A New Year’s Resolution: Renewing Our Collective Commitment to Care

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Dear Colleagues:

This past week, Walton Middle School opened their doors to local residents to distribute food and toys to families in need. Students were part of the effort to collect these items, learning an important lesson about what it means to care about all the members of your community, even those who too often can be invisible in our thoughts.

Crozet Elem donates to Veterans Affairs Medical Center

What happened at Walton was not unique to that school of course; many of our students, staff and parents across our division come together at this and other times of the year to lend a hand to those who are in need. It is the most satisfying of expressions of our school division’s values.

This particularly is a year when such expressions reverberate with a higher voice. Even a casual observer of public events here and throughout our nation would acknowledge the importance of revisiting and strengthening our collective commitment to care about those whose life circumstances or beliefs differ from ours. Empathy is a difficult life skill to acquire and maintain under the best of circumstances much less in times of stress.

That’s why efforts such as the one at Walton, or programs such as Responsive Classroom, AVID, Culturally Responsive Teaching, Community Diversity Celebrations, Equity & Access, are so invaluable. They energize us to look beyond our own interests.

The Center for Public Education calls this An American Imperative. They note, “public schools are uniquely positioned to convey….such vital concepts in our civil society as integrity, individual responsibility, fairness, justice, patriotism, respect for others, doing a good job, being on time, working well with others, being a good citizen, and exercising democracy in government and other interactions.”

Conveying these values, the Center adds, “involves more than teachers lecturing or students reading about values. It involves day-to-day practices within the classroom that help students learn to recognize and exercise these values in everyday life.”

That’s why one of my favorite memories of 2017 was that of the Woodbrook third grader who wrote to her principal asking if the school could help students in Houston whose families had been victimized by Hurricane Harvey. With the help of her peers who gave up their ice cream money, Woodbrook’s students eventually sent nearly $1,000 to a heavily free-and-reduced lunch school in Houston, bringing tears to the eyes of the school’s principal.

Learning Civility Begins Early

Our strategic goal pledges us to prepare students for lifelong success as learners, workers and citizens. It is the citizen piece in particular where schools and their graduates will have the greatest long-term impact on the civility of our nation.

So especially in this season of giving, I want to thank each one of you for the selfless dedication you bring every day to your work with our students and families…. and for how well you model what it means to care deeply about one another and our community, to find satisfaction in working together to make each of us better and to find joy in seeing others overcome a hardship.

All the best to you and your family. Have a happy, healthy and rewarding holiday season.

Pam

We Are Back in School!

IMG_4100Albemarle County Public Schools: One Student-Centered Goal ..

All Albemarle County Public Schools students will graduate having actively mastered the lifelong-learning skills they need to succeed as 21st century learners, workers and citizens.

Albemarle Schools Strategic Plan

sch-opening-boxThe 2017-18 School Year is well underway across all 25 Albemarle County Public Schools. I am always delighted each year to visit every school in the first week to see our teachers and students come together to form new communities of learning. It is a joy to watch as our youngest children enter school for the first time and are greeted by teachers who are ready to help them make the transition into preschool and kindergarten. They learn in kindergarten to work and play with others and to negotiate their way around their schools. In many ways, children begin to acquire the lifelong learning competencies that we value for our graduates on the first day of school.

sch-opening-cabelSimilar transitions occur in middle and high schools as sixth and ninth graders enter their schools, finding that their status as the school elders in elementary and middle schools has now shifted to being the youngest students again in new buildings in which they join peers from other schools to form even larger communities of learners and learning. Our middle and high schools set up structures to ease new students into school schedules, activities, and learning expectations. This can mean time with school counselors, discussions in advisory periods such as the Developmental Design model we use in middle schools, and informal and formal visits with administrators and teachers who help with individual learning or social-emotional needs.

This year, the School Board approved funding in its 2017-18 budget for one new initiative to address the social emotional and academic needs of students with risk factors. The SEAD team concept has been put in place in four urban elementary schools to support professional development of teachers in the schools to better equip them with competencies for working with students with learning challenges. The SEAD team is working with community agencies and non-profits to also better leverage local wrap around services for students with social, emotional, or academic needs.  Benchmark data across multiple indicators will be used to monitor effectiveness of the SEAD team concept and its impact on student learning, absenteeism, behavior, and social-emotional competencies.

