Category Archives: SLA

Building a Collective Understanding of Prisons.

Last summer, I devoted much of my month abroad to writing an article about an SLA unit on prisons and imprisonment, originally developed by Humanities Teacher Josh Block. I’m happy to announce its publication in English Journal this month.

Here’s a little preview:

As a teacher who values critical thinking and getting students to see the bigger picture, I look forward to pushing their thinking on this topic. Sometimes it feels like I’ve got a big box of figurative dynamite hidden beneath my desk—if students have a hard-and-fast notion about the way the world works, I am there to blow it up. (It can be as simple as one question, like, “Why don’t men wear skirts?”)
Getting students to a new understanding, though, can be tricky. I want students to be more aware of the systems and structures around them, but I don’t want to push them toward a particular worldview or, worse yet, make them feel like they are under attack and have them shut down. This feels especially true for this unit. Prisons may be under-discussed in schools, but that doesn’t mean that students don’t have preconceived, and sometimes deeply personal, ideas about what’s going on with our justice and penal systems

Check out the whole article here. Many thanks to Heather Hurst for researching my classroom, taking transcripts, and then encouraging me to write this piece when she saw the call for submissions.

Project Based Learning, Session 3

Screen shot 2013-02-28 at 7.27.22 AM

Going into this session, participants had begun to draft their Understanding By Design Unit Plan. For some folks, that meant a complete document — for others, a sense of their essential questions and big understandings, but with the details yet to be filled in.

I intended this session mostly as a talk-and-work period, so the big resource provided was SLA’s Google Site of Public UbD Lesson Plans. This is a resource that our staff quickly put together earlier this year, after many (many) requests to share some of our complete unit plans.

We also had a brief visit from Meenoo Rami, who talked about integrating skill acquisition into project-based units. She emphasized that explicit skill instruction and doing smaller, partial versions of the culminating project are key to a successful unit, and that this can all be very explicit to students — you don’t have to keep the final work a secret from them. Buy in can actually be higher if they know why they’re doing x or y activity.

Tonight we had four distinct groups working through their ideas — elementary school science, middle school social studies, high school math, and high school English. One of the most complete plans at this point came from two teachers at the Philadelphia School for the Deaf in Germantown. They plan to turn their unit on the Underground Railroad “on its head” by having students do multiple field visits to the Germantown Historical Society, develop a line of inquiry around different artifacts, and then create a video-based tour guide for the site (right now, all of their tour materials are audio-based.)


So, we’re doing some great stuff on Wednesday evenings. Next week we’re getting a crash course in project design and rubrics.

What new units are you planning before the end of the year?

Related posts: Project Based Learning, Sesson 1 / Session 2

What keeps our kids going?

During 11th grade English today, students were presenting their “Problem in Philadelphia” research mini-projects, our principal happens to walk in during the group working on “Teen Motivation after High School.” (I know, I know. You can’t make this stuff up. Lehmann walking in is actually a non-event, and if the kids had some reaction to his presence, they didn’t show it.)

The group included the following graph in their presentation, which they later cited as being from The Philadelphia Public School Notebook.


Their snapshot assessment of why these numbers are the way they are?

Students at neighborhood schools don’t have the support structures that are offered at SLA.

Now, they’re not experts about what goes on in schools across Philadelphia — and neither am I. But this idea of community and support continued to be echoed through the class. During Q&A, Lehmann followed up on this idea, asking them: what keeps you guys from dropping out? What keeps you motivated? Everything they listed was both structural and human — our ILP internships around the city, the Math Lab and Lit Lab that offer tutoring and study space during lunch, our Student Assistant Teacher Program (which they were shocked to learn doesn’t exist at any other school in Philadelphia.) That the teachers care. Our four-year advisory system.

Not one student said “we’re smarter” or “we’re just more motivated.”

In fact, it only occurred to me now, upon reflection, that they could have said that. Because that’s the argument leveled against the special admit schools sometimes — that those kids are going to succeed anywhere, so pulling them into their own environment just skews the numbers.

I agree that the numbers are skewed. But my students offered a very different, big-picture viewpoint about why. And they’re the ones who know it personally.

