Dec 05

The Ethic of Care Is Hard

Whenever any of us at SLA talk about our school, the ethic of care quickly comes to the forefront of what we talk about. At its root, the ethic of care is the idea that we care for our students, not just about them. It is grounded in the work of Nel Noddings, and it’s probably one of those ideas that sound really awesome in theory and can actually be really difficult in practice. It is also one of those ideas that you are never done cultivating. You have to constantly work at it, and there are times when, as a community, you really have to put time in to unpack it and think through it.

And in the eleven years we’ve been around, we have seen a growing movement in education around the idea of restorative justice. Restorative justice, at its root, is the idea that when we do wrong, we engage in rehabilitation by connecting with the community and with those we have harmed. There is a fair amount of overlap between the ideas of the ethic of care and the ideas of restorative practices / restorative justice. They are not a perfect fit – and where they do and don’t align might be a blog post in and of itself – but, when done thoughtfully, the two ideas can create a powerful sense of responsibility and community in a school. But to do so, you always have to do the work.

And a few weeks ago, we noticed that we were in a place where stuff didn’t feel quite right. We had a few issues that pushed people to think about what it means to have to face your community after you’ve made a mistake. We faced a few moments where the transactional sense of caring for one another wasn’t going quite right. And out of that, came a need to step back and reflect on who we are and what we believe as a whole community – and for us, that meant talking about these ideas in Advisory.

What follows is a whole-school Advisory activity that we did. For 9th graders, it was probably the first really big deep dive they’ve done into what we mean when we use these terms. For older students, it was a tuning activity – a chance to dig deeper into language and ideas that we talk about — and try to embody — all the time. The slides were meant to get us talking, to get some common terms down. The deck was created as a collaboration of teachers and administrators, so that it was a truly co-created document (and full disclosure – I saw it before we did it, but this was at a time when the district work was rather all-encompassing, so I had little to do with its creation other than agreeing that we were at a moment where it was needed.)



The conversations went well. Students and teachers discussed the ideas themselves, and then grappled with how to deal with the scenarios presented. The scenarios are ones we see all the time in schools, not just SLA. At the root of all the conversations was the thought that healthy communities have to be active communities. We cannot simply just say “we care for one another” without putting in the hard work of thinking about what that means. And we cannot forget that until the rest of the world operates under these principles, then we have to work to hold on to our values as a community, because the rest of the world sends very different messages to all of us.

And that’s the overarching message, I think. If we want schools where we truly care for one another — and where we understand that there is a responsibility to the whole community when we create that — we have to understand how hard that is, and we have to work at it every day – even when it’s hard.

Jul 03

Graduation Speech to the Class of 2016

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 2016.

Thank you to our partner, The Franklin Institute, led by Chair of the Board of Trustees, Don Morel and CEO Larry Dubinsky 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 let me shout-out specifically Mr. Bey, Ms. Jonas, Mr. Latimer, Ms. Pahomov, Ms. Manuel, Ms. Martin and Mr. Kamal, the advisors who have taken care of you throughout your journey through SLA.

And parents, thank you for sharing your children with us. It has been our distinct honor and pleasure – more than we can possibly say.

On a personal note, there are a lot of people who wonder why I do two jobs – why I don’t do the district work full-time. Simply – the answer is you. The chance to be at SLA and watch you all grow – you and your younger schoolmates – is a great joy of my life, and I thank you for it.

I think it is well-known how outstanding you all are academically. The Class of 2016 represents some of the highest achievement Science Leadership Academy has ever seen in college admission – with students of to attend schools all over this country including many of the most highly competitive colleges in the nation. Perhaps more importantly, what struck all of us at SLA is how cohesive and close you came to be as a class — and how much you deeply believed in the idea of service to school and community. You all represent the best ideal of what we hope for in our graduates – fully realized citizens, ready for whatever is next, ready to make the world a better place as you have made our school a better place.

This week, we watched the underclassmen and rising seniors immerse themselves in Challenge Week projects for the first time, and I couldn’t help but think of how the cycle of school is ongoing, that those students will soon sit where you sit now, that they have learned so much from the example you all have set and I thought about the iterative process of learning that never ends and how much you have grown through that process.

It is always my hope that the four years you spend with us help you become more thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind – full of thought, with the wisdom to apply thoughts in powerful ways, with the passion to power through the times when people tell you it cannot be done, and kind… because the world needs more kindness. And let me say now, that you all embody those values powerfully and beautifully.

And as much as tonight is a signpost for you to begin what you will once you leave us, it is also a night for us to engage in that fifth SLA core value – reflection. So let us take some time to look back over the past four years, the work you have done, and the role that we have all played in each other’s lives.