Imagine driving up to fifty children to and from school every day…

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Since my first day as superintendent, I have ridden a school bus, often getting on the bus when light has just touched the morning sky. Watching the drivers check their manifest and listening to the chirrup of the drivers and dispatch over the bus radio reminds me that our drivers are professionally trained drivers, all with a CDL license, and hours behind the wheel learning not how to manage goods in a tractor-trailer but rather how to safely transport as many as 50 students to and from school each day. They watch for the drivers who are not watching for our buses to be sure our children stay safely until they can be waved to the bus. They eye their mirrors to be sure whether a passenger is 4 or 18 that they remain safely seated.

As our young people enter the bus on the first day, our drivers greet them with a smile, often by name. Parents entrusting their children for the first time to our drivers often linger at the bottom of the steps watching as their four- or five-year olds take their seats. Our buses drive upwards of 14,000 miles every day across the 726 square miles of Albemarle County Public Schools. At the beginning of this year, we celebrated well over 5 million miles of safe driving and maintained an on-time arrival rate of 98% or better, division-wide, throughout the entirety of the past school year. Our Transportation Department sees safe transportation of children as Job #1!

Bond referendum support makes new spaces and security entrances possible this year …

sch-openingThis past November, the bond referendum to modernize schools and add critically needed security entrances to several schools was approved by almost 75% of our county voters. This year, Jack Jouett and Walton Middle Schools have new science learning labs, Western has begun its planning for new science and academy lab spaces, and Baker-Butler and Scottsville Elementary Schools have new security entrances moving forward for completion in this school year. The Woodbrook Elementary addition and modernization of the existing school is underway to open in 2018-19. This modernization of facilities is long overdue given the age of schools across the division.

The added capacity at Woodbrook Elementary will offer some relief to growth occurring in Albemarle’s urban ring. However, the Long-range Planning Committee and School Board are closely monitoring growth in the northern corridor, at Pantops, along Avon and Fifth Street Extended, and in the Crozet growth areas. While our rural schools are in general projected for enrollment declines, we are experiencing growth in other areas of the county.

High school over-capacity enrollment at Albemarle High School has been a target for study this past year and a consultation team’s recommendation will be brought forward to the School Board for consideration of a strategy or strategies to address over-enrollment before November 2018.

Virginia’s Profile of the Graduate and High School 2022 Planning Advances …

sch-opening-rickThe Virginia Board of Education is poised to take action on changes to current regulations for high school graduates as well as school accreditation in general. For high school students, a reduction in state requirements for verified credits is proposed to impact the entering students entering high school in 2018 who will graduate in 2022. The intention of proposed changes is to increase opportunities for students to engage in work-based experiences, independent studies, and internships before exiting high school as well as coursework aligned to the competencies associated with the 5Cs: communication, critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, and citizenship. Information about proposed Profile of the Graduate model can be accessed by clicking here.

In anticipation of Virginia’s implementation of the Profile of the Graduate model, Albemarle County educators have spent two years in a team supplemented with advisory group feedback from representative parents, students, and business community members developing High School 2022, a program guide to proposed changes essential to implementing the state’s model. The current work to address high school capacity and modernization will align with the strategic work of our own high school community members.  For more information on High School 2022, click here.

Welcome to the 2017-18 School Year! To reach your child’s school, communication information can be found here.

sch-opening-fish-tank

 

 

Mathematical Thinking Matters

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IMG_5496Whether buying a new car, working in a research lab, applying the Pythagorean theorem on a construction site, or using spreadsheet formulas to plan how to pay off student loans most efficiently, mathematical thinking is a basic for graduates of our schools. What students must learn today goes well beyond the work of yesteryear’s arithmetic textbooks when members of earlier generations used to memorize rote fact families, repeat procedural recipes from long division to geometry theorems, and solve basic word problems.

It’s an expectation in Virginia that contemporary students take three or more years of high school math – a requirement far beyond the “just” Algebra I requirement of thirty years ago. That’s why developing critical reasoning skills in math is a key focus for today’s educators to make sure young people acquire the competencies they need for a lifetime of mathematical thinking.

This kind of mathematical learning does not happen by chance in schools. It demands teachers who deeply understand a range of mathematical disciplines and who skillfully use multiple teaching strategies to help learners of different competency levels learn to think mathematically as they solve complex math problems.

A high school principal recently shared that learners who once struggled with math are having significant success this year in Algebra I – by any measure. If a student can’t pass Algebra I and then take two more math courses beyond Algebra, they won’t graduate with a standard Virginia diploma. For an advanced diploma, the college admissions gold standard, four math courses are required.

When I met the lead teacher for the successful high school algebra team (a course in which parents and students routinely ask teachers, “when will I ever use algebra in life?”), she said three things which stood out to me: algebra problems must be real, multiple problem-solving strategies must be learned, and positive relationships between the teacher and learner are vital.

