03 February 2011

Chris Lehmann, Alan Shapiro, and sitting on a Philadelphia floor, almost 40 years ago

On a rainy morning back in the 1970s a few students from New Rochelle, New York's Program for Inquiry, Involvement, and Independent Study ("3Is") walked the couple of blocks from New Rochelle High School down to the Mayflower Elementary School parking lot. One student had a mother who taught there. I guess we were old enough to have drivers licenses, yeah, or this tale might have other components than the relevant ones. At the elementary school there may or may not have been a conversation between mother and daughter, and then we piled into a Ford Country Squire station wagon, filled it with gas at a Getty station on North Avenue, and drove to Philadelphia.

We didn't ask any adults about this. There were no permission slips. Not much of a plan. We were students in a different time and in a different kind of school.

Our mission was to visit The Parkway Program, a secondary school like ours, but located in the heart of a major city. We had many similar schools around us at that time, "Schools Without Walls" existed throughout Westchester County and Long Island as parts of, or adjuncts to, public high schools. We had visited them all, even played basketball against them all, but the program in Philadelphia offered us a chance to see how this translated into another environment.
"The whole scene oozed with activity and life and while there was no apparent order to it all, a sense of purpose seemed evident... I asked [the head teacher] if he would identify the kinds of things that were going on about us. His response - quick and unqualified - was to the effect that he had no idea what the activities consisted of, that it was furthermore not his business to know, and that the participants had defined the content, value, and details of their pursuits and were probably doing whatever it was they felt it important to do." - Greenberg and Roush. Philadelphia
Schools like this were notoriously hard to observe and evaluate. There were few - if any - things which looked like "classes" or "classrooms." Students were, typically, not there. And if they were there, what they were doing was either not obvious, or way too obvious (we had a brief hop-scotch craze, and we also had one student, who would go on to graduate from MIT, who entertained himself by running full-speed into the walls).  Most learning took place in projects - individual or group - or through conversations or individual reading, and might take place (in the case of the 3Is) in Alan Shapiro's living room in the evening ("Great Books") or Grand Central after midnight ("Abnormal Psychology") or at the City's Parks Department Greenhouse or the New Rochelle Hospital Emergency Room or City Hall or wherever.

This 'inability to observe' was, I suspect, part of the movement's downfall. Despite incredibly impressive graduation and four-year college attendance rates (far better than the "regular schools"), observers, especially as Reagan/Bush conservatism became the national mood, saw nothing but "kids hanging out, doing nothing." The model was too far from the expectations of political leaders to make any sense.

I thought about all this as Chris Lehmann, principal of Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy (SLA) and organizer-in-chief of the EduCon conference, and I discussed education on a brief post I wrote last weekend from SLA and EduCon. It's a great conversation, which touches on all the difficulties faced by those really trying to help kids learn (as opposed to those trying to test kids, which is a different idea), and all the difficulties of observing and discussing learning.

I had gone to EduCon and been uncomfortable. Nothing wrong with that in itself. I write a lot about the mismatches between schools and students, teachers and students. One size never fits all. And, I did find SLA students to be comfortable with their school, happy with their school, happy with their learning environment, which is what matters. It may not have been my vision of radically different education, but I'm not sure that SLA claims to be that. Others, perhaps they are very well meaning educators desperately looking for "an answer" and grasping at anything which looks successful as their "model," will see SLA and EduCon as a 'Nirvana,' but - that's "reader response," not school claim or design.

School in session, circa 1975
But what had struck me, especially on Twitter, was that when I said I wasn't comfortable at EduCon or that I had questions about SLA, a flood of educators told me that what was wrong was my behavior. You can see that in a couple of the blog comments (not from Chris) as well. You can also see the flip side. People, perhaps including myself, blaming the environment for the entirety of the mismatch. And that is an old, old conversation.

Student: "This school sucks." Educator: "No it doesn't, it's just your attitude." If you wander school corridors, as I tend to do, you will hear versions of this conversation all the time.