Project Based Learning, Session 2

Photo on 2013-02-20 at 18.10Going into the session, folks had been asked to brainstorm what unit they would like to transform or create in the project-based framework, and maybe write a couple of essential questions that they thought would be useful.

Stuff From This Week

We looked at a few documents outlining key ideas behind Understanding By Design, including the “six facets of understanding” described below. People were asked to discuss: which of these are you already hitting in your classroom? Which are eluding you and/or your students?

Screen shot 2013-02-20 at 7.27.24 PM

Next up, we looked at a cheat sheet of sorts — “question starters based on the six facets of understanding.” You can find the full list in this document; here’s a sampling:


  • Who_________?  What__________?     When _________?     How________?     Why_______?
  • What is the key concept/idea in ____________________________________________?
  • What might happen if _______________________________________________________?
  • What are common misconceptions about _______________________________________?


  • How is _______________________like ________________________(analogy/metaphor)?
  • How does _____________________________________________________relate to me/us?
  • So what? Why does it matter?


  • How and when can we use this (knowledge/process) ____________________________?
  • How is __________________________________________ applied in the larger world?
  • How could we use _______________________ to overcome ________________________  (obstacle, constraint, challenge)?


  • What are different points of view about _____________________________________?
  • How might this look from ______________________________________’s perspective?
  • What is the evidence for ____________________________________________________?


  • What would it be like to walk in ____________________________________’s shoes?
  • How might ___________________feel about _____________________________________?
  • How might we reach an understanding about ___________________________________?


  • How do I know________________________________________________________________?
  • What are the limits of my knowledge about ___________________________________?
  • How are my views about __________________shaped by ________________________ (experiences, assumptions, habits, prejudices, style)?

The real meat of the evening, however, was when SLA English teacher Matt Kay talked to us about his process for writing essential questions. He shared his process for the book “Kindred,” which he teaches to 9th graders. His Essential Questions for his unit are:

  • What is the relationship between who we are and what society expects of us? (What does society expect of us?)
  • Okay I didn’t get the other two written down… but they were good.

He tweaks his wording every year, as “after teaching for seven years, you get intimate with a novel.” His questions have also gotten longer, instead of shorter — he edits his questions to reflect the kinds of questions students themselves are asking. He also has a sort of floating Essential Question that he uses for creative prompts: “If you were this character, what would you be doing?”

None of these EQs, he noted, are skill-based. These the things they are going to be troubling with, and “never really find an answer to.” He builds questions that they can wrestle with — if not, it’s not a good essential question.

He doesn’t give them all three at once — introduces them as they appear in the book.

Q&A with Matt Kay

Do his students know the phrase “essential question?
Yes, although eventually wants to fool around with them creating their own.

What role do the questions play for his students?
As discussion starts, all of these can be prompts for class discussion. A class often starts with “what happened” in a book, but the questions can help draw the discussion deeper, and link between days. You want to make them okay with the idea that they’re reaching toward something that they’re not going to get — but they’re not feeling frustrated by that. It’s a puzzle that they never quite fix.

As for the six facets of understanding, “empathy” and “self-knowledge” are the two that you have to reach for. Asking the hard questions is the challenge — often for the teacher as much as the students.

What happens if kids go in a different direction?
Give kids power and agency — let them know they have brought up something new and interesting — it removes the barrier between teacher and student.

Essential questions are easy to apply to a classic, literature discussion. How do you use them for units based around skills and content?
Matt gave an example from his “grammar boot camp” unit — “How does someone’s language affect the way other look at them?” He shows papers from last year (with the names taken off) and asks what judgments they make about those students — are they smart? are they good students?

It’s about the “why” of the skill, and the dangers of not having it.

How do you know that the project-based inquiry model is working?
Who’s asking the question? You know it’s landing when students are asking higher-order questions on a regular basis. If you still have to ask all of the questions, they haven’t absorbed the intention of PBL and understanding by design.

I then noted that this version of “success” can get skewed — kids can ask higher-order questions all day but get nothing explicit “done” — so I asked: so how do you find balance?

Matt’s response to that: for PBL to be successful, kids take initiative on their own projects. Instead of asking “Can I,” they approach him with things they have stated. They gain a confidence to start things — even if they don’t have all of the skills in place. And they don’t always need a prompt.

