Nov 25

Teaching as Hope

Last night, the American system of justice let our country down.

Michael Brown’s death deserved a public reckoning in our judicial system. I wrote this last night on Facebook as part of a conversation on my page:

An indictment would have meant that there would have been a trial, in full public display, so that the public could hear testimony. An indictment – even of excessive force – would have made it clear that the responsibility we place in our police is one of the most serious and solemn trusts we have.

“We ask that you keep us safe.” That’s what we ask our police. And, yes, we ask them to go into dangerous situations every day and do things that I, frankly, could not do. But with that solemn trust comes incredible responsibility. And an indictment tonight would have sent a message that when police violate that trust – regardless of the race of the police officer and regardless of the race of the victim – there needs to be a full investigation in full light of day.

Michael Brown’s parents — and we as Americans — were denied that right tonight. 

I, along with many others across our country, woke up this morning angry and frustrated. For me, I admit, I was feeling more than a little defeated too.

And then I went to school. At this point, there didn’t need to be an email to all the teachers to tell them it was o.k. — and important — to talk about Ferguson in classes. Sadly, after Trayvon Martin… after Jordan Davis… after too many tragedies… SLA teachers know that we are a school where we talk about what needs to be talked about. Teachers were checking in with each other, making sure that kids had the chance to talk about Ferguson. Kids were seeking out their advisors to talk about it one on one when classroom discussions weren’t what was needed. Kids even sought out their principal.

We talked today. We talked about how we felt. We all did a lot of listening. We cried. We hugged. Some folks debated respectfully. Other folks just needed to say how they felt. And some people just needed to be a student today – and that was o.k. too. We were, in the best ways, deeply human today.

And we talked a lot about what it meant to have a space like SLA where we could come together. It is, for so many of us there, our safe space. It is the place we come together to make sense of the world together. It is the place that gives me hope.

We talked about that idea a lot today. We talked a lot about what to do next… about how we can, as a society, make a better world. I told every student who talked to me about that today that SLA was my best answer to the question of how to make a better, kinder, more just world. And I told them all that now, all of them — and my own two boys as well — were my best hope for a better world. We talked about how, if SLA matters to them, then they have the responsibility to spread the mindset that the teachers and students come to school with every day where ever they go in the world.

I woke up today feeling hopeless and defeated. I spent the day around 500 young people and 30 adults who give me hope every day. I’m going to finish this post and go to bed, knowing that tomorrow I will be with them again. And we will struggle to make sense of the world around us. And we will push each other to be the best versions of ourselves. And we will – together – work to make the world just a little bit better because we happen to live in it together.

And that gives me hope.

Nov 20

Curriculum Design – Putting the Horse Before the Cart

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we at SLA and SLA@Beeber can keep improving on the way we teach. I am lucky enough to work with people who are incredibly reflective and thoughtful practitioners who are truly working toward being masters of their craft. Part of my job, then, is to help them get there together, which involves trying to set up structures that make it easier to engage in reflective practice together. It perhaps feels even more urgent right now as we have one campus that has been growing together for nine years and a second campus that is still in its infancy, and I’d like to think that the nine years of work we have done at Center City campus could and would accelerate the learning curve at Beeber campus.

So, as I reflect on our work, I am so incredibly awed by the amazingly thoughtful project-based work that I see in our classes, and to a person, every teacher really does powerful work around designing meaningful projects for our kids to engage in. But I still see moments where the day-to-day work could embody the core values and the ideas of student voice and student choice more deeply. But how do we get there?
We’re going to spend some time looking at daily lesson plans.

As a staff – and as the leader of SLA – we and I have focused more on unit design than lesson design. For me, the ideas of backward design, infused with our core values and a common rubric for all projects, has been the focus. And in my own life as a teacher, I’ve been deeply skeptical of those folks who focus on “tricks” for the daily lesson plan because I didn’t see it as being in service of a larger vision. But SLA has that larger vision, and we have full buy-in and amazing work done on that larger vision, so we’re in a really interesting moment to be able to now refocus on lesson planning with a specific end in mind – a deepening of our inquiry-driven, project-based culture of learning.

