Beyond the Sky: Imagine That!

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Beyond the Sky … 

When kids get passionate about learning and they ask me to join them, I have to say yes. Even at 7 am on a Saturday morning.

It’s why I found myself getting up early to head off to a local park on a misty morning last June. When I arrived, the kids, a team of middle schoolers, were already there along with their teachers, the school principal, their parents, the media, and … me.

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Why? Because two eighth-grade girls at Sutherland Middle School decided they wanted to fly a high altitude balloon to the edge of the atmosphere. They’d enlisted adults, their teachers, and other interested students in their project. We were all gathered to see what would come of this year-long project.

I watched with my camera, capturing video and photos, as they worked to put all the final pieces together; the go-pro camera, an arduino-driven tracking system, and the balloon. They checked their tracker app on their cell phones and installed it on my phone, too.  Finally, after their final check, they called 4 different air traffic control centers from Charlottesville to DC.

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We adults stood back and watched the kids position the balloon and let it go.  It rose, and cheers went up. Then, in silence, it glided back to earth. Shoulders drooped a bit but the kids got to work. They figured out what parts of the apparatus could be ditched to lower the balloons weight and then they let it go again … this time it rose and rose –gliding out of sight and we all cheered.

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They checked their cell phone tracking apps over the weekend and into the early days of the week. These modern-day rocket kids began to wonder if their balloon had wandered too far afield and all their work was now lost. Then – an alert triggered. When the call came to central office that they were off to collect their balloon, we all cheered again. Our balloon chasers found it on the other side of Lake Anna , more than fifty miles away, and secured permission from a farmer to retrieve it out of a wood-lined pasture. Guess what?

Mission Accomplished!

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Who wouldn’t want this kind of learning passion for all kids? As superintendent I find my own passion in the work I do comes from helping educators create multiple pathways to learning so that all our young people find their way to pursuing hopes and dreams, to have as many choices as possible when they move into adulthood, and to gain an equity of access to rich, experiential, creative work that educates them for life, not school.

droneclubI think Julian captures this vision in his passion for making and flying drones – and through what he’s learned as he’s participated in the maker movement that brings passion alive in young people in our schools today. What started as an isolated passion in the Western Albemarle library maker space while making drones took Julian one day into the school cafeteria with his drones to see who else might be interested. As a result of Julian’s leadership, he’s now surrounded by a score of middle and high school student who share his interest.

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Bridge Building Camp (courtesy of NBC 29)

That passion also resides in Ayoade, a high school senior enrolled in the MESA academy, who believes that engineering is fun and a great career choice.  However, Ayoade believed that many young girls might not know that. So as a sophomore she took a startup idea to her engineering teacher who said, “why not?” As a result, she became a social entrepreneur, creating not just a bridge-building camp for middle school girls but one in which participants give back to our community by creating bridges that make our local walking trails accessible.

courtney1And, there’s Courtney who isn’t just a fabulous actress, choreographer, and dancer in the Monticello High drama program but also a script writer who just had her own award-winning, one-act play performed in state competition. What makes Courtney’s work unique? She believes that arts are a path to teaching communities about issues of social justice and her most recent script, Necessary Trouble (taken from a speech quote by Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis) pushes audiences to engage in discussion about what rights mean to students who find themselves on different sides of a civil rights issue.

Josh1.jpgFinally, there is Josh, a tenth-grader who speaks to his tough life experiences –foster parenting, many transitions in homes and schools, and his challenges with the greatest frankness. He has shared on the national stage how engaged, hands-on, project-based learning, along with support from his Albemarle High Team 19 peers, teachers, and his principal has changed his attitude about high school – going from a kid who thought he might not graduate when he entered high school to now dreaming of becoming a tech engineer. You might ask so how did Josh get to a White House podium? Last year, he participated in a focus group at his high school led by a member of Student Voice and Josh’s voice, filled with passion and authenticity, was noticed by the facilitator leading to an invitation to speak at the White House Summit on Next Generation High Schools.

These stories don’t happen by chance. They happen when educators see the future as adjacent to the possibilities we build inside our schools today. Courtney, Ayoade, Josh, Julian, and the balloon kids represent every child inside our schools – classrooms filled with poets, engineers, artists, nurses, programmers – and yes, I hope, future teachers, principals, and maybe a superintendent or two.

