Friday, May 24, 2013

What We Learned at Science Leadership Academy

Akiva, Penina and I in front of the SLA building
Across the street is a sign pointing to all the museums and institutes in the area,
including the Franklin Institute, where many SLA students do their weekly internships
One of the highlights of edJEWcon was Chris Lehmann's keynote address about his unique public school in Philadelphia, Science Leadership Academy. We'd been trying to visit SLA since the beginning of the year, but Hurricane Sandy derailed our plans. Hearing Chris speak, though, motivated us to set a date and get the trip done before another moment was wasted. Penina contacted Jeremy Spry (@jspry), and yesterday RealSchool went on a road trip with the TechRav, Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky; Rabbi Eli Ciner, Associate Principal at The Frisch School; Jeff Kiderman of AJE; and Mrs. Holly Cohen of the Kohelet Foundation. Representing RealSchool were RealSchool Pioneers, Penina Warburg and Akiva Mattenson, and me [Tikvah Wiener].

Rabbi Pittinsky has already blogged a great summary of our visit, so I'm going to focus on different parts of our tour.

School Culture

From the moment we walked into SLA, I easily gained a sense of the school's culture. 

The above sign makes it clear that students are responsible for their learning and must respect the environment in which it takes place. Those values don't prevent the school from being a warm and friendly place, however. The school offices were hopping, with faculty and students who mingled together with ease and camaraderie. I immediately liked the laid-back feel of the school.

Everyone at SLA had a big smile for us and for each other. On the right is Jeremy Spry,
who, by his own admission on Twitter, "makes stuff happen at SLA." To his right is Deannna,
our student tour guide. Jeremy is wearing the"More Than a Test Score" t-shirt we brought him;
don't worry, Deanna, we won't forget to send you one, too!

The warmth and caring the faculty feel for the students is apparent in the way the teachers greet the students when they walk into class and in the shared language of the school, which always had teachers answering, when we asked what they taught, "I teach students history," or "I teach students math." I know this may sound like a small thing, but when you hear the same response from every teacher, it leaves an impression.

My eighteen years as a teacher have all been spent in a private Jewish high school and the school where I currently teach students, The Frisch School, is about the same size as SLA: Frisch has about 550 students, while SLA has a little less. Frisch is warm and caring as well, but that's to be somewhat expected in a yeshiva. Parents are sending their children to us partly because they want their kids in an environment that shows concern for the whole child, especially his/her religious, spiritual and emotional well-being.

One of the things that impressed me most about SLA was that Chris and his staff have managed to create that nurturing environment for kids who are coming from very diverse backgrounds. Frisch has a natural shared language because all of our students are Jewish, but SLA has unified their kids with its clear mission and philosophy -- as well as its effective advisory program.

Students praise each other on an "Encouragement Board" 


Each student at SLA spends an hour after school twice a week in advisory. One teacher is responsible for the academic and emotional welfare of about 20 students, and during those two meetings a week, students form a bond not only with their advisor but with each other as well. Students remain in the same advisory group for their four years at SLA, and the faculty member takes charge of everything pertaining to his/her students, from letting teachers know if a student is having an issue that needs to be handled sensitively to initiating and helping with the college application process. The advisory program, which Dennis Littky employs in his Met Schools, is one large way SLA addresses the whole student and creates a nurturing environment. 

Inquiry-Based and Project-Based Learning

Of course, we also came to SLA to learn about the cool pedagogies Chris is employing. The shared language is once again apparent in the school's more academic components. As Rabbi Pittinsky mentioned, the school's core values are posted throughout the school. Those values are: 

1) inquiry
2) research
3) collaboration
4) presentation
5) reflection

The school does not use bells or announcements, but as Rabbi Pittinsky mentioned, the students we saw knew what to do in each of their classes as soon as they walked in, were engrossed in their work and happily shared their projects. (The students used the shared language of the school when describing their work, proving again how effective the school has been in implementing its vision.)

RealSchool loves inquiry-based learning (IBL) and project-based learning (PBL) and always wants student work to have relevance in the real world. We saw examples of PBL where students were given clear guidance and benchmarks by the teachers and IBL where the students had freedom to explore and develop their own ideas.


RS Health and Environment loves this one: SLA's BioWalls Project, where students have to make walls made of plants that filter the air in an environmentally friendly way. Here's some information on the project:

What we love about this project, aside from the fact that it's green, is that the walls have to work in order for the project to be complete, so students need mastery, not just completion, and the walls are for an office building, so they have authentic purpose. All freshmen complete this project. What a great way to illustrate to new students in the school the idea that work needs to be executed successfully and has real meaning.

In a freshman and sophomore math class, students demonstrated their ability to apply their newly acquired knowledge of algebra by writing questions about the state's education budget cuts and how they could be worked out mathematically. The math teacher explained that the students had crunched the numbers on the budget, so if an official was reporting that the state was saving money by cutting a certain item, the students could rebut, "Well, that only saved you $20,000. Is that enough of a savings to be significant?"

We love it!

Another thing we loved about the school is that it doesn't make students afraid of failure. Rabbi Pittinsky mentioned that students may repeat Standards, quizzes they take in subjects such as math, in order to show they understand important material. 

