SLA Isn’t THE Promised Land. (Emphasis on the THE.)

I tweeted a possible title for this post out earlier tonight, and hurt some feelings.  Understandably.  My apologies – that wasn’t my intention, and sometimes my mouth gets ahead of my brain.  I have nothing but the highest respect for the Science Leadership Academy and my friend and colleague Chris Lehmann.  I think he’d agree with me on what I’m about to say.  We’ll see, I guess.

This weekend, 500 or so folks will descend upon Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA for the third Educon conference.  It’s a wonderfully neat school, with a phenomenal staff and a fine bunch of students.  I’ve been to the school twice, and am in constant contact with teachers there.  They’re my teachers and colleagues and, in some cases, friends, and I think the community and educational opportunities offered there are nothing short of what I would hope for my own children and for all kids.  Simply outstanding.

That said, I guess I’d like to offer a suggestion or two to the folks who will be paying close attention to Educon this weekend, and who otherwise hold SLA up to high esteem. (And I’m one of those folks.)  Take it for what it’s worth.

The Science Leadership Academy is not The Promised Land. ((I don’t believe that the folks at SLA say such things.  But I see and hear them from admirers.))  No place is. ((Again, plenty of folks seem to believe otherwise.))  The school is a place, a special place, that people made, and that is a response and a reaction to its contexts, geographical, political, social and otherwise.  It is not the only place where great things happen for and with kids, and it is not the only place or way that kids can learn.

You probably know some people who can make great things.  You might be one of those people.  Actually, let me say that again, and slightly differently – You most likely ARE one of those people.  But you have to act like it.  Simply fawning over the achievements of someone else and regretting that you live somewhere else isn’t a useful reaction.

So much of what I see right after a place like SLA is praised is a laundry list of reasons why the praiser’s school/community/whatever can’t be like SLA.   I don’t get that.  Of course your school won’t be like theirs.  You aren’t in downtown Philadelphia.  You don’t operate in the same space.  Your families are different.  So, for that matter, are you.  But that’s not a bad thing. It’s okay.  I live and work in Colorado.  There is opportunity here, too.

Chris and his staff built a place that made sense as a combination of the places they came from, the places they were, and the places and ideas that they wanted to build with.  They made the place.  Together.  With their students.  And you can make a place, too.  But it’ll be different, deliciously, brilliantly different, from SLA.  Not because they’re better than you, or you them, but because good schools are about context and environment and about taking what you have and what you want and striking a balance and working very, very hard. Good schools are about people honestly and intentionally working together very purposefully.

Good schools are not about taking another’s model and applying it without serious consideration to your own local environment, or about lamenting that you are not someone else. That’s irresponsible, and doesn’t honor a fine example.

So as you’re enjoying the school culture of SLA, a place that I would like to be visiting and learning from/with/in this weekend (and I kind of will be), I hope you’ll move past the “Wow,” and towards the critical eyes of “Huh.  Why does this work?  How might I make something work in my own context(s)?”

Because, we all know, imitation, and not worship, is the highest form of flattery.  Imitation without serious thought as to how to make and sustain change in one’s own situation is not useful.  And doesn’t actually honor the fine model that SLA might be for you.

You, too, can make special places.  In fact, you may already have.  Good on you.  Talk about them.  Tell us how you did it.  Help us, as Chris and SLA do, to figure out that there isn’t one way to do school well.  There are many.  And we need them all.

21 thoughts on “SLA Isn’t THE Promised Land. (Emphasis on the THE.)

  1. As someone that is excited to be heading out to Educon in a few days; I have to admit that your post is timely, honest, and thought provoking.
    It is not just about this conference, but it’s about the conversations that come and continue because of it. We should be appreciating and building upon every learning experience, including day to day reminders in the classroom., that’s a no-brainer. And after reflection, looking at what we do well and how can we connect with more educators and more teachers. I love your quote, Good schools are about people honestly and intentionally working together very purposefully.” I agree, I am proud of my profession that we have made the strides we have from the first Educon. I think the conversations are being had and the climate is changing. I get excited when I hear about un-conferences becoming more prevalent across the country. Is it fast enough, no, but its forward. The last decade has been great for education, I am looking forward to the next steps.