We don’t find our children’s passions or talents when they sit in rows facing a dominant teaching wall, listening hour after hour, day after day, year after year, taking test after test to prove what they know –  but with little chance to show us what they can do.  Yet, when our young people get hooked on learning and take that passion into life along with a sense of personal agency, their voices will influence first their schools, and then their communities, the nation, and the world.

Unleashing the potential of our young people so they can build agency as learners and find their voices through experiences that plumb their passions means the sky is no longer the limit. Beyond the sky becomes possible.

Imagine that.

Looking for Learning: School Visits to #acps

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Looking in classrooms of today reveals changes in tools, teaching, and learning.

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Read, Design, Engineer

This past week I observed elementary children programming Arduino controllers to turn LED lights on and off. In doing so they researched in technical manuals to figure out how to first connect their circuitry and bread boards together and then set up code to activate the Arduinos. When I visited a middle school class, I watched a teacher working with a specialist to figure out how to use a laser cutter so that students could incorporate this new tool into designing, engineering, and building projects in what once was a traditional shop class. But a visit today makes the point to me that it’s definitely not your father’s shop class. While students do continue to learn to use traditional shop tools such as a lathe or a drill press they put new tools such as 3-D printers and laser cutters in their tool “boxes”, too.

A photo posted by @gschoppa on

Our educational times are changing. 

When I walked into an engineering class in one of our high schools, a student 3-D prints  parts for a working U-Boat replica while another student focuses on figuring out controller code to fly quad-copters in formation. These learning experiences are ones that radically differ from what young people were accomplishing in high school just a few years ago.

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Inquire, research, make

When I visit our schools and see teachers and young people at work, I look for our students’ work to acquire competencies of lifelong learning – a key focus for students graduating from our high schools that moves them beyond passing required courses and tests of Virginia standards. Providing a variety of choices for students to pursue paths to learning is key. While most of our graduates will go into post-secondary education to acquire four-year or two-year degrees or credentials, we know young people will enter a rapidly changing workforce. We know that some jobs will remain important but others will be wiped out by the rise of technologies that will replace jobs we take for granted today. Focusing on citizenship, post-secondary education, and workforce capability are all critical to our children’s education. Understanding the dynamic of coming changes that will result from evolving technologies is a must to educate our young people well.

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write, create, perform

What’s needed to prepare young people to transition into an adulthood that will bring even more challenges to staying current as lifelong learners? In Albemarle, we believe those skills include both traditions of literate and mathematical thinking but also the capability to create not just consume, to design and make, to pose questions and search for needed information across media, to communicate and collaborate with others to find solutions and complete projects.  We also believe its important for students to lead fit and active lifestyles and sustain wellness as they move into adulthood. We label this work in and out of our classrooms as lifelong learning competencies.To accomplish our goals, we see arts, sciences, social studies, language arts, mathematics, world languages, and physical fitness and wellness as remaining important.

Teachers plan for students to engage in work that leads to these competencies.

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Team 19 students working on interdisciplinary video documentaries.

We assess performance through projects, tasks, and products that represent this work. Our principals look for this work when they observe students and teachers working across our instructional programs. Instructional coaches and learning tech integration specialists assist teachers with professional learning so that strategies that support integration of lifelong learning along with conceptual understanding, knowledge acquisition and skill development embedded in standards-based curricula.

Work to develop lifelong learning competencies can’t be done in isolation of excellent teaching, integration of a variety of learning technologies, and effective assessments of what we expect our young people to learn whether age 8 or 18. This kind of teaching demands that young people analyze, apply, and create as they process what they learn. This kind of learning represents integration of interdisciplinary content that supports students to use skills and knowledge being learned across the curricula.

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The U-boat project unfolds history, math, science, and language arts

Reading complicated technical manuals leads to programming Arduinos. Creating a U-boat leads to research about the role of new technologies in World War II and history of naval warfare. Figuring out how to use a laser cutter creates potential to connect the arts, sciences, and technical education.

Just as in other sectors, public and private, our educators today are pressed to learn new skills and incorporate changes into practice at a faster pace than we could have imagined in the twentieth century. Ensuring that our young people leave us prepared for what comes next in their lives demands our attention and time. That’s why we must sustain openness to learning even as we expect that of our children.

