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.

Teachers Matter Most

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December is a busy month in our schools from wonderful holiday programs to routine activities that engage children in deep learning. I am fortunate to visit our schools and see the amazing work accomplished by our young people and the teachers who create opportunities to involve learners. Learning planned by our teachers challenges children’s imaginations, supports them to solve complex problems, engages them to seek and use deep knowledge of content and make interdisciplinary connections, and encourages them to sustain curiosity and pursue learning that is of intrinsic interest.

dec blog 2On a Sunday afternoon, I recently watched Scottsville fifth graders perform The Little Prince at Victory Hall, a community arts center in downtown Scottsville. The children enchanted the audience as they shared the story, with a parent-constructed set that was just perfect for the show. The sophisticated concepts in The Little Prince were beautifully interpreted by the children. I loved the introduction by Principal Sharon Amato- Wilcox who reminded us of one of many important lessons in this children’s story:

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince 

Drama teachers Fay Cunningham, Madeline Michel, and Caitlin Pitts recently hosted student drama teams from our four high schools (AHS, MoHS, WAHS, and Murray High) to participatIMG_2110e in a fast-paced “script to performance” master class, Wired, in which students began the morning writing a script from scratch and performing that evening. I had the chance to watch student teams participate in a feedback session with the teachers and afterwards we chatted with the students about how coaching and guiding drama students gives them immediate, actionable feedback on their progress which they love about drama. One student commented that he wished school could be drama class all day long every day.

dec blog 8A visit with a Sutherland Middle School science teacher, Bryan Anderson, also provided insight into the interesting work that he does with students in an outdoor environmental garden area. It’s amazing to see that some typical garden plants such as broccoli  are still producing due to the unseasonably warm weather. His recycled soda bottle irrigation system seems to work well – and the rabbits who live in a hutch nearby and are a great source of fertilizer. It’s not every day you see kids inspecting cotton in a school garden with the intention of sharing it with their social studies teacher as an artifact from early agricultural days- but Brian and his kids are willing to try out all kinds of experiments in their schoolyard garden.

This past Saturday, Stone-Robinson Elementary staff hosted a #girlsgeekday program. I visited and saw around 60 elementary-aged girls working with volunteer staff, mostly women, including a number of teachers. The girls were figuring out how to program Lego robots, use basic code, design and build structures to withstand high winds, create animation videos, and program with visual patterns to control Ozobots. Watching our elementary girls work with great delight on STEM projects all Saturday morning reinforced how important it is to support all of our young people to see themselves as capable designers, builders, engineers, programmers, mathematicians, and creators. A takeaway? when children find learning interesting, they are intrinsically motivated to keep going.

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I also found out this past weekend about an AHS jazz band accomplishment. After completing and submitting a jazz tape made with support from the A3 House music studio in the Albemarle High Learning Commons, our jazz musicians were notified that they had been selected as one of twelve high school jazz bands across the nation to attend the prestigious Savannah Jazz Festival this coming April. Our AHS jazz musicians are some of the very best in the nation under the direction of Greg Thomas and this video shows why they are considered as such.

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Finally, I’m proud that Albemarle County Public Schools was recently notified of its #5 school division Niche ranking in Virginia. Notably, our teaching staff received the highest rating possible which corroborates my belief that our teachers advance learning in powerful ways and that’s recognized by parents and students alike. While I want all of our young people to have excellent, modern facilities and top-notch learning tools, I also know that teaching quality makes the real difference in a child’s success in school. Commitment to learning quality must supersede other investments. Recruiting, selecting and developing the best educators we can find has led to our recognition of our young people and those who serve them well.

Schools matter. Learning tools matter. Teachers matter most.

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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.

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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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In Students’ Voices: the Power of Student Led Conferences

This year in my blog I am featuring writers from across our schools  – educators and learners alike. I recently was perusing the Sutherland Middle School Blog site, one that is run by students for students as well as the greater community. In fact, in one blog post this fall, the student bloggers, Sydney, Lauren, Sara, Kathryn, and Nan, documented the global hits on their blog page to show their audience isn’t just our local community, but an international community. In an earlier post this fall, they interviewed and videotaped comments from students in Mrs. Harris’ classes about their participation in student led conferences.

Teachers in a number of our schools have actively involved students in conferences with parents so that our learners have the opportunity to share their successes and areas for improvement with parents. Greer Elementary is one such school and in past years, all children from pre-kindergarteners to fifth graders have had the chance to show their portfolios to parents  and describe what they know, understand and can do as learners.

I selected this sample post from the Sutherland Middle School October blog about Mrs. Harris’ effort to engage young people in assessing their progress in school. I particularly appreciate that middle school students learn from the experience that they have important information to share about what and how well they are learning as well as to share learning goals with parents. In the student led conference format, they are not just listeners to their parents and their teacher talking about them. As active participants they have planned what they intend to say and share. In doing so, they must reflect on choices they’ve made, work ethic, challenges they’ve faced, successes they’ve experienced, and why their own commitment to learning is key to their effort. Here’s the student bloggers’ post and video:

 About Us

This blog is run by a group of Sutherland students. Its purpose is to share with the community what is going on at school.

If you have any compliments, concerns, or complaints please email us at sharkyearbook@gmail.com. Thanks.

 

Parent Conferences

 
The second night of parent / teacher conferences is tonight from. 4:30 -7:30 and teachers along with some students are getting prepared.  One teacher, Ms. Harris, does her conferences a little differently than the other teachers.  Ms.Harris’ students participate in student lead conferences where the kids not the teacher leads the conference to tell the parents how they are doing in class.  We interviewed some students to explain how this works and it’s effectiveness.
 
 
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