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.

balloon-prep

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.

balloon-tracker-app

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!

balloonsky

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.

On Young People, Leaders, and Leadership

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12 interns

high school summer intern at work

This past week, a group of ten high school teens came to my office to sit down and chat about leadership. They’re part of a high school leadership class working on a qualitative project to interview leaders from various walks of life. All our high schools offer leadership classes as a path for students to learn how to exercise influence and agency through development of voice and skill. I want to encourage this generation of young leaders so it’s important for me to take time to chat with them about what makes school and community important. I recognized one of the students, a young woman whom I’d known since she was in elementary school. We used to talk about her interest in teaching and maybe, just maybe, becoming a superintendent of schools one day. That’s not a conversation I have very often with students of any age!

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High school students engaged in their passion for music

Some wear high school sports gear. Others dress casually as high school teens do. They represent the diversity of their high school, a school where over 71 languages are spoken as well as diversity in interest and passion for learning across arts, STEM, athletics, and academics. Their mobile devices, now ubiquitous BYOD in our schools, lay on the table or hide in laps. One asks if it’s okay to record our conversation as well as video a short segment for use in class. “Of course,” I reply.

 

Each teen opens our conversation by sharing a little bit about their current work as well as what they see themselves doing next. College acceptances are definitely on the minds of the seniors in the group – one young woman shares her lack of certainty about whether to accept a college athletic scholarship to a school that might not be a top choice otherwise. Two are a little anxious about getting back to school in time for an upper level Spanish test. They all look forward to eating lunch off the high school campus at a local bagel shop. As they chat, I realize the topics on their minds today aren’t too far from those their parents and grandparents might have discussed with their superintendent or high school principal.  Even though our world has changed in so many ways since their grandparents and parents were in high school, the same issues of friendships, school work, and what comes after high school resonate similarly across generations.

GISIt’s evident as we talk, these young people value that “every day” leaders influence and improve community and schools not just through positional power but also personal agency. Their questions range from how I define leadership to what I look for in a principal as a leader. They wonder about my perspectives on whether students’ opinions and ideas should be elicited as a part of decision-making in a high school and whether I think that the work of student leaders makes a difference in our schools.

Here are some perspectives I shared.

grad1517On educational leadership: I believe the best leaders constantly model serving our community of learners, parents and staff. Educators often work long hours to ensure our young people receive the best we have to offer. This may mean going to a hospital when a child is seriously ill. It can mean staying after school to help students who are struggling as learners or to sponsor and attend after-school activities or events. Educators seem to never stop working whether it’s talking to parents in the grocery store or planning lessons and answering email at night. Educational leaders – whether teachers or administrators – value the people they serve and it shows 24/7. They come to work every day with a passion for supporting learners and learning. They see themselves as lifelong learners and are willing, regardless of experience, to learn new competencies to better support of learners and learners.

grad1516On what makes a good principal: To be an excellent principal, both technical and relationship skills are essential. Principals must be able to build effective schedules, develop and manage budgets, and analyze and evaluate how to improve and sustain quality educational services for students. Yet, technical skills represent just a slice of the competencies a principal must demonstrate in the role. However, the critical part of the job is about building strong and positive relationships with parents, staff, and students. Principals must be good listeners, solution finders, consensus builders, communicators, and decision makers. Principals today are flooded with stakeholder communication from text messages to phone calls and email. They know that great communication is key to running a school successfully even as they balance many competing values and interests across stakeholders in their work. It’s not unusual for principals to respond to emails received during the school day starting as early as 4 am or until 11 pm.

1 mohs9thOn student voice: Becoming a committed citizen and community member means learning how to advocate for and support others and self. Taking time to reach out to hear what students have to say is a critical component of leading in a school. When I was an elementary principal, students used to sign up for lunch on Wednesdays with me – a time to eat in the principal’s office and chat about what mattered to them. As superintendent, I stop to listen and chat with students when I visit classes in schools, during the summer leadership academy, and with county student council members. Listening to students helps inform me about what’s important to them from conversations about topics of interest to them as varied as homework to social media use to friendships. Students’ perspectives matter and we educators can learn from students just as we expect them to learn from us.

On young people: Young people have a lot to say. They write, sing, talk, text, Instagram, and tweet to each other, their communities, and the world. High tech immersion is a constant in their lives. Yet, they also valuing being with others face-to-face, not just with other young 6 rock and rappeople but also with adults who care about them and value their voices.

Our teens are community doers – they get involved in service projects to help others and they value that they have something to give. They see themselves as leaders, activists who can make their schools, communities, and the world a better place. They aren’t perfect but neither were their parents and grandparents. However, when I spend time with our young people, it’s evident to me they are growing up to be fine leaders and doers as they move forward in life. And that’s worth it’s weight in gold to me.

Yes, their voices do make a difference.