My conversation with her reminded me of a recent blog post by Walton Middle School math teacher Bill Doar who works to make sure every student in his class learns math concepts and competencies well. Teachers such as Mr. Doar create learning experiences so students learn math well and find themselves actually liking math.

Here’s a post from Mr. Doar on how he teaches middle school students to see math as a positive part of their day as they learn Virginia’s more rigorous standards.

Teaching for Perplexity by Mr. Bill Doar,
seventh grade math teacher

Walton MIddle School

The past two months have flown by.  On October 11th, my wife and I welcomed our first child – Will into the world.  It feels like September was just a short while ago and we were in Virginia Beach enjoying Labor Day.  Will is starting to smile, make cute baby ‘coo-ing’ and sleep for solid four-hour chunks at a time.  Those luxurious four-hour segments were not always the norm.  Sleep during the first month was scarce and I would often find myself watching Sportscenter or listening to sermons at 3 a.m. to pass the time while Will fell asleep.
One night several weeks ago I stumbled across a YouTube channel run by a math teacher I admire greatly – Dan Meyer.  I initially heard of Dan during my first year teaching in the Mississippi Delta and watched one of his more famous videos – ‘Math Class Needs a Makeover’.  I could immediately relate to his struggle of making math engaging.  In it he describes the math teacher – student relationship as follows:
“I sell a product to a market that doesn’t want it but is forced by law to buy it…”
I distinctly remember the moment during that first year when I realized, many of my students don’t like math, believe they can’t do it and don’t see any practical application of the workbook problems tdoarpic2hey’ve encountered since kindergarten. In the past five years of teaching I’ve worked hard to make math standards meaningful, engaging and applicable to real life. Through technology infusion in the classroom, the ‘maker curriculum’ and the push to make teaching more than just preparing for the SOL, I’ve tried to make my classroom one where the work we do has application that reaches beyond the annual standardized test.
A recent challenge posed while watching one of Dan Meyer’s videos at 3 a.m. holding Will was to change the progression of each lesson.  About 98% of the time I would start with a standard, students would take notes, work out problems, ask questions then try an enrichment/application level activity.  In Dan’s video ‘Teaching for Perplexity’ he challenges educators to start with a real life, engaging, thought-provoking question and embed the standards in the question.
[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKdiXLIcqVQ]

Today in class, I handed my Core + students the 7th grade VDOE formula sheet when they walked in and told them to create the six shapes on the formula sheet and record the dimensions on a graphic organizer I created.  It’s been amazing to see the change in student engagement transitioning from the traditional ‘sage on stage’ teaching model to challenging students to create and ask probing questions along the way.  I’ve found that with this new model students can learn at their own pace and they genuinely want to ‘complete the challenge’ set before them. It also allows me to circulate the room and give more individualized attention.

The most astonishing aspect to this change though was that during our 40 minudoarpic1te activity today we were able to discuss evaluating expressions, order of operations, exponents, nets of 3D shapes, area, perimeter, volume and surface area.  When I am teaching in front of the class and students are working on a worksheet, it is incredibly difficult to teach more than one or two skills at a time.  This may prove to be the most important benefit to the change in classroom model.

In all honesty, I do not use this model everyday but am trying to implement it more and more each week.  I will leave you with a challenge Mr. Meyer posed during a recent TED talk.  Study the graph below that shows water consumption during the Olympic Gold Medal Hockey Game.

doargraph What caused the highs and lows?  Where is the math in this graph?  What standards could this graph be used to teach?

You can follow Bill Doar on twitter @MrDoarAtWalton

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As you can see from his post, Bill Doar works on students’ attitudes toward math, not just their math competencies. He knows students need both confidence and competence to advance their math knowledge and skills.

In the United States we tend to project a belief that some students are “good” in math –  but most aren’t. Boys are better at math. Girls aren’t. These beliefs play out at home and in school. We know from research families and educators around the world have a different mindset about the capability of children to learn to think mathematically. Adult beliefs about learners impact children’s beliefs about themselves as learners. Negative beliefs about some children’s potential to learn can become their destiny.

Math is a case in point. Let’s change that.

