Transcription of the episode “Creating the conditions: Sustaining “caring for” education

[00:00:15] AmyH-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

[00:00:16] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Chris Lehmann, founding principal of Science Leadership Academy, which consists of two public high schools and a middle school in Philadelphia. Welcome, Chris! 

[00:00:28] Chris L: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

[00:00:32] AmyH-L: What are the defining characteristics of Science Leadership Academy? 

[00:00:35] Chris L: The three SLA schools are defined by an inquiry-driven and project-based caring approach to education. And what that means academically is that in our academic model, everything is built around our five core values. Inquiry, what are the big questions we can ask? Research, how do we find answers to those questions? Collaboration, how do we work together to make those answers deeper, better, richer? Presentation, how do we show what we know? And reflection, how do we step back and learn from what we’ve done? That leads to a very vibrant, very active, oftentimes messy classroom where learning is happening because of the big questions we’re asking together, the answers we seek out, and then the sort of artifacts of learning that we are creating based on the way those answers are discovered or found.

The other big idea that powers us is the idea of the ethic of care, right, the idea that no matter how much we love our subjects, we love our kids even more, right, the idea we teach students before subjects, right. So when you ask an SLA teacher what they do, they’re not going to sit there and tell you that “I teach math, I teach science, I teach English.” They’re going to say I teach my students math. I teach the 11th graders English. I teach my kids science, what have you. So it’s this idea that we teach students before we teach subjects and that every student should be really seen and have an advocate and feel a sense of belonging and a sense of vitality in school.

[00:01:51] Jon M: How do you create collaboration among teachers in different disciplines? 

[00:01:55] Chris L: A lot of different ways. I would say the easiest one to cite is we do what’s called streaming, where kids take English, science, and history as a cohort. The teachers who teach the kids English, science, and history all work in a collaboration and then you have tools like grade-wide essential questions and themes that become throughlines in the classes. In the ninth grade, we’re always coming back to this idea of identity. In the 10th grade, we’re always coming back to this idea of systems. In the 11th grade, we’re coming back to this idea of change. 12th grade is is more loosely defined around creation, based on the senior capstone. But it’s the first three are really strongly defined, and by streaming the kids and having these throughline questions. You create the conditions by which teachers have both a common set of kids that they’re working with, but more importantly, a common theme that they’re always coming back to, a common throughline that allows for interdisciplinarity. Because what it does is it creates the conditions by which teachers and kids can see their classroom spaces as lenses, not just silos. There’s a million other tools and systems and processes that you can use. But pedagogically, the idea of streams and grade-wide essential questions form the basis by which you create the conditions for all the other tools that you put in place.

[00:03:07] Jon M: So in a stream, do the students stay together as a cohort, and do they have the same teachers in the same subjects each of those years, or do… 

[00:03:14] Chris L: It changes every year because you have different… One teacher teaches 9th grade. So you don’t stay in your same cohort. We change the streams every year. That way, kids get the chance to be in classes with different kids in the school, but for that year, those 31, 32 kids in a class travel to English, history, and science as a cohort and that pod of three teachers can then work together in a really lovely interdisciplinary fashion.

The reason that math and world language drop out of the streams is because kids come into SLA at different levels, right, so some kids come in ready for Spanish 3 or Algebra 1 or Geometry. And if you included those classes in those streams, you’d essentially track the school by math and language placement.

At the middle school, they’re able to loop. What they do is 5th and 6th and then in 7th and 8th, so the cohort stays together for two years with the same kids and same teachers. And the flexibility of the middle school schedule allows for that. And it’s super, super, super successful at SLAMS and they’ve really done an amazing job with it. 

[00:04:16] AmyH-L: You often say that you’re shooting not for the 21st century workforce, but for the 21st century citizen. What are the attributes of a 21st century citizen? 

[00:04:25] Chris L: Great question. Yeah, I mean, I think the scary thing is, is the closer we’re getting to, you know, the middle of the century, we might be shooting for beyond that. But the modern citizen. If you shoot for workforce, you’re teaching kids, you know, how to be compliant in a workforce. And that’s great. And I think it’s important to say that economic sustainability is part of being a modern citizen, right. But we want kids who understand that citizenry is actually a higher stakes question and a more inclusive to all that we are as people than a worker. So we want folks who are going to be able to be thoughtful voters, thoughtful consumers, thoughtful family members, thoughtful neighbors, right, fully active in it and understand that they can be active and engage in it. They have the agency to take part and change their world.

