chapter of this student’s life that he’s chosen to tell me. It was a particularly hard story for him to tell – as it demanded that he unpack some of the really painful parts of his life. And for various reasons, I was one of the people he’s chosen to tell this part of his story to.

I wish I could write that I had some brilliant wisdom to impart to him. I don’t think I did. I certainly tried to be helpful. And I tried to help him make sense of how his story informs who he is today and how it might affect the person he is trying to become. And I don’t think I did any harm with what I said. But what I said probably mattered a lot less than this.

I listened.

On my best days, I’m better listener than I am a talker. I wish I could tell you that I was that every day, but it’s not. But I’m working on it, because I think it’s what so many kids need.

I’ve written about this before, but I really think that deep, active listening is at the core of the difference between “care about” and “care for.” Caring about a student is hard enough, but caring for a student means really knowing them – knowing all that they are willing (or able) to share.

Listening deeply to students means learning about how their lives inside and outside our classrooms. It means learning how their racial identities, gender identities, familial identities, economic realities, religious identities, life experiences all are part of who we see in our classes every day.

In an era where, in too many schools, students are told that the secret to success is to do exactly what they are told – exactly what everyone else is doing, listening to our students and then taking the time to make sure that what we learn from our students informs our own actions is an educationally revolutionary act.

In the end, deeply listening to the stories our students tell us — and trying to be the person our students need to be in response — is nothing short of an act of radical love.

Apr 05

Ribe Tuckus

The other day, I actually wrote two blog posts in a single day. Brian Crosby gently teased me that it was like five years ago with my writing output. And a quick look at my blog stats suggests that I used to blog more often than I used to. Part of it is, when I look deep in the archives, I used to write much shorter pieces. But that’s not all of it. Some of it is that I’m writing longer pieces, some of it has been a decision that I made not to write about edu-news as much as I used to.

But I miss writing. It feels good to sit and write. It is, in the end, a powerful reflective tool – and it’s one I need to carve out the time to do more often.

One of my old English teacher books had some great writing guides for students. One of the ones that sticks with me is simply this – “Ribe Tuckus.” It’s Yiddish (and you wonder why it sticks with me) for “Sit down.” And the instructions for that particular writing guide were simple. You simply sat down with your journal and a pen with no distractions and gave yourself the space to write for 10-20 minutes. If you didn’t write, you didn’t write, but you couldn’t do anything but write or not write for whatever the time allotted. Sometimes, just sitting and doing nothing made the writing come after a while. Sometimes, what came out was amazing, sometimes it wasn’t.

So I’m making a commitment to ribe tuckus more. For me, it comes with some good writing music – jazz or Van Morrison often works – and it comes with a commitment not to flip to all the other browser windows that are open. But I am curious what will come out. And I am curious to know how often that writing will turn into a blog post. I’m not committing to making everything a blog post, as I imagine that some of what I will end up writing about will fall under the category of “Things you cannot blog about,” and I imagine that some days, I might stare at a laptop screen without many words. And I even imagine that some of it may just be writing for me – there’s a crazy thought. But I also do want more of these writing journeys to become blog posts. Writing out loud still matters, I think. And, for me, continuing to push my thinking where others can see it matters.

So… I hope folks find whatever comes next on the blog to be interesting. I hope I have the discipline and energy to actually do this. Writing this blog entry is a way to publicly hold myself accountable to actually doing it. I hope this desire to write more isn’t just because I’ve had a few days of Spring Break to actually power down enough to have the space to write.

But maybe springtime is the right time to launch this idea, after all. Maybe this is the time to come out of blog-hibernation and just ribe tuckus and write.


Apr 04

Intentionality and Serendipity

We had some visitors to SLA the other day, and when they were doing a debrief with me, a person asked me to unpack a statement we say a lot – “Standards, not Standardization.” It lead to a conversation about balancing being intentional in everything we do while also giving students voice and choice which bears some unpacking here.

First, the SLA learning ecosystem – with the core values, shared curriculum planning tools, common project rubric, grade-wide essential questions and aligned subject-specific standards – means that students can expect a consistent language of teaching and learning. The purpose of that is make sure that students spend as little time as possible trying to figure out the adults. By having a common language of teaching and learning, there is a framework that is empowering for students because it becomes much easier to move across the disciplines and learn.

