A New Year Begins

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The opening of a new school year always brings joy, passion, and excitement to our educators’ work with young people. As I visit each school across Albemarle County, I see brightness captured in our children’s eyes, a quickness to their step as they enter new classrooms, and enthusiasm in their voices as they embrace interesting ideas and questions that challenge them to think. Albemarle educators value our children acquiring the competencies of lifelong learning readiness. When our current pre-schoolers graduate in 2027, we want them to be ready for a world that will be different than the one we know today.

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Kindergarten Spanish Lesson

If any one variable has changed the world over the last decade, most people would say it is technological advances. Whether considering the workforce, the home and community, politics, the economy, or communication media, technology advances have changed the way we cook, drive, work, communicate, entertain, vote, travel, purchase, pay, and learn. From agri-business to engineering, no sector is unchanged.

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Parents and educators alike want our children to be well educated for their century.  We know that despite the advances of technology as learning tools, the quality of teaching remains a vital factor to achieving our dream to unleash the learning potential of every child enrolled in our schools. This means investing in the training educators need to continue to advance and develop skills and expertise.  This summer and on work days before school started, teachers participated in professional training to deepen content knowledge, focus on new curricular standards, and refine performance assessments for use with students during the year.

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Agnor-Hurt Educators Welcome Back Young Learners

This year, four schools – Monticello High and Walton, Burley and Jouett Middle Schools – are using 1:1 learning technologies with certain grade levels. Elementary school educators in every school are working to incorporate “hands-on” learning experiences across the curricula so that young learners have opportunities to create, build, design, and make using traditional and contemporary learning tools.  Cale Elementary continues to pilot bilingual language learning as a pilot in anticipation of expanding second language learning in more elementary schools in the future. Four middle schools – Henley, Sutherland, Walton, and Jouett –  have new learning labs where students will explore topics including advanced manufacturing and project based learning in math. Western Albemarle staff are working this year to design and develop a third academy to be made available to our county high school learners next year – an environmental studies center. Every school has renovated spaces – libraries, cafeterias, art rooms, inquiry labs, technical education, project areas – designed for contemporary learners and learning. At Albemarle High a new writing studio was created as part of the library suite, a space where students can work with peers to improve writing skills and pursue interests in personal writing.

CATEC builders

CATEC Design/Builders

This renewed focus on active learning by our students emerges from the Board’s revised strategic plan, Horizon 2020, which sets in place the Division’s next steps in determining the optimal use of resources, implementation of balanced assessments, expansion of partnerships, and improvement of opportunity and achievement among all learners.

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In identifying new strategic objectives, the Board, educators, parents and community partners who participated in development of Horizon 2020 believe that our young people must graduate from our schools capable and competent to embrace learning across a lifetime, unleashing their potential to pursue career options, post-secondary education, and adult citizenship with all the enthusiasm and excitement they brought with them when they first entered our schools.

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The Art and Science of Making: What Students Do to Create and Invent

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A few weeks ago, some of our young people reminded us that making is a mindset that can occur any time, any place.  On a snow day, a group of kids were co-opted by a local teenage video “maker” into creating and publishing a fabulous YouTube video, “Call Me Maybe, Josh Davis.” This video represented the inherent passion and joy that surfaces when young makers get together and intersect talents, skills, and interests in a collaborative venture. They learned from and with each other. They sparked ideas and inventive thinking. They showed our community what happens when kids exercise their spontaneous and creative genius, use technology tools in powerful ways to communicate, and leave their mark upon an authentic audience.

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We also see inventive potential when our elementary children construct their own cardboard arcade games for their school carnival, test bending moment using chairs, tables, and Unifix cube bridges, and create engineering solutions to design challenges pitched to them. It’s in the creative genius of our teenagers who’ve built their own 3-D printer, designed quad-copters and musical instruments, produced their own studio music and made document camera projectors for less than $100 dollars.

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Navigating Lego Simple Machines at Meriwether Lewis Elementary

Making things is a natural learning state for humans. It offers a different way to see the world through the practical lenses of finding solutions to problems, conundrums, and perplexities embedded in daily life. Making opportunities stretch analytical, creative, and integrative thinking. Making creates multi-dimensional, hands-to-mind and mind-to-hands processing that engages together the mathematical and language centers of the brain.

