Who I am: Chris Lehmann
What I do: Principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA (Opening 9/06).
What I did: Technology Coordinator / English Teacher / Girls Basketball Coach / Ultimate Coach at the Beacon School, a fantastic progressive public high school in Manhattan.
Email: chris [at] practicaltheory [dot] org.
Matt Skurnick about Sustaining the Teaching Life
Mon, 25.03.2013 14:05
Jon Goldman was both my
English Teacher in 9th
grade and Advisory Mentor
for my four years at
Karen Greenberg about Saving Lives v. Changing Lives
Tue, 14.08.2012 11:13
Perhaps a more apt term
would be "altering
physics - two objects in
Amethyst about Saving Lives v. Changing Lives
Mon, 13.08.2012 22:51
I really appreciate this
blog entry. Our roles as
teachers require, at our
best, a deep [...]
Mark Ahlness about The Long Haul
Mon, 13.08.2012 22:33
Chris, thanks. Pete is my
hero, and has been for a
while, but now that I'm
retired, after 31 years
Gary Stager about Saving Lives v. Changing Lives
Mon, 13.08.2012 22:15
No need to worry about
Others all around us are
debasing our [...]
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Thursday, August 16. 2012
So... after seven or eight years with a 0.8 Serendipity blog install that has steadfastly refused an upgrade, I'm moving the blog to WordPress. I was able to move everything but the comments, so I'm keeping this install up, but for all new entries, please come join me at:
Tuesday, August 14. 2012
I went to a principal workshop today and the presenter had a lot of really good things to say. (And I'll be honest – I can be a tough audience.) Much of the powerful take aways dealt with building capacity for change in our schools, and how principals can unwittingly build resistance for their ideas rather than support. The talk was based on the book Transforming School Culture by Anthony Muhammad, And the talk was good enough - persuasive enough - that I'm going to give the book a very careful read. And at a very basic level, I was appreciative of the fact that the presentation asked us to be reflective about our practice in a way that did not make me, or anyone else from what I saw, feel defensive about our work. That, in and of itself, is a worthwhile workshop.
But there was one piece of the presenter's talk that I felt uncomfortable with. Multiple times, he reminded us that we were, "In the arduous task of saving lives." And on one level, he had the chops to make that claim. He and his faculty, and without question he made sure we understood that his faculty did amazing work, took a school that had less than a 60% graduation rate and raised it to a 91% graduation rate in 6 years. Moreover, as he told his own story of being an English language learner and how he felt his own life was saved by a teacher who cared for him, it was clear that, for him, the work is around saving lives.
But I worry about that as a mantra - a lot.
And I say this knowing full well that I've used that phrase. I don't think I've used it in the talks I give, although it's possible I have. But I know that I've said it to SLA teachers when they have gone above and beyond over and over again to impact the life (thank you to Dave Childers for that phrase today) of a student. And so I am struggling with these ideas even as I write them. What better thing to blog about, perhaps.
I worry that when we say, "We are in the business of saving lives," we run the risk of doing several things wrong. I worry we over estimate our role in a child's life and under estimate the vital, powerful and important role of the parents, the community, and their culture, and in doing so, run the risk of becoming paternalistic in our dealings with both children and their families.
I worry that in the name of saving children's lives, we can use that as an excuse not to take care of the adults doing the work as well. Because, after all, how can you stop working if your job is to save lives?
Perhaps most of all, I worry that the idea that we are saving lives perpetuates the Messiah myth of the teacher and that myth leads to hubris which can blind us in so many ways.
I do believe we are engaged in the work of changing lives. I believe in the transformative school. I believe that a school that engages in deep learning within ethic of care can have a positive and profound impact on the lives of all of those who live in it. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the students and teachers and parents of SLA forever changed my life for the better, and I hope their interactions with me have changed theirs for the better as well. Enough of them have told me so, that I have faith it is true.
Maybe this is a semantic argument, but it doesn't feel like it to me. Schools should be places where young people and adults grow together. Yes, the adults are little older, a little more knowledgeable, and hopefully wiser, but hopefully still open to grow and open to learn. I believe students and teachers and principals can impact and change each other for the better. Change feels like a two-way street to me, but if we feel like we must be saviors, I worry that closes us off to be changed to ourselves, and in doing so, we make it that much harder to do the work we set out to do.