Next, creating the space for 33 kids in classroom to all be able to thoughtfully investigate an idea and build toward making something powerful requires thoughtful planning. And it requires a balance of structure and freedom that takes a deft hand. Not enough structure, and there’s a real risk of having a lot of “inch-deep, mile-wide” work from students. Too much structure, and you’ll get “recipe-based teaching” where the vast majority of the student work looks far too much alike because the students weren’t given the freedom to make the work what they wanted or needed it to be.

A great example of how that work comes together is the work spearheaded by Roz Echols around creating a structure for our Capstone projects. Every year, 125 seniors create original inquiry-projects where the topics are completely student created. The structure of the capstone project has to be flexible enough to encompass student plays, event planning, and more “classical” deep research projects. The framework for the Capstone projects (found here) is simple, elegant, and it allows students enough of a roadmap to plan a year-long project while being open-ended enough to encompass so many different ideas.

Thoughtful frameworks for learning are at the heart of the idea “standards, not standardization.” The kind of intentionality required to allow students to engage in deep learning that is empowering, authentic and personally meaningful requires teachers to think about their classes not as day-to-day, but unit to unit and as part of the larger ecosystem of the school. When we are intentional about helping students to interpret standards, skills and content in ways that have meaning for them, understanding that there are many ways for students to manifest their learning, then we create the space for those moments in our classes where students can surprise us in wonderful ways by bringing their creativity and ideas to the subjects we teach.

Thoughtful structures can move us intentionally away from a scripted classroom and move us much closer to the kinds of classrooms where students and teachers have a shared sense of purpose and a shared sense of responsibility to each other. And in those classrooms, the ideas can flow freely, and those serendipitous moments of learning when things come together and the learning is powerfully communal can happen accidentally by design.

Apr 02

Don’t Lock it Down

I received an email today from an internet company that promised to “help teachers bring the power of the Internet to the classroom without the distractions that come with it.”

It is apparently a hyper-local filtering system that allows teachers to control what sites students can go to inside a class, which at first blush, probably sounds really appealing to a lot of people. All the bonuses of the internet with no ability to have kids get distracted by the rest of the internet. But what a reductive version of the internet, what a reductive vision of learning, and worst of all, what a reductive version of our students. From the email:

..if a teacher at your school wanted their students to only be allowed to go to Khan Academy during that class period, they could make that setting for all of the students in their class in two clicks. Now the only website their students can use is Khan Academy, and they don’t have to worry about their students going to inappropriate or time-wasting sites.

There’s no question that when you have the internet in your classroom, there is always a concern that students will be off-task. But that’s not because they are students. It’s because they are people. I admit it – I got more productive when the School District of Philadelphia started blocking Facebook. But I go home at the end of the day, and learning how to be productive on my home network where Facebook can be open at any time (and usually is) was important to my being a successful principal.

The same is true for the kids. Part of learning how to be a fully realized citizen in today’s world is learning how to be productive when the ability to be unproductive is, perhaps, more powerful than ever. (Although, judging by the box of high school notes passed to me that I found in my mom’s basement a while back, it’s always been pretty easy to be  unproductive in a classroom. We should remember that too.)

But that’s not the half of it.

Behind the theory that this company is selling is the idea that the teacher can still know everything that the students will need to learn. The time has come for that idea to die. When we lock down the internet, we send a powerful message to students that their ideas, their creativity, their interests have no place in our classrooms. That’s the wrong message to send.

It can be frustrating to have to manage all the distractions the internet can bring. It can be scary to realize that our role as teacher is not to be the arbiter of all information anymore – that our students may come to find information and ideas that do not neatly fit into the developmental lesson plan, but that’s where we need to go as educators. Honestly, it’s where we’ve always needed to be, but now the tools make it that much easier to do so.

I understand the impulse to try to create software that can limit our classrooms to four walls, floor and the tiniest of windows that the internet will allow. I get that there is a level of safety in the control that comes with being able to deeply restrict where our students can do, what they can read, what they will do. But educators have to fight that impulse, and work with students to help them to learn how to be productive digital citizens, which is, of course, part of being a citizen these days.