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 fifty 9th, 10th and 11th 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 have spent over 20,000 hours at your Individualized Learning Programs, working at hospitals, and schools and businesses and universities all over our city.

You sent out over 900 college applications, across 250 schools, receiving over 400 acceptances and over one million dollars in scholarships.

You have set a new standard for the students of Philadelphia in debate, winning city championships, and representing our school and our city at the national championships – not once, but twice.

You have taken Rough Cut Productions further than we could have imagined, creating hours of original work, documenting 100s of hours of SLA functions, winning national recognition for your short films and creating the Rough Cut Film Festival – a week-long event that is going on this week, culminating with Monday night’s award ceremony — and I look forward to seeing many of you there.

You spent hours working on an incredible robotics team that went up against teams with more resources and a longer history, and you went further than many of those teams thought you could go.

You wrote and performed your ideas onto the world with the incredible slam poetry you created on our award-winning PYPM team.

You rebuilt Kamalot, and by that I mean Room 304, transforming that space in your image, and I am wondering… are we ever going to find a place for all that wood in the hall?

You wrote hundreds of articles for — setting a standard for on-line student journalism for high schools all over the world.

You have furthered the partnership with The Franklin Institute, working on Project SPACE, teaching 9th grade mini-classes, and meeting with Franklin Award winning scientists who are engaged in some of the most powerful work in the world.

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 even in the face of adversity.

You have spoken truth to power – rallying in the streets in support of your teachers, speaking passionately to SRC members about why this school is so important to you and standing up for the causes you believe in over and over again.

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 built solar charging stations, you coached youth sports teams, you taught classes, you created original pieces of art work that will live in our school long after your days here are done, you built gorgeous pieces of furniture, you made movies, you illustrated Siddhartha — which no one had ever thought to do before… ever — you engaged in political action campaigns, you created digital scale models of the solar system, you wrote a word processor, you taught us about the broader world and the people who live in it. In short, you led, you created, you learned.

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 – the artist – the activist – the maker – the person 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.

But that should come as no surprise, because it seemed like no matter where the bar was set, you all always exceeded it.

And you have done all this at a time where public education in this city remains under attack. You created all of this at a time when our state politicians see fit to turn education into a political football, not passing a state budget for months after their deadline because they would not agree to fund education equitably across our state. You did this despite funding levels in our city that are nowhere near what is spent on the children who live on the other side of City Line Avenue. And 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 the kids of Philadelphia can do when given the resources they need and when they are supported by teachers who care for them.

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 keep in mind the path you have traveled, the pitfalls as well as the successes, because it is that humility, that notion that our shared humanity – our moments of frailty – that will keep us grounded in the world, in the notion that each and all of us have value.

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 have walked for four years in a community that values — and at times struggles with — the diversity of voices that make up the rich tapestry of our school and our city. We all are better for listening to each other and informing each other’s voice. That idea — of collaboration — of diversity — of coming together — is at the heart of how we will all make the world a better place.

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. Ideas do not live in isolation. And I know that all of you will have the courage of your conviction, and the passion and voice to speak your truths to those who must hear them.

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. It is the heart of this school, the heart of our shared values, that we must be kind. We must care. We must understand that we are better together than we are apart.

And through that ideal, 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 – beyond anything we had a right to expect from you.

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. If being part of a community like ours mattered to you these last four years, then you know what you must do next. You must carry these values forward into all you do next.

The work you do, the challenges you embark upon, the causes you champion once you leave our halls matter. It won’t always be easy. There are still too many people in our world who believe that it cannot be done. There are too many people who seek not the best in people, but the worst. But you all know better. You all know what is possible – what can be done when people come to the world with wisdom and care. Simply, you are our best hope for the future. In our classes, in our hallways and on many Facebook and Twitter chats, 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 were reminded of that this week, with the tragedy in Orlando where 49 people were killed because of who they chose to love. We are reminded that when we read about the base nature of the political debate in this nation. We are reminded of that every time we have to continue to fight for the civil rights of all people, working to ensure that a person’s race, gender, religion, economic status or sexual orientation is not used by others as a barrier to equity, fairness or joy.

It is undeniable – 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 people 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 now that you have left our halls. Congratulations to the Class of 2016. Long may you shine.

Aug 08

Making Advisory Work

[This post comes out of Friday’s work session with the Innovative Schools network where principals and counselors and teachers and social workers came together to talk about how they care for the children in their schools. It was wonderful to spend the day with caring, committed educators, planning for ways to better care for the children in their charge.]