Everybody went home with UBD Template instructions as well as a Blank_UbD_Planning_Template. The goal for next week is to have “Stage 1” planned out — at least a rough draft, so we can compare and refine during the next session.

Happy planning everybody!

Related post: Project Based Learning, Session 1

Fitting together the puzzle of thesis and support.

passingI just finished reading a batch of Self-Reflective 2Fer Essays from my 11th graders, and a common weak spot they talked about was when your support in your body paragraphs doesn’t (quite) match your thesis.

I have been tinkering with this trouble in my mind for a few weeks. As teachers of writing, we often encourage students to pick a topic and “zoom in” early, and workshop their thesis statement too — but sometimes the statement is the cart that comes before the horse. They’ve fine-tuned it before they’ve really exhausted their line of inquiry. Then the thesis becomes a jigsaw piece too carefully cut for the puzzle that is their essay.

When we wrapped up reading “Passing” in the 10th grade, I decided to try the opposite approach, and asked a simple question:

“What are you still wondering?”

From that question, we made a list on the board. The questions often looked something like this (spoiler alert!)

  • Were Brian and Clare really involved?
  • Did Irene push Clare?
  • Would Jack have accepted his daughter now that he knew the truth?

Of course, we can’t see into the fictional future and find out what happened. (“Can’t we ask Nella Larsen?” “Nope, she’s dead.”) But we can re-write these questions so that the point towards the text, instead of past the ending:

  • What evidence does the book present that Brian and Clare are having an affair?
  • What motivations did Irene have to push Clare? What was her attitude towards Clare?
  • Which impulse was stronger: Jack’s love for his family, or his racism?

Students then received a sticky note to write down their question. They could grab one off the board, or brainstorm their own. That sticky note then became a bookmark as they hunted down a page that helped answer their question. Once they found some worthy evidence, they were handed a chart with the following questions:

  • Context – what’s going on in this scene? Give the basics in a sentence or two.
  • Patterns – what words or phrases stand out to you on this page? Write them down here.
  • Analysis  — what conclusions do you draw looking CLOSELY at those words and phrases? How does this page give some clues to your deep question?

The final prompt in the chart:

  • Answering your question – So, based on all of your close reading, how can you answer your original question? Your answer will probably take a couple of sentences.

It was not until the next day that I revealed: That closing prompt? It’s the core of your thesis, and your intro paragraph. A few students rolled their eyes: they’d been tricked! But a few of them smiled with surprise. That was a complete outline they had just done! And though the write-up was rough, with plenty of first person and opinionated statements, the inquiry was real. In most cases, the puzzle fit together.

Rubrics Across Disciplines at SLA.

My last post included the rubric for the Independent Reading Project — but there have been some requests for an overall discussion of rubrics at SLA.

This is what our online school handbook says about our rubric:

Students at SLA are assessed through a variety of means with a focus on project-based learning and our five core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection. Our students do not take the School District of Philadelphia benchmark exams; rather, they complete projects in every subject that are assessed based on the SLA rubric (see below). The descriptions in the empty boxes are filled in according to the subject and project nature.

And here’s the rubric outline, as it appears on posters throughout the school:

SLA Standard Rubric


There are a thousand directions I could go in discussion of this rubric — but I want to focus on formatting, and how that influences student understanding.

The categories ensure that teachers provide more than just a checklist for students. Specific items or tasks can be listed in each section of the rubric, but the categories ensure there is a deeper meaning to what’s being assessed, instead of just checking that everything is in place.

Sometimes, teachers follow the format completely. Take this rubric for a calculus benchmark, courtesy of Math Teacher Brad Latimer. His description of the project:

 For the project, students had to research applications of various types of derivative functions, and then design a webpage demonstrating derivative applications. Their page had to include original problems and solutions for each type of derivative function, as well as analysis of what each derivative function represents.

The languages shifts for each level of expectations, and he also included some clarification as to what will be graded in each category. (In my own experience, the difference between “design” and “presentation” can get fuzzy when you are writing these — here it is crystal clear.)

