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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Saturday, March 3. 2012
There are those in the educational and political landscape these days who would dismantle the entire institution of school, and those people would use the tools we love so much to argue for the irrelevance of school itself. It can be a seductive argument especially when so many schools frustrate us with the degree to which they underserve children. However, the fundamental purpose of public school -- the idea that create physical spaces that are comitted to educating a nation -- is a good one.
There’s no question that how we conceive of school must change, but the why we have them remains as vital today as it ever has been. In an age where segmentation of markets, segmentation of society, keep people apart from those who think differently, who look differently, who live differently than they do, schools bring us together to learn from and with each other.
There is a subtle and yet vital difference in the fundamental role of school in the modern world. For the past 100 years, in most American schools, the school was important because it was where the information was... it was where the teacher was. The classroom was important because it was where people came together to get the information from the teacher. And while this is an oversimplification of the pedagogy of the past 100 years, it is, sadly, an accurate description of the dominant paradigm in American education. It is the Prussian model that Horace Mann brought back from Europe and instituted across the country with great success.
And let’s be clear - this model educated a nation with greater success than the world had ever seen - and so it is understandable to see why it has been so hard to let go of the old vision of what schools look like. Much of we see with the “No excuses” charter school model, No Child Left Behind and other current “reform” movements seem like an attempt to recapture the hazily remembered nostalgic days when students sat and patiently absorbed information from caring teachers. But to quote the song, “the good old days weren’t all that good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”
So if the reason to come together in a classroom isn’t because the teacher is there to dispense the knowledge, why come together in a classroom?
It’s because that’s where we come together to learn.
Let’s never forget that.
A vibrant classroom, filled with active learners is a wonderful place that deserves to be nurtured. Learning can happen in many ways, and not all moments of learning have to be social, but equally, not all learning moments should be solitary as well. All over the world, there are classrooms where students learn together with caring, dedicated teachers. In these places, the social learning means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is the promise of these classrooms, these schools that we must grasp onto.
And they are not as rare we think.
In every school, there are teachers who make the classroom into something special. They listen to students, push them to reach beyond what they knew their grasp could be. There are students who look forward to class those classes so that they be in deep learning environments. And in all those places, the learning goes far beyond acquisition of knowledge and skills and content. In all those places, there is meaning and wisdom and passion.
And at schools like High Tech High in San Diego and MET Academy in Providence, RI and Science Leadership Academy, students and teachers and administrators have come together to build entire communities that learn this way. And there are many, many more schools that have build powerful learning communities out there. We just have to do a better job of looking for them.
That is what school can be. As a nation, we can imagine many different models for school, but the fundamental idea that we build places where all children can come together to learn remains one of the best ideas we’ve ever had as a society.
We shouldn’t lose it. We just have to make sure our schools reflect the time in which we live.
Sunday, February 26. 2012
New York City released the rating of thousands of teachers in grades 3-8 on Friday. These ratings are flawed for any number of reasons, as detailed in a lovely article on insideschools.org. And even Bill Gates - arguably the father of the teacher rating movement - has come out against releasing the scores, and his argument is a good one.
For me, my reasons against releasing the test scores comes down to one simple statement.
You will never, ever bully a teacher into caring for children.
How can anyone think differently is beyond me.
Monday, February 6. 2012
Was it really just a week ago?
For the fifth time, SLA invited its personal learning network to come spend three days to come to our funky little school and learn with us. As conference co-chair, I'd grown to lament that I never seemed to spend as much time learning as I wanted to at the conference. It was always a great learning experience, but for me, I always spent a lot of necessary time running the conference and trying to be a good host.
This year, I was a lot less needed as the students and parents of SLA took care of everything. O.k. - it's quite possible that the difference was I was able to let go more, too. They're pretty amazing every year. But we're all getting better at doing the logistics of the conference, so that seniors are teaching younger students, veteran parents are working with new parents, and teachers continue to give up time after classes, after grading to work on the conference. So this year, I actually spent five of the six sessions in facilitated conversation sessions that were really lovely. (O.k. - one was mine, but I thought it went well.)