We always say the North Star for SLA students is thoughtful, wise, passionate, and kind. We want their heads full of thought. We want them to have the wisdom to apply those thoughts well. We want them to have the passion to push through when the world tells them something cannot be done. And we want them to be kind because I think if you look around the world today, the world could use a lot more kindness.

Those goals, that sort of North Star . Imagine a world where people were more thoughtful, wise, passionate, and kind. I think that you can see a better world. We were discussing in my philosophy class. I teach a philosophy elective rather poorly, I think, but, you know, it’s still fun. And we were discussing epistemological responsibility. Do we have an obligation to only believe true things. What is our obligation to believe and act on things? And the kids were talking about the fact that In the world in which we live, dis- and misinformation is getting worse and worse and worse to them, and it seems like trying to find out what the true thing is is harder. So the kids asked me, like, well, what’s your answer to this question? And I said, look, this Lehmann’s World, no option to buy, right. On some level, you’re sitting in it, you’re sitting in my answer. My answer is a school where these values matter, right, where inquiry and seeking out truth and collaboration and listening and all of those things that we do at SLA every day matter. And that’s the best counter argument or the counter to the world in which we live that seems to be thin value when it comes to those questions comparatively. And the kids were like, oh, that’s that’s actually kind of deep, which is fine. But I think that that notion that of a citizenry that is active and engaged and passionate and seeks out knowledge and wisdom would build us a better world, especially when, you know, dosed with a heavy with an understanding of empathy and kindness.

[00:06:55] AmyH-L: I think that word engaged is very important. Is there something that you do to instill that idea of engagement as the responsibility and power of each citizen?

[00:07:08] Chris L: Yeah, we make stuff. At root, in an inquiry-driven, project-based environment where kids are sort of encouraged to find themselves, to ask why does this matter to me? Why does this content have value or meaning in my life? And I’ve always said that, like, if you were to create the student’s bill of rights, right after a safe school, which would be the first thing that every student deserves, that should be every student’s right to have a notion of why they’re being asked to learn something. Why does this matter? And in an inquiry-based … for the questions you would ask, what are the things that you need to know about something? Where do you find yourself in this? And then what are the artifacts of learning that you’re going to create based on the answers that you have come to? That’s a engaged, active, and agency driven form of education, right? At root, the model itself is creating the conditions where kids are able to sort of unlock their agency and their own empowerment because they see a value. They see that they can be an active agent in their world. They can make things that matter. They can engage in projects that have real world value. They can be expert voices in the world. They can be interviewers and filmmakers and engineers and historians in real ways, right. And that’s what an inquiry-driven, project-based environment does. 

You add in our Wednesday program where all of our 10th and 11th graders are going out and doing internships. Our 9th graders, we’re bringing experts from all over the city of Philadelphia into our school to give kids an opportunity to learn beyond the high school curriculum. Your 12th grade year, you’re spending that time working on a year-long inquiry capstone where you are filling in the content with a question that you design, that you’re excited to ask and answer. And you create the conditions by which kids are able to really unlock their agency and then apply that agency to the world. 

[00:08:53] Jon M: You mentioned internships. Overall, how do you integrate employment-related skills with a broad education and an education for citizenship?

[00:09:01] Chris L: That’s a great question. In 10th and 11th grade, all of our kids go out and do what we call individualized learning plans. For most kids, that looks like a traditional internship, but not for all kids. And what it is saying to kids, what is a subject you are interested in that you want to work in the world with. And whether that means, I mean, my goodness, we have over 100 different sites we work with. And so whether that means you’re one of our engineering students who’s out working in the engineering field working side by side with folks on real projects; whether you’re one of our filmmakers who is now making films, promotional films for a nonprofit that could otherwise not afford a videographer; whether you’re one of our students who sees themselves in education, going back and being an assistant teacher one day a week in an elementary school; whether that’s students who are interested in sports management who are doing internships at the Phillies. We get kids out in the world now through our advisory program, one of the streams of learning in our advisory program is how do you leverage these moments and how do you act in those moments so that kids are getting the opportunity, before they go out or as they’re going out, to talk about what it means to be in these spaces with adults who can help them who can coach them and who can help them sort of maximize those experiences, but they’re also learning how to write a resume by doing that. They’re learning how to write cover letters. They’re learning how to make a phone call to someone to ask about an internship. They’re learning how to time manage. They’re doing all of those things as well. 