Monday, August 13. 2012
It's been a tough road lately.
Each day seems to bring more acrimony as the dust-up around the Campbell Brown Wall Street Journal editorial demonstrated. And I think as teachers, we feel that struggle deeply, at least I know I and many of the teachers and educators I speak to do. I've been thinking a lot lately about teacher identity, and it's interesting how teachers really do identify who we are with what we do. We do that in ways that many people don't with their jobs. Most people if you asked them to describe themselves, they won't lead with. "I'm a
And then you watch a 93 year old Pete Seeger singing songs of hope on Colbert Report and realize that he lived through blacklisting and never gave up hope... never stopped singing... never stopped growing and learning... and you rise to fight another day. So with that, as many of us are preparing for a new school year, let us all remember that the fight is long and the fight is hard, but we have persevered through worse, we have more work to do, and we can always keep singing.
Tuesday, July 24. 2012
It strikes me that we need to talk about this.
There is a big difference between these two things - deep knowing and knowing about. I know about a lot of things. I read a lot, I've paid decent attention throughout my own 41 years, I watch the occasional TEDTalk, etc… but the things I deep know are much smaller subset than the things I know about. I know education, its history, its processes, the how, the why, etc... I know Philadelphia sports - history, current, etc... from a very deep level. On some level, what I suppose I am talking about is the idea of expert knowledge.
It's important because it raises the question of what we want our students to know against what we simply expect them to know about. In the course of a high school education, an American student will take course work in English, US History, World History, Biology, Chemistry, some Physics, higher level math, a World Language, some Arts education, and maybe an elective of their choosing or two.
To what end?
I ask that seriously.
One of the things I talk about with teachers a lot is the idea that, in any given class, if you are lucky, 10% of the kids will major in a field that is related to the course material you are teaching. If we only teach to those 10%, we will lose the 90%. But we also have to teach in such a way as to not lose the 10% of the kids who are rabidly passionate about the subject. And in addition, we assess those students the same way.
More than that, I worry a lot about some of the assumptions that seem to be getting made about what real learning looks like. I've watched a lot of TEDTalks. I love them. They are amazing brain candy. But I can't presume to really know anything more than the most surface information about the talks I've seen. There are several TEDTalks that have so inspired me that I've gone on to do deeper research and really learn a lot about the topic so that I feel even mildly competent about the topic, but even then, I wouldn't argue that I deeply know those topics. So what are our goals for kids? Do we want them to exposed to lots of ideas or do we want them to be able to deeply explore ideas.
And the answer, of course, is both.
But both is hard because whether we like it or not, our greatest limiting factor is time. At the high school level, we have the kids for four years, and we ask them to take somewhere between 22-30 classes across five or six core disciplines in that time, and they have lives outside of school as well that should and must be nurtured and valued. We need to be much more deliberate than we are now if we want to help students maximize that time in such a way as to be able to deeply learn anything.
It strikes me that much of the goal of high school is to expose kids to ideas and concepts they can know about in empowering, enriching ways that will do the following:
1) Build a love of learning about in kids.
2) Expose kids to enough stuff that they can find their own passions - the things they want to deeply know (and then actively do stuff with.)
3) Build the skills necessary to learn deeply and build meaningfully now and keep learning and doing once they leave our walls.
But it also strikes me that we create a lot of roadblocks - both at the policy level and at the individual school and classroom level - that get in the way of that. And while it won't be easy to get some of those roadblocks out of the way, we should examine the ones within our zone of control and work to do so.
Monday, July 23. 2012
It is my hope that Jakob and Theo would want to go to SLA or a school like SLA that has an inquiry-driven, project-based, modern-schooling approach to learning.
I admit - much of the vision of SLA, both in how we originally conceived of the idea and in how we continue to evolve today is, for me, based on what I want for my own children.
I say this because there are a lot of powerful folks right now who are advocating for a pedagogy that they do not want for their own children. Some of these powerful people are running networks of schools that have a pedagogical approach that is directly counter to the educational approach they pay for for their own children. Moreover, these same powerful people tend to get upset when asked about the disconnect, saying that that question is off limits.
