Learning in Our Schools: Community Support is Essential

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Spring is one of the busiest times of the year in our schools. Competitions abound; regional and national science fairs, Destination Imagination, National History Day, athletic teams,wahs-hd-10 and so much more. Drama students are putting final touches on performances or smiling because their the performance is a wrap. Music students are preparing for spring performances and the Fine Arts Festival at Fashion Square Mall has been viewed by thousands of community members and finally taken down after a month-long exhibition.

 

 

Our elementary schools have many spring evening activities planned involving students; Art Shows, Quest Fests, STEAM fairs to Design and Make nights. It’s a time for field trips to museums and historical sites such as Washington, D.C., Richmond, and Williamsburg. The promahe-trip-8s are over and our seniors anticipate their final walk across the stage, a day when they are still Albemarle students in one moment and graduates of our schools in the next.

All of the fine work accomplished by our young people occurs because of partnerships that result in the enriched opportunities we support in our schools. We celebrate all the positive accomplishments of our young people and value the partnerships we have with parents, community volunteers in our schools, and business community contributors who help make our schools wonderful environments for our children.

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DAR volunteers at Stone Robinson Elem

Teachers work hard every day to engage our learners in activities that challenge them to think deeply as they problem-solve, plan and conduct research, defend arguments, communicate through a variety of forms of media, learn to live a fit and healthy lifestyle, create, and develop skills of logical and analytical reasoning. This does not happen by chance. This work occurs because of our division’s focus on Lifelong Learning Competencies, skills, dispositions, and knowledge work that will be useful not just in school but well after our young people have moved into adulthood.

beeteam-4 I’ve had the recent experience of watching a group of Monticello High School students research, develop, and implement a plan to bring bee hives to the school grounds as a part of their environmental sciences studies.

 

 

3-sre-projFourth graders at Stone-Robinson Elementary demonstrated a variety of projects they constructed from cardboard illustrating potential and kinetic energy.

 

 

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Just last week, National Society of Black Engineers Junior members from Burley Middle School recently showcased for parents and staff their projects to build robots and write app programs.

 

 

2-youth-summitThe capstone project for teen representatives from all of our regional high schools occurred during the TomTom Festival when students from city, county, and private schools attended a Youth Summit planned and run by students for students to share their talents, big ideas for the future of school, and entrepreneurial pitches for projects they dream to make come true.
catec-auto-5In a visit to CATEC, automotive students shared their work under the hood and talked about their futures. I listened as one senior, a young woman, described her enlistment in the Navy with hopes of becoming an aviation mechanic. She informed me that this would be a path to a wonderful career, one that she sees as a positive step in her life after high school.

In every visit I make to our schools, I have the pleasure of talking with students and teachers as they share their work with me. I am amazed at the performances, the art work, the challenging projects, and the competitive accomplishments of our students. They are doing so much more rigorous work than occurred in high school fifty or thirty or even fifteen years ago and our students graduate in greater numbers, attend more highly competitive colleges and universities, and provide community service through social good projects in higher numbers than ever recorded in our community.

This doesn’t happen by chance. It happens because education matters in Albemarle County. And, even as our community grows more diverse, our students continue to thrive with support from volunteers, excellent teaching staff, and their parents.  Not every school in America is fortunate to be situated in a such a community. We are and I do not take that for granted.

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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.

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.

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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.

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Monticello Drama’s West Side Story