Sep 26

SLA @ Beeber in EdWeek

Ben Herold is doing a year-long series on the SLA @ Beeber expansion for Ed Week. His first piece is on the cover of this week’s issue, and it is a powerful piece about what it has been like to launch SLA @ Beeber in the climate we’re in right now in Philly.

It’s behind a subscription-wall, but the article is here: Philadelphia Seeks Salvation From Model School.

In some ways, getting to where we are with SLA@B has been more taxing than when we started SLA because of the incredibly challenging times in which we are trying to do this, and in some ways, seeing a second group of educators, students and parents breathe life into a dream we’ve shared is actually even more incredible than doing it the first time. And in all ways, it remains kind of incredible to me that all of us at both SLAs get to do this with our lives.

Sep 22

Kurt Vonnegut, Facebook and the Teaching Life

 

SLA Ultimate

SLA Ultimate

 “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

— Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

Slaughterhouse Five was one of my favorite books when I was younger – and it probably deserves a re-read now – and I was always struck by the idea of being able to live and relive the moments of one’s life at all moments of one’s life as the Tralfamadorians do, seeing life across four dimensions rather than three.

I am starting to think we all have become unstuck in time.

The other day, I posted a photo of the SLA Ultimate Frisbee team warming up before our first game of the year. Within an hour or two, there were “likes” and comments from former players, folks I used to coach against, former students and, of course, members of the current SLA community. What is incredible about that is that it connects the generations of my coaching and teaching life in some really amazing ways.

The teaching life is a strange one… as educators, we have these incredibly powerful relationships with kids at a moment in time in their lives and then they go on their way… and we do that over and over again. And over time – at least for me – it becomes harder to remember who overlapped with whom in the time they spent with you, especially because the time line is less important than the time spent.

And now, with Facebook, the teaching life overlaps more. Former students interact with current students with comments on photos like, “I remember 6:30 am…” and such.

My teaching life has become unstuck in time, and all of the students of my life can interact regardless of the moment in time we were teacher and student.

What a wonderful evolution of the teaching life.

Sep 12

I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Twatching Me…

[Apologies to Rockwell for the title.]

So… this Tweet popped up on my Twitter feed yesterday:

@chrislehmann Smh I hate to admit it but you were right Mr. Lehmann. Staying positive was the right thing to do.

It was from Dalena – a senior at SLA. She’d been really negative on Twitter for several days, and I worried that negativity was more than just manifesting on Twitter, so I sought her out on Wednesday to just check in. Sure enough, she was feeling the combined weight of school and life and was convincing herself that her life, to quote her, “was always going to suck.”

We didn’t talk long, and I certainly didn’t offer up any brilliant new insight that other teachers and principals haven’t offered up to students who were feeling bad about life before. We talked about how negativity can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and talked about finding good spaces, and working hard to stay positive, even when you don’t feel positive. Again, nothing earth-shatteringly awesome. And honestly, when we ended the conversation, I wasn’t sure what I said made any difference to Dalena at all.

And then, the next day, that tweet showed up. And I tweeted back that she made my day, which she favorited and retweeted, because, as it turns out, we both cared that we made a difference for each other. And that’s kind of awesome. And even more awesome was when she stopped by my office today for a quick follow-up talk and a hug.

I follow every open Twitter account my students have. Any student who friends me on Facebook, I friend back. And yes, SLA students tweet and post all sorts of things I really don’t want to see or know, and trying to figure out how to filter that and decide what to do with all that information is a challenge. But the purpose of following the students isn’t to spy on them to get them in trouble, but to look after them, and be more aware of who they are and what they need. And importantly, I’ve also virtually watched dozens of Philly pro-sports games with students, celebrated triumphs, and been a virtual shoulder to cry on. And they have been for me as well. They have cheered on Jakob’s soccer games, favorited Theo’s drawings, and enjoyed the SLA photos that pop up on my feed.

The kids love to tease me that I’m twatching them, but at its best, doing a quick skim read of what kids are thinking and feeling allows me to care for them and approach them when they don’t even know they need it. And what always humbles me and makes me smile is when students are willing to tell us – social media or face to face – that those moments matter to them as much as they matter to me.

Sep 04

Shana Tova

It is Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – tonight. (For those folks who don’t know, I am Jewish.)

Today was the last professional development day for Science Leadership Academy and Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber. On Monday, SLA @ B will open with 125 9th graders, and the educators and students and families will embark on a four-year journey that will build a school community where none existed before. It has been humbling all summer long to watch the community come together, learning with SLA teachers and students. It has been incredible to watch the educators create new UbDs, plan projects, and think about what it means to create an inquiry-driven, project-based school – and how to do it in the context of some very challenging educational times in Philadelphia.

And of course, the new year is a time for reflection. It is time to look back about what got us to this moment… not just the last year, with grants and hiring and facilities planning, but the eight years of the journey of SLA. The goal is to learn from what we did so that the SLA@B folks can make new and more interesting mistakes than the ones we did. The goal is to make it just a little easier than it was for us through the wisdom we’ve tried to accumulate. The goal is to always keep growing, not just outward, but inward as well.

And so while tonight is Rosh Hashanah, for the schools, Monday is the New Year. Kids will be at the door. Teachers will be in their classrooms. And Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber will launch. It’ll be messy. There will be days where people doubt their decision to try to do this. And there will be days when something incredible happens, and everyone wonders how exactly it did.

I get to take a role in this new community… I get to help from a few miles away and offer up the lessons we’ve learned at SLA over the past seven years…. I get to find ways to support a new community within the SLA world. And  I get to do the thing I love more than anything else I’ve done in my professional life, I get to be the principal of Science Leadership Academy.

We are going to learn some incredible lessons this year. We are going to face some profound challenges. And we’re going to try to remember to have a lot of fun, no matter what happens around us.

Shana Tova. Happy New Year.

Sep 03

Thoughts on Leadership: Better v. Different

“Well, it’s not the way I would have done it.”

One of the things that can be difficult about working toward a distributed leadership model is that people do things differently that you would. And yes, that’s also one of the best parts of distributed leadership, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

When I sit down with a teacher or a group of teachers, and they are a point where they have worked on something and now want to get feedback on it, I have to be thoughtful to make sure I look through the lens of the work that has been done, not the work that I would have done if it were me.

And that’s true, not just for administrators, but for everyone involved.

Oftentimes, committees are given the task of taking apart an idea and coming up with potential solutions to problems. Our committees are all open, so that any teacher can join any committee. When we come together as a faculty to examine what a committee has done, we have to be sure to respect the work that was done. I

It is easy to suggest different conclusions than what a group of people have come up with, but different doesn’t always mean better. There are times when a new idea or a new direction really is better than what is being proposed, but more often than not, a new idea is just different.

One of the ways to get around the better v. different challenge is to use critique, rather than brainstorming. When we ask questions of the idea or proposal in front of us, we are able to examine the idea on its merits, not in comparison to the idea in our own head. When we offer honest critique, we give other people’s ideas the airing they need before implementation. And when we allow ourselves to be open to the solutions other people come up with, we honor the work of others and create a more empowered school with truly distributed leadership.

For us to give up our ideas in those moments requires us to understand that there is, oftentimes, not a right or wrong way to do things, but different ways to do things, and that we – whether we are teachers or administrators (or parents or students) – do not have a monopoly on the right way to do things. And as a principal, if I want to empower leadership beyond the walls of my office, I have to understand that will people come up with different answers than mine, and that the honest critique of those ideas by multiple voices will often create answers that are far better.

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.