I don't think it is.
I think we should ask why people of power advocate for one thing for their own children and something else for other people's children, especially when those other children come from a lower rung on the socio-economic scale or when those children come from traditionally disenfranchised members of our society. I think that's a very dangerous thing not to question.
Because we've done this before in America, and when we did that to the Native Americans, it did damage that has effects today.
To me, when you ensure your own child has an arts-enriched, small-class size, deeply humanistic education and you advocate that those families who have fewer economic resources than you have should sit straight in their chairs and do what they are told while doubling and tripling up on rote memorization and test prep, you are guilty of educational colonialism.
And it's time we start calling that what it is.
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad
Sunday, July 15. 2012
One of the great challenges to running SLA is the fundraising that has to happen every year to keep our 1:1 MacBook program going. Every year, the fundraising kicks into high gear with our EduCon planning, and we cobble together the $180,000 we need from EduCon, grants, donations, district-level grants and school budget when we have it. Worse, I'm a bashful fundraiser - especially when it comes to donations from citizens. I don't like having to ask people for money, but it seems you cannot be a principal these days unless you understand that part of your job is to be head-fundraiser.
As most readers of this blog know, the past few years have been exceptionally challenging for the School District of Philadelphia, and SLA's fundraising needs have risen dramatically at the same time that more and more schools are in more and more need, and funding dollars are getting harder and harder to come by.
This year, we worked with a Philadelphia Tech Social Entrepreneur as we used his new site - FundingWorks - in an attempt to crowd source a significant portion of the laptop funding. Funding Works works in such a way as to set a deadline for funding whereby if you do not meet your goal, you don't get any of the donations. High-stakes fundraising, indeed. We had set an overall goal of $80,000 - because that was what we needed at the time, but we set up a $20,000 threshold that we had to hit to receive anything.
Getting the fundraising going has been tough. Emails have been sent, phone calls have been made, and we have been watching the funding thermometer grow slowly toward $20,000 for several months, but as of last week, we were still $9,000 short with the deadline of July 15th rapidly approaching.
I am humbled to say that we made our fundraising goal with three and a half hours to spare tonight. And when I look over the list of donations, I see SLA families - including many alums. I see members of the Philly Tech world who have - over and over - adopted SLA as one of their own. I see educators from all over the world who gave what they could to our funky little school. I see old friends and former students. And I see over $8,000 in anonymous donations to which I can only hope that some of those folks read this blog and know the incredible deep sense of thanks I have in my heart.
Overall, I see an incredible community, and I am reminded of how lucky I am to have such wonderful people in my life - people who support the school that is, for so many of us, a home. I am truly humbled by the fact that so many people took the time to give, to spread the word and to care about our school.
Thank you to everyone who gave. Thank you for supporting SLA. Thank you for allowing our dream of what a school can be to continue.
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad
Saturday, July 14. 2012
Ginger Lewman asked the following question on Facebook the other day:
Is it possible for a person to talk about, even advocate for, educational change, yet not believe in it?
It's an important question to ask right now, because there are a lot of people who are claiming to be working in service of educational change when really their true motives should be questioned. The question becomes, how do we know the difference between a change agent who is legitimately working in service of their ideas, and someone whose motivations may be driven by something other than the ideas they are actually espousing? I think those of us working in education today need to get good at what Howard Rheingold would call "crap detection."
We get there by asking good questions. Here are a few I like ask of anyone advocating for education reform:
I wish we lived in a time where those involved in education reform were all honest agents. In all truth, that time probably never existed, But today seems that we must be very careful to consider the motivations and motives behind those speaking about educational change. In her book, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson writes, “If you want to keep your teeth, make your own sandwiches.” It is incumbent on all of us to listen deeply, with an open mind and an open heart, and then make up our own minds, thoughtfully and critically, about what we believe needs to happen to positively affect educational change, and to understand that not everyone who says they have the answer -- or even an answer -- is doing so because they have the best interests of students and educators at heart.
It is time for everyone who is acting as an honest agent in education today to understand that a healthy skepticism about everyone who claims to know just what we need to do to fix education is not only important, but necessary.