So what are my take-aways? There are many:
1) I love my community - both my immediate SLA community and the larger EduCon community. The students and parents and teachers of SLA amaze me every day, but EduCon really does blow me away every year. Watching our student co-chairs, Alaya and Ryan, put the work in to manage an incredible staff of student volunteers, watching Jeff and the EduConcierge team take care of what seemed like every need of the conference attendees, watching the parents take such pride in their children's school, and watch student after student give a tour, talk to adults, present their ideas and just generally take part in this amazing conversation about education just makes me proud beyond words.
2) I loved this year's Friday night panel, but the quote that stands out the most for me was Dan Barcay citing Steven Johnson about innovation meaning being willing to "chase the adjacent possible." That phrase is going to marinate with me for a while, because I think there is a lot there for us in education.
3) It was really interesting to have a Philly politician give the welcoming remarks, instead of a district official. I thought Councilman Green gave a very different perspective on Philly education and how it needs to change than previous officials have. And I greatly appreciated that the councilman and his staff spent much of the conference in sessions as learners and participants. What if more of our elected officials took the time to just learn about education and how educators are innovating, rather than listening to more moneyed voices? Wouldn't we be in a better place as a nation?
4) This year, we reached out more to educators of color to come to EduCon as it was a justified critique of the conference in years past that there were too few. And while we still have more to go on this front -- especially recruiting more educators of color to present -- this was the most racially diverse EduCon we've ever had. Folks like Kyra Gaunt and Chris Emdin spoke powerfully about race and innovation on the panels and as session facilitators, and we are better for it. And there were more educators of color speaking in sessions as participants and lending their ideas and wisdom. This is a trend we will work to see get better, and there's no question that we will be a better conference for it.
5) David Jakes is doing some really profound work with his design thinking workshops. During his "What if" session, I found myself at a science table with Bill Fitzgerald, Michael Wacker, Darren Kuropatwa and others discussion our best "What if" ideas and building from there. The design thinking manta is so easy at its root, and yet so powerful, and David is a wonderful facilitator who gets people spinning ideas quickly and powerfully.
6) One reason I love the facilitated discussion model of session is that I think it creates a situation where everyone in the room is a learner (much like SLA classes.) Pia Martin and I ran a conversation called "What Happens When the Kids Run the School?" which was about what progressive discipline (and I still don't like the word choice of 'discipline' there) and how we try to structure it at SLA. The conversation was really lively, and folks really were having some fantastic conversations in small and large group. As a result, the ideas and questions that were flowing were really great. Session participants were more than willing to push back on ideas and challenge each other and us. As a facilitator, that forces me to really listen deeply to what people were saying, both to help people hear each other but also to give thoughtful answers when I was directly asked questions. As a result, people got me to a place where I was framing some of my core beliefs in ways I had not before. For example, I was asked about whether or not showing kids empathy and care would be doing them a disservice because the real world isn't as caring. I answered with two ideas that I don't think I'd ever really framed that way before. One was, "The kids have the rest of their life to learn that people can be cruel, they don't have to learn that from me," and two was, "we should create our schools so that they mirror the world, not as it is, but as we hope it could be." Both of those ideas are going to lead to longer blog posts, as they have given me a new lens to think through a core belief. I would not have gotten that lens were it not for the really wonderful folks in Room 208 who processed their ideas aloud with me.
7) There are many educators doing incredible work that the EduCon / ed-tech world are not aware of. We try to bring those voices to the Sunday morning panel every year. Pam Moran and Chris Walsh are known to many in the EduCon world, and they were amazing on the panel, but Karen Tal, Chris Emdin and Wyneshia Foxworth are largely unknown to the EduCon world. We - all of us - really have to keep working to find amazing folks who are doing great work and amplify their voices. Chris Emdin is doing some of the most incredible work in urban STEM education, and when he said, "The problem isn't when transformative ideas get institutionalized, it is when they get co-opted," it was as if I had been hit with a 2 x 4. That was yet another lens that I'd been looking for.
Dan Barcay is cool. I mean… he was great on the panel… his session was a ton of fun… and I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time talking to him… but he's really cool because like Jeff Han before him, he had his most fun just talking to the SLA kids about math, computer science and life. And in doing so, he modeled joy of learning, humility, kindness and care in the most wonderful way. The kids in Room 521 in Friday… the kids who sat around the table in the SLA office with him on Sunday… they had an experience they will never forget. Maybe it shouldn't be amazing when non-educator folks who don't have to be kind to kids and take joy in their presence are, but Dan was tireless and we are a better school for it.
