I’m recently returned from a quick trip to beautiful Charlottesville, Virginia.    Thursday I presented a five hour workshop on 21st century learning for the faculty of Tandem Friends School, and was pleased that nearly a third of the faculty volunteered to stay on for an additional 75 minutes for the material I hadn’t completed in the regular time.

Friday I spent the afternoon with Pam Moran, Superintendent of Schools in Albemarle County school district, a district of about 30 schools.   Regular readers here know that I am both friends with and a great admirer of Pam’s; last winter I wrote a piece about my belief that she exemplifies my model of Eight steps for leading in 21st century learning.

In my visit, we toured two of her district’s schools, and met many of her hard-working teachers.   Several themes emerged.

1. Open-ness and transparency.

“I think we have one of the most unfiltered internet service of any school district in the nation,” Pam told me, and this seemed to exemplify a larger spirit to open the world into her schools and  to bring her students out to the wider world, in every way possible.     When visiting a middle school, she explained to me that this was the most rural school in her district, and that that was why it was chosen as a pioneer school for a 1-1 laptop program: because these were the students who have otherwise the least access to the wider world of information.  This district is also proudly BYOD across all its high schools– students are all, always, welcome and encouraged to bring and use their own mobile devices and the educators there are striving to help students use them productively and wisely.

Pam herself is wide open, personally.   As we toured she never hesitated to go up to anyone in her path and introduce herself–sticking out her left arm for a shake and then reaching over with her right to be even warmer in a semi-embrace–  and then to ask them about their roles, their work, and to enthuse about it.    We went right into classrooms and engaged students and teachers,  gushing over what was happening.    Pam was simultaneously on her iphone, texting and tweeting as we went, determined to broadcast more widely the exciting things which were happening and to stay in touch with her network, both internal to her district and out in the wider world.

Learning spaces we observed, such as the libraries at both the middle and high school and in new cluster classroom areas of the big high school, similarly displayed this philosophy of transparency.  Regularly could be seen windows replacing walls, making spaces where everything happening became more visible to all school community members.   Lockers were being removed from the high school, Pam explained, (“most students don’t use them”) so as to create more open, central, common spaces, which soon will be furnished with comfortable furnishings and tables to create stronger spaces of civil society for the students.

I find this fascinating metaphorically, the replacement of private lockers, which take up valuable real estate so that students can store their individual stuff, by communal open spaces.  As more and more, student textbooks and notebooks are replaced by mobile technologies, which are nearly always carried on our persons, surely lockers will be ever less important for school-goers, and it is great to see the opportunities this change provides for more open space, more connection and community.

This spirit was also demonstrated beautifully, marvelously, by the principal of the middle school we visited, who had her desk, complete with several chairs, phone, and two computers, stationed right in the middle of the front hallway.  Some readers will remember this being as a leadership hallmark of the legendary headmaster of Deerfield Academy, Frank Boyden (who served in that role for an astounding 66 years).    It was wonderful to see.

A teacher, Brian Kaysar, in that same school was very pleased to show us his revamped classroom, where he has eliminated large, clunky teacher desks and replaced them with beanbag soft spaces.   Via twitter, he shared with me a terrific blog post he has written about his changing learning environment, “One Bean-Bag at a Time; Creating a Student Centered Classroom.” 

2.  Deep commitment to issues of space and environment.

In her role as leader of a set of nearly thirty schools, Pam gives an extraordinary amount of attention to space, environment, and furnishings, and it was a frequent, even pervasive theme of our conversations everywhere we went.  One amusing conversation occurred with a high school science teacher, who told us that her son’s third grade teacher had decided to have most or all her students sit on large bouncy balls, rather than chairs, during class, explaining it would enhance their attention.   The science teacher/mother told Pam and me that she had first believed this practice to be absurd and ridiculous, and had set out on her own to find the evidence to prove it wrong– only to be proven wrong her self when she discovered this was actually well supported practice.