Friday, July 6. 2012
One of the things that happens in schools is that people think they can divorce things curriculum and pedagogy from the other systems and structures that exist in schools - things like food service and discipline and parent relationships and hiring and the dozens of other processes and interactions that happen in schools, but it is our experience that is not the case. When you have a vision for what a school can be, it has to permeate every pore of the school. Every process, every interaction, every system needs to be held to that process. And while there are pieces of the school that may only be tangential to the mission, it is important to go through the process of stepping through how the core vision of the school affects each part of the school.
Because the thing is… when you move to a more inquiry-driven, student-empowered school, it really does affect everything. When students become empowered to ask questions and seek out answers, everything changes, and you cannot -- and should not -- think that you can leave inquiry at the classroom door. When teachers see themselves as learners and researchers and planners, they will question traditions and policies. And as a community, everyone has to learn how to bring these ideas to bear to make the school whole.
Saturday, June 30. 2012
One of the things that drives me nuts about the current corporate education reform dialogue is that so much of it atomizes it down to a wrong level, talking about how we need more "great teachers" and how we need to get rid of the bad ones. That's one of those seeming "Well, duh" statements that is so hard to disagree with on its face, but it fundamentally (and one might argue deliberately) misses a major piece of what is needed to make schools into better, healthier, more authentic places, and by doing so, runs the risk of doing real damage to the very folks who are doing the work every day.
While we can all agree that getting more amazing people into our schools would be great… and yes, there are some people working as teachers who should not be… to think that this overly simplistic "More Good, Less Bad" argument is dangerously misguided for any number of reasons. But the one I want to focus on is this: teaching is not an individual affair -- or at least it shouldn't be. Teachers are better when they work collaboratively - a point Yong Zhao made in his ISTE keynote last week - but even more than that, teachers teach better and students learn more when the school has a vision that actually means something and a plan to make that vision a reality.
Right now, the overriding mythos around teaching is the Hero Myth - that one teacher who can change a child's life, make a difference, and then get played by Hillary Swank or Edward James Olmos in a movie. And while yes, there are teachers filling that role in schools across the country every day, that is not the path to a systemic reform. There are over 4,000,000 teachers in America, and under the best of circumstances -- and we are not in the best of circumstances these days -- it is unrealistic to think all 4,000,000 teachers will be those "amazing" teachers who have a seemingly never-ending store of energy and passion for the kids. And, for the record, it is worth asking how that model is sustainable for all but a very few.
What we need to figure out - writ large - how to do is to build systems and structures that allow good people of honest intent to do great things. It is realistic to assume that we can build an educational system in this country around good people and smart systems. That does not mean teacher-proofing. That does not mean standardized content that strips the job of all of its creativity and passion and joy. It means understanding that people work best when they work in service of something that they can believe in. It means understanding that people work best when there is a pathway toward excellence. And it means understanding that people work best when they can collaborate. Good people are capable of great things under the right circumstances. But absent those circumstances, schools will squander the good will and best intentions of everyone - students and teachers - who work within them.
Thursday, June 28. 2012
[I've been meaning to write this post for a few weeks now, and I finally have the mindspace to clear the cobwebs and write.]
I was really blown away by our senior capstones this year. They were truly amazing. I saw students doing amazing projects that mattered to them. But most importantly, I saw kids who were ready to do so because of the four years of work that had preceded that presentation.
At its root, senior capstone at SLA is a student's opportunity to take on the blank slate of the inquiry process and fill it with content of their own passion and creation. The basic framework as represented by the document we give to parents can be found at http://bit.ly/SLACapstone. But essentially, students have to take on a topic, idea, project of their own passion and create or do something that matters, all the while defining for themselves the way they will interact with the five core values of SLA - inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection. There is a framework for the project, and there are certain "must-haves" - a proposal, a reflective paper, an annotated bibliography of their research, but beyond that, the students really have to fill in the gaps with their own ideas.
And what I love is that it doesn't have to be an "academic" pursuit. Not every student wants to make the project something traditionally academic, in fact many don't. But what's amazing is to hear them talk about how they took the topic - no matter what it is - and applied our values to it. When I sat in capstone presentations, I was struck by how our seniors really did understand how to make each of those core values - the inquiry process - part of the way they both learned and lived. For me, it doesn't really get much better than that.