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Arts and Communication

Biology students take to the water

sciences and fitness

Using Math to CAD program

mathematics and social studies

 

Just Around the Corner: A New School Year Begins

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3 clarinetsAll of a sudden, it’s time to begin school again. Our schools are almost ready. Floors shine. Open Houses are planned. Renovations and modernization work are coming to closure. Buses are washed, gassed and ready to roll. New teachers began last week and experienced teachers return this week. Athletes and band students have begun to practice for fall activities.

We are excited to welcome about 13,500 children to our 26 schools on August 19.

We Have an app for that!

acpsappTo keep track of school activities in our schools, school calendar activities, and updated announcements, consider downloading our Albemarle County Public Schools app  (Albemarle County PS) for your android or iPhone at Apple Apps Store or at Google play.

 

It’s been a busy summer across Albemarle County Public Schools for our teachers. 

School had barely ended in June and we convened almost 300 teachers and principals in school leadership teams to work on curricula, assessment, and instruction. Teachers explored multiple strategies to engage learners in active, deep learning. They worked on designing paths for children and teens to engage in problem-solving and project research that leads to hands-on and collaboration experiences. Teachers together across grade levels, content areas, and even schools created opportunities for students to design, create, engineer, build, and make when they start the 2015-16 School Year. Throughout July, almost all teachers participated in professional development and training to prepare for changes in curricular content, review assessments, extend tech skills, and build instructional units.

2 new teachersThen, our new teachers, 130 strong, arrived last week to get ready to work with our learners, build teams, and meet experienced mentor teachers, instructional coaches, and tech learning integration specialists.

 

 

Here’s one example of a unit two fourth teachers designed this summer. Imagine the teachers introducing their children to a variety of tools to help them research how insects benefit the planet. Consider the children completing research that leads them to plant flower beds at school that will attract insects.

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using data

Think about those fourth graders first collecting data and observations on insect visitors (especially bees) to their flowers; then making a communications plan to persuade families and our greater community to plant native plants that are bee-friendly. This teacher-designed unit supports fourth graders to acquire lifelong learning skills. Through interdisciplinary studies that integrate math, writing, reading, science, and geography, these young students will pursue questions and sustain curiosity culminating in projects designed to deepen their learning.

And, it’s been a busy summer across Albemarle County Public Schools for our students.4 leadership

Our principals have worked as if school never ended and that’s no surprise given the number of programs we’ve run for children throughout the summer. Even as they’ve worked on schedules, class assignments, and planning, they’ve been working with summer programming attended by students. As I’ve visited schools, it’s been wonderful to see how positive and supportive our young people are with each other, particularly given the multi-age nature of our summer activities.

  • 10 maker sewElementary and middle schools sponsored summer maker and project-based learning programs in every school.
  • Our first elementary arts “Sight and Sound” academy ran at Baker-Butler.
  • The Coder Dojo Academy again ran at AHS serving over 600 K-12 students participating in learning to code and create wearable LED art.
  • Teen leaders gathered in our Leadership Academy at the County Office Building to plan ways to empower student voices across our high schools. 8 coderdojo
  • Our regional Fine Arts Academy at Burley Middle School added a fourth jazz band this summer to meet student interest – and we ran full sessions in creative writing, drama, and visual arts.
  • Our newest Rock and Rap Academy at AHS overflowed with kids. 6th -12th grade, all set on one goal – to compose and perform pop music.
  • African-American middle school males in our M-Cubed Academy worked on algebra and geometry projects at Burley.6 rock and rap
  • Bridge building middle school girl geeks convened in the woods near the Rivanna River with MESA Academy support and spent a week engineering and constructing a bridge across the river.
  • Children in the English as Second Language Program participated in a Community Immersion program to visit historical sites across the region.
  • Special Education students had opportunities to participate in  support programs designed to sustain key skills across the summer. 9 PK camp
  • Kindergarteners, sixth graders, and ninth graders attended pre-school activities designed to help them make positive transitions into new schools.
  • Summer interns worked with our tech support staff to set up new laptops and re-image our existing student technologies.

 We’ve had a wonderful summer.

Now, the start of school is just around the corner. We look forward to a year of positive experiences for our students, their teachers, and our school communities. Welcome!