 

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.

spanishlesson

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.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/6ykaemEp6nM]

 

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.

lifelonglearning

Different Pathways to Finding Voice: a Writing Teacher’s Story

When I read a blog post recently by Brian Kayser, published short story author and sixth grade collaborative teacher at Walton Middle School, I was reminded that all children have stories to tell,  questions to answer, problems to solve, poetry to create, and research to accomplish as they move through our schools.  Learning to write and writing to learn represent critical competencies that our children begin to develop from their first days in kindergarten. Mr. Kayser captures through his own story why he is committed to all children finding voice as writers.  When learners experience a writing teacher such as Mr. Kayser, they are more likely to kindle a passion for writing in their own work.

  The staff of the National Writing Project, established in 1974, know that writing is essential to a literate citizenry. They have established October 19 as a National Day on Writing to encourage us all to participate by responding to a theme of “what I write”, then sharing our writing on that day through social media or other venues. You can find out more here. And, with his permission to cross-publish on this blog site, Brian’s blog post follows:

The Different Paths

to Finding Voice

Students are great at showing their voice. Too often, it’s just not how teachers want it. If students can write a coherent rant on Facebook for why they can’t stand school but they “just can’t master the expository format,” then that student is suffering more from an engagement problem than a writing problem. If you ask a language arts teacher why it’s important to teach writing, a common response will probably be, “Because writing is everywhere.” All good writing has voice, and if writing lacks voice and you’re not reading an instruction manual for installing a garbage disposal, then there’s a problem. As teachers of writing, and that should include teachers of any content, we have to help our students find their voice, and the truest way to do this is to give students choice in the writing they engage in and the modes they display their writing, their voice will be heard and appreciated by many.

Last year, I started Global Fiction Readings for my students in language arts. After students edited their writing pieces, they practiced reading it with a partner. After much practice, we went to our school’s library and broadcast students reading their pieces to the world through UStream. At first, other teachers were skeptical that this was more of a distraction than something important. Students were also tentative to share, unsure of what exactly a Global Fiction Reading was. For our first reading, only a few students from my one class participated, and at the time, they did not know exactly who they were reading to, as all they could see was their classmates and an intimidating webcam staring at them. At the end of the reading, I was able to share what people shared about their readings. Students who participated were impressed that college professors in other states, other classes, and teachers on planning tuned in to hear what they had to say. Not only did students receive instant feedback from their peers through laughter and gasps, but they saw that their audience was much more expansive than the walls of their classroom. When I shared with them that their superintendent watched their readings, they nodded. After explaining that a superintendent was our principal’s boss, a collective “ooh” went through the crowd. One student said that he didn’t think his piece was very good, but realized it was funny once his classmates laughed. This was reinforced by a teacher from Australia commenting that she enjoyed the piece by our “little comedian.”

For students’ second creative writing piece, there was a dramatic improvement in effort and care to craft an original, engaging story from students who had participated in the reading. They wanted to be great, and not because they wanted a grade in the grade book, but because they knew they would be sharing their work with the world. More students from our class chose to participate in the second Global Fiction Reading, with other teachers joining in as well.

One student with an intellectual disability found her voice through telling stories about our school. Each day, she would take a picture of something happening in our school (the place or subject of the photo was her choice). She would then edit her photograph, save the edited version with captions, and then upload that picture to a Tumblr site. This site was then shared with others so they could see what she did. It was very motivating for this student to tell people that she had done her photo for the day as well as asking people if they’d seen her latest post. Not only did this student improve her writing skills as she worked on this year-long project, but she was able to practice independence, engage in high level thinking on a consistent basis, and receive authentic feedback from an authentic audience for her work. Because these elements were in place, the project was looked at more as something fun to work on than an assignment that had to be completed.

Students are also able to realize that their voice is more than how loud you speak. It’s what you put out into the world about yourself, and the mode with which you give the world your voice is entirely negotiable. Just as no two students in a class have the same voice, their paths to letting the world hear their voice will probably be very different. As a teacher, it’s important to help students find the mode students can be most engaged in. Some students may be natural comic makers while others are budding film directors. Not every mode will or should be the conventional five paragraph essay (don’t know when the five paragraph essay is a good thing, ever), and that’s okay. Students may choose a mode to bring forth their voice that the teacher is entirely unfamiliar with, and that too is okay. If a teacher is always comfortable in their class, then that’s exactly what it is – “their” class. A truly student-centered class will shift the power of learning and the power of voices to the students, which means the teacher will not always be the holder of all knowledge. If this makes the teacher feel uncomfortable or unprepared, then that teacher has made a great first step towards becoming a learner again. What I’ve learned from experience is that when students are in the driver’s seat, not only are they great at teaching me new things, but that we become a true community of learners that all enjoy class more.

Thank you, Mr. Kayser, for sharing your story about how children became motivated writers in your work with them.