Calculus Second Quarter Benchmark                    Name: ________________________

Exceeds Expectations

20 – 19

Meet Expectations

18 – 16

Approaches Expectations

15 – 13

Does NOT

Meet Expectations

12 – 0




Design of website and original problems

Website flawlessly illustrates applications of derivative functions and demonstrates how to differentiate various types of specific functions; all 8 topics are included. website clearly illustrates applications of derivative functions and demonstrates how to differentiate various types of specific functions; 5 topics are covered and meet expectations. website mostly illustrates applications of derivative functions and demonstrates how to differentiate various types of specific functions; 1 topic is missing or not  covered; website approaches expectations. website does not demonstrate applications of derivative functions or how to differentiate types of functions; multiple topics are missing or incomplete.  

Using different rules and techniques to find derivative functions

All derivative functions are found flawlessly for all 8 types of functions; solutions and uses of different techniques exceed expectations (simplified completely). All derivative functions are found without error for 5 types of functions; solutions and uses of different techniques meet expectations. Most derivative functions are found for 4 types of functions; project contains 1-2 errors; solutions and uses of different techniques approach expectations. Project displays weak and minimal knowledge of derivative functions; derivative functions are missing, incomplete, or contain many errors.  

Application of different techniques to find derivative functions

Flawless analysis of derivative functions for all 8 types of functions, including the process of finding the derivative and the meaning of the derivative for the specific problem. Accurate analysis of derivative functions for 5 types of functions, including the process of finding the derivative and the meaning of the derivative. Somewhat flawed analysis of derivative functions for 4 types of functions, including the process of finding the derivative and the meaning of the derivative. Explanations and/or analysis have one/two mistakes or one type of function is not included. Highly flawed or incomplete analysis of types of functions; techniques for finding derivatives are missing or incomplete, and not analyzed at all.  

Completion of project

All parts of the project are completed on time and beyond the necessary requirements. All parts of the project are completed on time and meet the necessary requirements. Most parts of the project are completed on time and meet the necessary requirements. Many parts of the project were missing or incomplete.  

Presentation of website

website is superbly written and polished; methods to find derivative functions are flawlessly demonstrated and presented; all aspects of the website exceed expectations. website is well constructed and polished; methods to find derivative functions are demonstrated and presented; all aspects of the website meet expectations. website is pretty well constructed with a few mistakes; methods to find derivative functions are demonstrated and presented with 1-2 mistakes/omissions; most aspects of the website meet expectations. website is not well composed with several mistakes; methods to find derivative functions are not demonstrated or presented;  almost all aspects of the website do not meet expectations.  


As with all templates, some tinkering does occur. One of the big things that teachers often change is not filling out the full rubric. (There’s debate as to whether you really need to describe what “does not meet expectations” after you’ve given clear instructions about what does.)

Here’s another example from Latimer’s classroom, where he chose only to detail the “process” section for every category.

For the project, students were partnered up, and each pair was given a different investment and credit situation. They then had to research five different options (bank, lenders, credit cards, etc) to deal with each situation. The final product was a detailed research paper which made a recommendation on the best option for their specific situation, and included mathematical justification (using exponential functions and compound interest formulas).

Algebra 2: Quarter 4 Benchmark Rubric- Applications of Exponential Functions

Name: ________________________________ Band: _____________  Partner: ____________

Exceeds Expectations

20 – 19

Meet Expectations

18 – 16

Approaches Expectations

15 – 13

Does NOT

Meet Expectations

12 – 0




Design of paper

  Paper is well designed; all required components/sections are complete; 5 different savings and 5 different credit options are covered, and all calculations and citations are included; individual work is also included.      

Knowledge of key concepts involving exponential growth and compound interest

  All mathematical calculations are correct and meet expectations for 5 investment and 5 credit options.      

Application of knowledge of exponential functions

  Analysis section of paper clearly and accurately applies knowledge of exponential functions to specific situations; conclusions for your situations are clearly explained and justified using mathematics.      

Project is complete and submitted on time; Use of in-class work periods



All parts of the project are completed on time and beyond the necessary requirements; excellent use of all in-class work periods All parts of the project are completed on time and meet the necessary requirements; all in-class work periods are used effectively Most parts of the project are completed on time and meet the necessary requirements; effective use of most in-class work periods Many parts of the project were missing or incomplete; ineffective use of in-class work periods.  