So in December, we’re going to launch a week of lesson planning work (Thursday to Wednesday, to coincide with our faculty workshops) where we all craft lesson plans for every day, answering prompts designed to get us to unpack the decisions we make every day. A few of us are working on the prompts, but they’ll include things like:

  • How is the work of the day relevant and powerful to the lives our kids lead now?
  • How are our five core values in play today?
  • Are there moments where the grade-wide essential questions can be accessed by the students?
  • How are you enabling the most number of students to take an active role in the class today?
  • Where is there space for all student’s voices today? What mechanisms are in place to enable all students to engage meaningfully with the work?
  • How are you creating meaningful opportunities for student choice today?

The goal will then be to unpack our answers to these questions together on a Wednesday afternoon so that we can look at the techniques we use to further our craft. It’s my hope that we can learn from each other different techniques and strategies that allow us to further deepen the best ideals we hold as a school.

I admit – as an educator, I have favored working on the big concepts and vision and, as such, unit planning and curriculum design always felt like where our energies were best spent. Moreover, too much of what I see out there about teaching strategies felt like tricks to get the kids to learn and often didn’t feel like they were in service of a specific and meaningful pedagogical vision. It felt, in short, like putting the cart before the horse.

But I’m interested to see where we go with this experiment. I think we’ve got our horse squarely in front. We at SLA know what we believe, and we know what we are working toward every day. I’m curious to see what we learn if we, as a faculty, atomize down to the daily lesson plan and, together, unpack our practice and learn together.

I’ll keep you posted.

Aug 24

American History — American Story

Matt Baird teachers SLA-ers 11th grade American History. He and I sat down this summer to think about how he could re-frame American History so that we could create an even more direct sense of urgency on why American history can be such a powerful field of study for high school students. Both of us believe that we teach history so that kids can make sense of the world they live in, and therefore, be more informed and active and engaged citizens of that world. That’s not exactly a revolutionary concept, and there are many, many social studies teachers who share that view.

So if that is one of the primary underlying tenets for teaching the class, the question becomes how do you structure the class to engender that sense of urgency? We tossed around this idea, with the idea that the 11th grade theme at SLA is “Change” —

What if we started an American History class with an analysis of the present day? What if we asked students to examine present day society through several intersecting lenses such as the political lens, the demographic lens, the economic lens and the geo-political lens. Kids could start the year reading commentary on the world we live in now from a variety perspectives. That opening unit could serve as frame to now examine our history. Then, as the class dove into our country’s history, there would be a deep context for always examining the events of the past through the lens of questioning how that has shaped the nation we are today. I could even imagine a culminating unit where students had to look forward with a vision of where we are going from here and how and why.

I think – I hope – a class with this frame would deeply communicate the idea of active history for students, and it would solve the classic problem of the American History class that treats American History as stopping sometime between World War II and the Civil Rights Movement. And most importantly, I think the class could – done right – center on the students themselves. A class like this is not about the dusty dates of history, but about their lives – our lives – our country today, seen through the lens of time.

Thoughts?

Aug 02

Community and Gratitude

This week, it was announced that I have won the 2014 McGraw Prize in Education. It’s an incredible honor, and I am beyond humbled and honored to win an award that heroes of mine — Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, Dr. James Comer, Larry Rosenstock, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, just to name a few —  have won. To see my name listed with theirs is incredible.

And it’s important to note that this is not an award one wins alone. The work we do at SLA is always about the incredible community of people who come together to breathe life into our school every day. The educators, students and families of Science Leadership Academy and Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber make our schools work every day. Our partners at The Franklin Institute have been there to plan with us, work with us, learn with us from the beginning. And while the district has been through many changes in the past nine years, the people of the School District of Philadelphia have been supportive of SLA, creating the conditions through which we could innovate. And, of course, on a personal level, I am incredibly lucky to be married to someone as smart (and as patient) as Kat.

I am incredibly lucky to be the principal of Science Leadership Academy. The past nine years have afforded me the opportunity to work with some of the most incredible people I have ever known. A moment of recognition like this is a wonderful moment to step back and celebrate with all the people who own a piece of this award. It has been amazing to receive emails and tweets and Facebook posts from former students, current families, and colleagues from so many parts of the journey.

