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.

Summer 2016

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It’s only a few days until the opening of the 2016-17 school year. Despite the hustle and bustle in a school during the summer to make sure halls, classrooms, and specialty areas are clean and ready for children and teachers, a school in summer just becomes empty real estate when emptied of the community it serves. That’s why we are building out rich summer experiences for our young people so that they can take advantage of year-round learning communities, not just for ten months.

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Getting Ready to Enter School at Woodbrook Elementary

This summer our programs ran in almost every school;  visual and performing arts, STEM, Maker Education summer school, Leadership and Entrepreneurship Academies, readiness programming for rising ninth graders  and children entering kindergarten, blended learning courses for summer high school, and both face-to-face and online physical education and personal finance courses.

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Rock and Rappers at AHS

In our second annual Rock and Rap Academy, students from county high schools formed music groups and bands to write, perform, and record their own music. They had the chance to work with music educators from our schools but also local musicians from across the region. Our young contemporary music performers put on a show at the Ix Building for parents and friends as a culminating concert.

Young citizen leaders from our high schools gathered at the annual Leadership Academy to practice the competencies of leaders, to hear the stories of leaders across our community, and to take on a project that represents citizen leadership action.

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Student agency and voice matters. This year a group of our young women from Albemarle High again sponsored a regional bridge-building camp so middle school girls could experience the power of engineering to make community improvements while learning the principles of math, science, and tech embedded in engineering. But, as founder Ayoade Balogun shared this with me last spring in an interview,  “I also want young girls to see engineering as fun.”

In the Entrepreneurship Academy offered to high school students with an interest in designing, making, and launching projects they’ve created from scratch, students worked with our high school mechatronics teachers – staff who combine traditional shop, programming, and engineering design in one class – to create their own products from innovative baseball bats with specialized grips to a couch desk for a classroom, bedroom, or office. They each gained career and technical education course credits as they created their projects.

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Coder Dojo kids working on Scratch – an MIT coding language

Most adults find computer science, programming or coding, to be a mystery. That’s not true of over 600 learners, ages 5-18, from our diverse school communities who participated in our fifth annual Cville Coder Dojo. The multiage coder dojo camp originated in Ireland as a way of engaging young people in coding. While most kids who learn to code will not pursue computer programming, they still learn to apply mathematical reasoning, logical thinking, and creative processes as they use code to program arduinos, raspberry Pi, and 3-D printers, build games in scratch, construct websites using HTML code, and make music with sonic Pi.

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Citizen scientists

Our children also participated in summer school programs where they spent time making all kinds of projects as a path to learning. Students at Woodbrook Elementary participated in activities to find the joy in inquiry learning as citizen scientists – and learned about worms, insects, gardening, and geology on the school grounds. They ended school with a showcase of their work from student-made podcasts to teach guests about science to student-constructed worm farms for sale.

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M-cubed learners at work

Math competency is a gateway for kids to pursue dreams. Without it, so much is not available or limited in reach. The nationally recognized M-cubed program brings middle school African-American males together to gain algebra readiness together as a community. The program goes far beyond just math, however, as the young men engage in dialogue with local mentors and leaders. If we want to mind learning gaps, opportunities such as M-cubed represent our commitment to diverse experiences for all children.

We don’t live on an agrarian calendar in our homes and communities anymore.

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Jazz Camp band performs in the Pavilion

Offering high quality learning experiences during the summer allows our parents and staff flexibility in family choices about work schedules and vacations while also offering a variety of enriching experiences for all children often at no cost, low-cost, or with scholarship support. Our enriched opportunities engage young people in applying literacy and mathematical reasoning competencies as well as in building academic background knowledge, key to avoiding the summer social and academic slides that can occur for at-risk learners.

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Kids from several elementary schools play the World Peace Game at Agnor-Hurt Elementary

When our schools fill with children and staff during the summer, it’s a return on community investment in educational facilities that remain in use rather than close for learning business. Using our schools year-round does create a challenge for our building services staff but I believe that it fulfills our mission to fully engage our full community of learners in learning, regardless of the calendar date.

Our summer programs support working families with options for high quality care with a learning focus. And, our summer programs allows us to engage staff in learning new instructional techniques and tools to take back with them into their regular year teaching. We see many benefits to our learners and families. Equity of access to top-notch summer programming is a design principle of our offerings. It’s an essential, not just nice to do.

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“Maker Me” project at Stone-Robinson Elementary

 

 

 

 

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