Visiting the Science Leadership Academy: Seeing Inquiry Driven, Project Based Learning Come to Life

A few weeks ago, I marveled about the end of the year projects in the 9th and 10th grade engineering classes at The Frisch School. In reflecting on the success of this venture, I came up with three factors that fostered this model. 1) The class was a self selected group interested in project based engineering learning. 2) It included a great deal of mentoring and role modeling. And 3) Student experienced genuine project based learning. I wondered if this model could be adapted to other high school subjects. Today I got my answer in a visit to the Science Leadership Academy (SLA) founded by Twitter rock star Chris Lehmann. It is a resounding yes.

The trip itself was a model of student directed learning as it was organized by Penina Warburg, a RealSchool student and active JedLab contributor, and Mrs. Tikvah Wiener, English Department Chair and Frisch RealSchool Founder. It featured in total two students Penina and Akiva Mattenson, another RealSchool student, two teachers, myself and Tikvah, Rabbi Eli Ciner, Associate Principal at Frisch, Mrs. Holly Cohen of the Kohelet Foundation, and Jeff Kiderman of the Affordable Jewish Education Project.

My Frisch colleagues and students on our trip to SLA. (I'm taking the picture.)
When we arrived at SLA, we were led on a tour by Jeremy Spry; I am not sure exactly what his official title is but his Twitter bio appropriately says he "makes things happen at Science Leadership Academy". Jeremy first discussed the model of SLA. It is a public high school in Philadelphia but one that accepts students from the entire city and is highly selective with 1000 applicants yearly for its 125 seats in each grade. Students are not chosen solely based on academic achievement but on their perceived ability to buy into the system of inquiry driven, project based learning. The school has 5 Core Values: Inquiry, Research, Collaboration, Presentation, and Reflection. These values are not just contained on a web page or in a file. They are posted as signs in every single classroom. Every student and teacher we spoke to shared a common language which included these values. Every unit plan explicitly contains connections to SLA's core values as illustrated by this lesson plan on colonialism a unit which I will discuss later.

The school day is designed to support these values. Every student in SLA is given a laptop to support his/her studies. Students learn in 65 minute blocks in groups of 31 students who share the same science, English, and history teachers; math is tracked separately by skill level NOT by grade. These consistent groupings allow for easy collaboration between the three disciplines. The school day is a relatively long one for a public school with students getting out at 3 or 4PM on most days, except on Wednesday when students get out at 12:50PM so they can either take classes at the Franklin Institute which is down the street or at local universities, or in 10th and 11th grade they can intern in a discipline of their choosing. Jeremy reflected on how this internship was just as valuable for the students who have a negative experience as those who have a positive one. For example, if a student is interested in engineering and interns for a year and HATES it, the student has learned a valuable lesson, that they probably should not pursue a career in engineering. This time every Wednesday is used by teachers for professional development, over 2 hours of weekly PD built into every teacher's schedule.

SLA's Core Values on the wall of every classroom.
The first classroom we went was a 9th grade science class. The year is a combined BioChem study. Students learn in a large room containing both a lab and an area for desks. Students are graded mostly based on their projects which all have detailed rubrics. They also receive occasional quizzes called Standards on core skills they need to master. However, what differentiates this from a regular class is that a student can retake a Standard as many times as they want until they master it. The assessment is not designed to label the student but to help the student achieve mastery.

What interested me the most in this class was watching students who were conducting lab experiments. These weren't highly scripted labs like ones you would find in a typical biology or chemistry class. These were open-ended explorations some students were conducting, while others were collaborating on laptops, in preparation for an upcoming science fair. I was also impressed with how the students carefully cleaned their lab equipment when the activity was done. Students clearly felt ownership of their learning and treated their learning environment with respect.

One other item which I LOVED is that every freshman in addition to their regular science class takes a semester of engineering. The reason they gave for this is that engineering is the classic inquiry based learning model since it is about solving problems in the real world. This engineering class then becomes the model that students follow in all of their other classes throughout their four years at SLA.

An interesting comment came out of our discussions with the students. They were talking about school budget cuts (which I will talk about later in my discussion of the math class) and how the school was forced to fire a foreign language teacher and replace her with an online learning Rosetta Stone program. Most of the students HATED the online platform and preferred learning from the teacher. Hmmm....

Next we went to a math class. This class was in geometry and was a mixed grouping of 9th and 10th graders. The students were all engrossed in math projects in which students were creating 3D models of different shapes to express their knowledge of surface area and volume. The class was hopping. Some students were making paper cut-outs. Others were modeling with Google Sketch-Up and Adobe Illustrator. Every student appeared to be on task and hard at work. Honestly, I have never seen a project based learning approach in a high school math class before. It was illuminating.

On the board were problems from other areas of mathematics based on a recent current events discussion of city school budget cuts. Questions on the board included, "Do teachers get laid off by seniority?",  "How much income does the city make through income tax?", and "How do we calculate the amount it takes to house a prisoner than take in a student?". All of these problems were student generated inquiries that required them to do research based on articles, read and interpret detailed data about the city budget, and present their findings. Wow!