I want to simply thank everyone who has helped to make SLA a school that matters. This is a moment of celebration for all of us. Thank you for everything you do.

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 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.

Jun 17

Graduation Speech to the SLA Class of 2013

Ladies and gentlemen, parents and friends, teachers and honored guests, what a wonderful evening in an incredible place to celebrate the achievements of an outstanding group of young women and men, the Science Leadership Academy Class of 2013.

Thank you to our partner, The Franklin Institute, led by Chair of the Board of Trustees, Marsha Perelman and CEO Dr. Dennis Wint and to our school’s liaison, Dr. Frederic Bertley. To be partnered with a cultural institution such as this one is to share a belief in the true spirit of inquiry and its continued value in our lives.

And graduates, before we celebrate all that you have done, let us also honor the work of all of those who have helped you reach this moment in time. So please, let us have a round of applause for the parents and friends and teachers and loved ones who have helped you reach this milestone in your life. And parents, thank you for sharing your children with us. It has been our distinct honor and pleasure.

Today represents the culmination of four years of hard work. Moments like this are built for that last core value – reflection. Today, we watched the ninth graders present their Science Fair projects, and I couldn’t help but think of how the cycle of school is ongoing, that those young students are at their first signpost moment of high school… that they will soon sit where you are now, and they will be better for the year they spent with you… from the lessons you imparted to them… and I thought about the iterative process of learning that never ends and how much you have grown through that process.

Four years ago, you came to us as the first class to know SLA as a full school. You were the class that filled the building. I can admit now that I was worried what would happen once the school was filled… would students still hold onto that spirit of creation? The spirit of doing? SLA could not just become “another school,” and that required that your class — this class — to take up the mantle of continuing to drive the sense of innovation, of inquiry, of community and of service that has been the hallmark of our school since it opened. I can say now, as we sit here to celebrate all that you have done, that you took up that mantle powerfully. You all have set Science Leadership Academy on a course well into that future where the students and teachers that you inspired know that ours is a school powered by the energy and ideas and intelligence of the students who inhabit its halls.

Let us step back and think about all that you have done.

You have completed nearly 10,000 benchmark projects over the last four years. And at least three or four of them were completed before the night before they were due.

You have been Student Assistant Teachers in over forty 9th and 10th grade classes, helping students in class, in our halls, on Facebook and anywhere you were needed – guaranteeing that our younger students know what it means to go to SLA.

You created SLAMedia.org — setting a standard for on-line student journalism for high schools all over the world.

You have furthered the partnership with The Franklin Institute, creating Project SPACE, teaching 9th graders, presenting at the National Science Teachers Association conference and setting a new standard for how our students interface with the people of this institution.

You have furthered Rough Cut Productions, creating original documentaries, short films and filming 100s of hours of SLA functions.

You have created a permanent art gallery in the third floor ballroom, created a mosaic that will hang for years to come, and have pushed us to consider what happens when students treat the very halls and walls of their school as a gallery of their ideas.

You created an incredible robotics team that exceeded everyone’s expectations in its first year in existence. But that should come as no surprise, as it seemed like no matter where the bar was set, you all always exceeded it.

You have met Michael Dell, and, by the way, we were told that your questions were among the best he has ever had.

You have run thousands of miles with Students Run Philly Style, running the Philly Marathon, the Broad Street Run, and so many Saturday morning training runs that I am tired just thinking about it.

You have played — and won — on the fields and courts of Philadelphia, never letting the lack of a gym or a home field stand in the way of your desire and ability to compete, always wearing SLA’s colors with pride and representing us with dignity.

You have spoken truth to power – rallying in the streets, speaking at SRC meetings, and going to City Council to ensure that your voice was heard when it came time to support public education in your city.

You have hosted thousands of educators from all over the world who came to see how you learn. They often came skeptical that high school students could do what you do, speak the way you speak, learn the way you learn, but to a person, they left convinced, recommitted to the idea that schools should be places where students — and learning — matter greatly.

