Saturday morning success

Saturday morning. 10:30 A.M. Our award-winning playwright, Iayanna Jones,  is viewing a stage artist’s conceptualization of what the set might look like. She’s watching five actors perform her play, The Nightmare that Never Goes Away. She’s sitting in front of the audience and hearing feedback and many, many compliments.

She’s not doing it alone.


Arriving there, at 10:35, before their teacher, there were seven other students waiting, eating, hugging, and cheering. Our Workshop School community traveled to see her triumph and to urge her to keep writing and editing. Jamie cried, because she always cries. Jahtae introduced people and made everyone the room comfortable, because she always does that. Taliya calmly listened and made sage remarks, because she always does that. Angeline watched and missed nothing, because she always does that. Tyler had four good, new ideas, because she always does that. Niesha made us laugh and reminded us all what’s important, because she always does that. (Cesar met someone new and made a potential partnership for his next project, but I haven’t known him long enough to know if he always does that.)

We talk a lot about how our work goes out into the world. Here was a play that asks you to think deeply about trauma, about parenting, about family, and about the choices we all make, whether we’re young or old.  But it was funny and touching, too. As a father sitting next to my own daughter, I felt the immense energy and wisdom that Iayanna brought to her work, and we spent the entire ride home talking it over. I think everyone in the audience had the same response.
Community and real world impact.

Exciting News!

We’re expanding!  Here is the press release from the School District of Philadelphia:

The District will also expand three high-performing schools – Hill Freedman Middle School, Science Leadership Academy and the Sustainability Workshop – through a $6 million investment from the Great Schools Fund, managed by the PSP.
“This is a valuable opportunity for us to work with principals to provide schools with the supplementary resources needed to serve incoming students and replicate our most successful schools and programs,” said Superintendent Dr. William R. Hite.
“We are thrilled to have the Philadelphia School Partnership’s support in this process, particularly in light of the District’s financial challenges.”

The expansions will ultimately create approximately 1,600 openings in high-performing District schools. PSP selected the schools after a thorough review of academic outcomes, leadership quality and capacity for growth.
“We created the Great Schools Fund to rapidly expand access to great schools of many different types for all families in Philadelphia,” said Mark Gleason, PSP executive director. “Each of these three expansion grants goes to a school that has demonstrated remarkable outcomes while filling a unique niche. We also are eager to support school leaders who see the challenges of the Facilities Master Plan as an opportunity to dramatically improve student outcomes.”

The Sustainability Workshop ($1.5 million) – The project-based, alternative senior year program will expand to add 500 students. The program currently serves 30 students. Last year, nearly all were accepted to college. PSP made a $175,000 incubation grant in July 2012 to support the development of the Workshop School. The school will enroll approximately 60 students next year.

If you are a parent or student interested in our school, please send an email to


I give thanks…for inspiration

I give thanks…for inspiration

For many years, my friend Coco and I went out and cheered at the marathon.  Then Lisa and I went with Coco.  Now my kids know that they’re going to spend one Sunday morning in November standing first at 34th and Powelton and then at the edge of Kelly Drive until their hands crack, listening to Mom and Dad encourage anyone who runs close enough for us to see their name on their bib.

It’s hard to tell who’s more inspiring — the runners who glide by first, barely sweating, barely breathing, or the people who reach the bottom of the hill by the Art Museum after four and a half hours of hard work.   Great runners are like the great shooters of the NBA — their motion is all alike.  And like a bad basketball league, the runners coming in later each have their own style.

Both inspire.  Both make you want to work harder.  Both make you want to at least think about running the next day.

We give our students books.  Lots of books.  Some we read with them, some we ask them to read alone.  They show a glimmer of interest in a topic and we bury them in books about it.   We have some baseball players this year and I gave one of them one of my favorite books.  There’s a line, midway through where the veteran catcher gives a rookie who is about to quit some advice:

The Kid had followed baseball all his life, loved the game, played it, yet for the first time he realized that more important than fielding or hitting, more important than anything, was that funny inner quality called courage.  “Now take those pitchers out there chasing flies.”  The catcher tipped back his chair.  “Take those catchers.  I can always tell which ones are real ball players just by the way they run.  That’s why I got confidence in you.  I watched you.  You go all out every time, whether you nab that old apple or not…”

Yesterday we had our first quarter exhibitions.   Our students stood up and talked about their work, their work habits, and their progress on their goals. We’ve tried to create a school where kids can try real things, which takes courage.  As a result, we’ve created a place where kids fail and can stand up and talk about it.    And I felt the same thing I feel watching the marathon, the same thing I feel reading John Tunis again…

School ought to be a place where you see all the kids, the 5 minute milers and the 12 minute milers, and feel their grace, their efforts, their wisdom, their humor, their sadnesses, their fears, and their great triumphs.    All kids have the courage Tunis is describing, somewhere, and a good school pulls it out, makes it necessary, builds the place around it, and helps them stay strong and moving in the right direction.  

It’s been a great first quarter.

Really doing it…

We spent yesterday, the three of us, in a conference room, with a cruddy air conditioning system and a noisy projector, grappling with the question of who we want to our students to be and what we want them to be able to do by the time they finish our program.   This is one of those great inquiries that every teacher and every school ought to address on a regular basis and one of those topics that’s often the focus of school wide professional development.

