Jul 07

Old Hat, New Hat

[This is a note I just sent to the families of SLA. I present it here – with a more whimsical title that references one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books – to let everyone know what I’ll be up to next school year.]

To the families of Science Leadership Academy,

Science Leadership Academy was founded as a research and development school for the School District. For the past nine years, students and teachers from SLA have worked with hundreds of teachers and principals from the School District and beyond on how to change their practice to be more inquiry-driven and caring educators. Under Dr. Hite’s leadership, the School District of Philadelphia is starting the Innovative Schools Network – a hub for powerful new ideas for schools. As part of this network, dedicated to nurturing new models of education, SLA is well positioned to continue its work as a national leader for creating empowering educational experiences.

Today, Dr. Hite is announcing that my role in the School District of Philadelphia is expanding to oversee the Innovative Schools Network. Beginning August 1, I will serve the students of Philadelphia in a dual capacity – both principal of Science Leadership Academy and Assistant Superintendent of the Innovative Schools Network. And, because there are just so many hours in the day, I am delighted to announce that Aaron Gerwer will join us full-time at SLA as co-principal. Many of you will know Aaron as our principal fellow this past year. It has been a pleasure to see him grow into this new role, and I look forward to partnering with him this coming year.

Working with the students and teachers and families of the Science Leadership Academy continues to be the most rewarding experience of my professional career. The work your children do every day is what inspired the School District of Philadelphia to authorize the foundation of Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber and our upcoming effort, the Science Leadership Academy Middle School.

The work we will now do as part of the Innovative Schools Network is a continuation of the belief in the agency and ability of the students and families of Philadelphia. It is my pleasure to be able to continue to serve as principal of SLA and to now help other school communities serve their students in powerful, modern ways.

Mr. Lehmann

Jan 14

“What’s Good” is Better than “What’s New?”

We live in amazing times.

This time is a time of faster technological change than anything ever seen before in human history. And with that technological change has come incredible changes in the way we live our lives.

And while schools are historically slow to change, we are now seeing rapid changes in the way schools operate. More students are taking courses online. Teachers are bringing new technologies into the classroom every day. And the digitization of student performance has led to a new focus on analysis of data in a way that has never been seen before.

And while we should be sure to evolve our schools and work to incorporate new ideas into our schools, we should also remember that very smart people were teaching before us. And in our haste to rush to the new – the shiny – we must not forget the lessons we have learned in the past.

To that end, we must be scholars of our own profession. We must work to understand the reasons that schools have become the institutions they are, and we must understand how innovation has — and has not — happened before. When we do this, we will be more equipped to innovate and evolve.

What we cannot do is just blindly follow whatever trend is hot this week, changing when the trend fades and leaving schools always playing catch up with a set of core values to serve as anchors.

The best ideas we can create are when we take the best ideas of the past and marry them to the world we live in today. We can create something new, grounded in the best of what we have been, but with an eye toward what our kids need to become today. To that end, when we look to innovate, we must ask ourselves “What’s good?” more than we ask ourselves “What’s new?” New fades. Good endures. That is a goal worth chasing.

Jan 07

The Worst Consequence of Your Best Ideas

[I’ve talked about this idea a lot, but I wanted to actually put down both the reasons and some of the pathways to do this down in writing. Hope you find it useful. — Chris]

You have to wonder why desks in rows and textbooks on the desks have survived as long as they have as the dominant instructional model when so few people think that it’s actually a good way to teach and learn.

And then you realize that while it never goes all that right, it rarely goes all that wrong either. Teachers don’t usually get in trouble when administrators walk into their classroom and see kids with books open, doing work, even if the work isn’t worth doing.

And all those other ideas that we love so much – inquiry, project-based learning, technology, real world application of student work – they get so… messy. And something always seems to go wrong. And we have to face that education is a somewhat reactionary field to work in. The death of so many good ideas is when something goes wrong and someone decides that we should never do that again.

And the desks get put back in rows and the textbooks land on the desks again.

But there’s a way around that, and it involves thoughtful planning. It doesn’t involve coming up with the perfect idea, because let’s be clear – there is no perfect idea.

Again – there is no perfect idea.

Everything has a downside. Everything.

At SLA, the best thing about our school is the incredible empowerment of our students. And the worst side of that is those same kids who are so incredibly empowered occasionally become really entitled, and then we have to deal with that.

But we realized that would happen before we started. And every time it does happen, we remind ourselves that it is a natural consequence of what we love, so our reaction has to be tempered so we don’t lose the soul of our school.

And so, whenever you have a new idea, ask yourself and your colleagues:

What is the worst consequence of my best idea? What is the thing that, even if we do this really well, will frustrate me, frustrate kids, frustrate parents?

And then follow-up with these questions: How will we, as a community, mitigate that consequence? What are we willing to live with, if it means we get something incredible out of it as well? What are the risks we are willing to take? How will we front load the negative possibilities of this idea to our stakeholders so they are prepared for it as well?

Don’t just do this alone. Do this as a community, because the author of an idea is often the last person to see the scary side of the idea. Do this not so you can just dismiss fear, but so you can acknowledge it and lessen the factors that cause it.

An easy, concrete example for us was thinking through the policies around being a 1:1 laptop school. We made a decision not to lock down the machines, because we wanted the kids to really feel like they could use the laptops to their fullest potential. That meant that the kids went home with a fully unlocked laptop to unfiltered home networks. We had to talk to students and parents beforehand about issues of internet porn, around good digital citizenship, around being safe and smart with your digital footprint.

And then we had to expect that no matter how much we did that, kids would make mistakes. And because we agreed, as a community, that the benefits of all the kids being able to access the full power of the laptop outweighed the negatives of some of the kids using the laptops inappropriately, the laptops are still open seven years later. And we’re better for it.

And most of the time, there is still the thing you didn’t think of. But the very act of going through the iterative process of trying to solve problems before they show up has made us more willing to acknowledge that our ideas aren’t perfect and that problem-solving will always be necessary. The goal isn’t perfection — it’s pragmatism.

Whether it is a new technology, a new pedagogy, a new program in the school, we have to be thoughtful in the way we evolve as schools. We have to acknowledge the good and bad in the changes we make if we are to do right by the kids in our charge. And we have to own the limits of our ideas, so that we can hold onto those ideas and not regress to a vision of school that, while easily recognized, is loved by no one. Owning our flaws and learning what we can mitigate and what we have to live with is a way to power past fear once and for all.