Chris Lehman, SLA's founding principal, has distinct views about what he believes schools should be doing for their students as he shared with us and in an Edutopia interview. "When I hear people say it's our job to create the twenty-first-century workforce, it scares the hell out of me. Our job is to create twenty-first-century citizens. We need workers, yes, but we also need scholars, activists, parents -- compassionate, engaged people. We're not reinventing schools to create a new version of a trade school. We're reinventing schools to help kids be adaptable in a world that is changing at a blinding rate."
When parents ask if SLA will prepare their children to do as well on standardized test as some other schools Mr. Lehman explains that the school is not about test scores. Instead he explains this is a place where students are not judged simply by test scores, but rather it is a place where they consider the students' head, heart, and hands. This was evident during my visit. Something I noticed early was there were no disturbing, ear piercing bells or announcements. When I asked Mr. Lehman to speak about this, he said it was because they were educating humans, not animals being trained to respond to a bell. Instead the students and staff react to the work they are doing, peers, and educators. Periods are 65 minutes each with five minutes for passing which allows for more natural conclusions of class, less frenetic and crowded halls (since not everyone is passing within three minutes) and a more human, less assembly-line feeling, environment. Instead of rushing to your next class at the sound of the bell, it’s more like heading off to your next appointment. Additionally, unlike many other schools classes don't start or end at 42 or 17.5 seconds past the hour. They start and end at times that appointments occur in the real world on the 0's and 5's.
Every Wednesday from 1:30 – 3:30 the entire staff does the work of professional development and planning based on school needs. The content of these sessions is set by principal with input from the staff. Mr. Lehman believes that he has the experts on hand with his school-based staff to provide for most professional development needs and at times brings educational leaders who influence their work to meet additional needs.
While SLA usually has students, every Wednesday after lunch his entire student body leaves. This is how Mr. Lehman is able to have two-hours every Wednesday for his staff to engage in planning and professional development. This is where some of the students' most meaningful learning occurs.
Outside of the weekly 1:30 – 3:30 professional development and planning that staff is engaged in, there are a variety of additional opportunities, many of which occur virtually including weekly Monday evening online planning sessions/discussions in which most teachers eagerly participate. In fact as Mr. Lehman explained to us, much of the school was planned virtually months before it opened. As Edutopia reported, before the school even opened teachers and other stakeholders articulated a vision, planned curriculum, designed assessment rubrics, debated discipline policies, and even hammered out daily schedules using the sort of networking tools -- messaging, file swapping, idea sharing, and blogging -- kids love on sites such as MySpace.
A small insight into Mr. Lehman's efforts to recruit teachers is called for here. Those who've worked in education may be wondering at this point how SLA has a staff that is committed to working to plan a school before it even opens, having weekly Monday evening conversations, and are folks motivated to travel the world speaking at conferences. Mr. Lehman has recruited teachers in a variety of ways, but a rather unusual method at this point in history is through his blog. Mr. Lehman wrote of his intentions in his blog and as a result many educators passionate about his vision asked to join him. He has readers from around the world and a large number of his staff was recruited from outside of Philly. One of his favorite interview questions: who are the educational leaders that most impact who you are as a leader, teacher, and learner?
Students and teachers shared that they are assessed using a customizable rubric with a standard structure. Mr. Lehman explained that this is one of the many ways in which they reduce situations where students have to figure out the teachers. Using a common or shared language is another. Students know what and how they’re assessed across the school. What I really liked with the assessment is that the teacher often is not the sole assessor of student work. Much of their work is evaluated by peers and/or their learning partners. There are a number of learning partners across the school. The partnerships are formed based on the actual needs of the project and could be organizations such as NASA or expert authors, engineers, or scientists. Testing is not the basis for most assessments. Students at SLA learn in a project-based environment where the core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection are emphasized in all classes. Some of the most interesting part of what I learned from students and teachers was the presentation part of their work.
Something I noticed that I found interesting is that when speaking of written projects teachers and students often refer to project length in minutes rather than the traditional “500 or 1000 word essay.” This seemed to be true even if the work they are doing is an essay. This makes sense since their work eventually becomes a presentation so the focus is on the presentation length rather than the length of the writing which is ultimately driven by the final product. The presentations students produce take on great forms and are driven but what the students and staff deem most effective to convey their message. A presentation may be a podcast uploaded to iTunes, a video uploaded to YouTube, or a discussion they are preparing to have with an elected official to try to drive change.
In a literacy class I visited I spoke with a few students and their teacher about the project they were working on. Students were working collaboratively in groups of 3 or 4 to write a short 5 – 7 minute play and using Google docs as the tool to do the collaborative writing. Once the plays are complete students will perform their work and many will tape their performances and post the videos on YouTube. I asked if YouTube was filtered at the school and the answer was yes. I asked, then why not publish to an unfiltered site like TeacherTube. The common sense answer was that students determine how they want their work celebrated, shared and who their audience is. There were no students who felt TeacherTube served the audience they wanted to reach. The school teaches students to produce work for their real-world in the real environments in which they operate.
One of the things I loved seeing at SLA was their technology lab which was devoid of any technology. Instead it had really comfortable chairs and tables. If you’re a School 2.0-er this makes perfect sense to you. Technology/productivity is tied to people, not places. All SLA students travel with their own laptop and with laptop and internet access you harness a tremendous amount of 21st Century educational power.
I love the technology curriculum for the school because as I’ve rarely seen elsewhere, it is driven by the non-technology, content curriculum. The content teachers share what their plans are for the year and collaborate with the school technology specialist on what skills would make sense for her to reinforce based on the curricular goals. The idea of PowerPoint by grade X and Excel by grade Y has no place. Additionally it can have no place because many of the technologies that she will be teaching we may not even have heard of yet. How could there be a technology curriculum when just a few years ago most people didn’t even know what wiki, rss, Twitter, or Ustream meant. I love it!
The school does most of it’s own tech support with a combination of having a tech-savvy staff and a MOUSE Squad student tech support team. One very innovative idea the school is employing is using low-cost laptops as temporary replacement devices for students. The students believe these devices are sub par when compared to regular laptops, but they get the job done. A nice thing about this is it enables all students to have continual access to technology and serves as reinforcement for doing everything in your power to ensure your laptop does not need to be swapped.
Students use laptops as an extension of their brain/work and it doesn't appear this school could function as it does without enabling students to take their laptops with them when they leave school. Mr. Lehman does not have an elaborate security plan around this. The laptops are treated much like other instructional tools students carry. However, each student is provided with a nondescript backpack (important) that has a padded sleeve for protection. To date there have been few issues with device theft. He adds that enabling students to bring devices home reduces issues some schools have with overnight theft of devices within schools or holiday break ins. During the summer laptops are refurbished with the help of the school MOUSE squad.