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

October 14, 2012

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.

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Learning about Scratch by Eileen – and Albemarle’s Coder Dojos

October 2, 2012

The following post contains background on the Coder Dojo program underway in Albemarle County Public Schools and a guest post by Scratch programming enthusiast Eileen who attends Broadus Wood Elementary. If you would like to know more about our plans for our new round of Coder Dojo sessions or to volunteer to help, click here. Eileen’s page also has a link where you can download Scratch for free and see her original post as well.

By Eileen- a Broadus Wood student:

If you want to make your creations come to life, then Scratch is the website for you. You can make hundreds of different characters, and make them walk, talk and move in any kind of way. You don’t have to make characters, you can also make Movies,animated pictures,games, and puzzles! Scratch is an around-the-globe website, so anybody can play it! The cool thing about it is, if you like your creation, you can publish it online so the whole world can see it. You have to download this site, but its free, so there’s really nothing to it. It only takes a few seconds to download this site, so don’t plan anything ahead of time. I highly recommend Scratch, it is a fun, educational website. I am excited to hear about your creations, and if you can, post your creations on this blog, so I can see what you have created! Scratch is a fun website, and I hope you can get it.

Coder Dojos of Albemarle County Public Schools

summer Coder Dojo

This summer, Albemarle learners, ages 7 – 18, participated in our four-day Coder Dojo Academy where they learned basic to advanced programming skills.  The Coder Dojo movement began in Ireland and rapidly spread around the world. Albemarle County Public Schools is one of the first divisions in the United States to sponsor Coder Dojos for our young people.

We were surprised at the significant interest this summer from our families because we rolled the invite out towards the end of the summer and knew many children were already in activities or on vacation. We hoped to attract interest from 40-50 kids, but ended up with 900 on a waiting list, and expanded up our AHS program and served 200. The kids were amazing, coming in with little to no programming knowledge to knowing more than some of our teacher-facilitators. The Dojo is designed so that kids learn from the teachers as they have questions and often from each other in this multi-age setting. I watched elementary children teaching middle schoolers how to make Scratch games and high schoolers taking the time to help younger children with HTML so they could design, create, and publish web pages.

The purpose of the Coder Dojo movement is to provide young people with opportunities to experience computer programming as fun and something they can learn to do. Kids at the camp used a variety of languages to build more and less sophisticated projects. One parent of a high schooler said to me recently, “his participation in the Coder Dojo changed his life. He’s really interested in continuing to pursue computer programming now that he’s back in school and he spends time teaching himself what he needs to do.”  Some elementary children felt the same way, too.

Melissa Techman, librarian at Broadus Elementary, sent me the link to the blog post written by Eileen, which I’ve guest-posted with her parents’ and her permission. Thank you, Eileen, for helping me share how Scratch which was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) can turn kids who like to play computer games into kids who make computer games!


Welcome to the 2012-13 School Year!

August 1, 2012

Welcome to the 2012-13 School Year. The first week in August can be bittersweet for educators and families as summer turns to the start of school. The first week in August, our Leadership Team of principals and department heads will meet together to ensure that all the“i’s are dotted and t’s crossed” as we finalize bus transportation plans, complete maintenance work so that facilities are ready for students, and prepare to welcome new educators to our schools during the New Teacher Academy.  As Assistant Superintendent Matt Haas wrote recently in our Leadership Blog, summer vacation isn’t always a long vacation for many educators – or our learners.

Educators at EDCampCville

I’ve had the good fortune to observe and connect with educators and students throughout the summer as learning opportunities continue in June, July, and August from the last day of school to this week. Teacher leaders from every school gathered for three days in June at the annual Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction (CAI) Institute to work on performance assessment tasks for each curricular area. As a lead-in activity to the CAI Institute,educators from across Central Virginia came to Sutherland Middle School for a day of sharing learning strategies and contemporary tech tools.

Just a couple of weeks ago, a similar activity occurred at Stone-Robinson Elementary, an edtech boot camp attended by about one hundred teachers teaching and learning with each other. Walking around, I noticed teachers learning to use interactive white board technologies, communication tools such as Skype, and specific applications to support math problem-solving, visible thinking, and writing.  Last week, I visited the University of Virginia Young Writers’ Workshop being held at Sweet Briar College and had the chance to observe a fourth grade teacher from one of our schools teaching writing to high school students from all over the world. At the end of this week, four of our middle schools will be fielding Science- Technology- Engineering- Mathematics teams to participate in the University of Virginia’s Can-Lead STEM grant to develop stronger instructional competencies in inquiry and project based learning at the middle school level. I also look forward to the Shannon Foundation Awards Ceremony where a number of local teachers will receive funding for innovative projects that will benefit children in our schools.

Our young people have also been busy this summer. We’ve had summer enrichment and summer tutoring programs occurring across schools from a middle school jazz band camp to a high school leadership academy that’s featured leaders from a variety of fields speaking to participants about beliefs, competencies, and dispositions demonstrated by successful leaders. Next week, about 200 learners across all levels will come together in our first summer Coding Academy an opportunity to learn computational thinking with teachers and community volunteers from the programming community. Earlier in the summer, artistically talented middle school students participated in the regional Governor’s Reflections Academy for the Visual Arts. The Office of Community Engagement co-sponsored with State Farm Insurance and the 100 Black Men of Central Virginia a math readiness  Academy, M-cubed. We are especially proud of the ten high school graduates from our summer program for students pursuing a high school diploma.

M-Cubed Program at Burley Middle

The 2012-13 school year will begin later in August with about 100 new teachers moving into classrooms across our schools. We will open our second high school academy at Monticello High. The Health and Medical Sciences Academy will offer its participants the chance to pursue a high school program of studies that can lead to post-secondary programs in a variety of fields in health and medicine including but not limited to biomedical engineering, nursing, or technical work. This new companion to the MESA academy at Albemarle High adds to our suite of customized options for secondary learners including CATEC, Murray High, and the Community Charter Middle School based at Burley.

We also have minor renovations to the Walton, Jouett, and Brownsville school libraries as we refurbish older facilities and create contemporary learning spaces. As with public libraries, the use of technologies that enhance and extend accessibility to library resources is critical in school libraries, too. Our librarians will be more important than ever in the coming decades as a result of the explosion of Internet and electronic resources available for use by learners. Teaching students how to find appropriate and credible resources presents the need for a different kind and level of curation by librarians.

Because of the success of pilot programs at Crozet and Cale Elementary Schools, we are expanding our digital fabrication technologies to reach more students through the elementary gifted program, allowing access to engineering processes and projects as learners design and create using software and 3-D printers.

Digital fabrication blueprints

Finally, we will open a new addition at Greer Elementary for preschool, kindergarten, and visual arts students. This new addition offers space for multi-age learning opportunities, inside and outside of the school. It’s exciting to see a facility that was designed with contemporary learners in mind, but at a reasonable cost to our community.

Quest Fest: Children sharing their research

Thank you to everyone who helps us offer our local young people the best educators we can find to work in our well-maintained school facilities. Nothing is more important to sustaining the future of the United States than a well-educated citizenry. While educators face challenges every day, I know from my experiences in our schools during winter, spring, summer, and fall that young people obtain an excellent education in this county from top-notch teachers. It was true for my son as he moved through elementary, middle, and high school here and I believe it’s true for the young people we serve today.

Quality doesn’t happen by chance. It happens because of the community support offered to our public schools from the business community, senior citizens, parent volunteers, and our School Board members. Thank you and we hope you will visit with us and consider volunteering in our great schools!


2012: The Connected World of Our Learners

June 3, 2012

2012 AHS graduates

Memorial Day signaled this week’s graduation events that were laden with all the “pomp and circumstance” that we’ve all come to expect.  It’s always wonderful to see our young people wearing their school colors, bright eyed and ready to walk across the stage to pick up diplomas – even if some were a bit nervous. They, and their families, anticipated all year the traditions of the graduation ceremonies and we believe that each of our ceremonies provided a wonderful opportunity to celebrate our 2012 graduates.

Our children today have, in many cases, family members all over the world. In past years, they would have waited for graduation photos to arrive in a letter or, in recent years, more immediately through an email attachment or a text message.

However, a photo isn’t the same as being there. Because of recent technology advancements, our technology staff were able to provide our graduates’ family members with live graduation ceremony access via the Internet.

This year, we again streamed the ceremonies for all four high schools. Three years ago, this new addition to our tech-enhanced communication suite took people by surprise. We heard from astonished grandparents in Maine and England of their appreciation for being able to see their grandchildren walk across the stage and receive their diplomas. Today, streaming the graduation ceremonies so family members serving their country in Afghanistan or who live across the continent can watch our four graduation exercises is just a routine service.  This year, we already know from our viewing data that family members from around the globe watched Albemarle’s four graduation ceremonies.

Technology is changing the way our young people and our families connect with the world. Graduation is just one example.  Our learners from elementary to high school are developing new sets of skills as a result of the technology available to them formally in our schools and informally at home.  Here are some examples from this year.

Learning from Albemarle to Hungary

A Stone-Robinson Elementary music class Skyped recently with Hungarian children of the same age. The teachers figured out how to surmount time zone challenges so that they could share music and ask questions of each other. Our class was ready with a translator, but found they didn’t need it because the Hungarian children and teacher were relatively fluent in English. Our children played their recorders and questioned their overseas peers about what they learned in school. The answer came back with the slight delay of signals bounced across the vast Atlantic Ocean, “we learn music, art, physics, chemistry, history and maths.”  Their children also sang and played musical instruments for our children – the flute, piano, and trumpet.

In an Issues in the Modern World class taught at AHS, I observed seniors in another Skype session dialogue with an Egyptologist about the shifts politically and socially that have occurred in Egypt since the Arab Spring. They heard first-hand in April from him about candidates for the presidency, his frustrations with slow movement towards true democracy, and the economic challenges in front of the nation. One student wondered if our forefathers who led the American Revolution had experienced similar feelings.

Director Jennings and Bearettes

In February, a Saturday “practice-a-thon” of Burley’s choral and band students beamed out to parents via live stream. The teachers shared with me that they wanted parents to have the chance to observe what it takes for students to prepare a program for performance. What surprised the teachers was finding out how many parents, including one on a business trip, tuned in to watch. Opening up the classroom for parents to look behind the curtain of what young musicians do in class creates a different context for understanding how and what chldren are learning.

We also recently offered students the chance to stay after school to participate in our first Coder Dojos at Crozet Elementary and Monticello High. These multi-age coding academies support children to learn to write script, or code, creating everything from games to websites. In doing so, students move from being content consumers to content producers, exactly the kind of critical and creative thinking work that’s needed to refresh the U.S. economy. How did we learn of the Coder Dojo movement? Educators connected through social learning media found out about this Irish educational movement over the Internet.

These stories describe how technology is becoming more than just a tool to search for information. In this decade, technology has moved far beyond being just a word processor, a search engine, or a content practice option. All of those functions are important, but today’s learners and educators use technology routinely to search, connect, communicate, and create. They are in the middle of a turning point in which the nation and the world is moving from the Information Age to the Shift Age.

The Shift Age represents economic globalization, individualization, and virtual electronic connectivity across the globe. The skills today’s learners need to exist in a world of rapid technological change aren’t new skills. They’ve have always stood learners in good stead. As in the past, learners today need to be able to problem-solve, work independently as well as in teams, research what they need to know, communicate using a variety of tools, and continue to see learning as essential for the rest of their lives. However, these shifts in technology make the work of educators more complex and challenging as they refocus skills and content through technology applications.

Parents and staff alike know that young people need to be able to use both tools of yesterday and today as well as anticipate changes that will come next. This means that our teachers can’t ignore their own professional development as they themselves learn to use interactive technologies instead of static boards, to communicate virtually, and to search and connect content via the Internet rather than through print textbooks that are out of date as they roll off the presses.

Contemporary learning tools change the capabilities of what our young people can learn, how they learn, and even what they need to learn. The next five years will bring even more changes. Virtual coursework will grow in scope and complement face-to-face high school classes. Beginning with the entering freshmen of 2013, all Virginia graduates will be required to have at least one virtual course on their transcripts.

AHS MESA students routinely use virtual resources as learning tools

Will we adapt schools to the coming changes?  Of course, but it will demand commitment to learning new ways of teaching, assessing, and constructing curricula. It also will mean an increased commitment to tool accessibility for all learners. Change challenges most organizations, but the need to change PK-12 education is inevitable as technology changes the way we do business everywhere else – in big box stores, colleges, auto repair shops, libraries, doctors’ offices, and our homes.

At the same time, I believe that education will always be, first and foremost, a people business. I use social media for some communication and also to make professional network connections. However, I believe that face to face communication, teaching, and learning offers to humans what’s always been the best of education – the opportunity to interact and engage with each other as we learn how we can maximize our strengths within a community.

Jim Davis, Garfield cartoonist, works with Community Charter student

Even as change comes to education at a much faster pace than I ever envisioned, I still return to the idea that humans developed the competencies of survival through their work within communities, as teams, and from and with each other. I don’t want to lose that focus even as the tools evolve.


On Being Thankful

November 21, 2011

As we head into Thanksgiving week, I am reminded as I visit with educators and learners that we have much for which to be thankful in Albemarle County.

“Reading is expensive. When your family can’t afford books or they don’t live near a  library, it’s a lot harder to learn to read.“ Recently, a senior shared with me the significant challenges that she has faced in living below the poverty line in our community. As she shared her aspirations to attend an Ivy League school, I listened to her describe growing up in an isolated area of the county, “The first time I remember going to Charlottesville was on a field trip when I was nine years old.” It’s hard to imagine given the many resources available to most of us living in our community that this could be true.

The young woman described teachers from elementary through high school who saw and nurtured potential in her. As she expressed her thanks for the enriching opportunities that she’s had, she shared that she now tutors younger children so that they might have the same chance she’s received to find a pathway to college. I know this young woman is banking on a full scholarship to make her college dreams come true, but she has many committed educators and a caring mom in her corner to help her.  I am thankful for those who saw this young woman’s potential – not simply a child living in poverty who came to school with little of the background knowledge and experiences of her middle class peers who are in advanced courses with her today.

“I like science this year.” The student carefully dropped food coloring into two beakers, one filled with cold water and one with warm water.  A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to visit the class of a young teacher who is new to our school division. He had set up lab activities so his students could explore three critical concepts related to heat transfer. Without the lab activities, the students could have memorized definitions, cited examples of the concepts, and taken a test to demonstrate their recall of the information. With the lab activities, they experienced first-hand the meaning of conduction, convection, and radiation.

The teacher emailed me afterwards with thoughts of what he would like to do next to add even more science project work to his teaching so that students will be actively engaged in science.  I hope an energetic generation of young educators will move into our schools as the Baby Boomer generation retires from classrooms across the United States and in our community, too. I am thankful that this young teacher chose our community as a place to live and work.

lab work

“I disagree with _____ because I think there’s too much pressure on young athletes to practice all the time. I know several friends who have quit soccer because of it.” The middle school students, seated in chairs facing each other, were engaged in an AVID (Acceleration Via Individual Determination) activity called philosophical chairs. In this activity, students read a selection and prepare their own responses so that they can engage in discussion and debate with peers. In this case, the article came from Scholastic Magazine, a report of student polling data regarding the impact of intense sports programming. The students took apart the selection, agreeing and disagreeing with each other for almost an hour. Afterwards, they wrote individually about what they learned from the discussion in response to questions posed by the teacher.

I later attend a session of staff meeting with AVID program supervisors who visited our schools to check on the success of the program. The visiting educators gave the two programs they observe at Jack Jouett Middle and Albemarle High a “two-thumbs up.” They recommended to principals that teachers prominently display diplomas and other memorabilia from their own colleges to encourage AVID students to see college as a viable option in their own lives. I am thankful that learners in our schools with the potential to be the first in their family to attend college both have the chance to pursue that dream and to receive the support they need to do so.

Analysis of a Reading Selection

Every school in Albemarle County has success stories of students and educators who engage in making the Mission of our school division more than words in a document or on a poster.

“The core purpose of Albemarle County Public Schools is to establish a community of learners and learning, through relationships, rigor, and relevance, one student at a time.”

These words are backed up with data about the performance of our young people in academic programs, the visual and performing arts, career and technical education, leadership and community service, and athletic activities.  From the four-year olds we serve in Pre-kindergarten to seniors poised to walk across the graduation stage in June, the young people of Albemarle County Public Schools are served well by educators in our schools.

Everyone in this community should be proud of the accomplishments of young people and the investment we make in them and those who teach. Our children represent America’s future and, in this season, I am reminded that we should give thanks for all our learners and their accomplishments.


Learners Matter: Building Competencies for a Lifetime of Learning

October 9, 2011

Learning matters and it happens every day in different ways in classrooms, libraries, on playing fields, and the stage.

MoHS Soloist

Middle School Orchestra:musicality as lifelong learning

This week, seventy-seven seventh and eighth grade students who play violin, viola, bass or cello formed an All County Orchestra, rehearsing all day to perform an evening concert for families and community members. The strings program began in response to the interest of children and parents in expanding the music program offerings for Albemarle County. This occurred at the “turn” of the last century and the journey to the middle school orchestra on stage this week has been rocky and, at times, at risk as budget challenges emerged over the last decade.

About 350 county students today participate in strings programming and the program continues to grow annually. Our accomplished orchestral students now distinguish our county in regional and state competitions. It’s a delight to see this program finally coming into its own as an opportunity for young people to find and use their musical talents as a learning pathway.

Henley Middle School Strings Program

We know that young people who participate in performing arts learn one of the most valued skills in the workforce – teamwork. They also learn to cherish music for a lifetime. Both are worthy of our commitment. The Board and staff, in both evaluation and valuation of strings programming as an elective offering, have continued to support and sustain resources over the past decade so that the program could grow. This week’s concert validated for me why that’s been a sound decision and investment.

AHS duet

Biology students on the water

“What’s the number one threat to Virginia’s watersheds?” This week, a biology class at Monticello High applied their classroom learning about watersheds, human environmental impact, and aquatic ecosystems while paddling canoes around a small pond located next to their school. The teacher, Diane Clark, set up the chance for students to participate in a Green Adventure Project field investigation with teacher-guide, Mike Bruscia. Mike brought enough canoes for the entire class to get out on the water. “Even though you are two hundred miles from the Chesapeake Bay, what we do here in the Monticello High area can negatively impact Virginia’s fishing industry. How can that happen?” The students, still on the banks of the small pond, peppered Mike Bruscia with responses – before we loaded into canoes that sat waiting for us.

“I’m scared.” Many of the class had never before been in a canoe, but after putting on life jackets and trying out paddle strokes each canoe was manned by students who then pushed off on their investigation. They were quick to respond to their guide’s questions with information they’d learned in class.

“Oh, there’s a turtle!” “Yes, you’ll find them here in this shallow area along with wading birds such as the Great Blue Heron.” Overhead, a flock of Canada geese took off and the students sat there silent in their canoes, soaking in the natural world around and above them. By the time they had paddled a few minutes, the fear disappeared and young people soon were experiencing the content they’ve discussed in class. They also practiced a new set of multi-tasking skills -paddling, listening, and observing. “Let’s paddle over to that island and take a look at what’s on it. Sometimes birds will communally roost on an island. Why might they do that?” The paddlers called out responses from temperature to protection from predators.

Mike Bruscia took time to talk about his experiences as a field biologist studying birds,  throwing in background from his Arctic polar bear studies as bonus content. As students paddled, observing turtles, algae, cattails, willows, and Canada geese up close and personal, it was apparent that what the students learned in a schoolroom took on much more relevance and meaning with their immersion in a field investigation. “When you see cattails growing in a man-made pond, it’s a sign that nitrates and phosphates are entering the water. How might that happen?” Their attention drawn to the tall plants near the dam, students began to discuss point sources of potential fertilizer runoff including their own school grounds and neighboring residential areas.

In a debrief after returning to shore, hands shot up in the affirmative when asked, “would you do this again?” This experience won’t be assessed on an SOL biology test, but there’s no doubt that this class will think further about their impact upon a watershed that became real to them as they examined erosion on embankments, silt accumulation in shallow waters, and bio-nutrient indicator plants. On the water, they had a chance to respond independently, work collaboratively, and think critically. Back in the classroom, they’re making movie documentaries about their field studies which will be a part of their assessment of progress. Mike Bruscia shared that he’s worked with a number of middle schools in Albemarle to bring outdoor education to our young people, not just as enrichment but as basic field studies of the science concepts taught in the classroom. Teachers in our schools realize that the passion of young people for learning accelerates when they’re actively engaged. This program provided just that.

Burley High artifacts

The Burley Varsity Club, an alumni group of Jackson Price Burley High, has demonstrated a significant commitment to recognizing talented educators who influenced their lives while they were students who once attended school together in the days of school segregation in Virginia. They have a mission to honor the accomplishments of teachers and administrators who supported them to become successful as professionals in their own right. This past week, they convened to honor Mr. “Sonny” Sampson, director of one of the most successful high school bands in Virginia’s history and Mr. Steven Waters, a former distinguished English teacher and first director of UVa’s Upward Bound program. The Burley Middle School Bearettes sang and the middle school band performed for the Burley High alumni in attendance at the program on Friday night.

Renowned Burley Bearettes

No program of the Burley Varsity Club ever occurs without the presence of their younger counterparts who attend Burley Middle School. This older generation of former students who once walked the halls of Jackson Price Burley High believes it’s important to share stories and historical artifacts with a younger generation of students who today call Burley their school. The Varsity Club and alumni remain valued members of Burley’s learning community and the history they teach to their younger counterparts is an important part of our community’s history and that of Virginia. Our students benefit from the relationships with those who come back annually to celebrate their days as Burley High School students. Their partnership with the school demonstrates their commitment to our Division’s core values for excellence, young people, community, and respect.

Young people need a variety of experiences to build the lifelong learning competencies that will equip them to become positive adult members of their communities and families, successful students in continued post-secondary education, and excellent employees and employers.  Teachers create those experiences inside and outside of classrooms using a variety of resources from canoe paddles to stringed instruments to books and computers. Support for such learning is a hallmark of educators who value critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration as well as the content knowledge necessary for academic success.  Such learners become independent in their work as well as great members of teams, whether in the classroom, in a canoe, or on the stage.


Teachers Matter: Relationships, Relevance and Rigor

September 16, 2011

What does passion for learning look like? As I visit schools, the high quality of teaching I observe provides opportunities for students to experience a passion for learning in our classrooms, libraries, gyms, art rooms, and performing arts spaces.

I recently observed middle school students in a Civics class energetically discussing personal perspectives on the difference between rights and privileges as they applied the concept to school dress codes. They found out about Supreme Court cases, law, and policy as they talked with each other and the teacher. Kindergarteners in another school bubbled with excitement as they learned together to read each others’ names sitting on a rug with the teacher. In both cases, teachers recognized that active learners are enthusiastic learners and that such enthusiasm results in contagion for further learning.

experimenting

When students work individually or together in project- and problem-based work, the level of active learning is high. While daily instruction represents a balance of activities including direct teaching, active learning brings to life our Vision that learners will “embrace learning, excel, and own their future.” Working together, students also acquire competencies they will need for adult citizenship, post-secondary education, and, ultimately, the work world.

From our own experience as students, we also know that great teaching makes learning irresistible. It’s no surprise to educators that quality teaching is the most important reason inside a school for a child’s success. (Of all factors inside and outside of school that affect achievement, family income makes the biggest difference.) Irresistible learning draws young people to others who share common interests and they dig deeper into content that otherwise might not be explored.

What leads to irresistible learning? A child’s relationship with teachers – and parents – influences his or her desire to learn. Teachers who create challenging activities provoke both a student’s curiosity and further thinking about problems, ideas, and knowledge. When learning becomes relevant to students, they’re better able to make real world sense of Virginia’s required Standards of Learning. Teachers who ground their work with young people through relationships, relevancy, and rigor create communities of learners in which young people acquire the competencies they need to be successful graduates of our high schools.

using data

Recently, I listened to a group of Cale Elementary children describe how they figured out the percentage of land mass and water on Earth by tossing a soft globe to each other and recording how many times a hand landed on land versus water. This activity supported a different kind of thinking than would occur from simply reading a textbook to find the answer. The students practiced data collection skills, estimation competency, and analytical thinking individually and as a team. The class percolated with enthusiasm as they applied geography, math, and science concepts and knowledge to figure out the earth’s land and water percentages. They took on the role of “experts” to teach me how they accomplished this performance task while the teacher smiled at their capability to make sense out of fractions and percentages as a function of the data they had collected. Their passion was evident.

What kinds of experiences kindle passion in our young people?

Third graders at Meriwether Lewis Elementary have already Skyped this year with schools in Australia and Egypt to ask questions and learn about those countries. A third grader said, “I don’t just like hearing and reading about a place, I love going to it using Skype.”

The School Board opened its regular meeting on September 8 with a beautiful and passionate rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by the Burley Bearettes – in remembrance of the tenth anniversary of “9/11.”

Walton Middle School students connected virtually with students in Godfrey-Lee School District in Michigan to share project work related to learning about the history of “9/11.”

"9/11" parent/student project

Parents and students at Jack Jouett Middle School participated in the “I will” campaign to make service pledges at 911day.org in memory of those who perished on that day or who were first responders.

Burley students also just finished a Constitutional Convention re-enactment as part of a Constitution unit underway as we approach national Constitution Week.

Irresistible learning occurs within all extracurricular and curricular areas, not just English, science, history, mathematics, and world languages. It’s in the art on display in hallways as students show what they “see”. It’s in the laughter of Henley’s choral students practicing rhythm as they learned each other’s names. It’s in the student-athletes, male and female, hard at work in fall sports competitions. It’s in young people creating and performing a variety of fall programs – band, strings, choral, and drama productions.

Passion also resides in the new Broadus Wood music teacher working with an expert mentor teacher to plan the first few weeks of school. Passion for learning is not just about our young people. It’s found within our entire community of professionals who also learn from each other and together.

New teacher academy

Education is a people business. When the Board, school staff, or I speak to the importance of student and teacher access to technology tools and other resources, it’s critical to remember that challenging and interesting learning comes from its planning and facilitation by teachers. As I have often said, technology cannot greet a child in the morning, listen, make eye contact, or offer advice. While all forms of technology – books, pencils, paper, and netbooks – have a place in our schools, technologies cannot replace the teacher. It’s teachers who make our Division’s core values come alive; expecting excellence in all we do, offering young people our very best, ensuring respect for self and others, and valuing our diverse school communities.

Every school community needs creative and thoughtful professionals with the expertise to choose from a “tool kit” of available instructional strategies, technologies, resources, and room arrangements to support learners to access what they need to accomplish the learning work they need to do. Every teacher needs contemporary resources and technologies to ensure children have access to the tools they need to accomplish contemporary learning work that prepares them for life after high school.

We’re fortunate in Albemarle County to employ teachers who know how to create contemporary learning opportunities for young people. They are committed to their own continuous development to extend and enhance their professional skills across their careers just as their counterparts in medicine, law, engineering, and other professions do. Our educators know that learning is about far more than scores on a multiple-choice test. They know they make a difference in whether young people will find learning irresistible.

Teachers matter.