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To Over 1000 Graduates: A Graduation Note of Reflection

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“You make a living by what you get,

but you make a life by what you give.”                                                                            William Churchill

To the Class of 2015:

Live Stream Team

Just over a week ago you were still high school students but when you walked off the graduation stage you became alumni of your schools. It was an honor to be there with you and with six generations who as a community surrounded you to celebrate your accomplishments – whether face-to-face or through our tech team’s live streaming.

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Mustang grad
Cale volunteer

 

Those in the audience represented the Greatest Generation, your great-great grandparents, on down to the Boomlets, your youngest siblings. We were together to see you graduate from your high schools. 1000+ in number – you were the largest graduating high school classes in the history of Albemarle County Public Schools: Western Albemarle High, Murray High, Monticello High, Albemarle High.

For nine years, I have asked seniors and teachers what makes the graduating classes unique. This year was no exception.

  Here’s what I heard about you:

grad1510Western Albemarle High: You are passionate, loyal, eager to get things done, motivated, intellectual, ambitious – extroverted, humorous and a bit rowdy in a good way. And a teacher’s lovely comment – you have been a class of leaders who value each other.

 

grad155Monticello High: Unpredictably deep in talent and ecstatic about life, you like each other and are fun-loving, fabulous, well-educated, humorous and outgoing. Everybody is viewed as having their own interests but you come together as a group. A favorite comment from a teacher? You are kind!

 

grad156jAlbemarle High: You see your class as “spirited x3”, but are supportive of each other, goal-oriented and very diverse with many talents. You are, as more than one teacher said, creative, gregarious, close-knit .. and distinguished in your accomplishments.

 

grad157Murray High: You are valued for your creativity and commitment to working until your performance represents quality. You care about the planet and about helping others. More than one of your teachers described you as capable of accomplishing whatever you set out to do in life.

 

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Patriots’ selfie stick
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As the Class of 2015, you’re members of the Millennial Generation, but I wonder if you might eventually become known as the Smart Generation. Most of you have Smart phones. Some even wear Smart watches. In the not too distant future, you will likely ride in Smart “driverless” cars. Many of you are going to colleges with Smart washers and driers that will text you when your laundry is dry or a washer is ready for use.

Smart technologies are everywhere.

As Millennials, you don’t just live the experience, you value sharing it with others and your devices are in your hands almost 24/7. You lit up the world with your texts, photos, and vids as you went through the rite of passage we call graduation. It was no surprise to find you actively using twitter to narrate your graduation stories – 140 characters at a time.

No doubt we can agree that contemporary technologies connect today’s world and redefine our work .. our homes .. and our schools as never in human history. Some even think that historians will one day identify this time in which we live today as the beginning of The Age of Smart Machines (in whatever format that history books of the future exist.)

You will shape that history through your own actions.

I am convinced that you can and will define the future of our communities, nation, and world as you bend new technologies for good through your creative, innovative thinking – and by using your emotional intelligence together as collaborative solution-finders. It will not always be easy, but I have confidence you will accomplish great work regardless of the paths you pursue.

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Good Friends     Always Warriors

 

As you transition from your current to future communities,

consider what’s  most important to living your adult lives well 

First, sustain your caring relationships with people – family, friends, neighbors. Your teachers have described you as young people who are close-knit, kind and loyal. Remember as you enter the world of adulthood to continue to give of yourself to those around you.

Second, continue to give back to your community as volunteers. You’ve tutored younger students, raised funds to donate to the needy and important causes, engaged as political and social activists, and worked for local non-profits such as Habitat for Humanity. That’s the important work of creating quality communities for all of us now and into the future.

Third, remain engaged and involved in making this great nation of ours an even better nation as you move towards the 22nd century. You are lifelong learners and our world will need that from you. Imagine this. With the extended lives we humans are leading some of you will be around to ring in the new year in 2100. You have a lot of years to give to improve the quality of life in the United States and find solutions to big problems facing the world. The planet will need your best thinking and actions.

Finally, since you walked off our various stages over a week ago no longer a student but now an alum, you probably have already forgotten most of anyone’s speeches during your graduation ceremonies. I’d like to think you heard this.

