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Workshop School wins national innovation grant

Initiative started by singer John Legend is part of the consortium that gives the prize. For the winning project, the students will tell their own stories through multimedia.

Greg Windle

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

The Workshop School is among 10 winners nationwide of the 2015 LRNG Innovators Challenge, a project of John Legend’s Show Me Campaign and the National Writing Project. The challenge rewards educators "working to create and spread creative and connected learning opportunities for young people." The school won, in partnership with PhillyCAM and Scribe Video Center, for the Workshop School Productions Project, which "explores the use of animation, film, music, documentary, and other multimedia to showcase the stories of their educational experiences and of their lives in- and outside-of-school."

Below is the Notebook’s recent profile of the Workshop School.

Simon Hauger was inspired to help start the Workshop School after creating the EVX program at West Philadelphia High School.

Through EVX, an afterschool automotive program where students built hybrid cars, Hauger fell in love with project-based learning. But that’s not what motivated him initially.

“I started [EVX] kind of for my own mental health,” said Hauger, a former math teacher at West.

“If you walked into my [math] class, you would have seen a lot of teaching and learning, but it felt really artificial,” Hauger said. “For too many kids, it just didn’t stick. They would do OK, but come the mid-term or the final, they had forgotten it.”

One of the things that frustrated Hauger the most, he said, was the difficulty of answering one of the most common questions posed by students: Why do I need to learn this? Hauger said told them that learning the material would help them with their problem-solving skills. He said it felt like most students would continue doing their work because they liked him, but it didn’t feel like they all believed his answer.

“I was trading on these relationships that I had with students to get them to comply,” Hauger said. “That really wore me out emotionally.”

But in his work with students in the EVX program, “suddenly there were these real problems that were driving the academic learning after school. What struck me is that the kids at school were learning more in my afterschool space than in my class.”

The Workshop School is part of the District’s Innovative Schools Network — a collection of small, project-based-learning high schools led by Assistant Superintendent Chris Lehmann, the nationally recognized principal of Science Leadership Academy.

The network was established in part due to the success of SLA, which also opened a new campus in 2013 and plans to open a middle school in the fall of 2016. But unlike SLA, the other schools in the network – including Building 21, the LINC and the U School, which all opened last year – are not magnet schools.

The Workshop School functions as both a neighborhood school and a citywide admission high school.

Located in West Philadelphia, the school recruits incoming freshmen from 12 nearby neighborhood middle schools by working with principals and counselors to identify 8th graders who would be a good fit. Hauger said the school is “not looking for the perfect students on paper.”

Between 35 and 40 percent of students receive TransPasses, meaning that most of those enrolled live within a mile of the school. The school also accepts some students through a citywide lottery.

How the Workshop works

The school’s day is broken up into two major segments. Students meet in their advisories from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. This begins with circle, a form of community development, in which students check in with each other about their progress and then usually discuss a problem in the school or local community.

"We share how our day is going,” said 10th grader Drina Davis. “Then we have a box of questions that we pick a question from, and we all answer it.”

The rest of advisory consists of two “project blocks,” during which students work independently or in groups on their two projects — typically assigned each quarter.

“In a regular classroom, you get worksheets and books and desks. You don’t get a chance to interact with your classmates,” said 10th grader Khandace Mitchell. “But in the real world, you have to talk to your co-workers and team up to make plans. That’s what our advisory is getting us prepared for.”

After lunch, students have a series of academic courses like English and math, as well as electives like shop class.

“When it’s working really well,” Hauger said, “the things you’re learning in the afternoon are applied in the morning.”

Matt Riggin, another co-founder of the school, explained that picking the projects is up to advisers. But sometimes “the whole grade group will get together and decide they want to do something at the same time. Some projects require that, like the 9th-grade play, because the advisories organized into different functions rather than [students] staying in advisory.” Students chose between things like playwriting, set design, and costume design.

Tenth graders in Hauger’s advisory spent one of their project blocks during the last quarter building solar-powered cellphone chargers. Before designing them, students had to complete a progression of activities building circuits and learning about solar panels.

They then designed their own prototypes using a computer-aided design program called SketchUp. They used a laser cutter to cut the wood to build a frame and wired the USB port to the solar panel.

Advisers are instructed to keep tabs on the subject matter of each project so the students get a mix of academic content throughout the year.

“Projects can be designed from a lot of different starting points,” Riggin said. “In some cases. you think about an end product that you want. In some cases, you think about a question or problem that interests you.”

At the end of each quarter, the students have Exhibitions, in which they write a seven- to eight-page report and give a presentation on each of their projects.

During his presentation, Alex Morrow was asked how he got the idea for his TED talk, a nearly 15-minute talk that originated at the Technology Entertainment Design (TED) conference. At first he wanted to present on capitalism, but his teacher advised him that the topic was too broad. She recommended that he be more specific, and he decided to present on the connection between capitalism and cultural appropriation in the music industry.