The fun and fascinating and massively challenging part of all of this is that with 250 kids out doing these individualized learning plans, the experiences are wildly, wildly different based on the kid’s interests, as they should be. So it’s not like there’s a one way to teach that, because an engineering firm might have a different set of workplace environments than the Philadelphia Zoo does than the mayor’s office does then the Phillies do. So you have to paint with a broad brush and also create the conditions by which in advisory, in different spaces, kids have the opportunity to talk about the different experiences they have so they can learn from each other. So we literally have someone who does an internship in the Phillies’s analytics department. I might not be in the Phillies’ analytics department. I might be student teaching or assistant teaching in my elementary school, my sixth grade teacher’s classroom one day a week. Those are different experiences. But I’m hearing the different experiences my colleagues are having, my friends are having in advisory and I’m learning about different environments from them. And the cool thing about that is you do that in 10th grade, that might actually influence where you want to apply as an 11th grader, which is kind of cool.

[00:11:37] AmyH-L: What do you see as the role of technology in the classroom? 

[00:11:42] Chris L: Oh, my goodness. What day of the week is it? I think we’re living in a fascinating moment in time. EdWeek literally just posted an article, I think yesterday, talking about how state legislators or legislatures are now considering banning cell phones in schools. And a lot of the sort of assumptions that many of us, myself included, made about where we were going to see technology and how it was going to make some changes the pandemic upended in many ways, and maybe accelerated something that was already going to happen. But I still believe that the tools we have at our disposal allow us to change the game. This podcast is an example, right? The three of us are not in the same, none of us are in the same place. And yet we’re able to do this. And I want kids to have access to this. I want kids to be able to be on chats with people from a million different fields. I want permeable membranes that the world should go in and out of.

But I also think we have to understand that these tools are not a universal good. Nor are they a universal evil. They are a tool. And, you know, to quote whoever you want to. Say, say there’s a million of them. Every tool is a weapon if you hold it, right. So, I think these tools that we have at our disposal are going to change what school looks like. They already are. 

AI is the great question, right? And I don’t even pretend to have an answer there. But I think that what we have to understand is that in all things, we need to ask really good questions. How does this tool make me a better scholar? How does it help me learn? How does it help me create? How does it help me network? How does it broaden my reach? And how does it make me smarter? And then what are the ways in which it doesn’t? And I think that that’s a really, really big thing. And I think we’ve got to understand that we have to be unbelievably critical in our consumption of technology and how we use it to produce as well, so I want us to be critical consumers and producers of media, of tools, of all of those things and I want us to always say, how does it let me do something I didn’t do before? And how does it let me be smarter, better, more thoughtful, broaden my reach all those things. And how do I make sure that it’s that people are at the center of that work, not the tool itself?

So with Chat GTP, e.g., just cause you could type in a good prompt and get an essay out of Chat GPT doesn’t mean you understand the thing that it created. So how do we understand, how do we create the conditions by which we make sure that it’s about our learning, not about what the tool produces? And I think that that’s going to be a fundamental question of the next 20 years in schools.

[00:14:24] AmyH-L: Your model of education seems to be relationship-based. You speak about caring for versus caring about. Would you explain the difference? 

[00:14:32] Chris L: Sure. You know, schools have long cared about, right? Care about is a sort of broad term. I care about the world. I can care about lots and lots and lots of things. But I can only care for but so many people, right?

To take care of is a very different thing than to care about one is a far more active thing. And I think we want schools that are about care for or take care of more than just care about. Care for says that you and I have a relationship. Care about, as my t shirt shows, I care about the Philadelphia Eagles. I am invested in their success. But I in no way take care of the Philadelphia Eagles. 