9) For me, meaning really is so often socially constructed. The conversations I had with folks in sessions, at lunch, at dinner, on Twitter were incredible. I love being alone with my own thoughts sometimes, but I also love making meaning by sharing ideas with others. I was in sessions facilitated by Kirsten Olson, Glenn Moses, Kyra Gault, Chad Sansing, Christina Cantrill, David Jakes, Glenn Moses and Michael Wacker and in every session, these incredible teachers created space for participants to take apart ideas together. I listened to a young woman in a private school tease out how she could be a better advocate for LBGT kids in her school. I listened to folks talk about moments when they were uncomfortable in their identity. I talked to teachers as they tried to figure out how they could get more teachers over their fear of change when it came to incorporating changes in pedagogy and more modern tools into their practice. Every session was filled with people making meaning together in practical and theoretical ways that I hope will have meaningful impact in their classrooms and schools.
And perhaps that should bring me to 10). I know I'm still learning. I don't look for EduCon or any other conference to provide me with the epiphany that will cause some Copernican shift in my thinking. I think I'm still open to that, but I'm pretty well-read on education issues, and I'm surrounded by some pretty serious thinkers at SLA every day, so I have a pretty deep set of beliefs about what education can be. But EduCon still provides me with the opportunity to interact with over 500 really amazing educators who push my thinking, reframe ideas for me, deepen thoughts, push boundaries and generally allow me to think about "the adjacent possible." It's up to me to make sense of it when it is over, and to figure out what the little 'e' epiphanies were and how they will impact my practice in the year to come.
Thanks to everyone who came this year and made me think. And thanks to everyone in our funky little school community who worked so hard to put the conference on.
See you at EduCon 2.5!
Thursday, January 12. 2012
One of the things I'm always meaning to do on my blog but don't do as often as I'd like is break down how we do some of the things we do at SLA. So when someone asked a really good question on Facebook, it seemed like a perfect time to turn the answer into a blog post. Here's the question:
The most important thing is this: Prioritize it. So what does that look like...
1) Schedule it with real time and don't make that time the dumping ground or the place you steal time from every time something comes us. Don't make it first thing in the morning so it is easy to skip. Treat it as a real extra class that teachers have to work to prepare for, because while it may not be as much work from a grading perspective, the time and energy teachers will spend caring for children, getting to know families, dealing with issues that come up is real. Advisory cannot be the thing teachers deal with after they have dealt with everything else or it will just be "homeroom" like it is in so many places. For us, that means scheduling time for Advisory for 50 minutes at the end of the day, twice a week, and teachers teach four classes plus Advisory instead of five classes plus homeroom as they would in other School District of Philadelphia schools.
2) Don't assume that teachers know how to care for children - teach them how to. I love Carol Lieber's book "The Advisory Guide" (published by Educators for Social Responsibility) as a foundation text. Do a book study with teachers about it. Then have a subcommittee that helps to draft a framework for the curriculum with broad themes for each year and examples of ways to execute them. Our committee has our Health teacher, our counselors and some of the teachers who are really invested in Advisory and they set the agenda (with me) on how to run workshops for our faculty.
3) Make it matter by making it a core function of the school. We don't have traditional Parent-Teacher Conferences here. We have Parent-Student-Advisor conferences where teachers all write narrative report cards which are then processed / talked about / reviewed by the parent, student and advisor together. This makes the Advisor the primary link to the families, which goes a long way toward really making the power of Advisory tranparent to families (and teachers.) If a child gets in trouble, advisors are looped in immediately. Our college counselor works with the advisors so that they are the primary school-based adults to help students make decisions about their college process.
4) Don't make it "just another class." Teachers know how to teach classes, but they may not know how to have a class that is really more group high school survival therapy than any other subject. So you have to help teachers resist the urge to create assignments that can be graded and have homework, etc... I always think of Advisory as a pressure value for kids, so if it becomes something that has a lot of homework and requires a lot of work for a grade, it defeats the purpose.