Making offers integrated learning opportunities–the best of any century learning. We see it in the collaborative efforts of Destination Imagination teams to design-build solutions to challenges. We see it in the gardens created and nurtured as part of a school’s own “grow local” effort for their school cafeteria.

Measuring, Mixing, and Making Muffins at Red Hill Elementary

Measuring, Mixing, and Making Muffins at Red Hill Elementary

Making is not just about math, science, engineering and technology.

A focus on STEM content knowledge is great if we want our children to become the next generation of skilled technicians and workers.  But, for us, the hacker/maker movement is about creating the next generation of entrepreneurs, creators and inventors.  That’s what adding the “A” to STEM gets at–a necessary injection of the creative Arts into STEM as STEAM.

Monticello High Music Industry Class Writes Lyrics and Records Music

Monticello High Music Industry Class Writes Lyrics and Records Music

We believe whether it’s the advanced manufacturing spillover influence from the University of Virginia’s engineering school into our elementary school digital fabrication labs or our year-round Irish-influenced Coder Dojos where kids make games in MIT’s free Scratch programming language  create websites with HTML, or work with Java, our children are moving back through these experiences to the natural learning that’s fueled America’s inventors, patent-makers, backyard mechanics, studio artists, NASA engineers, and skyscraper designers and builders.

A number of our Albemarle schools have prototyped maker spaces in libraries, redesigned computer labs, hallway niches, and converted classrooms. We see the results in the energized work of young people to create, design, invent, engineer, and make.

WAHS physics students build a wind tunnel in a flipped classroom environment

WAHS physics students build a wind tunnel in a flipped classroom environment

 Next year we will open Design 2015 teacher-developed maker space projects in a number of schools. We want our children to learn to use manual tools, but also so much more, In today’s environment, digital tools (in most cases) are very necessary design tools in early stages of “making” — drawing or programming to make something else do something.  Consider the tools, materials, skills, and knowledge necessary to make something new that will meet a human need or want. How many people do we know with the skills to do “maker” work today – despite the idea that America’s economic future rests in the hands of designers, inventors, builders, engineers, and makers from artists to auto mechanics?

We see the connectivity of our partnership with the national MakerCorps summer project as an opportunity to work with children through a different kind of interactive professional development for teachers who will partner in this hands-on maker experience, using a variety of traditional and contemporary technologies. The MakerCorps offers us an opportunity to draw young people, high school graduates and local college students into a real-deal maker program where they will serve as mentors for both our children and the teachers with whom they will interact. This work will engage young learners in the same way that these MESA Academy students engaged in designing, making, and sharing their interdisciplinary work – integrating the arts, sciences, technologies, and mathematics with engineering principles.

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We are at a turning point in human history, a rising tide of a culture of participation in global networks that open doors of which we humans have never dreamed. Remember, “making”, at its core, is about “teaching” kids to view the world (not just school) in a completely different way — it’s about empowerment and ownership of destiny— wondering is great but realizing that one has the power to “make something happen” is a powerful, powerful thing.

summer Coder Dojo

summer Coder Dojo

 Many of us talk about what’s wrong with the world (our work, our culture, etc.)—we chat about the need to change and wonder about something better—but very, very few of us actually do much of anything about it.  We tinker around the edges at best.  We are mostly admirers of problems and not solvers of them.  Public schools, very much by design, often perpetuate that.

So, moving kids from compliant listeners to curious learners is an awesome goal, but the ultimate goal must be to move learners from dreamers ….  to doers …. then, later in life, to change makers. Our nation, state, and local community depend upon it.

But, to make our own dream a reality — we’ll need to move ourselves and other adults along that continuum as well. That’s no small challenge. We educators, have much to consider and make happen.

Chad Ratliff and Pam Moran co-authored this post previously published at makered.org

 

Teachers Matter: Relationships, Relevance and Rigor

What does passion for learning look like? As I visit schools, the high quality of teaching I observe provides opportunities for students to experience a passion for learning in our classrooms, libraries, gyms, art rooms, and performing arts spaces.

I recently observed middle school students in a Civics class energetically discussing personal perspectives on the difference between rights and privileges as they applied the concept to school dress codes. They found out about Supreme Court cases, law, and policy as they talked with each other and the teacher. Kindergarteners in another school bubbled with excitement as they learned together to read each others’ names sitting on a rug with the teacher. In both cases, teachers recognized that active learners are enthusiastic learners and that such enthusiasm results in contagion for further learning.

experimenting

When students work individually or together in project- and problem-based work, the level of active learning is high. While daily instruction represents a balance of activities including direct teaching, active learning brings to life our Vision that learners will “embrace learning, excel, and own their future.” Working together, students also acquire competencies they will need for adult citizenship, post-secondary education, and, ultimately, the work world.

