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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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.
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.
Monday, May 7. 2012
Dear Mr. President,
I'm not one for the Hallmark Holidays. I don't make a huge deal over Father's Day. My wife and I agree every year that Valentine's Day is a good excuse to have a nice dinner and not much more. So I wasn't going to make a big deal over Teacher Appreciation Week. It's a lovely thing, especially this time of year when teachers are pushing through to the end of the year, but it isn't usually the kind of thing I usually really think that much about.
Except this year.
This year, you chose National Teacher Appreciation Week as the week you also chose to declare as National Charter School Week.
Why would you do that, Mr. President?
I've wracked my brain all night long trying to figure out why. It's not like you didn't know it was National Teacher Appreciation Week - after all, Secretary Duncan posted about it on the Department of Education blog. So why conflate the two, Mr. President?
This is the week we could be celebrating all teachers - public, charter, parochial and independent. All over this country, every day, teachers in all kinds of schools do their best to help America's children, and this could be a week where we don't care about the management divide of schools, but rather took the time to simply be thankful that over four million Americans choose to make their career's work teaching America's children.
But that idea - or at least the idea that your Administration supports all teachers - rings hollow now. When you - in the same week - celebrate one kind of school, when you say that one management structure serves "as incubators of innovation in neighborhoods across our country" to the exclusion of other kinds of schools, you - intentionally or not - send the message that the rest of us count less, matter less, innovate less, teach less.
And you did that the same week that we could be elevating all members of the profession. Why?
If this was not a deliberate attempt to marginalize those of us who choose to teach in the public school system, then it was exceptionally poor timing. If it was a deliberate attempt to do so, why would you choose to do that? I really don't know how many body blows public school teachers are supposed to take. Here in Philadelphia, for exampe, we are feeling more than a little frustrated lately, so these kinds of mixed messages are particularly hurtful right now.
Most teachers do good work in anonymity. Every now and then, we get mugs or ties or thank you notes, and honestly, they make a difference. You, as leader of our nation, could have simply said thank you to all of the wonderful men and women who teach America's children. Instead, you let us know that some teachers are more equal than others, based simply on the kind of school they teach in.
And as a public school educator, all I can say is this:
Sunday, April 22. 2012
So… I've come out of retirement.
I'm coaching again.
Roz Echols and I are coaching SLA Ultimate - we've got 30 kids coming to practice at 6:30 am every morning to work together build two amazing teams and one incredible community. And I've been reminded of how much I really, really love coaching. There is something incredible about working with kids first thing in the morning, all of whom have chosen to be there, working toward a common goal that is bigger than ourselves as individuals that has always just been incredible to me.
I love it. And I missed it even more than I realized.
And it got me thinking about the way we progress in the education realm, where with every move "up" away from the classroom, there is less and less direct contact with kids. I'm a really hands-on and involved principal, but, with the exception of my advisees, I have never been able to be as close to a specific group of kids as I was to the kids I coached. (Individual kids, sure… but not a group…)
And that seems wrong.
Having that incredible relationship where we, as educators, really have the opportunity to care for kids and have that transactional relationship where both teacher / coach / mentor and student make a difference in each other's lives, is a big part of what makes teaching such a profound profession.
Why is it that, in most districts, we discourage our administrators from working directly with kids?
What would happen if curriculum directors were still basketball coaches? If special education case managers ran the drama production at a school? If assistant superintendents ran after-school math help a few days a week? What if a district prioritized that and created the time and space for it?
How about this… what if corporations that had products in the "education sphere" actually had their employees and executives volunteer in school several days a week - not just as a one-off, but actually establishing the kind of caring relationships that we desperately need?
What if we worked to ensure that everyone who works with schools or works in education didn't merely talk about how important it is to make a difference in the lives of kids, but rather actually did. Not indirectly, not through a policy or a product, but by working directly with and caring directly for kids.
Wouldn't that move us just a little closer to building the kind of educational community -- in and out of schools -- that we so very much need?
(Oh... and Go SLA Ultimate!!!)
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, September 21. 2011
[Ever since I became a principal, I've blogged much less about my personal politics. I hope folks who read this blog understand why I felt the need to write this and respect that I am asking that the comments do not become a place to argue about the case itself.]
Tomorrow morning, I'll go into our school with its incredibly diverse population of wonderful urban kids.
Tomorrow, I'll have many conversations with kids who are trying to make sense of fact that the state of Georgia executed a man whose guilt was very much in doubt. Sadly, the best I can offer them is that so am I.
Tomorrow the best I will have to offer students is that I don't have any more answers than they do. That I am as confused and angry as they are.
Tomorrow I will be reminded - even more than most days - of how troubled we are as a nation… how far we have to go in the ways we talk about and deal with race…. and I hope, as I often am, that I will be reminded of how this next generation will be more understanding, more honest, more accepting than my generation is.
Tomorrow I will share Chris Emdin's words about how urban kids can learn from what happened to Troy Davis.
Tomorrow I will remind kids to be smart and to be safe in the choices they make and to never put themselves in situations they cannot get out of.
Tomorrow the best I have for kids is that we must try to live our lives with compassion and wisdom.
Tomorrow I will believe that the way we learn at SLA might just give us a pathway to change the world.
Tomorrow I talk about how I believe that changing the world starts when we try to be the best versions of ourselves and move outward from there.
Tomorrow I will listen to kids as deeply and openly as I know how.
Tomorrow I will tell the kids how much I love them.
Tomorrow I walk back into the building that represents my best answer to how to create a more just, more kind world.
Tomorrow I will make sure the kids know that they are my best hope for a solution.
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"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"