Lots of schools have Advisory programs, but there are many schools where Advisory is little more than homeroom. For some reason, Advisory – despite being something that many educators will tell you can / should be a great thing – remains an elusive success in too many places. And with the proliferation of education books out there, it’s telling that the quintessential book on Advisory – The Advisory Guide by Poliner and Lieber – is over ten years old.

But done right, Advisory is nothing less than the soul of a school. It is where Noddings’ ideas of the ethic of care can live and breathe in the structure and schedule of a school. Done right, Advisory guarantees that every student in a school will know they are cared for, and that they have an advocate. Done right, Advisory levels the power dynamic between teachers and students that can transform school culture from authoritarian to authoritative. Of all the things SLA does, Advisory strikes me as one of the most important pieces of our culture — and one of the most easily poachable by other schools.

But it has to be nurtured. I think in many schools, working on being a good Advisor doesn’t get the necessary professional development time, and too many teachers (myself included, more often than I care to admit) often plan Advisory last because it’s not an “academic” class. And those two things can combine to kill effective Advisory programs.

And we have to help teachers be good Advisors? There’s nothing about the typical teacher preparation program that does this. Those programs (especially at the secondary level) focus on how to help teachers be great teachers of their content, not great teachers of their children. So how do you plan for care? How do you help teachers become Advisors? What are the big ideas and questions we have to ask if we are to create powerful Advisory programs in schools?

  • How do you develop caring relationships with kids? What does that look like? How do we care for kids? Fundamentally, teachers have to grapple with this question to be good Advisors. One of our teachers at SLA says that he is “School Dad” for his Advisees, which may be one way to start to answer that question. And yes, that answer can look different for different teachers, but we have to be willing to tackle the question to make Advisory successful. Aspects of this question also include helping teachers to be good listeners to kids and helping teachers to understand the different cultures and communities that students come from, and helping them to examine issues of implicit bias so that they can respect and care for all students in a way that doesn’t simply mean that teachers look to impose their own value systems on their students and Advisees.
  • How do you make Advisory class time successful / useful? (Full disclosure here – I don’t think I did this all that well as an Advisor. I was good at the one-to-one with kids, but I don’t think I maximized the time we spent together.) Schools can and should give PD time for Advisors to meet together by grade-group to co-plan, develop themes, share activities, etc… this takes the onus off of the individual teacher to always come up with activities. Also, some of the best Advisors I’ve seen have co-planned some of the class time with the students, which also creates powerful buy-in from students.
  • How do we develop our ability to act as advocates and mediators for our Advisees? One of the core functions of a high-level Advisory is the ability for Advisors to help navigate the spaces when students and teachers come into conflict. In traditional schooling, the power dynamic between students and teachers is such that students can often feel shut down when they have conflict with a teacher. Advisors can level that playing field and help students and teachers build healthier relationships inside the academic classroom by moderating and mediating those hard conversations. Engaging in professional development where teachers role play how to be on both ends of that conversation can prepare teachers to fundamentally change the dynamics of the classroom to create more equitable, healthier schools for everyone.
  • How do we build partnerships with families? Helping advisors work with families is key to a successful Advisory program. Making sure that parents know that Advisors are there for them – as well as their children – is powerful. Helping advisors learn how to talk with families in positive ways that respects the different cultures and communities that families come from is another piece of the work that must go into building a positive Advisory culture.
  • How do you prevent “bunker mentality” between Advisors and Advisees? This one falls under the category of “What is the worst consequence of your best idea?” It can be too easy for Advisors to think they are the only adult who can help an Advisee… and it can be too easy for Advisees to be think that and Advisor is going to keep their secrets for them in unhealthy ways. Advisory professional development can — and should — engage in discussions about what can be dealt with within the context of the Advisor-Advisee relationship and what needs to involve other adults and why. And Advisors need to be open and honest with their kids up front when they say, “I cannot keep things confidential if that would jeopardize your well-being.” Learning how a trusting relationship with students must include other adults is a powerful part of building a healthy Advisory program.

The hard part about all these questions is that there are few concrete answers, and schools (and individual Advisors within schools) will come to different places on how they answer them. But these questions must be engaged in openly, honestly and often for schools to have powerful, transformative Advisory programs. There is no such thing as the “add water and stir” Advisory program. They are as different as the students we teach and the schools we teach in. But, at root, Advisory programs can be living proof of the ethic of care in our schools. They can make sure that we do, indeed, teach the whole child for every child. And they can be, as we strive to make it at SLA, the soul of our schools.