In the end, the shorthand we use for the way we think about how Advisory drives much of the way we think about the relationships between students and teachers can be summed up with two ideas - first, you have to think of Advisory as the soul of your school. Second, with everything you do, remember that you teach students before you teach subjects. At SLA, we believe there is a difference between saying, "I teach English" and "I teach kids English." Kids should never be the implied object of their own education. Advisory is the place in the schedule where that idea has its core and then it spreads into everything else we do.
Wednesday, January 11. 2012
The "great teacher" myth continues. This is the myth that says, "If only we could get rid of the really bad teachers, we'd have better schools." It's particularly pernicious because it sounds so easy, right? Let's just dump the bottom (5% / 10% / 33% - depending on who's writing) and even if we only replace them with "average" teachers, we'll be better off, right?
In his NY Times column today, Nick Kristof would have you believe it were so.
I'm not going to take this one on from the "how do you really know who the great teachers are?" lens.
I'm not going to (directly) take it on from the "we have a massive young teacher attrition rate that research has shown has little to do with pay and more to do with working conditions, so where are these great (or average) new teachers coming from?"
I'm going to ask this question, "When are we going to start asking ourselves why we make it so hard to be a great teacher?"
And this isn't about professional development for struggling teachers.
This is about school-level reform.
The nation - or at least its politicians, its pundits and its billionaires - has made this debate about labor (read unions) by atomizing this debate down to the teacher level. And while there is room for conversation there, it misses the larger picture. Our schools are structurally dysfunctional places which, therefore, makes teaching and learning much harder than it needs to be, so that teachers -- and students -- have to succeed despite the system, rather than because of it.
As long as high school students have to travel to eight different classes where eight different teachers talk about grading / standards / learning in eight different ways, students will spend far too much trying to figure out the adults instead of figuring out the work. When that happens, too many students will fall through the cracks and fail. If we built schools where there was a common language of teaching and learning and common systems and structures so that kind people of good faith can bring their ideas and creativity and passion to bear within those systems and structures and help kids learn, we will find that more teachers can be the kind of exemplary teachers that Mr. Kristof wants.
As long as there is little to no time in the high school schedule for teachers and students to see and celebrate each other's shared humanity, too many students will feel that school is something that is done to them, that teachers care more about their subjects than they do about the kids. As long as teachers have 120-150 kids on their course roster, and there is little continuity year to year so that relationships cannot be maintained, too many students will be on their own when they struggle. If we build schools where teachers and students have time to relate to one another as people - if we create pathways for students and teachers to know each other over time, so that every child knows they have an adult advocate in their school, we make schools more human -- and more humane - for all who inhabit them.
Let's stop falling victim to the soft thinking that just finding more "great teachers" and getting rid of all the bad ones is the way to reform education and start asking ourselves - "How do we create schools that make it easier for all students and teachers to shine?"
Tuesday, January 10. 2012
[This is the first guest post I've ever had on Practical Theory in eight years of blogging. Today's post was written by SLA senior and co-founder of Phresh Philadelphia Rashaun Williams. There's been a lot of talk at SLA about the Gene Marks piece and how angry it made us. Rashaun's piece speaks to how I've felt better than anything I'd written, so here it is. You can follow Rashaun on Twitter at @DJReezey.]
A Response to If I Were A Poor Black Kid by Gene Marks
by Rashaun Williams
If I were a wealthy man, I would ensure my children go to the most prestigious schools available. I would move to the suburbs, because then I could ensure safety, excellent property value, and always surround myself in beauty. I would be financially comfortable enough to take time from my work schedule, and participate greatly in my child’s schooling, help my children with their homework every night, cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner for them daily, and help them financially all the way through college. I would show them the importance of home equity, maintaining great credit, balancing a check book, and how to be a man or a woman. In conclusion, they would be fed. They would be safe. They would be supported in every way imaginable. They would be American citizens. But I’m not a wealthy man. I am a “black kid” in the inner city, and by some standards, you could even say I’m a “poor black kid”. Considering all the experiences that have created my current station in life, being a model of success in a broken community hasn’t seemed anything close to possible. But I still try.
