A Summer of Learning in Albemarle Schools

“… Design and thinking is … idea of making creative leaps to come up with  a solution… allows people to not just be problem solvers with explicit, but also tacit knowledge… they are learning by doing… coming up with solutions by making things.”

Bill Moggridge, former Director (deceased)                  Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum                  Design and Thinking, the Movie

Coder Dojo Maker

Coder Dojo Tech Girl and Mentor

Public educators and young people have lived in a world defined by standardized test results for well over a decade. We now see millennial educators entering our profession, having grown up in what I sometimes refer to as the “test prep” generation. They, in many cases, never experienced some of the learning opportunities that older generation teachers remember or experienced themselves as children.  In many public schools, field trips, school plays, guest speakers, in-depth discussions, inquiry projects and hands-on activities no longer exist.  In others, professional positions from art teachers to librarians have disappeared from America’s school staffs. Remember the recess play that once was the norm in elementary schools, but now often is the exception.

Albemarle educators and students are fortunate our School Board values and supports engaging and enriching work for our young people.

Consider time. Consider resources. Consider children.

A Summer for Young Makers

This summer, I’ve had a unique opportunity to watch children of all ages across my division engage in a different kind of “summer school” curricula,  Our students have created, designed, built, engineered, produced, played, marketed, and contributed as they have worked to make, take apart, problem-solve, and understand what it means to learn through your hands and mind. In doing so, they’ve used math, science, writing, reading, social studies, movement and the arts in their learning – whether measuring boards down to the fraction or following recipes. I’ve walked spaces where children are improvising jazz for the first time, learning how to use a drill, making soap, constructing squishy LED circuits, designing cardboard buildings and arcades, building robots in every form and material imaginable, and programming in computer code from Scratch to Python.

Maker Corps and Maker KidsMaker Corps and Maker Kids

Four elementary summer programs were fueled by our Maker Corps affiliation with MakerEdOrg. In  another elementary school, children both made and marketed their wares to raise funds to donate to the SPCA. A group of high school students participated in a Leadership Academy designed to infuse a cadre of diverse teen leaders into their schools. They created leadership teams and designed a project to wash cars, earning money for Habitat for Humanity. Over 800 learners ages 5-18, worked in multi-age Coder Dojos to develop and extend coding skills; making games, websites, and tech programs. Middle school summer schoolers participated in cooking classes, learning all sorts of key math and reading skills along the way. In our award-winning M-cubed program, middle school boys built and tested their gravity-powered roller coasters, experimenting with energy, force, motion, and slope. And, the jazz makers – kids who came together for two weeks in beginning to advanced jazz camps – culminated their summer learning with a free concert at the downtown pavilion.

A Spark that Inspires Teachers and Learners

The educators who worked with our young people this summer say “these kids have been so engaged, fun, excited, curious, hardworking, and collaborative. And, some are kids who really struggle with ‘doing school behaviors’ during the regular year.” Rather than a summer school experience centered in tutorials and repetitive practice work designed around standardized tests, our kids have built complex language through experiential learning in rich environments, as they’ve been challenged to use math, science, history, and the language arts as they’ve designed and created – everything from jazz to video games.

Why are we focusing on teachers using make to learn and learn to make strategies as a pathway to lifelong learning rather than the current test prep mania? Because educators everywhere know that children who are bored by school work, turned off by worksheets, tired of listening to mostly teacher talk, and stripped of opportunities to stretch their hands and minds are kids who struggle to sustain attention and value learning. Some master effective “doing school behaviors” and obtain decent grades but may also often feel disconnected from joy and passion as they work.

Boredom in school is the number one reason listed by dropouts for dropping out. It’s even felt by our top students – not because of content lacking rigor. Rather, it’s because teachers today feel compelled to fly through a scope and sequence of standards so their students acquire information paced to cover what they need for a test one spring day. Teachers often feel compelled, if not required, to subtract from their teaching the very things that engage and entice children as learners – field trips, special guests, extended discussion of interesting topics, hands-on projects, inquiry activities, and interdisciplinary opportunities.  In subtracting school experiences that enrich and extend learning, opportunity gaps between middle class children and children living in economically disadvantaged homes only grow wider.

Leadership Academy

Leadership Academy

Why is it that big, huge corporations get beat by kids in garages? … because they’re inventing the future.”

Roger Martin, Dean                                                   Rotman School of Management                                        Design and Thinking, the Movie
                                                                                                                              

Making is a process, not a “one-right answer” end in mind. It’s a process of learning,  developing knowledge, pursuing interests, and developing the confidence and resilience that comes with making mistakes, too. It’s not a bottom line of just measuring what students know through standardized test results. Rather, it’s a bottom line in which lifelong learning is assessed when kids show what they can do with what they know on performance tasks that are far more demanding of both skill and knowledge.

Making is the fuel of America’s inventive spirit; its citizen-thinkers, workforce, entrepreneurs, artists, and solution-finders. It always has been. However, we are concerned about data indicated that the creativity of our nation’s youth is at an all time low. We are concerned that America has a three-year decline in patents filed at the US Patent Office and for the first time in history fewer patents filed than the rest of the world.

That’s why we value our kids spending time as active makers of their own learning – a competency built for a lifetime.

Irene is a graduate of AHS, a Duke University student, and a member of the first U.S. Maker Corps.