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Murray Graduation
Relationships Matter

Contemporary, smart technologies shape our world. We experience that every day. But, the devices you carry with you aren’t what’s most important to shaping the future. Rather, it’s the integrity, decency, and empathy that have defined you as friends, family and community here in your high schools.

Technologies will come and go. However, as Churchill once said, “you make a life by what you give.”

 

Best wishes, Class of 2015, as you step forward into the rest of your lives.

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(A few notes from the class of 2015 graduation)

“Before I sit down, I have one last word of advice. Surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you, who challenge you, who you can be yourself around, and who will eat a 20 piece chicken McNugget meal with you at McDonalds because they are your best friends.” Tim in his speech to fellow WAHS Warriors.

“In 2005 the first YouTube video was uploaded.” Sasha and Mrs. Kindler together shared changes in our world that our Murray grads have experienced.

To paraphrase a line from the Monticello’s Mustang duo Zander and Wills iTunes song Fighters: “You are moving forward – no setbacks today.”

“I don’t have the power to change the world but I’ve got the power to spark the mind of a person who does ..” Kolion quoting the rap poet Tupac for AHS Patriots.

And from Jack, student meteorologist @MHSweather94 and school closing advisor, who agreed with me last week: “Today’s a great day to graduate, sunny – with no chance of snow!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

May: A Month for Creativity

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Robot Builders at Broadus Wood Elementary

“A new study from Michigan State University found that childhood participation in arts and crafts leads to innovation, patents, and increases the odds of starting a business as an adult. The researchers found that people who own businesses or patents received up to eight times more exposure to the arts as children than the general public.” (C. Bergland in “Creativity in Childhood Leads to Innovation in Adulthood”, Psychology Today.)

Why should we make sure that our young people have deep opportunities to exercise creativity in learning activities in every way? In Psychology Today, author Christopher Bergland spells out recent research detailing why sustaining creativity matters and how creative experiences prior to age 14 impact students in college and in their future financial opportunities in the workforce. It’s worth a read.

When children are afforded the opportunity of experiencing creativity through learning, they explore and discover new ideas, different solutions, alternative paths of designing and making, and a variety of media applications through which they can share their creativity. The chance to create allows children to integrate thinking driven by their own curiosity and interest with the opportunity to design, build, make, engineer, and compose – the ultimate hands-on learning experience. For example, when teens were given the challenge to demonstrate physics concepts in a high school class recently, one student decided to build a PVC pipe keyboard to explore sound.

Western Albemarle Physics

 

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Young art designers build in Meriwether Lewis Elementary

In our schools this month is a time in which our students demonstrate lifelong learning competencies in performances, culminating projects, competitions such as Destination Imagination, school-wide and community exhibitions, and portfolio compilations. It’s a time to celebrate the talents and capabilities of our students as they show achievement in a variety of ways and explore possibilities in their learning.

 

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Where Should NBA teams be located?
AHS GIS project

Despite standardized testing in May, our musicals, concerts, and plays show off our students’ creativity. Learners bring creativity to bear through project-based learning and in products they’ve made as they share their accomplishments in class presentations and school-wide festivals and fairs. They even post to YouTube and on websites where their creativity projects are broadcast to the world.

Our students create across all the disciplines they study in school from math to writing. We know it’s not possible to measure the quality of their 3-D printed sculptures, GIS projects, self-portraits, Minecraft historical sites, slam poetry, choreographed dances, documentary films or simple machine inventions through multiple choice tests so we provide opportunities for students to show not just their teachers but the whole community what they can do. We know creative learning opportunities engage and empower our youth through contemporary learning. However, now we know the pay off is much bigger than just for today.

Why create? Because it matters for a lifetime.

Monticello Drama’s West Side Story

Top Performance Doesn’t Happen By Chance

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IMG_4639 I am always proud of the accomplishments of our students and staff in Albemarle County Public Schools. It seems as if each week brings an example of their top performance across arts, academics, athletics, community service and leadership.  Top performance doesn’t happen by chance. It comes from the hard work and dedication of staff to provide opportunities for young people that sustain their curiosity, persistence, enthusiasm and willingness to rise to challenges as young learners.

  • Five of the top six spellers at the central Virginia regional Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee were from Albemarle County and fourth, third, and second place were earned by elementary students from our schools.

  • Young musicians from all three of our comprehensive high schools have been admitted into the elite Commonwealth of Virginia orchestra, band, and choral programs based upon their stellar performance tryouts.

