Jun 15

Co-Curating Our School

Gallery Space created by Isabella and Bernicia

Gallery Space created by Isabella and Bernicia

Most classrooms have bulletin boards. It’s where teachers put up exemplary work – often ten or twenty versions of the same project. And many teachers hang up projects in the hallways. We do that too, but does it go far enough? What if students and teachers treated their school as a living gallery and made more deliberate attempts to curate the school?

We didn’t set out to do that at SLA, but it’s happened. Over the past few years, students had ideas about creating murals or taking over pieces of the school to display their work. Teachers have taken entire walls to do permanent installations, and we’ve even taken over the walls of the city outside our school for art installations.

Living Art project created by the students of Josh Block and Melanie Manuel

Living Art project created by the students of Josh Block and Melanie Manuel

The result is that our school is slowly transforming, wall by wall, to be a showcase of the work and planning and thoughtfulness of the people of SLA. It happened because of an overwhelming desire to say yes to good ideas, rather than a deliberate attempt to say, “Every teacher must take over a 20×20 space outside their classroom,” which probably would have led to disaster.

Instead, we now have a dedicated space for a rotating gallery of student art work. We have an original mosaic of a Philadelphia cityscape hanging on the third floor. The space outside the 5th floor math lab is now filled with equations and formulas.  Our hallways have original bio-wall-structures throughout them. Every year, masks from our Spanish 4 class take over the back wall of the second floor. Walls are being repurposed as canvasses. Ceiling tiles are being redesigned. It’s exciting. The school – always a colorful place – is now really becoming our own.

Created by Chelsea A. Smith as part of her capstone

Created by Chelsea A. Smith as part of her capstone

And now that it has happened organically, we are having to actually step back and think about what it might look like moving forward. A group of underclass students are going to take the art gallery over from the seniors who started it. Teachers and students are now beginning to collaborate on spaces more deliberately. And the school is becoming our gallery. It is exciting to watch.

And as with many things that have happened over the years, this has evolved out of a fundamental belief that students should do real things that matter and that our job, as the adults, is to support rather than to control. And as has happened in the past, we are reverse engineering some questions to ask ourselves about our public spaces as we move forward.

Nick Manton's capstone presentation of his photo project.

Nick Manton’s capstone presentation of his photo project.

  • What is the process by which the community changes our public spaces?
  • How does this enhance the way we live in our spaces?
  • Is this a permanent installation that will stay as is? Or will the space change?
  • If this installation changes or needs care, who cares for it? Who curates it?
  • How can we use the space as a teaching tool for ourselves? For others?

What would happen if all of us treated our schools as galleries to be co-curated by students and teachers? How might we transform the way we think about learning?

Jun 06

SLA Takes Part in White House Hangout

President Obama announced his ConnectEd initiative today, calling for better access in schools for America’s children. After his speech, SLA students joined students from two elementary schools to talk about how we leverage technology in service of our way of learning.

I cannot begin to say how proud I am of the powerful, brave, thoughtful answers our students gave. These young men and women really did give people a vision of what can be. I am just honored to be their principal.


May 27

Don’t Fall For Authoritarian Language

A young teacher in Philadelphia I know recently liked one of those teacher posters on Facebook. It was one of the ones that was a “I am a no-nonsense teacher, here to make sure you learn” posters. It included the line, “My classroom is not a democracy,” and other chestnuts of autocratic teacher-language.

I want this teacher — and all teachers — to be better than that.

I want her to understand that the choices she makes as a teacher will be better if she listens to students, not just about the questions they ask about math or science or English, but the meta-questions they ask as well.

I want her to understand her authority as a teacher doesn’t come from being “tough,” but rather being caring.

I want her to understand that when we use language that denies students agency, there will be students in that classroom that will view us as more concerned with our subjects than with them, no matter how much we tell them that we can about them in other moments.