So, as Chris and I talked, talking out an initial face-to-face conversation which went something like this: Chris (walking down the hall): "Ira, aren't there any sessions which seemed interesting to you?" Ira (sitting in the hall): "Chris, you know I don't go to classes." - perhaps you've heard versions of this in your schools - I begin to think about how we see learning.

I had come to EduCon from a week walking schools with teachers and some students. We had "done rounds," going classroom to classroom, looking at spaces and what was happening inside them. And I realized how rarely teachers "share practice" like that.

And then I thought way back, way back to that rainy day in the 1970s. And I wondered how often our students really "share practice"?

So when we arrived in Philadelphia and climbed the stairs to the Parkway Program's home base, we found something which looked as different from our space as might be imaginable. They occupied an old 1950s style office space. We occupied a never-used-as-intended third floor cafeteria. Their's was dark and complex, ours was horribly uninteresting - so blank as a space we called it "The White Room."

But when we sat down in a circle on their floor, and began to talk, we found our common ground. And we talked about all the things which were 'really great' about this kind of school, and all the things which were 'really hard.' We started with surface things. We wished we were downtown like they were. They kind of wished they had some school facilities - gyms, etc - which we had around us. We all struggled to figure out what we were doing, and why. We all understood the liberation which came when we were freed from "industrial schooling."

Parkway watching, 1970
And then it got more complex. We all had different kinds of pre-high school experiences, and we talked about how those might have shaped our sense of the "possible" were it not for the interactions we had in our schools. We talked about - yes, we talked even though we lacked the right words - about what peer-to-peer unstructured learning was like. We talked about carrying the skills which had often gotten us in trouble K-8, into this new kind of learning space and using those skills in positive ways. We asked how they used resources - teachers, businesses, museums, institutions, the city... and compared that to how we did the same. We talked a bit about the future, and we were all vague - our education was not career driven - but we all suspected that we'd avoid traditional classrooms at all costs.

I think, without getting into "meta" jargon, we, by sitting down together, we're deeply thinking about our learning. We all did this anyway. We attended schools where every bit of our education was not just under our control, but had to be created by us (Alan Shapiro's oft-used quote: "You don't like it, do something else."). I was the one who decided that I needed 'non-reading English' and rode with the midnight WVOX news guy for a few months, learning writing without "writing" and reading without "reading" and editing via audio. I was also the guy who decided that classes just did not work, and so, I had to come up with something else.

But there's something about sharing those ideas of how we learn, sharing them beyond our comfort zone, which sharpens the understanding. And somehow, before we ended up challenging the Parkway kids to a "New York v Philly Home and Home B-Ball Series," I think we all had a better sense of what learning meant to us. Because we had held it up against various mirrors and lenses, and seen it in new ways.

Which is the same thing I saw when teachers showed each other their classrooms - classrooms in action. Which is the same thing Chris Lehmann allows to happen when he lets people wander SLA, and when he lets people doubt what they see. "I forgot to take it down afterward," Chris said about the elevator sign which bothered me, "My bad. It should have come down after the weekend because I agree, students should not have the Thou-Shalt-Nots all over the building. And I've probably walked by that sign three dozen times." Learning via seeing through others eyes. Through seeing yourself reflected in others eyes.

In the end I think this is about what Postman and Shapiro and Weingartner and others called, "Learning how to learn." And it is about letting kids find their path to that.

If I think back to that Country Squire, there were kids in there reading Siddhartha, and Franny and Zooey, and Das Kapital. There were magical musicians and gifted mathematicians. There was me, the storyteller who never read anything, and one friend who mostly just drew pictures. It didn't matter. We knew how to learn, and we were a learning community.

And that should be exactly what we want for our kids right now.

- Ira Socol


David Timony said...

Ira, you are a writer and an observer. You appreciate and I appreciate that. Verbal football via twitter let me know that we'd hit it off and then found that we're practically brothers.