  • Teams from elementary, middle and high schools will compete in the regional Destination Imagination Tournament held at Western Albemarle High School.

  • Crozet Elementary has been selected as one of four schools in Virginia who are finalists for the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Award for environmentally friendly and energy-efficient schools.

  • Robotics Teams from all three high comprehensive schools and Henley Middle School have competed at the state level and both Team Vertigo from AHS and the Nerd Herd from Henley will advance to the super regional in Pennsylvania.

  • Maeve Winter, WAHS student, is a distinguished state finalist in the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards.

  • Both the Western Albemarle (five-time state winner) and Albemarle Girls Swim Teams won 2015 state championships in their respective group classification.

  • Albemarle High again has received the prestigious National Music Education and Virginia Music Education Associations’ Blue Ribbon Award for its performing arts achievements and programming.

  • 2014 Albemarle County Schools graduates again exceeded state and national SAT and Advanced Placement scores, placing the division among top performing school divisions nationally.

Please join me in congratulating our staff and students on these accomplishments – just a few of many that represent the quality of educational performance exhibited by members of our school communities.

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A Season to Remember: The Gift of Teachers

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103This moment in time, with our shortest days, important holidays, and the changing of seasons, brings us to memory and reflection. It has been a bittersweet year in Albemarle County with the ongoing successes of our children mixed with tragedies in our schools and in our community. This has been very difficult for those in our very human-centered occupations. I have been remembering and reflecting, especially on the lives and passing of two of our beloved educators this month, teachers who touched the lives of children, parents and peers over their teaching careers.

At our recent School Board meeting, I described Robin Aldridge, Hollymead teacher, as a “Child Whisperer.” She was the teacher every parent wanted in their child’s corner and every teacher valued as a colleague. Board Chair Ned Galloway shared a few words about Sue Pasternack, Agnor-Hurt teacher, who leaves all who knew her with an imprint on our hearts as we remember her humor, passion, dedication and compassion for everyone she encountered. Both of these educators were warm and loving toward each child whom they served so faithfully.

Prior to a moment of silence for both of these remarkable educators, the best way I can explain their impact upon so many children and families over many years is to say that they personified our values for respect, community, excellence, and young people. They epitomized the master teacher I hope every young teacher aspires to become one day.

It was not Robin or Sue who chose their careers; it was the profession that chose them. They had a gift to offer to children and families in our community that could never have been purchased. It was a gift priced not in numbers, but in faces—the faces of children with excitement in their eyes, smiles in their voices, and the unbridled confidence that comes with making new friends and new discoveries.

What truly is special about our Albemarle community is that our students reach their welcomed destinations with the support and encouragement of not just the professionals who educate them, but also, through the efforts of those who transport them, feed them, keep them safe and healthy, and provide them with learning environments that are anything but ordinary.

You serve as a model for our nation, and what a gift that is. We receive accolades every week for the exemplary performance of learners, employees, departments and schools. Our students distinguish our community through arts, athletics, academics, community service, and leadership. This does not happen by chance; it happens because of each of you. No matter your role in working with children, you all are teachers, and our children learn from the words you use, the smiles you share, and the care you provide.

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In the past two weeks, more than one of you has said to me that a casualty of our hugely productive but overcrowded professional lives is that we do not sufficiently take the time to tell those with whom we work how much we value and appreciate each other. So as we prepare for a much-deserved winter break, I want you to know how much I admire your selfless devotion to our students and to our colleagues, and most of all, your contributions to making our community and nation a better place.

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Thank you for your commitment to the young people we serve together, and please have a safe, enjoyable and restful holiday season with family and friends.

Mathematical Thinking Matters

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IMG_5496Whether buying a new car, working in a research lab, applying the Pythagorean theorem on a construction site, or using spreadsheet formulas to plan how to pay off student loans most efficiently, mathematical thinking is a basic for graduates of our schools. What students must learn today goes well beyond the work of yesteryear’s arithmetic textbooks when members of earlier generations used to memorize rote fact families, repeat procedural recipes from long division to geometry theorems, and solve basic word problems.