I want her to understand that, yes, we need to hold kids accountable for their work, but if we do not listen to why an assignment was missed, we may lose a moment to understand our students better.

I want her to understand that our classrooms are about the intersections of our needs and our student’s needs, and in too many classes, the question, “What do you need right now?” is never asked.

I want her to understand that structures can be democratic, so that students can learn how and when and why to use their voice in learning — and all — spaces.

I want her to understand that posters like the one she liked is dangerously seductive, because as a young teacher who doesn’t feel fully at home in her “teacher-self” yet, the idea that we can be the authoritarian figures in our classrooms feels comforting and empowering, but the empowerment that poster was offering  comes at the cost of the agency of our students.

I want her to understand that she can be a teacher who has the respect of her students, who can create smart systems and structures that allow all students to learn, who can have a classroom that is a place of powerful learning, and who can listen to students’ needs at the same time. And while that might seem really daunting, especially in that first year, it is always, always worth it.

Apr 22

Educators Are Lucky

[This post is in reaction to the incredible pain we are feeling in the School District of Philadelphia right now. We are facing down massive cuts to our schools, and with those cuts will come layoffs, and teachers and students both stand to lose unless things change very soon. But despite that, school ran today. The kids showed up. The teachers honored the trust placed in them and taught well. Learning happened. On some level, it was the best reminder to what we do and why we do it as I can imagine.]

At 6:30 this morning, I was on a field with fourteen young men, practicing a sport we all love.

At 9:00 this morning, I watched a group of students work with a teacher as they worked on a robot they were building.

At lunch today, I sat with a student and her advisor and looked over financial aid packages from the various colleges she was accepted to.

And this afternoon, I watched a group of kids performing Shakespeare in an 11th grade English class.

In between those events, there were emails answered, phone calls made, a memo or two written, but more importantly, there were lots of conversations with students and teachers, some light and fun, some serious. It was, in other words, a typical day at school.

We need to understand how precious that really is.

Most people don’t have the kind of days teachers have. Most people don’t have a chance to pull a student aside and make them think or care or wonder. Most people don’t laugh as much during the days as we do. Most people don’t cry as often as teachers do. Most people simply don’t feel as much as we do.

And many people have to sit in offices, which I did for a few years — school is more fun.

This isn’t to say the job is easy – it’s not. The point isn’t that we get our summers off or anything like that. Teachers work hard at an incredibly emotionally and intellectually challenging job every day. But we need to remember a few things:

  1. No one made us do this.
  2. We don’t have to keep doing it.
  3. We aren’t the only people in the world who work hard.
  4. We get to hang out with kids all day long.

We need to keep these things in perspective, because we do no one any good when we perceive ourselves to be victims or martyrs. We need to own that we made the decision to teach and keep teaching. And it was a good decision to make, because as hard as we work, and as ridiculous as some of the policies being imposed on schools are, we stay the lucky ones.

We get to teach.

Apr 18

To Our Philadelphia Sports Teams – We Need Your Help

[Update: I've started a change.org petition to gather support for this issue. Please take a moment to add your name.]

To the owners of the Philadelphia 76ers, Eagles, Flyers, Phillies, Soul, Union and Wings,

The kids of Philadelphia are some of your biggest fans. They wear your shirts and hats. They go to your games. They cheer for you. They celebrate with you when you win, and they agonize with you when you lose.

And now, the kids need your help.

I’m sure that you’ve read about the dire conditions facing the School District of Philadelphia. The schools are facing down $300 million in cuts. Next year, the School District isn’t able to provide any funding for counselors for schools… there isn’t even funding for secretaries, and we all know that school secretaries are the ones who really run the schools.

And in that context, the School District has had to de-fund high school athletics.

You can help us there.

Last year, Philadelphia sports teams had over $800 million in revenues. The entire athletics budget of the School District of Philadelphia was $7.1 million this year. Less than one percent of your revenues would fully fund athletics for the students of Philadelphia.

