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TEDxPhilly – an educator’s perspective

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Last fall Dick Baroody, my professor at Cabrini, introduced me to TED talks. The talk given by Sir Ken Robinson on schools killing creativity was both an eye-opening and humbling experience.

Throughout the last year I have periodically watched other TED talks of equal significance and importance. Many readers of the Notebook blog may have been introduced to TED by Marsha Pincus’ blog post about Masterman and Obama.

TED’s tagline is "ideas worth spreading." TEDxPhilly was a chance for those right here in the city to spread some ideas.

Chris Lehmann of Science Leadership Academy fame was the second speaker of the morning. I have been following Lehmann’s presentations since last year’s keynote at the PETE&C, so I had pretty good idea of what he was going to say. This talk’s theme was "High School Stinks."

The third slide of the presentation showed a released item from an 11th grade PSSA math test. The question highlighted was about a box-and-whisker plot. You can imagine how many hands went up when Lehmann asked the audience who had used a box-and-whisker plot in the last year. Rarely, I think, do we get to see such a blatant example of the disconnect between what we are expecting kids to learn, and what we kids need to learn.

Lehmann did not just leave us with a bleak picture of test-prep education and factory-era rationale. Four "fixes" were presented to change both students interest in their education and shift the worker/citizen paradigm.

  1. Ask questions. It may seem like an extremely obvious thing to do, but the quality of the questions matter. Think about how often you get to ask students questions that neither you nor they know the answers to. Better yet, how often are those questions found in the planning and scheduling timelines?
  2. Seek out answers. Again fairly obvious, and again quality matters. Are we trying to find simple, quick answers, or are students devoting significant time to breaking down complex questions? When are students more likely to be engaged and actually remember the answer?
  3. Build real stuff. SLA’s webpage is full of interesting projects undertaken by high school students. The point here is that making something real makes learning matter.
  4. Share. I think anyone who has worked in a classroom for any length of time has seen the magic of a student showing what they know. Sharing ideas (conveniently the purpose of TED) makes them better and allows students to take ownership of their knowledge.

While these ideas may not seem radical, it was nice to hear them presented in a concise and thoughtful way. Where Philadelphian educators take these ideas, we will see.

By far the emotional talk of the day belonged to Stanford Thompson. Thompson is the founder of Tune Up Philly, an afterschool music education program currently based at St. Francis de Sales. A video describing Thompson’s inspiration and current work began the talk. Tune Up Philly is product of Jose Antonio Abreu’s El Sistema program.

St. Francis was looking for something to help students cope with and stay focused despite increasing violence in their neighborhood. Thompson brought to the school instruments, tutors, and a curriculum based on El Sistema values of "ensemble learning, embracing joy while playing an instrument, and striving for excellence."

After the video ended, Thompson brought on stage students from St. Francis. Along with their instructors, the students went through different versions of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” The kids really brought the house down. It made me, and probably everyone else in the audience, pine for a strong musical education program in every school. To see the pride in the students’ faces as the crowd gave a rousing standing ovation was priceless. Hopefully Thompson’s idea catches on in our schools before de-centralized funding puts more music programs in jeopardy.

Simon Hauger was the last speaker of the day who dealt specifically with education. Hauger was the coach of the West Philly Hybrid X Team. Much like Lehmann, Hauger’s idea was of a new, better education.

He spoke of the success his students enjoyed in their afterschool program. The students learned not because of the grade their car received, but by actually making the car. It is always refreshing to hear someone get to brag about District students, and I don’t think I’ll ever tire of hearing "we beat Cornell and MIT."

Hauger briefly spoke about his new project, The Workshop for Democracy and Social Entrepreneurship. While the name doesn’t exactly imply it, the workshop is a plan for a school. The website goes into the goals of the school’s goals, as well what the assessment, curriculum, teaching and learning, and organization of the school would look like. I found the workshop blog and enjoyed it thoroughly.

Any gathering of ideas has a chance to inspire. I hope that the ideas shared by those educating our city’s students get spread all over town.

Check tedxphillly Twitter page to find out when each talk will be posted online.

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