Presentation of paper

  Final paper is polished and professional in appearance. There are no typos, and all required sections of the paper are included.      

I think it’s relevant that this is a 4th quarter project — at this point it should be clear to many students what the expectations of the class are, and to mentally fill out the details of what exceeds, and what does not meet, the expectations of the class.

Many thanks to Brad Latimer for sharing this content and making this post possible. Let me know if there are other disciplines you would like to see materials from.

Independent Reading: Process and Product

A snippet from the assignment write-up:

Reading is something we do all the time — so much so, that we rarely really think about how and why we read.

Your task with this benchmark is to take a close look at your reading — the personal history behind your readership, and also your skills as reader today.

Notice what you read and why those were the choices you made.

We spent about one week just on the building blocks of this project — the scenes from their history, and the annotations for their current book. Once those were complete, it was time to insert those into Prezi.

When we started the work, I did a snapshot poll of the class — and it turned out that, like me, the majority of them had not used the program before. This presented us with a classic situation in project-based learning — integrating content and skills.

At SLA, we try out many different mediums for visualization of projects, and it always takes some time to learn the ropes of a new program. If you look at your classroom strictly as a conveyer of content, this process gums up the works: students have to tinker, and discover, and teach each other, and focus on something other than the book at hand.

Luckily, we don’t believe that at SLA. Presentation is one of our five core values — so turning the raw materials into a final product that was both easy to follow and pleasing to the eye, with a mix of visuals and text.

To better aid the students, I built partial models of the project. I say “models,” because the first one just had me dragging and dropping without much of a plan. Once I had learned a few things, I developed a second one — and then showed both in class, and summarized my findings in the last slide of the “improved” Prezi:

We then spent several full class periods in “benchmark work mode,” which would include mini-lessons as needed for particular tips and tricks (“does everybody know how to rotate a frame?”) I was also available to scan pages of books students wanted to include, while others used their in-screen cameras.

The best projects were ones where students were already confident in their content, and students could develop a unified vision of how annotations grow out of the text on a page. Here are a few examples.

Roberto Abazoski – “Every Day” by David Levithan

Jalisa Smith – “Lies My Teacher Told Me” by James Loewen

Roger Bracy – “Eleanor and Park” by Rainbow Rowell

EduCon Resources: Standards Based Grading for Social Studies.

There was a lot of interest in my last post about Standards Based Grading and Reporting at SLA, so I thought I would share more from that session from different disciplines.

I should also mention that, while these standards were developed at SLA as a kind of pre-emptive response to Common Core, they were more heavily based on the written standards of our respective professional organizations than CCSS. English teachers, for example, pulled from the NCTE standards.

Additionally, we are in our second year of implementing standards-based systems at the school, and the process is definitely still being tinkered with (as all good educational systems are). Below are the five categories that our history discipline uses in their classes. Note that it overlaps two categories with English — “Discussion” and “Research.” Science uses “Research” as well. Should we streamline our language across disciplines? Or maybe make them less similar, to emphasize the difference in each version of the skill? Is it a problem that “research” is also one of our school’s core values, but other values on that list aren’t included as categories for standards?

Just a few questions to get your brain started. I feel very lucky to be in an educational setting where we get to tackle these ideas. Without any further ado:

History Standards

The SLA History department focuses on five main areas for the standards at each grade level: Sources, Research, Perspective, Discussion and Content.  Throughout the four years at SLA the skills gained in one grade spiral forward to the next course.  By graduation, the goal is for students to develop the ability to effectively analyze primary source documents, research independently, express the impact of perspective and bias in history, meaningfully contribute to classroom discussions, and evaluate the connections between the modern world and history.  Assessments for this work are embedded within the day-to-day coursework, as well as within the quarterly benchmarks.