It’s an expectation in Virginia that contemporary students take three or more years of high school math – a requirement far beyond the “just” Algebra I requirement of thirty years ago. That’s why developing critical reasoning skills in math is a key focus for today’s educators to make sure young people acquire the competencies they need for a lifetime of mathematical thinking.

This kind of mathematical learning does not happen by chance in schools. It demands teachers who deeply understand a range of mathematical disciplines and who skillfully use multiple teaching strategies to help learners of different competency levels learn to think mathematically as they solve complex math problems.

A high school principal recently shared that learners who once struggled with math are having significant success this year in Algebra I – by any measure. If a student can’t pass Algebra I and then take two more math courses beyond Algebra, they won’t graduate with a standard Virginia diploma. For an advanced diploma, the college admissions gold standard, four math courses are required.

When I met the lead teacher for the successful high school algebra team (a course in which parents and students routinely ask teachers, “when will I ever use algebra in life?”), she said three things which stood out to me: algebra problems must be real, multiple problem-solving strategies must be learned, and positive relationships between the teacher and learner are vital.

My conversation with her reminded me of a recent blog post by Walton Middle School math teacher Bill Doar who works to make sure every student in his class learns math concepts and competencies well. Teachers such as Mr. Doar create learning experiences so students learn math well and find themselves actually liking math.

Here’s a post from Mr. Doar on how he teaches middle school students to see math as a positive part of their day as they learn Virginia’s more rigorous standards.

Teaching for Perplexity by Mr. Bill Doar,
seventh grade math teacher

Walton MIddle School

The past two months have flown by.  On October 11th, my wife and I welcomed our first child – Will into the world.  It feels like September was just a short while ago and we were in Virginia Beach enjoying Labor Day.  Will is starting to smile, make cute baby ‘coo-ing’ and sleep for solid four-hour chunks at a time.  Those luxurious four-hour segments were not always the norm.  Sleep during the first month was scarce and I would often find myself watching Sportscenter or listening to sermons at 3 a.m. to pass the time while Will fell asleep.
One night several weeks ago I stumbled across a YouTube channel run by a math teacher I admire greatly – Dan Meyer.  I initially heard of Dan during my first year teaching in the Mississippi Delta and watched one of his more famous videos – ‘Math Class Needs a Makeover’.  I could immediately relate to his struggle of making math engaging.  In it he describes the math teacher – student relationship as follows:
“I sell a product to a market that doesn’t want it but is forced by law to buy it…”
I distinctly remember the moment during that first year when I realized, many of my students don’t like math, believe they can’t do it and don’t see any practical application of the workbook problems tdoarpic2hey’ve encountered since kindergarten. In the past five years of teaching I’ve worked hard to make math standards meaningful, engaging and applicable to real life. Through technology infusion in the classroom, the ‘maker curriculum’ and the push to make teaching more than just preparing for the SOL, I’ve tried to make my classroom one where the work we do has application that reaches beyond the annual standardized test.
A recent challenge posed while watching one of Dan Meyer’s videos at 3 a.m. holding Will was to change the progression of each lesson.  About 98% of the time I would start with a standard, students would take notes, work out problems, ask questions then try an enrichment/application level activity.  In Dan’s video ‘Teaching for Perplexity’ he challenges educators to start with a real life, engaging, thought-provoking question and embed the standards in the question.

Today in class, I handed my Core + students the 7th grade VDOE formula sheet when they walked in and told them to create the six shapes on the formula sheet and record the dimensions on a graphic organizer I created.  It’s been amazing to see the change in student engagement transitioning from the traditional ‘sage on stage’ teaching model to challenging students to create and ask probing questions along the way.  I’ve found that with this new model students can learn at their own pace and they genuinely want to ‘complete the challenge’ set before them. It also allows me to circulate the room and give more individualized attention.

The most astonishing aspect to this change though was that during our 40 minudoarpic1te activity today we were able to discuss evaluating expressions, order of operations, exponents, nets of 3D shapes, area, perimeter, volume and surface area.  When I am teaching in front of the class and students are working on a worksheet, it is incredibly difficult to teach more than one or two skills at a time.  This may prove to be the most important benefit to the change in classroom model.

In all honesty, I do not use this model everyday but am trying to implement it more and more each week.  I will leave you with a challenge Mr. Meyer posed during a recent TED talk.  Study the graph below that shows water consumption during the Olympic Gold Medal Hockey Game.

doargraph What caused the highs and lows?  Where is the math in this graph?  What standards could this graph be used to teach?