No one needs to tell you how important sports are for kids and schools. You know the joy a community takes in a winning team. You know all the lessons young people learn when they work hard and sacrifice for a team. You know that for so many of our student-athletes, sports are the reason they finish high school. And you know that for so many of our student-athletes, the relationship they have with their coaches are among the most important mentoring relationships in their lives.

We need your help.

We cannot lose all that athletics mean to our schools.

Our kids are your fans, a couple of our kids will be your future stars, our kids are your city.

Fund our student-athletes. They need the chance to play.

Thank you for your time,
Chris Lehmann
Science Leadership Academy

[Philadelphians and friends of Philadelphia - feel free to add your name as co-signers in the comments.]

Apr 03

Teach Kindness

[In my attempt to push my own thinking, I'm continuing to unpack in writing some of the things that I say a lot. I always say that I want SLA kids to be "thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind" -- and I do -- so I thought it was a good idea to take those words apart a bit. This is part four. Thoughtfulness, Teach Wisdom and Teach Passion were the first three parts.]

“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-”God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

— Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater

High school is not structured to teach kindness.

There is almost nothing about the traditional high school structure that would encourage kids to believe that the adults value kindness. Think about it. The factory model of education that persists in most American high schools are designed to limit meaningful human interaction, not create it.

  • 40-50 minute classes
  • Students seeing up to seven or eight teachers a day
  • Students having different students in every class
  • 100 point grading scales and class ranks that encourage students to compete against one another
  • No longitudinal relationships between students and teachers, so there are few opportunities aside from extra-curriculars for teachers and students to know one another over time.
  • Little to no time for meaningful collaboration among the adults

So much of the current overarching structure of high school is fundamentally individualistic, isolating and solipsistic. What’s incredible is that most teachers went into the profession because on some fundamental level, they care about kids. And without a doubt, individual teachers in schools all over the world inspire students with their acts of kindness despite being in a system that discourages rather than encourages kindness as an institutional value.

That has to change.

We have to recognize that teaching kindness is more than just modeling “being nice to kids,” we have understand that kindness is the essentially the act of extending one’s self in the care of another. Aristotle defined it as “helpfulness towards some one in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself, but for that of the person helped.” (http://rhetoric.eserver.org/aristotle/rhet2-7.html) And kindness is central as a profoundly important action — virtue, even — most of the major religious and philosophical movements from Judeo-Christian to Islam to Buddhism to humanism. It is, therefore, a moral imperative to create the environments in our high schools where kindness is more easily and powerfully modeled and taught.

So then what are structures that more powerfully lend themselves to learning environments that are more kind? How do we make it easier for students to be kind to one another and easier for teachers to model kindness by being able to be kind to their students?

  1. Create spaces for students and teachers to know each other over time. For SLA, that’s Advisory. When students and teachers have a community where people can know each other not just as students and teachers of a subject, but as people, that is a powerful opportunity for kindness. In addition, when students are encouraged to see teachers as their advocates, it gives teachers the opportunity to model kindness.
  2. Create more opportunities for students to feel part of a community in their classes. Schools  teach “Humanities” classes so that students spend more time with the same group of student, schools integrate science and math, schools loop students and teachers for more than a year so that the community of learners can stay together.
  3. Simplify the grading systems and do away with individualized class rank. Educators like Joe Bower (http://www.joebower.org/) advocate doing away with grading entirely, but there are less extreme steps schools can take. Schools can move to a 4.0 GPA without plusses and minuses so that students are less competitive about their grades. Schools can report broad categories of class rank to colleges (Top 10%, top 25%, top 50% – this is what we do at SLA.) All these are ways to dial down the competitiveness of high school and allow students to become more invested in the success of all members of their community.
  4. Have students identify and solve real problems. Many educators are using the framework of Design Thinking (http://www.designthinkingforeducators.com/) to help students develop empathy as they learn how to listen to identify problems and seek solutions.
  5. Create channels for positive interactions between home and school. Schedule fifteen minutes once a month in a faculty meeting for teachers to write positive emails to students and parents about great things they have seen in the classroom so that students and parents can see that school-home communication is more than informational and punitive.
  6. Have shared spaces. Put tables in hallways, make the Main Office community space, don’t put the principal’s office in the back of the office. Eat lunch together. And then, when you are together, laugh. Laugh a lot.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a start. The adults who spend their lives in schools are overwhelming kind people. And students are capable of profound acts of kindness. The structure of school must do more to enable and enhance and support that.

