Tour of SLA


Educon 2.1 started, for me, on Friday with an extensive tour of Science Leadership Academy, a magnet school in Center City that has a partnership with the Franklin Institute. I’d have to say this tour through SLA was the highlight of the conference; it was the most inspirational, demonstrative, and challenging aspect of the entire weekend.

So this is going to be a long post with four sections of observations:

The Kids are All Right

One thing you could not help but notice throughout the entire conference was the student leadership on display. Kids weren’t standing around, waiting for adults to give them a task. They didn’t even constantly consult a teacher if they encountered some obstacle or unexpected situation. They were really in change, from taking registration, to setting up video streams of sessions, to leading tours, to handling tech support, to directing baffled adult attendees. They were in the loop, confident, and articulate.

Even outside of conference duties, students were constantly given non-trivial responsibilities as part of normal school. I witnessed one math class where a sunny junior practically taught the class, standing in front, calling on her peers, giving guidance through problems. I found out during a physics lab that each group of two or three students were working on a different experiment so that they could each present their findings in front of everyone else and postulate on the significance of their conclusions — like real scientists. I found one group of students in drama class rehearsing their lines for a skit they were to perform for fifth graders. Several faculty members recounted instances where the students taught them how to use the technology available in their classrooms.

That kind of trust extended in smaller (and I would say, more meaningful) ways: not hovering over laptops, having no hallway monitors, asking students to take public transportation to go on field trips around the city. Students were allowed to vandalize their school-issue lab coats, put stickers on their school-issue laptops, lounge in empty classrooms during lunch, and engage in IM chats during class.

Several students readily proffered that some of this trust was seeded with the highly selective admissions process. It’s nice to be able to pick your population, certainly. But I was personally blown away by how collegially and productively these kids worked in small-group project after small-group project. Surely they must have been trained and taught to get to that point; culture goes so far, but if you’d like to keep it a certain way, you need to establish institutional anchors and reinforcers to constantly communicate the values you prioritize.

And indeed, as Chris Lehmann exhorted in his session, the culture was very purposefully designed. He pointed out in his session one of the key ingredients: the advisory. Every teacher is in charge of an advisory group, and that advisory group remains the same year after year — all the way up till graduation. Advisories meet twice a week in 45 minute blocks — just like a regular class. I can imagine that they provide a kind of homeyness for students — a place of stability and reflection, a regular little haven to decompress from academic rigor or hallway politics — but they are also the epicenter of a kind of compassionate accountability, where the student learns to take responsibility for his or her learning.

According to the kids, some of the advisors allow the advisory period to be mostly a kind of study hall and others will actually teach classes on values and productivity. What seems key to me is that a good chunk of regular time for advisory allows for regular pow-wow time for each student with an adult advocate. It facilitates the consideration of each student as an individual. When a student seems to be slipping through the cracks, I’m told, the next step is for the advisor to pull in the principal for a heart-to-heart intervention. Every student is expected to succeed.

Advisories also manage and launch student time at the Franklin Institute (for freshmen) and ILP (Independent Learning Project). The freshmen Franklin Institute experience sounds like a training ground for project-based learning and collaboration. And though ILP was described to me as a kind of internship, I love how open-ended it actually seems to be. Some go out and enter books into the Free Library’s database, others work with tots in a daycare center, and still others are working on a research project. Obvious pedagogical value does not seem to be the object; pursuit of personal interest and going out into the community does. That’s cool.

Kool-Aid Teachers

I didn’t get to converse as much with the teachers, but from the vibe I got, they all seemed to have earnest buy-in to what the school was all about. And I didn’t get the sense that Chris Lehmann was a cult leader, neither, but that a strong social contract was drawn up among the faculty, which translated into the students.

It helps that the school was starting from scratch, and it developed a mission that was clear and simple. It starts with three simple questions:

  1. How do we learn?
  2. What can we create?
  3. What does it mean to lead?

which is answered in five core values:

  • inquiry
  • research
  • collaboration
  • presentation
  • reflection

in a project-based curriculum.

What then impressed me was that every class also shared the same broad rubric, assessing every project, from papers to labs, with the following criteria:

SLA Rubric

Exceeds Expectations



Meets Expectations






Does Not Meet Expectations



Design – Does student plan and structure the project thoughtfully and purposefully?
Knowledge – Does student demonstrate the understanding of ideas through inquiry, research, analysis, or experience?
Application – Does student use a variety of skills and strategies to apply knowledge to the problem or project?
Process – Does student take the necessary steps to fully realize the project goals?
Presentation – Does student effectively communicate the central ideas of the project?