And I think that, that notion of, and it’s grounded in Nell Nodding’s work, right, that notion of care as a transaction, that it is a transactional relationship between the carer and the caree and, and vice versa. That’s how you create a caring environment that is truly relational, right.There’s gotta be skin in the game, and it’s got to be felt on both sides. 

And there’s got to be structures that allow for it. So, for example, at SLA, our advisory program is the sort of structure by which all caring relationships are then sort of grounded. So advisory is one teacher and 20 kids. They stay together all four years. Every single kid at SLA knows who their advocate is. Every parent at SLA knows who their first point of contact is. And every teacher at SLA knows that there are 20 kids, that part of their professional responsibility is to help them navigate high school and all things, right, and we schedule time for that. And we schedule professional development around that. And we schedule systems and we create systems around that. So that way we can point to the ways in which we create the conditions, thumbnails by which teachers have the time and space to care for kids. And I think that most schools don’t have that built in.

It happens, right? Like, so the basketball coach who drives their kids home from practice is a, you know, whole Hollywood movies have been made about that, many of them. But that’s by accident, you get the right teacher in the right place and their classroom always has 10 kids at lunchtime or whatever else. Systemically saying that we are a school that cares for means pointing to systems and structures such that every kid knows who, like, can point to that system and know where their advocacy comes from. That’s a different thing. That’s not fiat. That’s not accident. That’s not relying on the hero teacher. That’s none of that. That is systemic scheduled care.

[00:16:58] AmyH-L: Can the caring teacher and student actually be assigned? I mean, sn’t some of that sort of chemistry and happenstance…

[00:17:08] Chris L: It needs to be assigned. It doesn’t preclude other relationships. I still coach. I’m our boys ultimate frisbee coach and I am very, very close to my kids. My boys that I coach are my boys, but I also recognize as their coach that when it comes to stuff going on in their lives, I need to loop in their advisors. I can’t assume that my relationship trumps that relationship. So, no, I think that you actually have to schedule that if you want it to be systemic. Again, relationships between students, teachers, the student thinks that their 10th grade world history teacher is the greatest teacher ever, and they want to, that’s the person they want to write their college recommendation letter, that’s the person they want to [ inaudible] , that they want to be an assistant teacher in their class as a senior, sure, of course, yes, all of that is wonderful, and the only way to make sure that it is all kids is to make sure that it is scheduled and is to make sure that it is systemic and make sure that it is professionally developed and that we teach teachers what it means to care for kids.

[00:18:09] Jon M: It sounds as though you focus very much on creating an ethical school environment. Do teachers explicitly discuss ethics in classrooms?

[00:18:19] Chris L: That’s a good question. Yes. I mean, one of the questions we ask every kid. And actually we ask this of every teacher. We actually this is a question we ask in teacher interviews. It’s a question we ask all the time. Why will it be a better school because you came here? And we want and we’re very intentional about the fact that we want to work in a place and we want to create a place where everybody is invested in the answer to that question. I do think we talk about what it means to be a good community member, what it means to be a good human in the space that we walk, right? So if you look at the rules of SLA, if you will. We don’t have a traditional thou shalt not. We have three rules: respect yourself, respect your colleagues, and respect that this is a place of learning. And those are very positive, sort of affirmational ways in which we want to act right. And we unpack those in advisory all the time. And when kids do things that are less than awesome, we say how do you think you are upholding or not upholding these three rules? And we’re very, very clear that number one, there’s space for debate in those rules, two different people can think different things about whether or not you’re respecting a community. But by having them be positive, as opposed to the, you know, the sort of classic thou shalt nots, create the conditions by which you can have those conversations and I think is really, really important. So, yeah, I think we do teach what it means to be part of an ethical community as part of what we do. 

[00:19:38] AmyH-L: Many progressive schools struggle when their founding leaders and staff members eventually move on. How do you provide for sustainability at SLA? 

