Chris Lehmann and I spent most of today visiting a number of schools in Philadelphia, among them his newly opened second high school, SLA-Bieber. (No, not that Bieber.) It was great to see Chris’s vision spreading into a second high school; only three weeks old, I could already feel that SLA vibe i.e. kids who actually wanted to be in school. That visit was sandwiched in-between a quick visit to Microsoft’s School of the Future, which I’d never actually seen, and a brand new startup called The Workshop School It’s the latter that I want to dive into here a bit, because I found a part of their process that happened to be playing out today to be both interesting and inspiring.
The Workshop School has a project based vision for learning, and the schedule allows time for kids to go deep into their work: two 100-minute project blocks in the morning and a series of three shorter periods in the afternoon for more traditional class time. Simon Haugher, who has taken on the “principal” role, says the goal is to have students create projects that live in the real world, that the value in project based learning comes in the authenticity of it. The 70 or so inaugural freshmen started the year doing what they called the “Who Am I?” project, and they’re in the process of beginning to develop a culture of learning and operating. And, interestingly, they have a “Maker” teacher who will be working with kids in a Fab lab type space they’re slowing putting together.
Today, each of five advisory groups were sharing out the results of a norms building exercise that was pretty cool. Each group of about 15 students had spent a good chunk of time over the first few weeks trying to select four words that they would use to represent their group to the school. Surprisingly, there was some pretty wide variety…one group had even briefly considered the word “chivalrous,” though most others had landed on words like “intelligent” and “hard-working” and “creative.” Students in the advisories were selected to present the word to the rest of the classes as they moved around the building, and they all asked questions of one another: Why did a particular class select that word? How were they defining the words? What words didn’t they choose and why? It was fun to watch.
Simon said that the idea was to create some personal language around expectations for the students as they do their work. Using the group in the picture as an example, it would be fair to ask a student at any time “How is what you’re doing right now showing ambition? Art? Intelligence? Hard work?” It reminded me of how they frame expectations at SLA: the only “rules” are that you are respecting yourself, respecting the community, and respecting the school as a place of learning. That’s it. Everything flows from there.
All of which is decidedly different from most schools, where the “norms” are created by administration and documented in a handbook along with the consequences for infractions. I’m sure many probably read stories of schools doing it the way Chris and Simon do it and think they must be operating in some parallel universe, that their students could never be trusted to create their own expectations and culture around learning, or that they would abuse it if they did. It’s not perfect, I’m sure, but when you walk into places like The Workshop School and SLA and now SLA-Bieber (and I’m sure others scattered about) there’s just a different feel. There’s an investment, and rootedness that is missing from the vast majority of schools I’ve been to where kids are playing by the rules, not writing them.
I’ll be interested to see the trajectory of Simon’s kids and their projects as for many if not most, this is a whole new definition to school. My gut says they’ll figure it out, because the vision is really clear: learning is about experience and doing and creating real, meaningful stuff together as a community. That’s a great place to start.