In fact, the primary classes in every grade share the same broad essential questions:

  • 9th grade: Identity
    • Who am I?
    • How do I interact with the environment?
    • How does the environment affect me?
  • 10th grade: Systems
    • How are systems created and defined?
    • How do systems shape the world?
    • What is the role of the individual in systems?
  • 11th grade: Change
    • What causes systemic and individual change?
    • What is the role of the individual in creating and sustaining change?
    • What is the relationship between the self and a changing world?

The core values, the rubric, and the essential questions for the respective grade are posted up on every classroom.

And guess where all this comes from? Every week there’s a mandatory two-hour faculty meeting. Can you imagine that? Two hours of uninterrupted time with everybody locked in and willing to work. That’s serious buy-in. And don’t forget the face-time every teacher gets with the kids in their advisory — that’s systems feedback right there.

It’s not surprising, then, what results and should result: true interdisciplinary overlap, alignment to mission, real system problem-solving about individual problems (including individual kids), blue-sky thinking and doing. Give a bunch of idealistic young teachers some real time and they’ll push each other to be better.

Cool Shit

So let me tell you about some of what I saw inside individual classrooms.

I saw a physics classroom that didn’t use a textbook (in fact, the only textbook I saw in the entire school was in a Health class), but virtually built one by having small groups of students work on individual lab experiments. Data is collected for these experiments in student laptops through sensors plugged into the laptops. Students then graph out the data, interpret their results, and present their conclusions to the rest of the class. The discussion from these presentations leads to student-led, teacher-guided theorizing about physics principles.

“What if you get stuck? What if you can’t make heads or tails of your lab?” someone asked. Our student tour guide xeroxed out copies of a handout the physics teacher made for her students. It’s a sequence of twenty things to try if you get stuck. Part of the homework is to go down the list and try them, and then come to class prepared to report where in the sequence you had problems. Here’s the list:

  1. Read the problem
  2. Rewrite the problem in your own words.
  3. Draw a picture of what you think is happening.
  4. Make a list of the information provided using full words (NO ABBREVIATIONS). (Example: the velocity of the car at the beginning is 0 meters every second: you must be clear on WHEN this information is true).
  5. Label the information on the picture you drew. (In your picture, write v[car] = 0 m/s at the beginning)
  6. Make a list of other situations that you have encountered that are similar.
  7. Identify the important objects (draw a system schema).
  8. Draw a force diagram, using only objects you identified in step 7.
  9. Explain what your force diagram means about what the object is doing.
  10. Write down what object you are interested in.
  11. Seriously, write down what you are focusing on.
  12. Make a prediction about what the object will be doing in the future.
  13. Explain why you think your prediction is true.
  14. Write down what you think the problem is asking you to do IN A COMPLETE SENTENCE in your own words.
  15. Write down any relationships you know that include the quantity you are trying to find (is there an equation that includes this)?
  16. For each equation/relationship, write down the situations in which you can use that equation (when there is no acceleration, when there IS acceleration, etc.)
  17. Determine which equation is appropriate for the situation described in this problem.
  18. Write down the information you need in order to use the equation you selected in 17.
  19. If you know the information you need, use it in the equation. If you DO NOT know the information you need, repeat steps 14-18 for each piece of information you are missing.
  20. Write down your answer IN A COMPLETE SENTENCE with UNITS and make sure your sentence does what you wrote down in 14 and makes sense with 2.

I saw a math class in which a student got in front of the whiteboard, wrote down the first problem of last night’s homework, and then started calling on her peers to describe how they solved the problem. Oh I wish I copied down what the problem was because it was ingenious. It went something like, “A teacher has a grading system where he gives x amount of points for blah blah blah…” and so on, but the problem was like: “Make up a story that describes the equation 4x = 2y-5.” My heart leapt with joy.

Incidentally, there was a student checking her chat on her laptop the entire time, but nobody cared.