Sadly for me, I can't see all 120 senior capstone presentations - it's just a logistical impossibility, but this year, I sat in on about twenty presentations, and every single one was a powerful representation of who that person was. I didn't see a single presentation that I thought didn't represent something of importance to the student. I didn't see any student who I thought was mailing it in. Sure, I knew that some kids had worked harder than others, but every single student had invested something significant of themselves in their project. I am always skeptical of schools who say they get 100% of everything, and so I own that my data set is incomplete and anecdotal, but still... I was incredibly impressed. Here's some of what I saw:
And there were so many more... and I can't do justice to them all.
In almost every presentation I saw, kids also talked about their failures through this process. They talked about iterations of designs that didn't work. They talked about struggle and frustration. They talked about changing tactics, and the fears that they would run out of time. And they talked about overcoming those struggles and learning from them. They talked about trying new things and pushing themselves past what they thought they were capable of. As many folks in the ed-innovation (is that a better term than ed-reform) world talk about teaching kids that it is o.k. to fail... the fail-fast and try again model... I saw first-hand how this kind of student-owned, student-designed project enabled just that. And I saw how powerful that was for our students.
And another thing I saw was, in presentation after presentation, students supporting each other, clapping for each other, crying with each other. I saw students asking amazing questions during the presentations, wanting to know more about the projects they were seeing. The students were so proud of one another, and I saw parents looking at their children with awe and wonder, seeing the incredible young adults they had become.
As I reflect on what I saw, it struck me that this is what happens after four years of engaging in this iterative process of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, reflection. Our students have a truly deep understanding of what it means to learn, create and lead. They've done it over and over again. I love capstone because it is our students' opportunity to stand in front of their community and say, "This is the person I have become through my years at Science Leadership Academy." And they were, to a person, beautiful... powerful... ready to go on to whatever comes next.
We're not perfect, and we still want to do this better. I want to get better at cataloging digital artifacts of these capstones. Many students created them, but we don't have a unified way of collecting them yet. I want to find a better way to do a school-wide exhibition of capstones, so that we can celebrate these works together. I want to ask students to journal through this process more than we have, but I can't decide if that's for the students or for us, so I don't know that we will. I want to find a way to formally include more underclass students in the capstone presentation process, not just the juniors. Many 9th and 10th graders came on their lunch breaks, but we should make that more formalized, I think, because the underclass students would - as Larry Rosenstock says about High Tech High students - see themselves in those powerful roles. And I do want to find ways to help students to spread the work out a bit more, because as I am sure you can imagine, there was a lot more work done on many of the capstones in May than there was in December. Maybe that's inevitable and o.k., I don't know... and maybe SLA students have learned procrastination from at least one of the adults at SLA... maybe from the guy who has nice office in the front of the building. Sigh.
But even though I know we have more work to do as the adults who shepherd the students through this process, I'm thrilled with our evolution now three years into senior capstones. Much of that success can and should be laid directly at the feet of Roz Echols who has taken on the role of Capstone Coordinator every year, and the clarity with which students can undertake their projects is because of the framework she has put together. And that's no mean feat - the capstone process has to have enough structure, enough signposts such that students can undertake a year-long project without getting lost along the way while also having enough flexibility and freedom to encompass the diversity of the kinds of projects I listed above and another 115 more. It is a yeoman's task, and I am always in awe with how well Roz does it. This year, as soon as the presentations were done, I saw Roz in the library, reflecting on how the process went, talking to other teachers about their experience in mentoring students and watching presentations and already making notes about how she wants to tweak the structure for next year. Her work has been simply incredible.
But the other reason the process works is because every teacher at SLA has such a deep commitment to our core values, to those deep pathways of curriculum design and pedagogical thought so that when the time comes for the students to design their own, the students - the scholars, the activists - have so deeply lived that process for four years that they are set up to succeed, because, of course, they already have.
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad
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What School Leaders Need to Know About Digital Technologies and Social Media - Edited by Chris Lehmann and Scot McLeod
The Quote File
"The key to creating a better and more peaceful world is the development of love and compassion for others... If we accept that others have an equal right to peace and happiness as ourselves, do we not have a responsibility to help those in need?"