What changes to the structure of school would you make to enable us to model kindness for children?

Apr 02

Teach Passion

[In my attempt to push my own thinking, I'm continuing to unpack in writing some of the things that I say a lot. I always say that I want SLA kids to be "thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind" -- and I do -- so I thought it was a good idea to take those words apart a bit. This is part three. Thoughtfulness was part one and Teach Wisdom was part two. ]

One of the critiques of this generation of young people is that they are apathetic, and it is our experience with the students we meet both in and out of SLA that the critique is no more apt in this generation than in our own or in the ones that came before us. The young women and men we teach are looking for a reason to care about more than what society is telling them is important. They are looking for a reason to be more than the stereotype of youth culture that is portrayed through mass media.

We have to ask ourselves — how often does school give them that reason?

In most schools, the things students care most about are extra-curricular – sports, drama, newspaper, marching band, debate – and students across the country endure class for the right to participate in the thing they actually care about. When I coached, I knew I had students who were keeping their grades up for the right to play and little else, and every coach I’ve known has similar stories. And while I wasn’t against using eligibility as a way to motivate an athlete, I have to ask – why is this o.k.? Why is it o.k. to tell students to endure the seven hours of classes and two or three hours of homework so they can enjoy the hour or two of the activity they are most passionate about?

And the thing is, the “soft” lessons we most want to teach are there to be learned in extra-curricular activities. Watch an athlete run sprints to train for the season or the lead of a play work a scene for hours or the editor of the school newspaper edit article after article – this isn’t just about “fun,” this is about passion.

And yet we partition off all of the work to the world of “extra-curricular.”

We have to help kids care as much about the curricular as they do about the extra-curricular.

Make it relevant: If we cannot help students to see how what they are learning in our classes is relevant to their lives, then how can we ask the overwhelming majority of our students to develop a passion for what we teach? And while there will always be a percentage of our students who fall in love with our subject because of its beauty or intrinsic interesting-ness, that’s not good enough. It is the difference between teaching Hamlet primarily through the literary structure devices Shakespeare uses or using it as a text to examine how our own human struggles to figure out who we are and how we should act as part of a continuum  of a hundreds year old struggle to make meaning of our lives.

Make it real: Have students create real artifacts of their own learning that have impact in the world. High school students can create public service campaigns for their neighborhoods around environmental / scientific issues. Students can create documentaries and submit them to film festivals. Students can debate the meaning of historical events and the impact they have on our society today. They can do fieldwork science, getting out of the pre-canned laboratory and doing field research in the world at large. And students can engage in all manner of engineering projects from building apps to building small-scale solar installations. And in all these examples, make sure that students are not just asking the questions we have given them, but that they are asking and answering their own questions, building knowledge and meaning from their own line of inquiry.

Make it live in the world: Whether through leveraging the web, creating opportunities for performance, or simply creating gallery walks within the school so students have the opportunity for peer critique, we must make sure that student work is more than just a dialogue between student and teacher. When students have authentic audience and can therefore see themselves as having an informed – if not expert – voice in the world, students will develop passion for their work. Be aware, that merely blogging to blog grows old, and we must work to create real opportunities for audience, rather than just counting on the somewhat overwhelming nature of a Google search to create audience.

