Not By Chance: Extraordinary Learning-Extraordinary Teaching

March 14, 2010

Every week, our community hears about the high performance, by any measure, of our Pk-12 students. Just in this past two weeks, our young people have distinguished themselves at regional National History Day, Destination Imagination, Piedmont Regional Science Fair, VHSL forensics competition, selection into All-Virginia’s chorus, band, and orchestra, our Fine Arts Festival portfolio, Virginia Festival of the Book, a national C-SPAN film documentary competition, a national teacher blog competition, and so on. The public recognition (see news releases) of our young people and educators occurs week after week throughout the school year.

All of our young people are advantaged by opportunities to demonstrate their learning in a variety of formats, not just through their top performance on high-stakes state and national tests. Participation in customized performance-based learning options in our classrooms leads to young people who can “show” us what they know, understand and can do- rather than just tell us ala multiple choice tests what they are learning. Some choose to take this to a competitive level, but our explicit, strategic expectations for learner engagement mean that we want the full range of young people we serve to have project-based opportunities throughout the year in all classrooms.

In classrooms across our schools, young people are making documentary films and creating digital stories as a form of narrative as well as historical study- from Burley’s award-winning documentary on firefighting to Scottsville Elementary learners’ perspective on the history of the River and the town. Through citizen action projects at Monticello High, our teenagers identify issues of interest and critical importance, research, argue ideas, pinpoint actions, and go to work to make change happen. I am amazed at the WAHS learner who committed in ninth grade to a deep-research science project on HPV oncogenes that as a junior will take him to compete at the International Science Fair. At the same time, our science educators know that inquiry learning motivates all of our learners to acquire the knowledge, skills, and concepts of scientific literacy. Just this past Thursday, amid all the ongoing community angst about budget woes, a video from Red Hill Elementary arrived in my email inbox showing “planetary” children on the black-top revolving and rotating around the “sun.” I have no doubt that this lesson will stay with them far longer than a fill-in the blank worksheet or teacher-talk to explain these concepts.

No matter where I go to observe our educators and young people at work, I am privileged as superintendent to see the best, most interesting, and exciting work that goes on in any workplace in this county- and it’s happening in every one of our twenty-six schools. Despite the national, state and local media spinning its own version of budgetary bad news for education, our educators daily stay on point to ensure that our young people take away far more from our classrooms than just the capability to efficiently bubble the upcoming multiple choice tests facing them from now until late May.

Like educators everywhere, our teachers know we must prepare our young people for those tests and they do that work to a greater degree than probably any of us would choose. But, our teachers also attend to the kind of work that leads our young people on a lifelong learning journey through standards that go far beyond those specified by the Commonwealth. We like to think that our young people do well by any measure because of our efforts to engage all of them in creative and analytical thinking, reading, writing, critical inquiry and problem-solving opportunities. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, we expect our learners to use a variety of technologies to accomplish this work. Whether paintbrush or photo-shop, oral or iPod multiplication-fact practice, page-turner novel or online Physics flexbook on a netbook, both old and new technologies serve young people better when they are taught by talented and skilled educators.

As Saint Patrick’s Day approaches, I thought this weekend about how “lucky” we are to have competent educators in our schools. Then, upon further reflection, I realized we don’t have these excellent educators working here by chance at all. They are here because we have been a community that values education as the most important service our money can buy. They are here because we are the kind of community that sees our young people as the future of our community, our state, and nation. They are here because they believe they make a difference- and they do.