Math class at SLA. Look at what the students are doing. Look at the board.

Student math projects.
Next, we heard from a student who talked about her capstone project. Every senior has a capstone project which involves a student researching a problem they are passionate about and working closely with a teacher-mentor to create something of lasting importance. These projects allow students to integrate their four years of learning at SLA and the five core values of Inquiry, Research, Collaboration  Presentation, and Reflection. A student described how she was creating an engineering project to help people in Africa provide water and electricity. Below is another example of capstone project tweeted by RealSchool.

Finally, we went to an English and History class. The teacher, Mr. Joshua Block, described various projects in English. For example, the students read the book Their Eyes Were Watching God which is written entirely in the dialect of a southern African American woman. Students then researched the role of different dialects and recorded interviews with people about their experiences with dialects. These presentations were edited into 8-10 minute podcasts that were then combined in groups of four into radio shows modeled after NPR's This American Life.

In history, Mr. Block described how history was studied not chronologically but in thematic units. For example, a unit on sweatshops might talk about the first sweatshops in 18th century England, the sweatshops where Jewish immigrants worked in late 19th and early 20th century New York, and the sweatshops today in Bangladesh.

The current unit that the students were just finishing was a unit on colonialism. Students were each asked to create a museum exhibit about colonialism in one place and time period featuring a written paper, eight artifacts, and a presentation. One student gave me a fascinating presentation that she had just finished on the experience of French colonialism in Vietnam in the 19th and 20th centuries. Her mode of presentation was also fascinating. She filmed herself drawing on a white board to make her "slides" and then sped up the film so the presentation flowed at a brisk pace. I honestly did not know anything about French colonialism in Vietnam before speaking to her and now thanks to this student's passion and expertise, I feel like a really understand this topic. When I asked this young lady why she chose this issue she explained that her parents were refugees who came over from Vietnam in the 1970s so the history of earlier time periods in Vietnam was a part of her heritage. She was able to present a nuanced approach, discussing both the many negative outcomes of French colonialism in Vietnam in terms of oppressing the people in poor working conditions and almost completely botting out the unique Vietnamese calligraphy form of writing in favor of a Latin alphabet, and the positive aspects as well in areas like architecture and the culinary arts. I was quite impressed by the depth of this student's knowledge, how articulate she was, and her passion.

One thing that I realized in meeting with students in Mr. Block's history class was how the regular stream of visitors to SLA which we were a part of, Jeremy says some 100 groups visit a year, plays into SLA's core values. I discussed in my reflections about engineering at Frisch the importance of role models and mentors in project based learning. The fact that students see this constant stream of visitors who they are asked to articulately speak to about their educational philosophy and present their projects to, only enhances the values of Presentation and Reflection that SLA seeks to foster.

Mr. Block posted his own reflections on the colonialism project on his blog here. I find the following paragraphs from his posting encompass the ethos of SLA and what I believe should be the ethos of every great teacher who seeks to bring out the best in his or her students.
Students shared thoughts and another student took notes on the board as I struggled against the tiny voice screaming inside of me. This voice wanted to contest points, give examples, and challenge ideas. Instead I nodded, I helped students summarize, and I asked for clarifications. 
Too often the image of teaching involves knowledge being transferred from a wise one to a younger person who lacks wisdom and experience. The past several days have been a poignant reminder for me that education is a process. 
Learning and transformation happen when people are free to try out ideas, take in information, and then reevaluate assumptions and experiences. When learning is organic in these ways, the final outcomes far exceed what anyone can script or inculcate.
Finally, we came back to meet Jeremy Spry in the front office to reflect on our visit. Some poignant questions were asked during these reflections that do not have an easy answer. Jeremy was asked what the biggest challenge was at SLA. He responded that the biggest challenge with empowering students in this way was making sure that they didn't translate this empowerment into a sense of entitlement. They should never think that they are better than their teachers or other students who do not go to SLA. A strong sense of humility is always difficult to foster especially in teenagers who realize that they are a part of something very special.

Learn 2.0 Wall in the conference room where we met to reflect.

Another notable question that we asked was whether this inquiry driven, project based model could work for most students or only a self selected group. Remember, SLA turns down 90% of all students who apply. Jeremy reflected that while probably many more students could benefit from the SLA approach if there was more space to take them in- SLA is in the process of opening a satellite school elsewhere in Philadelphia to do exactly that- others would probably do better in a more traditionally structured, test driven environment.

This opens the question about how far we could go with this approach in the typical Jewish Day School which takes a more community approach, accepting a much larger range of students in our belief that everyone deserves a Jewish education. Perhaps this approach could be put forward as a school-within-a-school like the RealSchool model, or maybe there should be a special SLA class in every discipline modeled after the Frisch engineering class. This would be a class where students students have to apply to get in, which has real mentoring, and focuses on genuine project based learning. It is my dream that every student in a Jewish High School is exposed to an inquiry driven, project based learning approach, if not in all of their classes, in at least some of them. This is real learning Lishma, for the sake of learning, and our greatest hope to light the spark in our students so that they become life-long learners.