And we have to embrace the idea that if we thoughtfully teach, if we help kids to discover the power of their own ideas within whatever class they happen to be in, if we help them to discover the beauty and meaning and relevance of the ideas and concepts we introduce, then we have no reason to ever lock away 99% of the internet in our classroom. In fact, we have everything to gain.


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.

Apr 01

A Modest Proposal

I, like many people, am horrified by the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana. And, as such, I am deeply concerned that the NCAA Final Four is going to be held in Indianapolis this weekend. I was heartened to see that three of the four teams and the NCAA itself have expressed concerns about the law.

But expressing concern isn’t enough. The Final Four is a massive money-making enterprise to the tune of over a billion dollars. And while much of the money made is due to television and advertising revenue, there’s certainly a powerful economic boost to the hosts.

So let’s take that away.

I get it… contracts, flights, hotels, etc… but right is right. Let’s move the game.

Let’s move it to South Philadelphia High School. I’ve spoken with the principal, Otis Hackney. No one is using the gym this weekend. Philadelphia has been a leading city in LGBTQ advocacy. Philadelphia is one of the great sports towns in the country. Let’s make this happen.

And the South Philly High gym has 1100 seats. Granted, that’s smaller, but we could make the seats just for students of the schools and families of players and coaches. We could allocate ten VIP seats for each school so that Ashley Judd could still attend if need be. The country will still watch. The TV cameras will still be there. But the NCAA could make the statement that no contract, no revenue is worth sacrificing the safety, dignity and honor of even one athlete, employee or fan who might be discriminated against during the Final Four.

Think of the message it would send. Think of the pride athletes could take in their schools – in the NCAA. Think of the message it would send to legislatures all over the US (I’m looking at you, Arkansas) that bigotry will not stand – will not be tolerated – and that it will hit you in your pocketbooks over and over again.

Think of the message it would send to teenage LGBTQ athletes who are questioning if their teams, their sports, the very states they live in are safe spaces for them.

South Philly High School is ready to host, NCAA. The ball, literally, is in your court.

Mar 29

Post for Admins: Question More, Solve Less

At first blush, being an administrator who is a problem solver seems like a uniquely positive trait. There are certainly enough problems in schools that require solving.

But problem-solving isn’t always as important as we think it is.

Sometimes, we can rush to solve the problem in front of us in a way that feels productive but doesn’t really help us to think deeply about what is going on in our schools. Sometimes, quickly solving the problem doesn’t allow us to see root causes. And worse, simply solving the problem in front of you quickly can have unintended consequences.

As frustrating as it can be sometimes, we need to move more slowly when we look at some of the problems in our schools.  More often than not, our schools are better served when leaders don’t merely solve the problem in front of them, but rather take the time to ask questions of a range of folks to get at the real question at hand.

What we need in our schools are more leaders who ask questions of many stakeholders. When problems arise – especially ones that seem like they could be solved by just being a little harsher, a little stricter – we need to ask better questions. And we should listen to the answers.

Just like we ask teachers to do with our students.


Mar 25

When Colleges Hurt Kids

This year has been a fantastic year for SLA college acceptances. We’ve seen our kids get into some of the most well-respected schools in record numbers – and many of our kids are the first SLA-ers to ever get accepted into these schools.

Whether or not they are able to go to is another question.

Today, I was sitting with one of our SLA seniors. She’s gotten into a wonderful college – her top choice. The school costs $54,000 / yr. Her mother makes less than the federal deep poverty level. She only received the Federal financial aid package with no aid from the school, which means that, should she go to this school, she would graduate with approximately $200,000 of debt.

She would graduate with approximately $200,000 of debt – for a bachelor’s degree.

Now, how in good conscience could a college do that? I’ve sat with kids as they’ve opened the emails from their top choice schools. Watching the excitement of getting into a dream school is one of the real joys of being a principal. It’s just the best feeling to see a student have that moment where a goal is reached.

And as amazing as that moment is… that’s how horrible it is to sit with a student when they get the financial aid package and counsel them that the just isn’t worth that much debt.

I sat with my student today and pulled up a student loan calculator. I showed her that $200,000 of debt would mean payments of $1500 / month until she was 52 years old – and then we pulled up a budgeting tool so she saw how much she would have to make just to be able to barely get by.