Here's another example that shows SLA wants students to be learners, not test takers who regurgitate information to be forgotten the day after an exam. Here's a link to a blog post about the failures one group experienced as they made their BioWall:


Students are given opportunities to pursue their own passions at SLA. One afternoon a week students have an internship of their choice, one they set up with Jeremy as part of their Individual Learning Plan.  I personally love the idea of an ILP as opposed to an IEP. I've gotten many student IEP's, and I'm uncomfortable with the fact that so many modifications need to be made so all students can sit in one type of classroom. An ILP seems so empowering; a student doesn't focus on how s/he or the teacher needs to change so a traditional classroom is somehow more user-friendly but not quite the environment in which the student will thrive. Rather, s/he decides on a field of interest, one where s/he can explore a passion and hone not one skill but many. RealSchool loves the idea!

Students also told us that while many of their projects were chosen and planned by their teachers, the students had choice in some parts of the projects' executions. It wasn't uncommon to hear a student say, "I chose this essential question to answer" or "I chose to write this type of poem."

Of course, the biggest choice students are given is for their senior Capstone project, which they do on anything they want. One senior, who said she was passionate about engineering, had taken some type of engineering course all four years in the school, and who was going on to study engineering in college, said for her Capstone project she designed a water pump for a village in Malawi she had visited. 

Another student we heard from was busy painting a gallery space and curating an exhibit (we love doing that in The Arts team at RS!), saying "art is a great way to bring a community together." Here are pictures from that work-in-progress:

Rabbi Pittinsky mentioned a mural that one student had made for her Capstone project. Again showing the type of community Chris and his team have built is the fact that the student chose to beautify that particular wall because it was where she and her friends had eaten lunch every day. The student also painted one area with whiteboard paint, so other students could add to the wall. Here's that mural:

Integrated Learning

Of course, I'm a big believer in and proponent of interdisciplinary learning. I was delighted to discover that SLA has themes for each year, also posted clearly in each classroom. Those themes are sometimes mentioned subtly and sometimes overtly to show students the meaning of their work, how it connects to the world and themselves.

Frisch's ninth grade theme is also Identity, a logical one for freshmen
Students in Mr. Josh Block's history class studied this theme
by analyzing the factory model system and its treatment of workers
 in the past and today (Uh, oh, Apple)
The themes, like the ones at Frisch, reflect the course of development in high school

Social and Emotional Learning 

Another thing that struck me greatly was how personal the learning became for the students. Rabbi Pittinsky already mentioned a project one girl did on Vietnam because her family was from that country. Another girl's project on the power of language was about her role as family interpreter because her parents and grandparents were immigrants, many of them non-English speaking. 

One sophomore girl read a poem she had written about heartbreak and then told us that she had been encouraged to share her rough past in order to help herself deal with it as well as to help others who were also struggling. The student was unself-conscious about revealing this information and showed insight and self-awareness about her pain and how she had dealt with it. This same student told us her commute was an hour long, and she had chosen to give up a spot in a prestigious art school in order to attend SLA. She said she was happy with her decision.

After her presentation, she sat down with two other students who said they were each other's support group, collaborating on work but also being there for each other and growing emotionally together. 

Is PBL and IBL for everyone?

Of course, RealSchool loves PBL and IBL, and I truly believe it is for everyone. SLA has worked hard to shift student thinking so the kids know they must own their learning and take responsibility for it. That's one thing that must happen before implementing PBL/IBL. I can see that in my own implementation of it. Just today, in fact, when a project was due, a student said, "But my partner was absent yesterday," so I replied, "You knew the project was due today. You had to take responsibility for getting it done. Do you see that?" A cultural shift has to take place among students, who are mostly trained to be baby birds who open their mouths and say to a teacher, "Feed me."

The other thing I think has to happen is that we have to trust students, though you could say this is the same point as the one in the previous paragraph, but there's more. Yes, we have to trust students to own their work, to get to a class on time if a school has no bells, but, more importantly, we have to trust students to tell us what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. Whether teachers decide to have greater control of learning through PBL or make it very free in IBL, we must listen to what students want to do. Students aren't unmotivated because they're born that way. I think school plays a large part in creating unmotivated students. They don't want to learn a lot of what is taught because it's not interesting to them or it's taught in a way that doesn't excite them or that doesn't allow them to express their natural talents. 

It's our job as educators to tap into the talents and interests kids have, so they can use them to show us what they've learned and what they're good at. Again, I absolutely believe all students can shine in an environment that takes into account what kind of learners they are and what they're passionate about.

Finally . . . 


There was nothing overly fancy about SLA. The laptops are expensive, but the school looked like a normal school. The Bergen Academies has its own trading floor, some of Finland's schools look like Le Corbusier designed them. SLA looks like a normal school. In fact, the advisory system seems like a good way to save money by having faculty act as academic and emotional mentors. Integrate English and History, and you could save even more money by having a Humanities teacher as opposed to two English and History ones. Cost shouldn't be a factor in developing a JDS school as innovative and special as SLA is. 

One cost-saving plan being implemented in SLA was the use of Rosetta Stone to teach Spanish. State budget cuts had forced the school to fire the Spanish teacher. More than one person mentioned the fact that this blended learning model was unappealing to students and teachers, though some students were enjoying the computer program. Interesting.

I was grateful for the chance to visit SLA, especially with students Penina  -- who planned the trip! Thank you! -- and Akiva, and I can't wait to continue implementing more and more PBL and IBL in my classroom and through RealSchool. Thanks to everyone at SLA for making us feel so welcome.