Grade 9 Grade 10 Grade 11 Grade 12
Sources Student can analyze a variety of source documents including visual representations of information. Same  Same  Same 


Student is making progress in producing independent research-based projects. Student can construct independent research-based projects. Student can independently locate a variety of sources to effectively incorporate into research-based projects. Student can independently locate a variety of sources to effectively incorporate into research-based projects.
Perspective Student seeks to understand and fairly present the ideas of others, even when they disagree with the point(s) being made. Student can begin to express the impact of perspective/bias in history.  Student can express the impact of perspective/bias in history.  Student can express the impact of perspective/bias in evaluating political systems. 
Discussion Student consistently presents his/her own idea(s) in a constructive and useful manner.  In daily class activities, student can represent their ideas (all class discussion, online forums, small group, etc.) on history using sources to back up their contentions. Same  Same 
Content Student uses the content of the class to explore and expand their understanding of the world.  Student uses the class content as a medium to build understandings and make connections between both various systems and the past and present. Student can evaluate connections between the modern world and American History.  Student can evaluate connections between the modern world and the basic elements of political theory. 

EduCon Resources: Creating The Ethic of Care.

Awesome notes courtesy of hellohomeroom.

Awesome notes courtesy of hellohomeroom.

The second session I was involved with involved significant less planning — but also somewhat more heart — than Standards Based Grading and Reporting.

Lehmann, Pia and I — and Mark Bey, and alumnus Mike Dea, and a smattering of SLA freshmen who all chose to be in the room just because — took folks on a meandering but meaningful tour through how care works in our building, and how we “care for” instead of just “caring about.”

Here are the prompts we used for the discussion:

  • What is the difference between care about and care for?
  • How can you (help teachers) make that transformation?
  • What are the challenges of this switch?
  • What are the tensions between caring for the adults and the children in the building?
  • How do you schedule care?
  • How can care be built into every structure and system that you have?

Here are a few general reflections from the session:

This process is not easy, and it’s never finished. SLA Spanish teacher Mark Bey talked about how his understanding of caring for students changed and expanded when he started working at the school — and now he tells his new advisory families that he is that child’s unconditional advocate in the building. They know that there is at least one person in the building who has their child’s best interests in mind.

Contact is key — and for us that includes Facebook, text messages, and hand-written journals passed back and forth, and random visits from graduates.

These procedures need space and time. We have advisory twice a week for 40 minutes, and advisory families stay together from freshman through senior year. We also have weekly planning time for all staff, which we sometimes use to conference in advisory groups, so teachers can plan curriculum, discuss upcoming events, etc.

That said — the shift to caring for can happen in small ways, without having your whole staff on board, and without a major shift in the schedule of the day. Three questions that Lehmann mentioned were key to treating students with care: What do you think? What do you need? And, when kids are in trouble, or upset, or in any kind of difficult situation: What do you need to say now?

We talked about situations where we have sat with a student and waited, patiently, without prodding, to hear what a student had to say about their life and their issues. Sometimes, proverbially speaking, we wait years. Sometimes they don’t even open up or figure things out before graduation. But we have some faith that part of the value is not in the immediate payoff (especially if there is none.) Sometimes, we get a glimpse of a delayed deposit for a student who comes back a few years later and has got it all under control and just wants to say thanks.

If you’re looking for more resources on how to integrate the ethic of care into your regular curriculum, check out my series on how to do test prep with heart.

EduCon visitors: What would you like to see today?

Here’s what I know is happening in SLA classrooms today:

Tim Best and his seniors are having a feast to celebrate the closing day of the “Science and Society” course — a big focus of their class has been the science behind modern food and nutrition.

On the 5th floor during both lunches (10:30 – 12:50, Room 506), students will be participating in Math Lab, getting help from teachers and each other, as well as taking standards quizzes.

On the 3rd floor during both lunches, Lit Lab tutors will be helping students with writing and reading. (Room 302b.)

In my room (505), student journalists will be cranking out the latest content for from 10:30 – 11:40. Starting at 12:55, Juniors will be peer editing their Prezis for their latest benchmark, about their personal reading history.

You want to see Spanish in action? Rooms 503 or 209.

Our Art teacher and Tech Coordinator might be busy troubleshooting for live streaming tomorrow, but Art class will still be happening in the delightful corner room with lots of windows — 301.

I have no idea what’s on the docket for Matt VanKouwenberg in his engineering classes — but as I understand it, that’s a part of the fun in room 304.

If you want to meet up with students in their natural habitat, try the ballrooms on the second or third floor, or the pool, or the cafe.

Looking for something else? Just wander into any room. Seriously.