Then we looked at the state schools she’s gotten into, and we talked about what it would mean to be $60,000 in debt after four years, because PA has had so much cut from higher education that Penn State is now $27,000 / year — in state, and we’ve noticed that their financial aid packages have dropped by quite a bit.

So we have to tell the kids to apply to the private schools because the aid packages the kids get from private colleges are sometimes significantly better than what the public schools are offering.  Kids have to apply to a wide range of schools and hope. And then we sit down with kids and help them make sane choices, as the $60K / year schools send amazing brochures and promises of semesters abroad and pictures of brand new multi-million dollar campuses, all while promising that there are plenty of ways to finance their tuition.

Dear colleges – you are doing this wrong.

It doesn’t have to this way. When I was a teacher in NYC even as recently as ten years ago, I felt that kids could go to amazing and affordable CUNY and SUNY schools if the private schools didn’t give the aid the kids needed. But Pennsylvania ranks 47th out of 50 in higher ed spending by state, and as a result, seven of the top fourteen state colleges are in Pennsylvania.

And as private colleges hit times of financial crisis and public colleges become more tuition dependent, students are being asked to take out more and more loans, which is putting a generation of working class and middle class students tens — if not hundreds — of thousands of dollars in debt to start their adult lives.

And the thing is — I still powerfully agree with those who say that a college education is a worthwhile investment. And on the aggregate, it is true – especially because the union manufacturing jobs of the last century have been lost. But when we look at the individual child, and the choices that kids and families are being asked to make, we have to ask how we can ask kids to take that kind of risk and take on that kind of debt.

And of course, all of this is exacerbated for kids from economically challenged families and for kids who are the first in their families to go to college. And if you are thinking about leaving a comment about kids getting jobs in college to help make it affordable, you show me the job market for college kids to make $30,000 / yr while in school full-time. I must have missed those listings in the morning paper.

A college education can — and should — be a pathway to the middle class.

Colleges should have a moral responsibility to offer sane packages that don’t saddle students with unimaginable debt to start their adult lives.

Work hard, go to college, live a meaningful life. That is what we hear promised to children all the time from President Obama to parents across America.

Colleges and universities have to be honest and fair agents in that dream. Asking students to take out $30,000 and $40,000 of debt a year for access to that dream is a betrayal of the educational values so many of us hold dear.

Mar 01

What is Your Educational DNA?

It’s a phrase I use a lot when I talk about SLA, “It’s in my DNA.” The ideas that form the backbone of SLA are the ideas that hold most dear about what I believe school can be. Much of the work I have done over the years has been developing a language for what I believed, refining the beliefs and figuring out how to make those beliefs easy to put into practice for teacher and students.

I’ve spent a lot of time tracing what’s formed that DNA. Certainly, being Sid and Janice Lehmann’s kid, being raised with a deep sense of social and educational justice, was a big part of it. I remember when I was in high school, and in my highly tracked high school, I had to choose between taking the Honors or the AP classes. My dad said to me, “Take the honors classes, because that’ll be the material the teacher *wants* to teach, the AP classes will be the material the teacher has to teach.” I remember my mother talking about the incredible projects she would have her students do in her classrooms. She never talked about how well they did on tests. She talked about the artist reports they did when her sixth graders came in dressed as the artists they researched, and projects such as that. It’s moments like that that resonated deeply when I went into my own classroom and thought about what and how I wanted to be teaching.

And I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because more and more, I’m coming to the realization that having a core set of beliefs about teaching and learning that is radically different from “traditional school” is rarer than I’d like to admit. Most people weren’t lucky enough to come from parents who thought deeply about pedagogy. I did, and I hope that the work I’ve done in my career has honored the privilege I had in having parents like Sid and Janice.

And it makes me wonder how often we create the space for teachers and administrators to spend the time tracing why they came to the profession believing what they believe about teaching and learning, and tracing their evolution as teachers. Certainly, there isn’t much time given inside the traditional professional development calendar for such work. And I think we should.

At the heart of teaching is the idea that we should be intentional about what happens in our classrooms. To do that requires understanding how we got to that moment with our kids ourselves.

And in that vein – I ask… what is your Educational DNA? Why and how do you believe what you now believe about teaching and learning?