Remaking the K12 classroom
Albemarle County, Virginia—A snake bit Pam Moran in front of her class on her first day of teaching 40 years ago. Moran, now a superintendent in Virginia, had no one to blame but herself on that fateful day in 1975.
Thinking it would be an unconventional way to introduce herself, Moran had brought a garter snake in a pillowcase to capture the attention of her new middle school students in South Carolina. Having grown up on a farm in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, she also thought it could be a great hands-on learning experience.
She assured her class, of course, the small snake certainly wasn’t poisonous and that it wouldn’t bite anyone. “I thought if I did a guess-what’s-in-the-bag thing that certainly would get the kids excited” says Moran, who studied reptiles and amphibians at Furman University. (She had once planned to be a field biologist—her initial career aspiration was to “chase snakes around the Everglades” she recalls with a laugh.)
First-day jitters had made her hands sweaty and the snake slipped from her grasp. When she caught it, sharp teeth dug into her hand. “So, I’ve got blood dripping on the floor and the kids are in chaos—that’s my first 15 minutes of teaching.”
After regaining control of the class and finishing the day, she was called to the principal’s office. Instead of the expected firing, she learned an important lesson about the value of making mistakes. It still guides her today as a superintendent who has championed makerspaces and student-centered learning since taking the lead administrative role at Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia in 2005.
“The principal said, ‘If I fired you, how would you ever learn to be a good teacher?'” Moran says.
He also asked her what she would do differently next time. She assured him she would never bring another snake to school.
Well, to be accurate, she never brought another snake to that school.
Beware the bricklaying robots!
Not long ago, Moran once again used her snake-in-a-bag trick to terrify (temporarily) one of her high school students. This time, though, the reptile served the makerspace philosophy that says educators and students should let their passions—rather than standards and testing—guide them in experimenting with new ways of doing things.
And this time, Moran didn’t get called to the principal’s office.
The quiet student was well-known for doing “silent” face-to-face interviews on the high school’s TV channel, asking all of his questions via text message. During a visit to the district and an in-person interview with Moran at district headquarters, she told me that his innovation shows how the concept of making extends beyond physical projects like building circuits and 3D-printing robots.
By the numbers
Students: 13,792 (pre-K through 12)
English-language learners: 10%
Staff: 2,489, including 1,251 teachers
Per-child expenditure: $12,818
Students on free or reduced-price lunch: 29%
Graduation rate: 95%
Yearly budget: $173 million
Agreeing to appear one day in 2015—and expecting to be asked about her hobbies—Moran borrowed a corn snake from one of her elementary schools. “When I took it out, he was scared to death” Moran tells me, recalling the incident with a hearty laugh. “Eventually, he said ‘I’m going to hold that snake.’ It was the first time he talked during an interview.”
Moran says the episode provides just one example of how her students challenge themselves, and are challenged by the district’s educators—without anyone losing their sense of humor. And while Albemarle’s teachers work to prepare students for state assessments, another part of the makerspace philosophy is not letting testing “take over our world” she says.
“We, like everybody else, collect a lot of data because we’ve got to meet all kinds of requirements” Moran says. “But we don’t go farther down the data trail in terms of testing than we have to. We never demand teachers give a test every week or be on the same page of the curriculum.”
Getting educators to buy into this philosophy requires getting them to focus on what they want students to achieve, and not as much on state policies and regulations around assessment and learning. Policies don’t make educators work together effectively; rather, it’s shared goals for students that inspire true collaboration, she says.
The mission Moran has set centers on preparing students for success in everyday life. That work starts as early as pre-K and elementary school, when youngsters can be taught to use technology to do basic research and access expertise available in the outside world.
Rather than using computers to assign digital worksheets, educators must show students how to harness technology to become producers and creators. Accordingly, older students have begun to solve problems in the community.
One group of students, for example, is mapping their neighborhood with an eye toward sustainability. They are assessing the number of bike trails, parks and other green gathering spaces. “We always ask ourselves, ‘How are we adding value beyond a transcript that says they met all the course requirements, they passed the tests, and now they’re graduates?'” she says.
“But are they ready for a career? Are they ready to be a lifelong learner so they can reinvent themselves if their career folds because of self-driving cars or bricklaying robots.”
Learning lawnmower math
Moran sees “making” as a crucial part of preparing students to survive competition from those self-driving cars or bricklaying robots. The maker movement gained serious momentum in Albemarle County a few years ago when leaders were looking for ways to improve summer school outcomes.
Back then, Moran and her team realized the traditional credit-recovery model of forcing students through a condensed schedule of the same classes and tests they failed during the regular school year made little sense.
Jimi Hendrix of bagpipes
Pam Moran—who earned a music scholarship in college—can also play the bagpipes. And even though she says she once studied under the “Jimi Hendrix of bagpipes” she doesn’t find much time to perform.
“Years ago, I started out in a local pipe band” she says. “Now l’lI just borrow a clarinet from our music coach. I play to release stress.”
Albemarle’s Design Launch Make summer academy gave the students some choice in what they could create while earning credits and catching up on core math, science and English concepts. One student, for instance, designed a couch swing with a desk as a more comfortable school seating alternative. Students can now enjoy a few of her prototypes in Albemarle classrooms.
The wider shift to the maker philosophy is apparent on a typical day in engineering and computer science teacher Eric Bredder’s classroom at Monticello High School. When I met Bredder one morning in November, he wasn’t delivering a lecture or scribbling formulas on a blackboard. He stood over a lawnmower, consulting with a few students about their soon-to-be modifications.
The group had salvaged the mower and built a wooden seating platform on top to create a homemade “riding mower.” It didn’t appear practical for anything but joyrides and YouTube videos—but “joy” and hands-on work were the whole point. “It’s getting them to see how they can change the world” Bredder told me.
And hard math is used in several of the projects. Bredder told me about a group of ninth-graders who, this school year, built a “wheelie bar” for an old motorcycle belonging to one of their fathers.
The bar, which is a lengthy projection of metal rods and small wh
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