There are parts of my city that are chronically susceptible to unemployment, low property value, illegal activity, informal markets and so many other things that plague minority communities in American cities. Unfortunately, decades of black settlement in the inner cities after the Great Migration haven’t yielded the promises of success so many people dreamed of when they fled an inhumane South. Many cannot afford to send their children to prestigious schools, and due to the mismanagement of public schooling, ensuring their safety is literally no longer in their hands. Our communities, the ones you allude to being a “world away” from you within the very same city, suffer in ways you and your children will hopefully never know. After all, you said you have been lucky enough to live an economically comfortable life, nor do you suffer from the generational struggle to ensure the education, well-being and proper growth of your children. You have had the luxury of not focusing on the bare essentials and the time to contemplate options beyond simply making monthly bills, paying rent. As you suggest, your salary has been more than suffice to set up a future.
As a people, African Americans have remained strong-willed, even after losing some of our greatest leaders in the most tragic and sickening ways. We’ve continued to fight for success, even though barely a mediated allusion in our own Constitution, to the point where “one of our own” is able to sit in the White House. But what does one man’s success, albeit empowering, mean to millions of others who are simply not afforded the same fundamental opportunities to pursue such lofty aspirations. Being black in this country, in 2012, still does carry a heavy weight. This has not been an easy struggle, and quite frankly, many of “my people” are tired of fighting. They are tired of being numb to daily reports of fresh violence against our own people. Tired of various forms of oppression, which now seem to be ever so invisible because a black man is at the helm of the nation. But this is no excuse for us to quit, and quit we have not. Being an inner city black kid in Philadelphia, I know that education is my liberation, but the journey to such a thing in a neighborhood where poverty grows almost exponentially with each seems less than possible.
In order to have a mind stable enough to interpret information, receive knowledge, and regularly apply oneself to school, one must have the proper necessities of living. When talking about those who are poor in the inner city, we must understand that they are experiencing multiple levels of poverty. A body without nourishment is a brain out of commission, and a brain without knowledge is a body without a mission. In response to what the number one priority is for most people living in poverty, it is a hot meal every time. Without it, it’s impossible to progress both as a student trying to learn without food, or as a teacher trying to nurture knowledge in those who simply cannot concentrate on the task at hand.
Yes, it does take the ability and the know-how to use the resources that are available to make progress, but what resources do individuals in poverty truly have? How can one be well- informed about what the Internet truly has to offer if they have no in-depth access to the world-wide web? Why would one even consider making time to go online when their mind is preoccupied with simple things like their next meal and/or survival? How can one think of a future via college, when simply traveling to high school is an issue? When does a school have time to give students external opportunities when overwhelmed with the process of teaching basic reading, writing, arithmetic to maintain foundational federal funding? How can a teacher help nurture a future citizen when their evaluation of progress is enslaved to standardized testing? Where does a school get the money to purchase the resources necessary for learning when city, state and federal governments consistently apply severe austerity measures? How can a city hog tie their most important resource to a property tax system when the property they tax is left to rot? How can a child utilize recreational facilities when their Mayor wants to cut funding that makes them available? How is a “poor black kid” supposed to access the Internet when their public library is closed more often than not? The answers to these questions lie deep within the structure and development of unsupported communities that struggle to develop conducive environments for learning, economic opportunity and business development.
Above all things, the most important question is, how do we restructure? This will takes brains. This will takes hard work. This will take a little luck. And a this will take a little help from others. Most importantly, this will take reform and action. In order to restructure communities where “poor black kids” live, education needs to be based on individuals. If our government creates districts to section regions of the nation’s states based on the individuals’ living in certain areas, why wouldn’t the school system work the same way? If the needs of citizens vary based on their location and living essentials, why wouldn’t the approach to education be fit for students as individuals? After all, we will eventually become engaged citizens.
Citizens develop jobs. Citizens become teachers. Citizens become parents, business owners, civic association members, citizens start for profit and non-profit organizations, citizen become politicians and citizens become our future leaders. If impoverished minority communities don’t have the schooling that supports this type of localized citizen-growth and eventual harvest, we will still have people writing blogs about "if they were a poor black kid" from the inner city. Citizens aren’t just the very fabric of America, they are America. The real problem is that “poor black kids” aren’t treated like citizens. Maybe we should change that.
Sunday, January 1. 2012
“We want to make great teachers rich,” said Jason Kamras, the district’s [Washington, DC] chief of human capital.
That's from an article about merit pay in Sunday's New York Times.
