Every year since it started, I have attended Educon. Educon, the only education conference held in an actual school, grew out of EduBloggerCon as a way to continue the conversations started there, and to make sure the conversations between educators about teaching and education had another place to be voiced and heard. It’s a place where teachers, administrators, parents and others in the education world can get together and have conversations about how to change and evolve education, how to improve the craft of teaching, and brainstorm solutions for some of the stickier problems everyone in these worlds face.
The Science Leadership Academy (SLA), a Philadelphia special admission public school, is an example of what every school can be- student centered, inquiry-driven, and an amazing environment where learning and community come together. On the Friday the conference was supposed to start, Philadelphia schools were closed due to snow. Yet the students, who are an integral part of running and planning the conference, took it upon themselves to start sending messages via Facebook and Twitter, and over a hundred students still came to school on a snow day, to make sure the visitors and guests would be able to see THEIR school in action, even under somewhat unusual circumstances. You know a school is a special place for kids if they come there even on a snow day, where the hurdles of even getting to school are more challenging than normal.
But I’m not surprised by this. Because at the first Educon, I was speaking to one of the teachers, Mr. Rochester, who spoke about the kids regularly coming to school early, and that the faculty would have to chase them out of school at 6pm when the building was being locked for the evening. He said they couldn’t figure out why the kids wouldn’t leave. I knew why from the moment I got there- the people who cared about the students, the students who cared about their learning, and the electricity in the air of “How can we change the world today?” was palpable. Of course kids would do this- school is the most exciting place to be- better than video games, better than just about anything. School has become their place, their home, their club. And while the fact every student has a laptop is nice, it’s the fact that this enhances their communication and collaboration that really makes a difference. The tech is secondary to the people- the teachers and students who have a sense of school and community that transcends anything I had ever seen before.
SLA is a special school that totally changed my perspective on what school can be, and I’d give my right arm to get to be there as a student. But it also sets a shining example of what schools can be, and makes me want to do whatever is necessary to help my school district emulate some of what SLA has. I want to help inspire our teachers to want more, to care more, and to realize it’s not all about the external things, but it’s as much about who you are as a teacher and whether or not you are personally invested in your students and their success.
The teachers at SLA are excellent not only because of what they know, but moreover, because they care so much about their students. They care about their own learning. The faculty meets and works as a team, and they don;t leave a meeting until their is consensus. Not everyone wins, but there’s a sense of setting a common agenda that everyone can live with and try, and knowing that if Plan A doesn’t work, they’ll go to Plan B just as willingly, without a sense of defeat, but just a sense of there may be a new and better way to tweek what’s happening.
It all starts with Inquiry.
I look at Differentiated Instruction as having many parts- Inquiry, project-based learning, personalized learning for students, and more- all of it together creating a learning atmosphere where students are valued and known as individuals, and are challenged to know themselves and push themselves, as much as be guided and mentored by the teachers. SLA embodies this every day, so I know it’s not a myth, a silver unicorn, but it can be done. Moreover, the change is not about tech (although it helps) or location- it’s largely one of attitude and a willingness to do things differently. And that is free- all it takes is a belief that change is truly possible.
Places like SLA where the kids have a sense of place and ownership in their school don’t have to be rare gems- but it does take leadership, culture and support- a willingness to be different and do different. And all of that starts inside each individual. Places like SLA just set an example and let you know it’s not a utopian dream.