This conversation occurred in a classroom where everyone present was testing and enjoying the brand new chairs, just delivered, which are vastly more flexible and accommodating than regular student chairs.    Indeed, after we viewed the new chairs, Pam took me hurriedly across the hallway to compare and contrast, pointing to the old (normal) chairs, eliciting that teacher’s opinion concurring what an outrage it is that we hold teenage bodies hostage in these rigid torture devices.

Pam cited a German designer, Dr. Dieter Breithecker,  with a wonderful short quotation which deserves wide currency: “bodies in motion equal brains in motion.” 

The section above already offers much testimony to the attention in Albemarle to issues of space, and the development there of more communal environments.    Pam was rightfully very proud of her school’s library, and explained that she has worked with her board to fund a multi-year capital effort to “flip” each school library, such that there is more and better space for learning and making.  In the high school library (pictured at top), they are swiftly converting spaces to places where students make music, work in groups (the librarian assured me they don’t “shoosh” students), and have maker-spaces, including, if they can find the funding, 3D printers.

Cafe-style furnishing for the middle school library

In the middle school library, the librarian conveyed her gratitude to Pam that they were being allowed to keep their physical books, but also gushed about the way they were recreating spaces such that their library could be more of a central commons and creative space for the school.

Pam explained to me her view that that we are entering a post-gutenberg era, and the libraries must “flip” such that their new mission includes to Search, Communicate, Connect, Curate, and Make.  We agreed how exciting it is that at the same time when libraries can downsize (not eliminate) their physical collections, we are realizing the value in more craftsmanship in the spirit of the maker movement, and libraries now have the space, and we have to provide them the resources, to be loci of this maker-dom.

Throughout our touring these spaces, I heard one word repeatedly: Flexibility.  Pam is very committed to ensuring that whatever is built can be easily re-built, shifted, moved around, taken apart, and made to work for whatever the next circumstance will require.

3. Experimentation, comfort with mistakes, and innovation.  

You’re just doing that right?   You’re not asking permission, are you?”    Among the funniest moments of our several hours together was upon encountering a middle school initiative, a “netbook fix-it” station managed in part by a team of students, situated next to the front entrance complete with a large sign over the door.   Pam was delighted to observe this, but immediately uttered the quote above to the principal, charmingly manifesting her leadership spirit.

“Tech is really hard,” she said to me, as we discussed the ups and downs of several technology programs in her district.    It clearly hasn’t been a perfectly smooth road for them, and we saw this first hand, in what was, it should be recognized, still just the second day of the school year in the district.   In the middle school, some students hadn’t received their netbooks yet or were still struggling to log-on; in the high school, 9th graders were having a hard time with battery power in the flip cameras they were using for making digital videos (their lesson on how to use the library was being experienced as a project in making a video explaining to others how to use the library.)

Throughout these difficulties, Pam was unflappable, reconciling two  competing attitudes.  First, she didn’t apologize or in any way try to cover over the challenges– yes, this is hard and we are having our difficulties.   Second, this must be fixed, and let’s be resolute and determined to improve these circumstances:  she urged and advised her folks, with a completely supportive and sympathetic alignment to their ambitions, to get the help they needed and to not give up.

Pam explained to me that one of the most important things she can do as a leader of innovation is to make sure that everyone who works with and for her never has to hide their mistakes or their difficulties and obstacles.   She always wants to provide a safe space for her folks to be open, honest, and upfront about what they are working on, and not hide from her what wasn’t working.   She knows that to learn from failure and to overcome setbacks, we have to name them, surface them, be unashamed of them.

Meanwhile, she is a Tasmanian devil of suggestions, ideas, and connections to everyone she meets.   We meet a math teacher, and immediately she is giving him tips of new websites (mathmunch) and things she had seen in other math classes in her district and things she had heard about happening around the country through her very vigorous social network participation.

Among the innovation initiatives she was most (rightfully) proud of was her district’s recent launch of their first, but certainly not last, coderdojo event.   This was a free, “coding” club camp for students in her district, and she said the response was astounding.  Surely this is something every middle and high school everywhere should be exploring.