I have been stewing on my reflection, reaction, and response to EduCon b/c I want to be accurate but not bitter. It's cleaning up and I know that I have to write to be heard as much as I must write to understand.

Thanks for the push. I look forward to more learning with you. You'll have to spend more time in Philly.

Go raibh maith agat, mo dheartháir.

Anonymous said...

"I had come to EduCon from a week walking schools with teachers and some students. We had "done rounds," going classroom to classroom, looking at spaces and what was happening inside them. And I realized how rarely teachers "share practice" like that."

I'm thinking that there has to be some way to turn education into an open source software development project. :-)


Jerrid Kruse said...

The "learning how to learn" is, for me, the most important part of an education. Unfortunately, many kids are learning that learning is jumping through hoops, getting A's, and memorizing facts.

When we try to help kids authentically learn how to learn, we end up having to help kids understand what learning is. This is an area of research of mine - love it.

When I taught middle school, I bet i spent more time discussing learning (what it is, how to do so, & learning theory) than science :)

Anonymous said...

htb: Oddly enough, I was thinking how many of my classes could benefit from an Agile-esque development model. Stand up meetings that scope out our week. What do you want to do? Is there anything in your way? When thinking about the space for routines and teacher practice in a student-directed learning space, that's not a bad starting point.

Jose Vilson said...

Funny you mention this. Someone else I knew wasn't satisfied with their experience with SLA, and wondered to themselves if there was anything to hide in this school. Because of the temperament of schools right now, there's a heavy dose of distrust with anything / any place that looks too open or too good. When people have plenty of praise for someone, they gravitate towards finding their negatives.

Having said that, I wondered to myself what made your experience there so uncomfortable. After reading this post, I have a better understanding, I think. It also doesn't help when we edu-nerds lean too far on the side of "nice." At some point, I'll put down my thoughts on EduCon, but for the time being, I'll just say that it's always good to stay inquisitive if it means that the idea you're questioning improves in the process.

I personally enjoyed my visit to EduCon, and I'd love to hear more about this idea of an open school from your end.

jsb16 said...

Reading your posts always makes me realize that I'm not insane to wish I could work with kids who weren't being shoe-horned into a mold very few of them fit. I'm trying to ignite a scientific frame of mind and curiosity and love of learning, and parents and kids are complaining because they're not getting As for trying to memorize facts instead of thinking. And those are the "good" kids...

Joe Bires said...

Great post, you are a thoughtful and insightful observer. I think if you would have brought all this commentary and background info. to your original post perhaps everyone (including me) would not have been so harsh in citing what was wrong with your behavior.

But I think you have to be honest in separating how you experience an event, from what the event may be, and from how others experience the same event.

If more people considered how kids experience school and learning, we would be in a better place. I think that is what EduCon is about.

irasocol said...


As Chris noted on his post in his blog, my questioning of SLA "comes from the left" which is rarely where challenges to the SLA model come from these days. So my first questions related to how could we be modeling a truly different school if we were following a sort-of school schedule and holding discrete "classes" (sessions), and if those sessions had been pre-determined. I also guess that I wanted to see greater doubt, more challenge of the structures of education (subject separation, classes, grades, grading), in the students.

So there was a mismatch between the rhetoric I had heard re: EduCon, SLA - not from Chris - but from other attendees who saw it as something "radically different." I saw SLA as incrementally - significantly but incrementally - different. And EduCon as something similar.

And that led to deeper mismatching in my mind. The rooms were crowded, there were too many instances of "celebrity" which bugged me. But, nothing is for everyone.


You're still going to have to explain to me why you (and others) got angry instead of "getting questioning." Is that your response to frustrated students?

I think people have a right to express frustration with how they match up with even our best efforts.

- Ira Socol

Kirsten said...

Hey Ira,

I just posted a long and windy comment here but I'm not sure it posted.

Hoping to be in dialog,

Kirsten Olson