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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Veterans’ Day 2014

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On Veterans’ Day, I am reminded to be thankful for the many citizens, mostly while still young adults, who have chosen to serve in U.S. military service over eight generations spanning the centuries since the American Revolution. I grew up in a family of “citizen soldiers” who served our nation on behalf of us all. My mother, ninety-three years and counting, served in Naval Intelligence in World War II. She once commented that it was the best work of her life, a time when she felt a sense of mission that was bigger than her or any other person who served with her.

In our school division, veterans serve as teachers, bus drivers, assistants, and administrators. They often go quietly through the days and years of their work in education without drawing any attention to their prior service. They may have served decades ago or in recent times. Many of us also have taught young people who joined the service and served our country well. Some of us have family members and friends who once were in the military and now are veterans.

Honoring our veterans transcends our day-to-day lives. Our veterans notice when we say thank you. They notice when our young people learn about Veterans’ Day from you. They notice when we take the time to explain what it means to be a service veteran.

http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/history-of-veterans-day/videos/history-says-thanks

No matter the time in peace or in war, our veterans deserve our appreciation for serving our nation on our behalf. Thank you for taking the time to pause and reflect on the meaning of Veterans’ Day.

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Why Arts? A Learning Commitment to Our Young People

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balloons2I had an opportunity to spend time in Stephanie Helvin’s room recently at Stone-Robinson Elementary. Stephanie teaches art. Watching her second graders as they began work on creating line drawings of hot air balloons, I noted that she introduced them to science, math, and new vocabulary as she shared with them how to turn overlapping circles into dimensional drawings.

Why arts education? In a day and age when conversations about the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in pK-16 curricula and workforce preparation dominate education, what makes the arts still relevant? In many public schools across the United States, art room doors have closed, teachers have been let go, and art time has shifted to academic time.

Why then have we worked in Albemarle Schools to purposefully sustain a budget commitment to the arts despite current trends across the United States to slash arts from schools’ offerings?

As Kai Kight, Stanford graduate, says, “Innovation happens at intersections.” The capability to innovate directly affects our potential to ensure a thriving economy and culture across our communities. Arts education builds innovative thinking.

Our division has a critical commitment to educating young people well so they will be ready for their future as citizens, lifelong learners, and employers and employees. We believe this  comes from a well-rounded education to sustain learners’ creativity as well as to build their analytical skills across the curricula. Arts do both.

For example, a recent video shared with me by Albemarle High orchestra teacher Carrie Finnegan captured the neuroscience underpinnings of how playing a musical instrument benefits your brain and impacts both linguistic and mathematical functions:

We also understand that learning through arts will build deep cognitive learning in young students:

“The arts are not just expressive and affective, they are deeply cognitive. They develop essential thinking tools — pattern recognition and development; mental representations of what is observed or imagined; symbolic, allegorical and metaphorical representations; careful observation of the world; and abstraction from complexity.” (How the Arts Develop the Young Brain, Sousa)

Our fabulous arts teachers across the county’s schools understand the importance of their role to build this deep learning among children by keeping creativity alive as our learners move through school. Andrew Sherogan, Meriwether Lewis Elementary, and Molly Foster, Hollymead Elementary, are two of our visual arts teachers who routinely share that message in their blogs as they profile children engaging in our arts programs through project-based learning.

stem2We are not alone in our commitment to putting the A from arts into our contemporary focus on STEM.  We see the value in STEAM just as top universities do, including our own University of Virginia.

President Teresa Sullivan and actor Kevin Spacey described this  at the recent UVA President’s Speaker Series for the Arts:

“The University’s arts curriculum inspires creativity, innovation and discovery, while giving our students across all disciplines opportunities to integrate the arts into their U.Va. experience.” (Sullivan)

“We have this system that we call STEM, to teach sciences and technologies. Now there are a lot of schools who are adding an ‘A’ and calling it ‘STEAM.’ ‘A’ is for arts,” Spacey said. “I think it’s incredibly important because while math, science and technology are hugely important, if we leave behind a young person’s imagination or creativity, I think they won’t have as full a life.” (Spacey)

We realize in Albemarle that young people draw upon arts skills to help them design, build, engineer, produce as well as use math, science, engineering and technology competencies – whether creating an electric guitar or 3-D printing a prosthetic hand. The renowned WAHS robotics teams use a multitude of integrated skills essential to their design process. It’s not just their engineering minds at work. There’s a wealth of creativity embedded throughout their design decisions.

Kai Kight, graduate of of Stanford University, certainly understands the value of integrating the arts across the curricula while sustaining a passion for “arts for arts sake.” So do engineering professors. One said to me recently on a tour of our schools that a keen grasp .. of “spatial thinking helps our young people excel as they enter higher levels of math from trigonometry to advanced calculus.”

Arts are as important today as they have ever been in human history. Arts opportunities engage learners’ interests and inspire careers as well as a lifetime of personal enjoyment. It’s why I’m committed to arts education for all students we serve in our schools.