I don't want to talk about merit pay which to me suffers from most of the same magical thinking flaws that high-stakes testing suffers from. Read Tom Sobol's speech from 2003 for the best delineation of how NLCB gets it wrong, if you need a reminder, and make up your mind for yourself if most of the arguments he makes apply to merit pay as well. I think many of them do.
I want to talk about the idea that we want to make teachers rich.
Economically, teaching should be a wonderfully middle-class career.
You should be able to buy a house in the district you teach in.
You should be able to afford to send your own children to college.
You should be able to teach for a career and then retire with a pension.
You should not feel like teaching is unsustainable economically.
I don't think teachers should aspire to riches, and I worry that someone who is running the Human Resource department of a major urban district would think we should.
To me, that speaks to so much that is wrong in our country. Right now we have a disappearing middle-class… and those of us left in the middle class are made to feel that our grip on it is tenuous at best. I worry this creates a dichotomy where there is only "rich" and "poor" - and that is no good for our country. I make more money as a high school principal than I ever thought I would when I went into education…. and I make about 125% what a teacher at the top of the pay scale in Philly makes. That should be enough. What bothers me is that making a teacher's salary (or even a principal's salary) doesn't feel secure. I don't know how I'm going to pay for Jakob and Theo's college… and I worry a lot that the pension and social security that should take care of me when I'm retired won't be there. I worry that the house my wife and I bought could lose value - although Philly has held value much better than most places in the country. Dealing with those issues as a society would go a long way toward making teachers feel much more financially secure than a raise based on test scores ever could.
There's nothing wrong with wanting to be economically secure. But thinking that we are going to somehow find the "best" teachers and make them rich is to set teachers off on a chase for something that makes the kids a mere means to an end that we shouldn't be chasing in the first place.
Let's make teachers feel secure economically. Let's make sure there's a middle class for them to belong to. Let's make a life of service honorable and secure. But let's not forget that service doesn't have to -- and probably shouldn't -- "make you rich."
Thursday, December 29. 2011
Many principals in the School District of Philadelphia worked at least some of this week. (I took Monday and Tuesday off.) One of my colleagues talked about how, after catching up on paperwork, cleaning her office and getting a lot of the immediate stuff off of her plate, she wasn't sure what to do next. I threw out some ideas… write up a wish-list of where you want your school to be… revisit a process in the school that you don't think works well… or even just catch up on the Ed Leadership magazines that gather dust in the office. Of course, I was making those suggestions while still feeling the weight of my "must-do" list.
And as I've been reflecting on that interaction for two reasons. The first thing I was thinking about was how, after what has been a very stressful last year or so in the School District, it is harder than it should be to actually step back, reflect and plan. So many principals - myself included too often - have been struggling to deal with the changes, the cuts, the mandates, such that when we find ourselves without an imminent deadline, we don't always know what to do. I try to keep a list of stuff to do when I find myself not knowing what to work on next, but when you are always living in crisis, it can be really hard to get to that list. And all over this country, principals (and teachers) are living in the grind too much. And for me, I needed this week at work - as crazy as that sounds - just to feel good about entering 2012 ready and not in the middle of a crisis, even if I didn't clear everything off of my to-do list - let alone my wish list.
But then, I started thinking about our students who struggle the most in our schools. Most teachers who don't assign homework over Winter Break tell those students who are behind, "Use this time to catch up." I know I did that all the time. And a lot of kids do use Winter Break to catch up, but then they haven't really gotten out of that crisis mode. It is easy to say, as a teacher, "Why didn't you use the rest of the time to plan? To get ahead?" But when you have felt behind for so long, it can be hard to look forward and plan… and so patterns get repeated.
If we want schools to be healthier places, we have to look at the unhealthy patterns that exist and try to figure out how to undo them. I don't like living in crisis-mode, so on a personal / administrative mode, I am going to make more of a concerted effort to figure out how not to. But I think I have to remember to be one school here. I want all of adults at SLA to think about that feeling of "Oh no, what's next?" that we have all felt from time to time… and I want us to remember the paralysis we felt when we fell behind on narratives and then had to catch up… or when the grading load nearly broke us… and then I want us to think about how we can not just learn to mitigate those moments for ourselves, but for our kids as well.
