Most teachers don’t just teach at one school. They teach at multiple schools at once. There’s the school we work in, the school that happens outside of our classrooms, the school that gets presented to any number of stakeholders for pomp, circumstance, and evaluations, and the school that shows up in the data sets somewhere in a dozen offices and “great schools” websites. These schools often come into conflict because we neither have common schools of thought nor common schools of action. While many schools have missions, visions, and agendas plastered all over their walls, guidebooks, and flyers, few schools have found a way – however imperfect – to articulate it to the point of reasonable integrity.
Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA is one.
The intentionality by which Chris Lehmann, founder and principal, and the team developed the school has given it a leg up in the way of imagining schooling in Philly differently. It has a few advantages over other schools that matter as well. It’s a magnet school with some institutional (and, in some ways, financial) backing in a rented building with an energetic white male leader who has the clout to host and receive plaudits from tech billionaires, esteemed scholars, and even a former president of the United States. None of this sits well with critics to the left or right of the edupolitical spectrum, if you actually read the comments in their local paper. Even when we take into account their high percentage of African-American students and special needs students as compared to other magnets, the comments about their schools put outsiders on high alert before they walk into the school building.
But, upon pushing the glass doors of their building, much of those critiques dissipates. Legendary schools genius Deborah Meier, who visited last year, has smiled at her acolyte in prior years. The school feels less like the draconian containment units with rows, aisles, and adults in sharp-edged suits, but an ecosystem where students are expected to own the responsibility of making the school community better. Most administrative doors are left ajar, as are the classroom doors. Students don’t seem to seek the approval of teachers nor Lehmann in the way one might feel at other schools with strong academic reputations. Instead, at any moment, the school allows for students to randomly spark conversations with the adults in the building. The power structure feels flatter on some level. The pressure to be the “smartest” in the room is near non-existent. Conversations are both programmed and impromptu, and expertise is in the form of questions, not direct answers. The tone set by the staff, students, and parents there gives little permission for vendors to outwardly promote their wares and bother us on our way to our next conversation.
Which is what makes EduCon, the unconference / fundraiser based on the ideas of the schools, one of the best conferences still going. Is this a trap?
Because the unconference is in a school building and an assemblage of students, parents, and teachers sacrifice their weekends to make the event successful, it strikes me how it has some levels of escapism for many of us, too. Those of us who believe in student choice, student voice, agency, curiosity, project-based learning and curiosity in a public school setting – and there are many – congregate at SLA. The principal seems to give little impression that the school(s) he runs have anything to hide, including its flaws. This contrasts with the seemingly endless bandages and corks so many of us want to throw at problems when we see them.
It’s made me reflect about my experiences in the aforementioned schools, and how many of the schools we currently work for conflict with one another. Can students both excel in school and have some modicum of student agency? Yes. Does everyone believe that at once? That remains to be seen. Can teachers both create conditions for deep student learning and still allow for unorthodox lesson plans that innovate and respond to student needs? Yes. Does everyone believe? Still waiting. So many of our school systems allow for antiquated beliefs about schools to resurface in the name of looking coherent. They get to lecture about kids while wholly disconnected from the student experience and voice because some outside and decontextualized research said so.
Attendees of the EduCon conference come from a myriad of schools, some of which have it reasonably together. We intentionally learn that schools can have integrity and heart both on paper and in deeds. We unintentionally learn how our actions (and everyone else’s) keep us further from the mutual cares these like-minded educators have. Trust: I don’t need us to build more SLAs, though Lehmann and Co. would surely appreciate that. I would love to see more people invested in the intangible aspects of the schools, not as a hand-down task to a third-party vendor or a school counselor, but at the core of the school.
Our organizing largely depends on folks with good conscience, open hearts, and vibrant minds to make schools places that students want to go, not where they feel imprisoned and incapable of learning. Of course, we’re supposed to take what we learned and spoke on and change how our schools operate on some level, not just assume someone will rescue us from oppressive systems, especially our students who often have little recourse and redress.
It’s on all of us. Imagining is such a big part of this work and I don’t dream asleep anymore. Let’s do this.