Make it last: When students move from unconnected project to unconnected project, students can lose the sense of urgency and passion, but when students have the opportunity to see a project through multiple revisions, through multiple iterations, it becomes theirs. When students care enough about a project to hand it down to younger students to continue the work, you know that students have a passion for what they have created.

Schools can be places of great passion where students learn what it means to be scholar-activists, fully invested in authentic work that matters to them today, not someday.

When we do this, we will fully realize the promise of the idea that school should not just be preparation for real life, but rather that school can be real life, not just after school, but all day long with students and teachers who are making meaning relevant to the lives we all are leading now, as well as growing thoughtfully into the lives we will live tomorrow.

Mar 31

Teach Wisdom

[In my attempt to push my own thinking, I'm continuing to unpack in writing some of the things that I say a lot. I always say that I want SLA kids to be "thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind" -- and I do -- so I thought it was a good idea to take those words apart a bit. This is part two. Thoughtfulness was Part One.]

If you google “Definition of wisdom,” you get the following definition:

Wisdom: Noun

1. The quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise.

2. The soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of such experience, knowledge, and good judgment. (https://www.google.com/search?q=Definition+of+wisdom)

We think of wisdom as something that only comes with time. Traditionally, the young person is head-strong, the elder is wise. Societally, we think of wisdom hard-earned — and interestingly, it is often gained by those who are not considered “good at school” — it is the stereotype of the elder who learned at “the school of hard knocks.” It is not something that we traditionally think of when we think of high school students to the point where when a young person actually displays these traits, we say they are “wise beyond their years.”

And yet, if we are to help students to become fully realized citizens during their time with us, helping them to develop “soundness of action” and “good judgement” — in other words, wisdom — during their time with us is essential. Because intellect and knowledge without the wisdom to apply those ideas thoughtfully can be profoundly dangerous.

So then, wisdom becomes about decision-making and action-taking, but the accumulation of wisdom is about reflection. Wisdom is about understanding that “doing” is not the end of the learning process, reflecting on what we have done is. Wisdom is about learning from your mistakes, but then — importantly — being able to apply those lessons not only so that you do not make the same mistakes again, but that you can imagine and foresee mistakes before they happen.

Wisdom means not falling so in love with your own ideas that you cannot see the unintended harm those ideas could do.

So how we do help our students to become more wise?

Do Real Stuff: We have to dare kids, help kids, support kids to attempt great things, struggle, reflect, learn and try again. That is the cycle through which wisdom is gained. But we rarely reflect on the things we do not care about. When kids are engaged in work that matters to them, work that is authentic and has real meaning, we create the conditions for students to reflect and gain wisdom. The coach who has students watch game footage and critique their own performances, both individually and as a team, is doing more to help her students become more wise than the teacher who covers the content of a World History class at blistering pace.

Be Scholar-Activists: It isn’t enough to do real work that matters. We have to help students see that work in the context of the work that has gone on before us. That is why it is important not just to study history but to develop the tools of the historian. When our students see themselves as scholar-activists, they place their actions in the stream of human history and they can learn from the mistakes of the past while they endeavor to take action in the present.

Be Willing to Live in the Soup: Life is messy and there are few absolutes. When we own that publicly with our students, encouraging them to come with us on our own journeys of figuring all of this out. In a conversation on Twitter, Bill Ferriter wrote, “Learning only happens when there is tension between what kids think they know and what they see in the world around them.” (https://twitter.com/plugusin/status/318394936233951232) And he is right, it is in that moment of conflict between what we think we know and what we experience that meaning happens. We need to help our students understand that we — all of us — are forever engaged in what Alvin Toffler said was the process of learning, unlearning and re-learning. (http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Alvin_Toffler/) And our students will be far more willing to listen to that message if we model ourselves.

