Today, we hear a great deal of talk about global competition and the role of schools in ensuring that students can compete in the global economy. A narrow focus on college and career readiness, however, can lead students to disengage from school. If we are committed to educating the whole child, we have to stop treating adolescence as preparation for adulthood and instead honor the rich, full, and often confusing lives that adolescents are leading while they are with us in school.
What if we treated high school as real life instead of preparation for real life? What would we have to change? What systems and structures would we have to build to reflect that change?
At the Science Leadership Academy, a public high school formed as a partnership between the School District of Philadelphia and the Franklin Institute (the oldest hands-on science museum in the United States), we have tried to answer that question by building an empowering, engaging academic life for students both inside and outside the classroom. Science Leadership Academy is a magnet school enrolling 485 students drawn from every zip code in the city. Our students are diverse in many ways: the racial composition is 46 percent black, 33 percent white, 10 percent Latino, and 10 percent Asian; 49 percent of the students are from low-income families; 9 percent of students are in special education; and more than 20 different languages are spoken in our students' homes.
An Inquiry-Driven Education
For us, the change starts with the notion of an inquiry-driven education. We believe that students learn best when we encourage them to ask powerful questions and then seek out the answers. Teachers incorporate our five core values—inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection—into their unit plans, creating a shared language of teaching and learning.
Working with Scientists and Engineers
In a recent 10th grade biochemistry unit, teachers Tim Best and Stephanie Dunda, Science Leadership Academy students, and engineering doctoral students from Drexel University collaborated to explore different methods to filter water. The students' goal was to design water filtration devices that purified water from the Schuylkill River well enough that it would pass Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for drinkable water.
To complete this task successfully, students needed to learn about environmental water-quality factors, which they did by conducting online research, attending in-person workshops with scientists, and participating in class discussions. They learned how to measure organic and inorganic pollutants in the water by doing field research with water samples and analyzing the samples in the classroom lab. To understand the nature of water filtration, they visited water and sewage treatment plants and spoke to engineers in the field about the engineers' work.
Back in the classroom, students designed filtration devices modeled on what they had seen in the field. As teacher Tim Best said, "It was amazing for kids to see that the process that creates drinkable water for our city is replicable in the classroom." Almost all the students were able to bring river water up to EPA standards, and those who didn't were able to collaborate with their peers and figure out how they could change their design to make it work. Each class voted on the best designs, and four groups of students went to Drexel University and presented their projects to teams of scientists and engineers, who gave them powerful professional feedback.
Such projects help students gain a deep understanding of the connection between the science they are learning and the daily choices they are making as citizens. When we allow students to see the connection between curriculum content and their lives, they feel empowered by the knowledge that they are contributing to their community.
Linking History and Current Issues
In Diana Laufenberg's 11th grade American history class, students must complete an active citizenship activity every quarter. In the first quarter of the year, students go to the polls and interview voters about why they choose to vote. In the second quarter, students attend a public meeting of the city council, the school board, or another community group of their choice. In the third quarter, students volunteer for a community service organization. And in the final quarter, students build on one of the first three activities.
These projects powerfully reinforce the work of the classroom. When students study the Voting Rights Act or discuss the American Dream, they see how historical events and modern-day issues are linked. Senior Yadi Angeles-Figueroa explained that the election-day project helped her understand how the most basic act of citizenship, voting, is tied into a much larger picture of what it means to be an American. As she interviewed voters, she connected their stories with what she had learned in class about the struggles of disenfranchised groups to get the vote.
Diana Laufenberg talks about the need to make American history relevant and powerful to students:
Democracy is not a spectator sport. To enable students to both appreciate the history they learn and apply it to their lives, they must engage in the day-to-day working of their own communities. The spiraling back and forth between their personal experiences and the lessons of history allow a connection to the past that I cannot create otherwise.
We owe it to our students to create pathways for them to meaningfully engage in the civic world while learning about their nation's history.