From our own experience as students, we also know that great teaching makes learning irresistible. It’s no surprise to educators that quality teaching is the most important reason inside a school for a child’s success. (Of all factors inside and outside of school that affect achievement, family income makes the biggest difference.) Irresistible learning draws young people to others who share common interests and they dig deeper into content that otherwise might not be explored.

What leads to irresistible learning? A child’s relationship with teachers – and parents – influences his or her desire to learn. Teachers who create challenging activities provoke both a student’s curiosity and further thinking about problems, ideas, and knowledge. When learning becomes relevant to students, they’re better able to make real world sense of Virginia’s required Standards of Learning. Teachers who ground their work with young people through relationships, relevancy, and rigor create communities of learners in which young people acquire the competencies they need to be successful graduates of our high schools.

using data

Recently, I listened to a group of Cale Elementary children describe how they figured out the percentage of land mass and water on Earth by tossing a soft globe to each other and recording how many times a hand landed on land versus water. This activity supported a different kind of thinking than would occur from simply reading a textbook to find the answer. The students practiced data collection skills, estimation competency, and analytical thinking individually and as a team. The class percolated with enthusiasm as they applied geography, math, and science concepts and knowledge to figure out the earth’s land and water percentages. They took on the role of “experts” to teach me how they accomplished this performance task while the teacher smiled at their capability to make sense out of fractions and percentages as a function of the data they had collected. Their passion was evident.

What kinds of experiences kindle passion in our young people?

Third graders at Meriwether Lewis Elementary have already Skyped this year with schools in Australia and Egypt to ask questions and learn about those countries. A third grader said, “I don’t just like hearing and reading about a place, I love going to it using Skype.”

The School Board opened its regular meeting on September 8 with a beautiful and passionate rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by the Burley Bearettes – in remembrance of the tenth anniversary of “9/11.”

Walton Middle School students connected virtually with students in Godfrey-Lee School District in Michigan to share project work related to learning about the history of “9/11.”

"9/11" parent/student project

Parents and students at Jack Jouett Middle School participated in the “I will” campaign to make service pledges at 911day.org in memory of those who perished on that day or who were first responders.

Burley students also just finished a Constitutional Convention re-enactment as part of a Constitution unit underway as we approach national Constitution Week.

Irresistible learning occurs within all extracurricular and curricular areas, not just English, science, history, mathematics, and world languages. It’s in the art on display in hallways as students show what they “see”. It’s in the laughter of Henley’s choral students practicing rhythm as they learned each other’s names. It’s in the student-athletes, male and female, hard at work in fall sports competitions. It’s in young people creating and performing a variety of fall programs – band, strings, choral, and drama productions.

Passion also resides in the new Broadus Wood music teacher working with an expert mentor teacher to plan the first few weeks of school. Passion for learning is not just about our young people. It’s found within our entire community of professionals who also learn from each other and together.

New teacher academy

Education is a people business. When the Board, school staff, or I speak to the importance of student and teacher access to technology tools and other resources, it’s critical to remember that challenging and interesting learning comes from its planning and facilitation by teachers. As I have often said, technology cannot greet a child in the morning, listen, make eye contact, or offer advice. While all forms of technology – books, pencils, paper, and netbooks – have a place in our schools, technologies cannot replace the teacher. It’s teachers who make our Division’s core values come alive; expecting excellence in all we do, offering young people our very best, ensuring respect for self and others, and valuing our diverse school communities.

Every school community needs creative and thoughtful professionals with the expertise to choose from a “tool kit” of available instructional strategies, technologies, resources, and room arrangements to support learners to access what they need to accomplish the learning work they need to do. Every teacher needs contemporary resources and technologies to ensure children have access to the tools they need to accomplish contemporary learning work that prepares them for life after high school.

We’re fortunate in Albemarle County to employ teachers who know how to create contemporary learning opportunities for young people. They are committed to their own continuous development to extend and enhance their professional skills across their careers just as their counterparts in medicine, law, engineering, and other professions do. Our educators know that learning is about far more than scores on a multiple-choice test. They know they make a difference in whether young people will find learning irresistible.

Teachers matter.