[00:19:48] Chris L: I’m never retiring. I think the cool thing is that by having three schools now, we’ve proven that we can do this without, that it doesn’t require me. Thank God, right? I think that’s where systems and structures come in. I think one of the things that when you look at the sort of history of the last, I mean, let’s go 50 years since the sort of open schools, the 1970s. If you look at the 50 year wave of progressive education, there were beautiful missions and visions, and not a lot of systems and structures, right? And I would say that the fatal flaw of the progressive schools movement over the past 50 years has been that progressives don’t like to tell other progressives what to do. And so again, beautiful mission, but no systems to get better at it. And I think that by creating a lot of systems and structures, and by creating a pathway that allows teachers, students, parents to understand the language of your school, to have systems and structures, to get better at them and to have a sense of accountability and responsibility to those systems and structures, you create the conditions by which it doesn’t require one leader.

Now, the hard part. In the world of public education, all of those systems and structures can be torn down by the larger artifice. So I think the initial leader has the understanding of, like, my job is to block and tackle, like, my job is to be the bulwark that holds the rest of the system at bay. And if there’s not a structure in place by which the next leader is chosen by the community ,is approved by the community. Like, what have we seen in other places? Right? New York City, Chicago, L. A. is the district’s like, “finally, that person’s gone, I can put whoever I want in” and then they just tear down the systems, right? So I think is a still a genuine concern. But if you’ve built systems that allow for a thoughtful progression of leadership when the founders leave, then you have a fighting chance to make sure that the systems stay in place and therefore the mission and vision stay in place.

We’ve seen over 18 years, the average SLA teacher has been there 9 years, which is a lot for a school that’s that’s in its 18th year, and started as a one grade, so we’ve grown, you know, in that time, but we only have a handful of the founding teachers and faculty and staff left. But all of these systems and structures have created the conditions by which new people can buy into that mission. And everything that we do is about growing together. Not sort of mission drift. So even as founding teachers have left, there still is these core values and core processes by which new people are able to be brought in. And again, I think we work really hard at making sure that we are a place people want to work for a long time. And that’s why you see the longevity we have compared to, you know, most urban public schools.

[00:22:44] Jon M: How do you recruit, prepare, and support teachers so that they understand and can implement the school’s model? 

[00:22:51] Chris L: That’s three very different questions. Recruit. We try to be high visibility. We host a conference every year that is coming up. We encourage everybody to go to and learn about the conference that we host. It’s going to be February 2nd, 3rd and 4th this year. Amazing, amazing sessions. We’re making some big announcements about our panels and our sessions. So go to educon. org, come visit us in Philly. That’s been a lovely place to recruit. It keeps us pretty high visibility. It also is a great way to spread the message and create a sort of community of educators nationally that believe in this work and are trying to do it in their own spaces,. But we recruit by being, by being out there in the world. We write books, we write articles, we do podcasts, we try to spread the word of what we’re doing. And we do that not because we’re just looking for new teachers. We’re doing that because we believe in the work we do. And the ancillary benefit of that is that people will come to Philadelphia and move to Philly to work at SLA, which we’ve had some success doing. Most of our teachers are Philly area folks who just believe in what we do. Our interview process is pretty robust. We have students, teachers, parents, administration, all on the interviews. The interview has some questions that are really beyond what you would normally hear in a teacher interview question, but really sort of designed to get at your sense of whether you as a teacher see your mission and vision and pedagogy aligned with ours. And then instead of doing a sample lesson, we will ask every person who interviews to do a sample unit plan. And we actually send them our new family night guide, which is the document we give to all new parents when they come to SLA. It’s a 30-page document about everything SLA. And the unit we ask them to design shows us where the intersection of your pedagogy and ours based on what you’ve read. And those are all some pretty amazing ways to find folks who have an alignment philosophically with us. I don’t expect every new teacher that we would bring on board to understand how to write a good understanding by design unit plan. I don’t expect every teacher to be a good advisor when they start. I don’t expect every teacher to be great at project design, but I expect them to have a sense of a want to. 

And then all the systems that we have in place to support new teachers, right. So every new to SLA teacher is not just new to the profession. We say to people who come to our school, even if they’re a 20 year veteran, that, teaching your first year is kind of like your first year teaching all over again. Or the clever way to say it is it’s like drinking from the fire hose. But every new to SLA teacher has a weekly meeting with our assistant principal. Every new to SLA teacher has a mentor and all of the systems and structures around our professional development. You’re in a PLC with veteran SLA teachers who can help you. And I’m in classes every day, right. And I’m working with you and doing all of that stuff. And then the other thing is 18 years later, we’ve got Larissa Pahomov’s book, we’ve got my book, we’ve got Matt Kaye’s book. We actually have books we’ve written as a staff that we can give to new teachers and do book study with them where they’re reading about the model. And they’re reading about both the how to and why to, which is really, really powerful and really amazing.