You can follow Bill Doar on twitter @MrDoarAtWalton

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As you can see from his post, Bill Doar works on students’ attitudes toward math, not just their math competencies. He knows students need both confidence and competence to advance their math knowledge and skills.

In the United States we tend to project a belief that some students are “good” in math –  but most aren’t. Boys are better at math. Girls aren’t. These beliefs play out at home and in school. We know from research families and educators around the world have a different mindset about the capability of children to learn to think mathematically. Adult beliefs about learners impact children’s beliefs about themselves as learners. Negative beliefs about some children’s potential to learn can become their destiny.

Math is a case in point. Let’s change that.

 

Thanksgiving 2014 Reflections

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While watching flakes fall yesterday, I spent some time in the morning cleaning up meeting rooms in the office area where I work. IMG_1103I was thankful our schools were closed for Thanksgiving. Based on prior weather reports, we superintendents in the area knew it would have been one of those iffy “five o’clock in the morning” school closing calls that could have been a good one – or not.

Three Stories

In the afternoon, I ran a few errands and, as often happens, ran into people connected to my work in schools, past and present. It’s a time to chat, catch up on family news, and reminisce about educators who have touched young people’s lives. It’s a time to share our thankfulness for moving through hard times and our good fortune in better times.

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Jamestown still life by 4th grader

On this afternoon in Thanksgiving week, I listen to a father grateful his young son is home for the holiday after being deployed in aerial missions over Iraq. I remember his child’s big brown eyes and quiet demeanor from early days in elementary school, a child with a seriousness about him that belied his age. I’m not surprised to hear that he has chosen to serve his country. His family has always been a family with an ethos of service to others from their work in a local church to volunteerism with local youth.

I admire a sleeping puppy lounging in a store cart under the watchful eye of its new five-year-old owner. Her mom, who I also knew as a student a long time ago, tells me that school is just wonderful and that her daughter comes home every day talking about how much she loves her teacher. Her mother and I reconnected on the first day of school this year when I recognized her and offered to take a phone picture of her daughter and her together in front of school. She tells me this week how grateful she is that her daughter has had such a wonderful kindergarten experience in our elementary school. I look into the face of this young mother and can’t help but remember the day her father died as the result of a tragic car accident.  Our rural school community rallied around her family, devastated at the loss of a good man, a wonderful father, and a faithful volunteer at our school and in the community. Now she reminds me of him – active, positive, and engaged with her children.

Walking across a parking lot in front of a 29 N store, a pickup truck horn honks and I stop, worried that I’m in his way. Instead, the driver rolls down his window and says, “How are you doing, Pam?” It’s the dad of another Albemarle county graduate, a young man who works in management in a local sports arena. His dad speaks with pride of his son’s accomplishments and his delight at his son’s success just shines from the pickup truck. He shares how much his son loved a particular teacher who kindled his passion for learning long ago.

Not every conversation I have in stores, parking lots or a local fitness center goes this way. Schools are a reflection of what it means to be human. Humans make mistakes. Adults don’t always get it right. Kids don’t always get it right. Educators don’t always get it right. When we don’t, it’s our job to figure out how to fix the problem so we can make our community a better place for all concerned.

My Gratitude

However, this Thanksgiving week, I am privileged to hear a series of stories about young people with overall excellent experiences in our schools. This is truly more of the norm than exception in my work. In fact, I think it’s more of the norm than exception in my life. So, I write today about my gratitude for living in a great nation and wonderful community, being a part of the most important profession in the world, and routinely hearing stories of how educators make a difference in the lives of families and children.

The Power of Thank you

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Finally, I end with a story about visiting school as students were winding down for this break. Nothing makes me more grateful than spending time in schools with educators and children. On this day, I listen to a teacher reading a Thanksgiving story to second graders. I chat with parents and children finishing a feast in another room. I hear about a community service project in another.

Thanksgiving is uniquely American as a remembrance of what it means to overcome adversity and achieve success as a community. However, we don’t just share the history of Thanksgiving in our work with children that leads up to the break. We also share something with our children that’s incredibly important to happiness and success in life – taking the time every day to help others, share, pause and say thank you.

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