Real-World Experiences Every Year
Science Leadership Academy provides real-world experiences to students every year. In 9th grade, students go to the Franklin Institute every Wednesday afternoon from 1:30 to 3:30 and use the museum as their learning laboratory. The Wednesdays @ The Franklin program, which incorporates workshops, films, exhibits, and internships, enables our students to explore multiple facets of scientific inquiry outside the traditional classroom.
As part of this unusual partnership, students have worked with professionals from Lockheed Martin to learn about engineering in the real world. They have met internationally renowned scientists, who told the students about their research. They built an audio walking tour of the museum's Galileo exhibit, doing research on many of the artifacts, working with the exhibit designers, and learning to use the necessary technology to create the podcast.
In 10th and 11th grades, all students take part in the Individualized Learning Program (ILP), in which they choose experiences that relate to their interests and connect with adults in the field who can help them learn. We currently have 250 students working with more than 100 different organizations all over the city.
The spring before the program begins, students go to an event where they meet with the various organizations that are offering placements. Each student chooses up to three potential placements and is then matched with one of his or her selections. Students may also find their own placement if none of the available opportunities appeals to them. Students have served as apprentice teachers in elementary schools, learned how to become personal trainers, taken courses at local universities like Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania, and volunteered at local hospitals.
Senior Blaze Biello, who was interested in app development, worked with local entrepreneurs and mentors from Philly StartUp Corps (http://startupcorps.org), an organization that teaches young people how to start their own businesses. Blaze wrote, "I was able to launch my own company while I was still in high school and gained knowledge, resources, and contacts through the ILP setup."
In their senior year, students put together all they have learned to design and complete a yearlong project called the senior capstone. This project gives students the opportunity to apply the core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection to a topic of their own choosing and create an artifact of their learning that can serve as the signpost of the student, scholar, and citizen they have become. Roz Echols, capstone coordinator and physics teacher, explains,
Students spend four years doing the projects we assign, and although they get a lot of ownership, those projects are still designed by teachers. Capstone is an opportunity for students to design their own projects that enable them to develop their own ideas and demonstrate their ability to be thoughtful, independent members of a community of learners.
Working with an adult mentor, students have created projects ranging from the traditionally academic, to performance pieces, to political activism, to feats of engineering. Sample projects have included
- Creating a documentary about the connection between martial arts and confidence. A student who was an accomplished martial artist responded to stories about students being bullied at other schools by creating a documentary to show how martial arts can contribute to confidence.
- Designing a prototype of a welcome mat that would capture the energy expended walking across it to power a light bulb.
- Writing, casting, and directing an original play.
- Raising awareness of sickle cell anemia both in the school and in the larger community with various community activities culminating in a blood drive.
All Science Leadership Academy seniors must present their capstone projects to a panel composed of teachers, students, and often parents and other community members. The capstone presentation is one part celebration, one part academic presentation, and one part classic academic defense of the project as students face powerful questions about both their process and their product. As Roz Echols states, "Capstone gives them the confidence to develop their ideas and collaborate with other people, and we feel those skills will help them no matter what path they choose."
A Way of Living
Of course, many teachers have been linking their classrooms with the real world for ages. Most of us can recall such a teacher—the basketball coach or the school newspaper sponsor who helped us see the connection between the schoolwork we did and the lives we led. But such efforts often take place in isolation. When the school-to-real-world connection becomes a schoolwide mission with a common language and common processes to support it, it becomes a way of thinking and living for every student.
Although we at the Science Leadership Academy work hard to prepare students for college—as evidenced by the more than 95 percent of our graduates who go on to higher education—we also believe that school must be about more than just college readiness. By creating a school that values students' real-life experiences and concerns in the present, we help students see a vision of themselves far into the future. As Class of 2011 graduate Caroline Abdulbaki told us, "You didn't just teach us a way to learn. You taught us a way to live."
For more from Chris Lehmann on how schools can better prepare students for life beyond school, watch his TEDx talk, "Education Is Broken."
Chris Lehmann is principal of the Science Leadership Academy, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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