  2. It’s always wise to see the world through clear eyes, Bud. The academy is clearly an amazing innovative school and we are all the better for the fact that they are so willing to share out their ideas. But, not every school will be or should be like the academy. It is on us to envision what our schools should look like and plan on how to get there. And I am not talking charter schools either. I am talking about the public schools where many of us teach and struggle to bring innovative ideas to our colleagues. The academy is a great model, but not the end of the line.
    Kevin Hodgson
    .-= Kevin Hodgson´s last blog ..That book on the shelf is a dictionary =-.

  3. Paul Oh says:

    What you write, Bud, is in my mind analogous to being critical learners of the technologies we use to educate (ourselves and others) as opposed to being in awe of what technology can do. Which, ironically, is what I think the educators and students and parents and guardians involved in SLA would want us to do anyway. I for one will take away from your post the positive exhortation to consider context as we travel to EduCon or experience the conference online, to see ourselves as capable within our own schools of making meaningful change. As someone heading to Philadelphia tomorrow, your post will resonate in my brain.
    .-= Paul Oh´s last blog ..quiet is ok =-.

  4. JenW says:

    I am sorry that people were hurt — but I do thank you for writing this post.

    I truly am a huge fan of Chris (always will be) — his humility, his genuineness, and his vision and love for students is admirable and not often seen in most administrators.

    I truly enjoyed my time at SLA at the first Educon — and follow their progress from tweets from Chris and visits to their website. They are doing fantastic things.

    The dynamics at that school are fantastic and even if we tried to duplicate them — it would be impossible without a full cloning of staff, buildings, students, environment, etc. And I am so glad you shared this post.

    SLA has many many MANY qualities that need to be used as examples within our schools. But being a SLA clone can’t be one.

    I think the ONE thing that CL does very well (that we all need to duplicate immediately) is the fact that I have NEVER heard him share the downsides of his school. Everything is always the positive. I am sure there is “junk” but at least in print (twitter, blog posts, articles) he emphasizes the good — always the good. That is something we should all duplicate immediately……

    Thanks for posting this.

  5. Bill Gaskins says:

    Thanks for a thought provoking post. I cannot agree with you more. The same hold true to a great lesson that may happen in a teacher’s classroom. It can’t be replicated by someone else, but we have to look at the lesson, the environment, the students, the teacher, the space, the interactions, and more and learn from it. I was at SLA last year and that is how I approached my visit. What can I learn? What could I replicate? What can I add to what is already being done or take away? Or I may come up with something totally different.

    Thanks for pushing my thinking…

  6. I’m trying to figure out what else to say other than, “A-yep.”

    The whole purpose for the conference is to come together around ideas. And yes, there are some guiding principles that move the conference, and they are principles that inform SLA as well, but very deliberately, the conference isn’t about SLA. It’s about this whole community that exists around inquiry-driven modern (is that a better word than 21st Century, I dunno) learning.

    I never quite know what to do when people talk about replicating SLA. There are so many ways I could imagine we could have done things differently… and I love finding places that share some guiding ideas as ours but have implemented them SO differently.

    The point of inquiry-driven, project-based learning is that one-size doesn’t fit all kids. It’s true for schools too. What makes SLA work is that a group of teachers and students and parents came together around a vision and made — and continue to make — that vision real every day. The school evolves because of the people who care deeply about what goes on there. Every community should have the chance to figure out what they care about and to build schools that reflect and enhance their vision.
    .-= Chris Lehmann´s last blog ..Educon 2.2 – Looking Forward and Looking Back =-.

  7. Bud (and Chris),

    I think you both nailed it with your statements about WORKING TOGETHER, INTENTIONALITY, and VISION. SLA is indeed a unique school, and I”m blessed to have had so many different levels of exposure to the faculty and their work. We’ve had so many of our teachers here exposed to the good work there, but are they coming back here and doing “SLA’s” work? No. Why? Just as you noted the context is different in many ways, not the least of which is a K-12 independent school that has been around for 85 years in a very traditional college-prep culture.