When we finished (start at 9, wrap up at 4, with a lunch break to talk car parts and politics), Matt turned to us and said, “you know, we’re really doing it.  We’re talking about it and we’re really going to do it.

This is the difference between the way school usually operates and what we’re trying to do in building a program that can transition into a full school.   I remember churning over questions like this in PD  while knowing that the moment the school year started the ideas and ideals would be jettisoned, that the overwhelming nature of trying to navigate a complex institution where the teachers had no power, no hope, no voice, would quash whatever dreams existed in August.

Here, though, we were the teachers (and administrators, and lunch workers, and custodians, and counselors) who would be trying to make this happen.  Our ideas, our flashes of insight, our blind spots, would all be at work come the first day of school.   What’s scary (and sad) is how few folks working in schools get to feel this kind of empowerment. Instead of responding and compromising, why can’t we have schools where teachers plan how to create a transformative educational experience for their students and then really go do it?


(deep thoughts during this morning’s bike ride)

How do we put students in the same position, where they are arguing, deliberating, laughing, producing, working, all with a real goal in mind?  How can we ensure that we model the processes we go through to complete our project?  How do we demonstrate the processes based on respect and trust that make real work possible? How do we set up a space with the resources and community ethos so that they can bring their own projects to life?

so many d— questions

So this blog has some political content but I don’t really want to talk politics.  I want to talk about what it means to be educated, what it means to learn, and what it means to know what you know and know what you don’t know.   Garry Wills, whose writing and outlook I respect immensely, has a piece on one of the Republican candidates here.  Make what you will of the politics, I’m more interested in how he describes what education can do for teenagers:

At some point, late or early, children disengage themselves from the stories crafted for them. Their loss of belief in the tooth fairy is only slightly behind their loss of teeth. There is a slow motion race to disappear between Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. The Stork undergoes, for some, a lengthier demise—and “the birds and the bees” do not long outlast it. Others, I hope, soon disabuse themselves of belief in their parents’ infallibility. Certain religious myths are discarded without necessarily losing faith. That I do not believe in Noah’s Ark does not mean that I must stop believing in God—though certain home schooling parents force that connection on their kids.

Minds grow by questioning things, and adolescence is a great period of questions. Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken learned to cross-examine the Bible all on their own, without any help at all from college. An unquestioned faith is not faith but rote recitation. The opposite of such questioning is not deep belief but arrested development.

While Wills is writing about (and responding to certain claims made about) religion and universities, his thesis represents what school ought to be about, or at least what we’re after at the Workshop.  How do you learn to ask questions?  How do you learn to cross examine texts, beliefs, and ideas on your own?  How do you contextualize these new understandings? How do you take this new knowledge and make a difference in the world?  How do you bring a question from something wriggling in your mind to a full-blown project?   And, as teachers, how do we encourage questions? How do we help students see their questions in the school curriculum? How do we bring the great period of questions that is adolescence into the school day?

It’s personal

We do project based learning at the Workshop. The students come up with a problem. We sit with them and think about how to begin to solve the problem. Together we puzzle over different approaches. We think about different resources. We come up with two to four ways to demonstrate that they’ve effectively addressed the problem. They research, write, argue, build, design, make mistakes, make breakthroughs, listen, learn, daydream, and the project slowly comes to an end. We talk about the process together. We evaluate the work along the way and offer lots of feedback. They reflect about the process and their final product. We reflect on the process and their final product. We sit down together and do a final evaluation.

We’ve written about this project process that we’re adapting. It’s not new or particularly original. I like to think we try to make it effective for our awesome group of students. We have good days and bad days.

What I was thinking about tonight was how personal these projects become and what that means for education.

Most of my time in high school was about keeping “school” away from everything I thought was important. I read a lot but not my school books. I wrote a lot but not for class. I thought a lot about music, about listening and playing it, but the moment school touched any part of that, I’d withdraw. The few times I tentatively tried to insert my passions into a class didn’t go well. You can’t write this paper that way. That’s not what I asked for. Yes, you still have to do this. And I didn’t want to buy in — buying in didn’t appear to offer me much. Of course, it’s a good bet my high school teachers remember another kid with enormous potential who was lazy or crazy or both.

Project based learning is personal. If it’s done right, it’s personal. It’s your idea and there’s a team of folks waiting to help you make it real. Sometimes it’s with others as a group project and sometimes you’re working alone. When it goes well, it’s a triumph. You’ve brought something into this world, however rough or in need of work. You will probably fail at first because any worth doing is difficult and will necessarily require multiple tries.

Think about how scary and new this must be for students used to six or seven classes where they can doze, where they can offer one or two answers to prove their involvement, where they can take a test that they spent less an hour preparing for and get a B-, where they can write a paper in one sitting and get a C+. You almost never have to engage or put your own passions into it.

At the Workshop, though, you’re in a large house with a bunch of individuals who want you to dream up your own idea and carry it all the way through and who are relentless in pushing your forward. It’s pretty awesome. It’s what school should feel like. It’s real so it’s scary and risky and messy. Having just watched the latest round of projects, I feel how deeply personal this process can become. I’m immensely proud of this last round of student projects, regardless of outcome, because of the personal investment they’ve all put forth, the chances they’ve taken in trying to create something new, and the ways they’ve begun to genuinely take charge of their own education.

One exhausted and contented teacher, going to bed.