I saw a history class that began with reviewing the news by checking web sites on the SmartBoard. And then the discussion really took off when it went to the homework assignment: attend a public meeting. A few students went to a School Reform Commission meeting and ranted on about how nothing of substance was discussed. (They brought this up later in the form of a question during a keynote panel discussion in the conference.) The teacher then had her class do a version of speed-dating where they had to explain in two minutes to a partner what happened at the meeting they attended, and then move on to the next partner.

This same history teacher described in a conference session how she also gave an assignment where on Inauguration Day, students had to do a man-on-the-street interview and ask a stranger what the inauguration meant to them. They could write up some copy and take a picture or record some audio or video — whatever they did they had to post their work on the web and tag it with a pre-determined tag. Some of the students even did this assignment in D.C. All the work was gathered together on one web site (which I currently can’t find).

I saw an English class where the teacher randomly picked a seat in the class and then gave the student in that seat an HGC — High Grade Compliment. He sat directly in front of that student, made direct eye contact, gathered his thoughts, and gave a lengthy, substantial, heart-felt compliment about how great he thought that kid was.

In that same English class, students peer-reviewed their recent major project, a Pecha Kucha-style slide presentation of 20 slides for about seven minutes (20 seconds per slide). Inasmuch as I was impressed at the research and substance within the presentations, I was further wowed by how pointed but helpful the peer feedback was. We were watching drafts shared on SlideShare but the class seemed genuinely concerned that their final presentations needed to be of a certain quality before they posted their final official drafts online for the whole world to see. One presentation in particular, a funny and slightly blue argument against dropping out of school, provoked a lively discussion about the appropriateness of off-color language and audience.

I saw students at an engineering electives class plot out parabolas on their laptops, plug their laptops into the SmartBoard projector, and then trace their plotted parabolas onto tracing paper so that they had a template which they could use to make parabolic mirrors to try to increase the efficiency of solar panels.

I saw plenty of examples of real authentic assessments. Instead of unit tests filled with multiple-choice questions and in-class essays, students did “benchmark projects.” That English Powerpoint project was one. Another one was a physics project where students had to ride public transportation and then do a write-up and poster about the forces that affected their ride. Benchmark projects could be papers, web sites, skits, oral presentations, and other applied work — but they aren’t tests of memorized knowledge.

One more thing. In my conversation with a Spanish teacher, he mentioned that he had only been at SLA for one year. He wasn’t technologically savvy, he didn’t know much about computers and was a little overwhelmed by all the web sites and gadgets and software that was available and ubiquitous in the school. “But that’s why I wanted to come here,” he said.

It Just Works

Every student has a Macbook.

It was issued freshmen year; the first graduating class may very well take theirs with them to college. Students get to take it home, write on it, put stickers on it, put their own software and bit-torrented music on it. They give it back in the summer for software updates. If it breaks, they get a loaner while it gets fixed.

There’s a firewall in the school, just as there’s a firewall in every school in the District of Philadelphia, so kids can’t go on Facebook (or even, I think, Youtube), but they can chat and surf the web during class. They can listen to music while they do their journal entries for English class. Every now and then, though, a teacher may say, “Okay, everyone close your laptops. Let’s just sit and think about this for a minute.” And if your grade drops, the school has the ability to limit your application use (no chatting or iTunes).

Students all have network fileserver space where they can store and submit work to teachers — it shows up as an extra hard drive on their laptops. They can plug in sensors and SmartBoard projectors into their laptops. Everyone uses the same software to plot graphs, manipulate data, make presentations, edit videos. I guess the summer updates ensure that.

Every teacher uses Moodle to organize their course, post handouts, set up forums. A few teachers have even posted their grades online. The new generation of Moodle doesn’t really impress me much; it’s still slow, and it still looks like a pain to use. What is useful for the teachers, though, is that many of them require students to turn in their work to Moodle.

The school has a Drupal web site, which I didn’t get to look too closely at. It looks like students have posted blog entries into it.

Not everything is super-high-tech. A lot of teachers had little widgets on their Macbooks like little stopwatches for activities, or a random number generator for the HGC. I still saw writing being done on paper, poster boards with fairly crude hand drawings, problems on white boards not SmartBoards. That’s positive, in my book.

What’s truly envious is that for a school so integrated into technology, things don’t regularly grind into a halt, and most people seem to feel that things run fine. It just works.


One thought on “Tour of SLA

  1. Andora

    wow i really like sla i cant weit till sept to start highschool from what i”ve read about it its the a kind of school that i belive will pepare me for my future


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