In the end, our willingness to engage in reflective practice with our students, our dexterity in creating the conditions for students to engage in real work that matters, and our ability to help them see themselves and that work in the context of the never-ending stream of human history — in short, our ability to help our students to become more wise, is the most important thing we can do. If our students can learn from their experiences with us, when they still have a safety net, we will have enabled them to make better decisions about their own lives when they leave our walls. And if we have helped them to be more thoughtful about wise about their world around them, then we have helped them become better citizens for the world at large.

Mar 29


[In my attempt to push my own thinking, I'm continuing to unpack in writing some of the things that I say a lot. I always say that I want SLA kids to be "thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind" -- and I do -- so I thought it was a good idea to take those words apart a bit. This is part one.]

Once we accept the premise that the purpose of school is to help our students become fully realized citizens of a modern world, we have to ask ourselves what are the universal traits of the modern citizen?

We want people who are thoughtful.

Not “thoughtful” as a synonym for “nice.” Our world needs people who are truly “full of thought.”

There has long been an anti-intellectual thread to American society and sadly, school has probably done as much to perpetuate it as it has to eliminate it. By catering to the “right answer” and a reinforcing curricular decisions that taught kids in a top-down, “we know what is best to learn” fashion, we have long sent the message that thoughts that are outside the proscribed canon — and therefore kids who are outside the proscribed canon — are not o.k.

When we treat our classes as lenses on the world, not walled-off silos, we allow students to make connections to other ideas in such a way that will allow them to connect idea to idea, thought to thought, in ways that can be never-ending.

When we honor the ideas our students have and dare them to push those ideas further, we teach students that the world of ideas is a place they can live.

When we model thoughtfulness by deconstructing our own ideas in public, we teach our students that thoughts are not fixed, final and perfect, so that students can understand how reflective practice can lead us to deepen our ideas.

When we are open as teachers so that student ideas can influence and change our own — so that we are a learner in our own classrooms as well — we teach students that authority has no monopoly on ideas, on “right.” A teacher who is willing to say the words, “I never thought it that way,” to a student in a classroom opens a child up to the power of their own ideas to influence others, and that is an invaluable lesson to learn.

And when we create an inquiry-driven, project-based curriculum, where students can take the ideas of the classroom, make them their own, go deeper into the ideas that most speak to them, and then build artifacts that reflect their ideas and the path they travelled to develop them, we let students see the power of their ideas made manifest in the world.

In the end, the hallmark of a great school isn’t the number of ideas, facts and thoughts of ours that our students remember at the end of four years, it is the sheer number of ideas, facts and thoughts they discovered that built on the foundations we helped them to build.

It is the thing a test can never measure, and we have to do it anyway.

We must help our students be thoughtful.

Mar 29

Two Quick (Online) Places To Find Me

In the past day, I’ve been fortunate enough to be featured in two video-chats. Thought I’d link to them here, if you want to see me talk about some of the stuff kicking around in my brain lately:

The Odyssey Initiative came to SLA this fall to talk to us. Here is the interview they did with me. (And it was featured by the US Department of Education in their Teaching Matters Newsblast! Wow!)

Chris Lehmann, Science Leadership Academy from Odyssey Initiative on Vimeo.

And yesterday, I took part in a really fun, spirited webinar called Inquiry: The Very First Step in the Process of Learning with ConnectedLearning.tv which is part of the Digital Media and Learning Hub. Importantly, it was moderated by Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, Director of the National Writing Project, who is one of the amazing folks of the world.

Watch live streaming video from connectedlearningtv at livestream.com

What was awesome about both of these experiences was that they were with really amazing organizations who are doing profoundly interesting and important work, and it was humbling and awesome that they wanted me to share what we’re up to at SLA with them.

More and more, I am becoming convinced that there are a lot of people who are pulling for a profoundly humanistic, deeply empowering, modern education for kids. It may not be the dominant paradigm in the country right now, but this movement is growing. Odyssey Initiative, DMLHub/ConnectedLearning and the National Writing Project are three important organizations in that movement. I’m honored that they wanted me to lend my voice to the chorus.