A second innovation Albemarle is swiftly implementing is in providing “Freedom Sticks” for every student and training them in their use, in collaboration with the district’s frequent adviser Ira Socol.    As Ira explains in his blog post about these exciting tools,

All around the planet people carry with them – often in their pockets – highly individualizable devices which can support all the different ways humans learn and communicate. And it is time for schools to catch up with this reality.

The new and improved “Freedom Stick” (v.2.3.2) offers students and schools the ability to arrive at this ‘technological present’ at essentially zero cost.

One free downloadable package of software allows students the ability to make almost any computer a fully accessible device. Students can convert text to audio, get their ideas down by speaking, They can draw, manipulate photography, create visual or audio-visual presentations, calculate mathematics a variety of ways, organize themselves, try a different keyboard, support their spelling and writing… and most importantly, learn the power of “Toolbelt Theory” – the power of learning to choose and use tools well.

The Freedom Stick is a system, it can be downloaded and installed on a 4gb Flash Drive and carried everywhere by the student, plugged into and used on school computers or public library computers, or even employer computers – anywhere any version of Microsoft Windows is installed (including on Apple Macintosh computers which can have Windows installed as a second operating system). Or it can be installed directly onto your own computer.

[Image of freedom sticks from Ira Socol’s Blog post]

Terrific stuff.

4. Assessment matters, and performance task assessment is a valuable vehicle for promoting 21st century learning.

At several times during our visit Pam and I discussed with her Assistant Superintendent our shared enthusiasm for the CWRA test, which they are now piloting in the district.   The CWRA, as regular readers know, is a national assessment tool designed to evaluate a school’s effectiveness in teaching higher order thinking skills, including critical thinking, problem-solving, and writing effectiveness; it is built upon a format of performance tasks, where students are assigned a challenging, real-world situated problem, provided a wide array of documents about the problem, and asked to read and analyse these documents as part of their process of writing a solution to the problem.

Using the CWRA as a measurement changes, at least a little, what we value about our learning programs in contrast to SAT scores and state standardized testing (these others don’t go away, but are supplemented and broadenened).  One of the happiest moments in our conversation about the CWRA was our shared experience of hearing from our students the delight they took in taking these tests, in contrast to how they usually feel about testing.

But we all agreed, swiftly, that the CWRA is only a tip of an iceberg in changing, through what Grant Wiggins has taught us all to think of as “backward design,” what happens in the curriculum.   What we need to do is take the example and model of the CWRA, and implement its type of performance task assessment throughout our schools and at every grade level.   Jared Cotton has done this type of expansion in Virginia Beach school district, taking it into the 4th and 8th grades there, but what Pam and her team are doing is broader even than that: in Albemarle they are implementing it across the board, K-12.

First, they have worked to align the assessment with their declared life long learning goals for their students, and created, which is no small thing but a lot of hard work, cross-curricular rubrics from the standards which can be applied to the performance tasks.

With a commitment that each and every student in the district will have the experience of taking a performance task assessment each and every year, they are now bringing in large groups of teachers– this summer nearly 30% of the district’s entire faculty– for the work of designing, re-tooling, and asseessing performance tasks in every subject and at every grade level.

As Pam explained, they are very carefully being widely inclusive in who they are involving in both the assessment task design and grading.   It might have been natural, she explained, to have just English teachers do most of the essay grading, but they deliberately want to ensure that at every school, understanding of performance task assessment can be found across the breadth of the faculty.    Under her leadership, the intent is that this tool be deeply embedded throughout the district– such that every student is learning every year the kind of thinking, analytic, problem-solving, and writing skills that she most wants her students to accomplish.

Let me offer my great appreciation and gratitude to Pam and everyone in Albemarle who welcomed me on this informative and inspiring visit.  Keep up the good work; I can’t wait to learn more about the great things happening in this district.