Wednesday, December 14. 2011
[tap, tap, tap... is this on? Anyone still reading? Sorry I've been gone so long.]
This is an idea I've been kicking around... anyone who has been with me for my workshop on Where Does It Live: Building Systems and Structures Around What You Believe knows that I think schools need to do a better job of saying what they do and doing what they say. What follows is my attempt to distill a lot of that into an accessible question for parents and students to ask of their schools. It is, simply, this:
I believe than any parent should be able to walk into any school and ask any teacher, student, staff member, "What does teaching and learning look like here? What are the ways in which that is nurtured and developed for everyone in the school community?" and get a real, coherent answer that isn't just lip-service.
Don't we want families to ask those questions?
Don't we want schools that can answer those questions meaningfully?
We can, as a society, hold in our heads that schools can answer those questions meaningfully and differently. And we can understand that any school that can meaningfully answer those questions probably has a better shot of being a school that truly matters than one that cannot.
We will only know what schools that matter look like when we work toward our answers to those questions and when we start sharing our answers.
So how would your school answer those questions?
Wednesday, November 2. 2011
I sat in Mr. Latimer's Algebra II class today during my walk-arounds. I watched two students struggle as they attempted to figure out where they went along in a multivariable multistep equation. It was interesting because I watched them struggle with the step-by-step process, they couldn't see clearly how change in one line affected everything that came after. Mr. Latimer and the rest of the students in the class worked with the students to work through the process, and then Mr. Latimer talked about ways to get through being "stuck" in the middle of a complex problem.
What struck me as I was watching was that they were trying to debug the equation. And on some level that's not a radical thought. We know that math and computer science have profound links. But what struck me next was that the science teachers talk about this kind of process all the time too when they talk about experimental design and changing only one variable at a time. And I realized that we had at least three places in school where we talked around what, in my brain I was calling debugging, but kids weren't seeing the cross-connections. They weren't realizing they were doing the same thing.
So I went looking for Mark Miles, our computer-science / math teacher and he agreed that that was a skill that crossed discipline-based boundaries, but he called what I was talking about "incremental problem solving." And Gamal Sherif talked about how they teach the kids about dependent variables for much the same reason.
And the thing is, I don't care what we call it… I just want kids to realize that we're talking about the same thing.
And that's where common language comes in. It is good to help kids understand that we may call the same basic skill different things in different contexts, but it is also good to help them develop that common language so that they don't up spending a lot of time relearning something they already know in a different context… or as Diana Laufenberg put it when I was talked to her about it, "We have to allow for skill transference."
And that's at the heart of common language. Lower the bar of figuring out the adults, and you raise the bar of what kids can actually do by helping them get to the work more quickly and powerfully.
So Mr. Latimer (who is also chair of our Academic Standards Committee) and I sat down at the end of the day, and next Tuesday, when our Math and Science teachers sit down to talk about ways we can better craft common language between the two disciplines, the notion of debugging or incremental problem solving or whatever will be on the table as one of the ways we can tighten our language so students can transfer skills across disciplines more easily.
And why I chose to write about this tonight was because this wouldn't have happened if I was sitting in Mr. Latimer's class with a checklist of things I was looking for instead of just watching and using the more open protocol of "I noticed…," "I wonder…," and "What if…." It put me in a place where I could watch and think about what I was seeing and dream a bit too. And it wouldn't have gone anywhere if SLA teachers were defensive about their teaching or if they didn't make the time to talk to a colleague or a principal who was excited and working through a half-baked idea or if we didn't have structured time to talk about improving our practice or if we didn't have a commitment as a school to creating common language wherever we can.
One of the school-wide goals we made this year was to spend more time in each other's classrooms watching and thinking. There will be days we go in after having talked about our UbDs so we can look specifically for how we move from plan to execution. There will be days we walk through looking for opportunities for using the grade-wide themes. And there will be other lenses from time to time, too. But importantly, there will be plenty of time where we go in and just notice, wonder and dream, without a specific lens or notion of why we are there. Because the art of active observation and the will to question and dream are as important and powerful -- if not more so -- than any other lens might be.
What School Leaders Need to Know About Digital Technologies and Social Media - Edited by Chris Lehmann and Scot McLeod
The Quote File
"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy"