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.


Swinging Open the Door to Opportunity for Each Learner: 2012-13 Budget Process

January 20, 2012

Awaken the Possibilities

In our elementary school classes, children often write down what their “hopes and dreams” are for learning at the beginning of the school year. Dreams are not just about the distant future, but also about the here and now. While walking with a principal in the fall, this “dream” for learning posted by a fourth grader caught our attention:

I want to be a computer creator when I grow up. I want to learn how to draw, and use technology, and do long division really well.

young mathematicians

As educators, we want our young people to graduate ready for any opportunity they choose to pursue. We also want our graduates to enter adult citizenship with a commitment to contributing to their communities.

While visiting Brownsville Elementary, I ran into a Western Albemarle junior who shared his dreams for his future with me. Already a committed community volunteer, he has assisted teachers at Brownsville weekly since sixth grade. He said to me, “I’ve wanted to be a teacher for as long as I remember.” This young man can describe choices of excellent teaching programs in Virginia’s colleges and the path he intends to take to become a teacher.

Musician at Play

Every dollar of our budget should help each child get closer to making his or her learning dreams become reality whether it is to become a “computer creator” or a teacher.

Our young people’s stories remind us to keep their faces in front of the numbers in the division’s budget. Educators own the key responsibility of public education in America: to keep doors open as wide as possible for learners to pursue and realize their dreams. By making learning accessible, we help each young person develop the knowledge and skills needed to optimize a range of opportunities available after graduation.

Education Opens Doors to Opportunities

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It’s That Time of Year: Winter Weather Plans

January 2, 2012

It's that time of year!

Welcome back to school from winter break!

Now that we are entering January, I anticipate that winter weather will start to be on all our minds as we experience cooler temperatures and the possibility of snow, sleet, or ice. We have a well practiced set of procedures for determining school closings, late openings, or early closings. Mr. Josh Davis, Chief Operating Officer and former Director of Transportation, will work closely with the interim Director of Transportation, Mr. Jim Foley, to monitor multiple sources of local weather data, consult with police, and put transportation staff on roads as early as 3:00 a.m. in the event we are considering a school closure or late opening.

One of the frequently asked questions we hear every year is: why we are closing schools when it appears that roads are fine around Charlottesville?

Albemarle County stretches across 726 square miles and we are in the top ten largest geographic counties in the state. Around 50 percent of our roads are rural, many gravel, and poorly cleared in bad weather, especially with reduced service levels as a result of “VDOT” budget reductions in the past few years.

About 50% of our students live in secondary road areas and the rest in a combination of suburban and urban areas that are better maintained. Unlike states more north of Virginia, we also do not have the significant numbers of road clearing equipment necessary in states that see a lot more snow than we do annually.

When winter weather strikes, our goal, first and foremost, is to ensure the safety of our young people.

We especially are concerned about our teen drivers who have little experience driving on snow or ice. Our buses, traveling about 12,000 miles daily, provide a very safe transportation service, but we never want to put students at risk on highways where accidents happen often in winter weather. Over the past several years, we have dismissed high schools earlier than elementary schools when we think we need to get our teen drivers off the roads as quickly as possible.

In other words, we will always err on the side of caution when it comes to the transportation safety of our students during times of snow, sleet, or icing. We know that, despite all of our frustrations with school closings, that parents and our community expect us to consider data and make decisions that keep children safe. We have had some times when storms come in unexpectedly or the weather changes much faster than predicted. In those cases, we do everything we can to notify parents as quickly as possible if we have to make a sudden change in our plans to keep schools open.

To find out more, I encourage you to watch this video recorded by School Board member, Mrs. Diantha McKeel, and Josh Davis, Chief Operating Officer.

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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.