[00:25:55] AmyH-L: What do you mean when you say that schools should be transformative, not just for the kids, but also for the teachers? 

[00:26:01] Chris L: I think the most arrogant thing that educators can think is that you can change the life of a child without being changed yourself, right. Like that’s the height of arrogance. The hardest thing about my job is being Mr. Lehmann, like that is an aspirational person, Mr. Lehmann, and I don’t think I achieve his status every day, but I try, and I think I’m a better person for that effort. And so we– we want schools to be places where kids see a better version of themselves, right? And see a pathway to their best self. 

Again, it’s, it’s just arrogance otherwise, to think that I’m fully formed and my job is [inaudible] just hubris. And I think that when we say ” by being together, we all get to be our best selves. We get to learn what our best selves look like and work towards that vision of self,” then I think we have the humility to actually create transformational spaces.

[00:26:58] Jon M: You mentioned that SLA began, and I think high schools are magnet schools because of structures in the Philadelphia school system, but that the middle school, I believe, is a general admissions school. Is that right? 

[00:27:13] Chris L: That’s right. 

[00:27:14] Jon M: What do you find are some of the differences in having those different environments? And I guess my, my broader question is what have you learned that makes this model sort of very generally applicable? 

[00:27:28] Chris L: Sure. I mean, the first thing I would say is that any time we make a choice, it is a different thing, right? By saying I choose to go to this school, we create the conditions by which kids have a different level of agency already, walking in the door. I think that when it is just the school you go to, you have to work much harder to create the conditions by which that agency is felt. And I think that one of the things that really impresses and amazes me every day is how the folks at SLA Middle School, from Tim Boyle, the founding principal, to every staff member there, creates that same sense of agency among the kids who may not have chosen to go there, right, like, it was just where they went. And so I think that the first big thing is this notion of agency involves choice. And if you just go to the school, cause that’s the school you go to, then the school has to work harder to help you unlock your agency. When you’re walking into a school that you chose, that’s an easier sell, so I think that’s the biggest thing. But I look at what happens at SLA Bieber, which is, you know, a 5 through 12, right. And so there are, they were the second school, started by Chris Johnson, our founding principal there. And I look at what they do as a 5 through 12, who had to build in that agency at the middle school level and at the high school level. And what we’ve really seen is that obviously, you know, when you’re a magnet school and kids are coming in at a certain level of achievement, you have a tighter range of academic ability than at a neighborhood school, where it’s far more variable. There’s less remediation when kids are generally speaking, reading close to or at or above grade level. What SLAMS has proven, what Bieber has proven, what I think we prove is that for all of our schools. For magnet schools, we have the lowest barrier to entry for test scores of any of the magnet schools in Philadelphia. And we’ve shown over time that our kids can achieve at very high levels.

Again, what I think we learn is that when kids have made, like I said, when kids have made an active choice, then you already are building that agency right into the admissions process. 

But as far as I think people who would want to say, like, well, you’re a magnet school, so that’s why you’ve got been able to do that. I think we’ve refuted that over time, given the amount of success that we’ve had with kids that for many of whom we were the only magnet school they got into in a school of choice in a system of choice. And I think when you look at what SLAMS does, and their outcomes and their sense of student satisfaction and their sense of student agency and the unbelievable success they’ve had as a open enrollment school, I think we– we’ve shown that this is a model that really.

[00:30:16] Jon M: Thank you, Chris Lehmann of the Science Leadership Academy. 

[00:30:20] Chris L: My pleasure. 

[00:30:21] AmyH-L: And thank you, listeners. Check out our new video series, What Would YOU Do?, a collaboration with the Harvard Graduate School of Education and EdEthics. Go to our website, and click video. The goal of the series is not to provide right answers, but to illustrate a variety of ethical viewpoints.

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