Morrow’s thesis focused on the influence of marketing on the hip-hop industry. He said the recent trend of the growing number of new white rappers exists not because "they’re better than the rappers that are already out, but [because] it’s easier for them to be marketed because they look like the majority of America.”

The school’s advisory model tries to foster a sense of community, giving students a voice in their school.

“There’s a series of activities that we use where student voice and choice are front-and-center in making decisions for the kind of community they want,” Hauger explained. “We start off with what type of community do you want to build, what’s the purpose of school, what makes a good teacher, and what makes a good student.”

The school’s faculty uses a "shared leadership" model where decisions are made collaboratively.

“You can’t have a democratic community for the students unless you’ve built a democratic community for the staff,” said Hauger. “What does it mean to have a group of professionals working together who all have a voice and all have decision-making power? The adults have to have the same community as we’re building for kids, otherwise it seems hypocritical.”

Projects and process

In the school’s woodshop, a group of students constructed a chicken coop. But they weren’t just building it for practice. They were commissioned by a local farm that provided the supplies. Four groups created their own designs, and the farm picked the best one.

“There’s going to be a long bar where the chickens can sit on top and go to sleep,” said Tyler Davis, a 9th grader in the winning group. “We’re building a big chicken coop with a chicken run next to it. The chicken run is basically like the chickens’ backyard.”

In automotive technology class, Drina Davis works on a car that needs servicing.

“We got a car not too long ago that needed a new battery, its tires needed to be changed, and its oil needed to be changed, but we fixed it,” she said.

“Basically they pay us to do it, but it goes to the whole school to raise money.” Davis turned to a car sitting in the middle of the garage. “We’re actually fixing this car now. We just got done changing the front and back tires.”

A pile of burnt scrap metal sat in a corner of the garage, and 10th grader Jamell Williams explained that the 9th graders used it to learn how to weld metal.

“Last year we had a project to weld a shape together. My group made a rectangle. So we had to weld four pieces of metal together and learn how to angle them.”

The auto-tech garage isn’t the only way the students help their school raise money. They’ve also made soap, lip balm, and even laser-cut wooden Christmas ornaments — all sold on the school’s website.

Asada Griffin said that a 10th-grade English class wrote children’s books for 2nd graders, “since there’s not a lot of books for African American kids.”

She said they began the process by researching children’s books at the library, reading books to younger students, and recording their feedback about the books already available. The students then used this feedback to write their own children’s books. Griffin wrote a book about families with adopted children.

A family atmosphere

Teachers and students said that being at the school feels like home, like a family.

Jere Tobias, the school’s guidance counselor, is responsible for more than the typical role of helping students apply to college. He also helps students make the transition into the school’s learning environment. He tries to help them academically, “but we cover personal things and try to address those and deal with them the best way that we can – solve conflicts, give them ideas, support, and just be available. Be an ear.”

Tobias said the most important part of his job is to make sure students know what is expected of them. “They know this work they’re doing now is going to intensify, and we’re gonna need them to step it up.”

But Drina Davis seemed to value Tobias’ personal counsel the most.

“My grandmom died not too long ago,” said Davis, “and I went to him. He made me laugh.”

Gateway projects

During students’ first two years at the school, the school’s goal is to teach them to design their own projects.

At the end of 10th grade, every student has a Gateway project.

“People come in to see our work, and we showcase it,” said Khandace Mitchell. “If we pass that Gateway project, then we get the opportunity to do internships and take classes at Community College of Philadelphia,” in addition to having the responsibility of designing their own projects.

Riggin said teaching students to design projects isn’t always easy. They start by asking the student reflective questions: “What do you know about yourself as a learner and as a worker? What excites you? What interests you? What do you care about? What’s something that you want to do in the world?”

“At the end of the day, the work’s going to be hard and it’s going to be frustrating,” Riggin said, “so there has to be some kind of intrinsic motivational component.”

Riggin outlined the two most typical ways to start designing a project. A student can start by envisioning an end product, something they want to do or create, and work backward to figure out what’s necessary to get there. Other times it works “more like a proposal in grad school.” Student identify a problem they’re passionate about solving, and then do research to create an outline of possible solutions they could implement.

The most visible student-designed project is a partially finished mural sitting in the garage’s giant ventilated metal compartment used to repaint cars. Riggin explained that the students “partnered with the Mural Arts Program, and they learned all about what the function of public art is, how you think about a theme, and how you think about artistic representation and elements and placement.” With the mural almost finished, students are still debating where to place it.

Riggin said the biggest challenge with student-designed projects is that at first, students expect to be told what to do.

“That’s a big sticking point, but it’s also the very skill we’re trying to teach them. That’s what critical thinking is. It’s ‘I can figure out what to do next. I don’t need someone else to tell me what to do next.’”

Hauger said that helping a student who is stuck in the process of designing a project isn’t as hard is looks.

“Start to model some of the questions they need to be asking themselves. So you don’t give answers, you ask questions. That’s the art of teaching, I think.”

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