And last week, you presented the culminating work of your time at Science Leadership Academy – your capstones. The projects were as varied as you all are. You created businesses, you wrote original plays, you created engineering projects, you put on events, you did profound scientific research, you curated galleries of your artwork. In all, you took our core values – inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection – and applied them to your own ideas, your own passions, and in doing so, created incredible artifacts of your learning. You stood in front of your community and said, “This is the scholar I have become. This is what I can do.” And in doing so, you reminded all of us of what young people can do when given the freedom and the support to dream big.

And you have done all of this in the shadow of the most challenging times the School District has ever known. During your tenure in high school, the School District of Philadelphia has lost nearly one billion dollars in revenue, and that has translated into the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars for our school. When you started, SLA had a librarian. All our Spanish classes were taught by real, live human beings. We offered more science electives, and we didn’t really have to ask, “Do we have the money for this?” very often. To my eyes, your accomplishments over the past four years are proof to any politician of why public education is so vital, so important. You have proven over and over again what kids can do when given the resources they need.

And while tonight is a night for celebration and reflection, it is also a night to look forward. You have completed one chapter of your life tonight, but it is our hope that the lessons you have learned with us propel you into whatever comes next. You are our hope now. For the parents and families and teachers gathered with you today, you represent our best chance, our best ideals, our most hopeful promise that the world tomorrow can be better than it is today.

You must remember that inquiry means asking the hard questions, not just of yourself, but of others. And you must remember that the true spirit of inquiry means never settling for the easy or trite answers, but rather seeking out those small “t” truths that will lead to new ideas and new solutions.

You must have the humility to understand that we all stand on the shoulders of giants, and your humility must lead you to research what others before you have discovered, so that you do not repeat the mistakes of the past. We need you to, after all, make new and more interesting mistakes than the ones we have made.

You must remember that we are better together than we are apart and seek out collaboration. You must understand that the complexity of the challenges we face are more powerfully understand when viewed through the lens of many, not the lens of one.

You must continue to make your voice heard. And no, I can’t imagine that will be a problem for you all, but when you make your voice heard, remember that presentation is a two-way street. Continue to speak for the purpose of educating your listeners. Keep working to make your voices inclusive, so that others can pick up your cause, your idea, your voice, and echo and amplify it for many more.

No matter busy you get, no matter how important the work you are doing is, you must remember to take the time for reflection. For it is when we reflect on our actions, on the world around us, that we can process and learn from what we have done. Never be in such a rush to do, to create, to lead, that you lose sight of the importance of listening, of stillness, of the wise counsel of others, so that you can always be thoughtful about what you have done and what you have left to do.

And, of course, make sure you remember that unspoken sixth core value – care. So many of you have spoken about how SLA is a family – granted, often a dysfunctional one – but a family nonetheless. That is because we all — adults and students alike — took the time to care for one another. Indeed, this fall, when I was in need, you all let me know just how cared for I really was. Thank you.

All of us here have benefitted from being in a caring environment where questions like, “What do you think?,” “How do you feel?” and “What do you need?” are not admissions of weakness, but rather of strength. So know this… To listen deeply to others, to thoughtfully construct answers, and to create solutions that empower many – that is the heart of what we have tried to teach you over these four years, and as I look upon you now, I am reminded of dozens of instances where you all have taken that challenge and succeeded gloriously.

And that matters, because we need you now. Much as we urged you not to simply view high school as preparation for real life, nor can you view the next stage of your life that way either. The work you do, the challenges you embark upon, the causes you champion once you leave our halls matter. You are our best hope for the future. In our classes, in our hallways and on many Facebook chats and Moodle forums, we have discussed the challenges our world faces. The world cannot wait for you to take them on.

Because, not to put too fine a point on it, the world needs you. We face challenges in our schools, in our city, in our country, in our world, that will require the best from those who have the passion to create change and the skills to do it. You do not have the luxury of hoping that other people will say what must be said, do what is needed, work to make the world a better place. That is not the world we have left you. You must be smarter than we have been, more compassionate than we have been able to be, and braver than we can imagine.

But as I look upon you now, I see a group of young men and women more than able to rise to the challenge. You have accomplished so much in your four years with us, and it is only a beginning. On behalf of the entire SLA faculty, we are so proud of all you have done, and we cannot wait to see what you do next. Congratulations to the Class of 2013. Long may you shine.

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.

Enjoy.

Mar 29

Thoughtfulness

[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.