    SLA and the experience of EduCon (which is not just about SLA–think about the variety of conversations and facilitators) is about being able to be with people whose infectious spirit, fabulous vision, unity of purpose and work ethic, and downright just “good peopledness” are shared so generously. It feels like the kind of “good home” I’d want to be a part of, and hopefully that I am working alongside others here to create, in partnership with our parents…and our students. At the end of the day, the question we attendees should each ask ourselves is what kind of “good home” are we creating in each of our contexts for those who live there?

    Thanks, Bud. Thanks, Chris. And, thanks to those who will attend this weekend.
    .-= Laura Deisley´s last blog ..Teaching through Technology: Frivolous or Fundamental =-.

  8. I always thought that when you saw somone doing something extrodianary you should stop and thing, “hmm that’s cool I wonder how we could recreatate something similar in our school” I certainly wouldn’t want it to be exactly the same because then it wouldn’t be mine and I wouldn’t be able to call my mom and tell to look at all the cool things I could do.
    .-= Brendan Murphy´s last blog ..Back to Education =-.

  9. Jenny says:

    It seems to me that the bigger message here is a critical one. In education we seem to be trying to find ‘the’ answer and replicate it everywhere. Impossible. As you say, so many factors are involved in determining what will work best for students in any given school.
    .-= Jenny´s last blog ..Disclaimer: Not Directly Related to Education =-.

  10. For me I’m very quick to jump to the “what does this mean for me and my situation” thinking? After all, that’s why we’re here. While we’ll all certainly enjoy the good people and conversation, we’re here to learn.

    That said, I think it’s also wonderful to be able to simply enjoy the energy and specialness of the school. Simply seeing joyful learners, caring teachers in very dense, close quarters is very cool. I’ll do my share of analyzing and constructing but celebrating the successes of others, just like you’d do the same for your friends children, it’s good to do.

    I thoroughly enjoyed my few hours on Thursday before the other attendees arrived. I count that as a real treat.

    1. Bud Hunt says:

      I find any time spent in good classrooms to be useful and a real pleasure. And I hope everyone is quick to jump to thoughtful considerations of the question you’re asking. But I also see lots of excuses and missteps and inaction. I’m not a fan of the pained lament. Doesn’t help.

  11. Gail Desler says:

    A week later, I’m still reflecting on my SLA experience. I definitely echo Dean’s sentiment that “seeing joyful learners, caring teachers in very dense, close quarters is very cool.”

    This was my first EduCon experience and also my first observation of a 1×1 laptop school – and of a charter school within a public school system. It was easy to see the connection between the students’ ownership of learning and their supportive, technology-enhanced learning environment. (Although I didn’t see much interactive use of the SmartBoards;)

    So, yes, I left with thoughts of how to “imitate” the SLA model in my own district…but also with concerns about how to build on the charter school movement without sucking dry our “regular” public schools.
    .-= Gail Desler´s last blog ..Reading by Numbers – One last AR rant =-.

  12. Gail Poulin says:

    I have come back to this thread to see how the comments rolled and to put the EduCon effect in a different perspective. I teach kindergarten children and what I notice about the often intense teaching/learning experience is:
    1. every year brings new personalities to the classroom and thus new angles to view the world of learning
    2. every interaction between teacher and student is personalized
    3. every student needs to learn WHY something is and not simply THAT it is
    4. every child needs to recognize their own growth
    5. every student needs to be encouraged to do their very best
    We’ll not become a 1-1 laptop school in the foreseeable future but having high expectations for student performance translates into our own success. I like having success as a goal. SLA views learning with high expectations for student performance and therefore they get it.
    .-= Gail Poulin´s last blog ..News February 5, 2010 =-.

  13. TamL17 says:

    Well said, Bud. I especially like your comment that “Good schools are about people honestly and intentionally working together very purposefully.”

    We are working on changing the Mission/Vision of our district. The term intentional and deliberate keep coming up. In order to make change, we need to be able to have tough, respectful conversations and be able to move on even though we may have differences on opinions.

    If we keep our discussions kid-centered and student focused, we can’t go wrong.

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