George Lucas Educational Foundation

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Albemarle County Public Schools

Grades K-12 | Albemarle County, VA

Maker Education: Reaching All Learners

At Albemarle County Public Schools, maker education fosters student autonomy, ignites student interest, and empowers students to embrace their own learning.
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Maker Education: Reaching All Learners (Transcript)

Pam: One of the things that we've discovered is that Maker Education with kids gets them engaged, gets them passionate about the work, gives them opportunities to pursue things that they're interested in. And as a result, it really raises the level of work that kids are doing, and it starts to make sense. School makes sense.

Ali: This is actually my first year at this school. I thought this would be a great program that they're doing here, letting you build your own stuff, and have more freedom than other schools. I feel like I'm learning way more doing this.

Ira: When we tell students what to do, all they're learning is to comply with us. But there's nothing more powerful to build that sense of intrinsic motivation than making something that really matters to you.

Nick: And these are your analog pins. This is my Pitcher Helper. It has eleven lasers right here on your side, and seven lasers on the bottom right here. And they both shoot up into some photo resisters right here.

Terry: The sixth grade, we really struggled. He struggled in science and math a little bit last year.

Nick: Usually, I just wake up, be like, "Well, why do I want to go to school? All we're going to do is sit in the class." Mr. Redder in the Technology Room says, "Learn with your hands." And I built the entire code by myself. I'm pretty proud, because I didn't think I could get anything of this caliber done.

Terry: That really lit a fire under him. I knew he had it in him, I just didn't think I'd see it so quickly. You know, it's kind of open your eyes a little bit. Like there are other ways of doing things.

Ira: He's just learning because he's doing something that matters to him. And that's what we believe in.

Pam: Making provides a different pathway to learning. And one off the things that we know as we watch our kids make, they oftentimes are bringing in all of the different content areas. But what it's doing is giving them a context for learning.

Eric: Right, it'll be a little bit shorter.

Eric: I had a girl last year who was redoing some stools for us. And we were measuring the circles, and as she's cutting them, she goes, "This is the thing we did in geometry!" That she did fine on her homeworks, got an A in the class. But not until she was making this really beautiful stool did she say, "Holy-moly! This makes sense!"

Karen: What I think is probably the most impactful to me is watching the students who come in in a classroom who haven't felt really successful in school. All of a sudden, these kids who might struggle with reading, but who are really strong at building something with their hands, where they can kind of envision things three steps ahead, they're starting to be looked at by other kids, like, "Wow! I didn't know you could do that!" Because just they had not had an opportunity necessarily to show that kind of strength that they had.

Student: We need to make that a little longer than that.

Kendra: We were able to see some kids that were building aqueducts. Well, last year this time, four of those students were having major behavior problems about this time of the school year. So it just shows the power of engagement. The power of choice. And Maker allows for that.

Pam: The choice in the kinds of projects that kids do is one of the things that we believe is really critical. That kids should have a chance to really think about, "How do I want to show what it is that I'm learning here?"

Jack: We're building a coliseum from Rome.

Alexis: I really like architectural structures, and hands-on things.

Jackson: Minecraft is a game that you use blocks to build things. So we're building a Roman coliseum in Minecraft.

Pam: What we try to do is to give the kids the tools. And that can be as simple as cardboard, or as sophisticated as 3D printers, and music production studios, and basically say, "Let's turn people loose and unleash the potential to make."

Kolion: What I do with my school work, is I rap everything. I started writing music to my homework assignments, and then now they say I can write my music to projects.

Kolion: I would never have a grade by me. Get in a couple bands now, Making me so lifting my grades for a couple of fans.

Kolion: There's one way of learning things is listen to somebody else explain it to you. But if you do it yourself, look up your own research and everything else, you start getting it by yourself, and it helps you progress and remember it better.

Kolion: Because I'm working hard. My stress is finally running out.

Pam: And so for me, it's not about the cardboard or the glue gun. When kids become agents of their own learning, when they embrace their own learning, when they own their future, that, for me, is giving kids a lifetime off learning that will carry them through job after job; through learning experience after learning experience into workforce; into post-secondary education; into their homes; into their communities. It's all important.

Student: Wrapping these colors.

Student: Like all of them together.

Student: I think so.

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Engaging All Learners

Albemarle County Public Schools spans 726 square miles, educating 13,700 students among 26 schools -- including two public charter schools. The district consists of high-poverty to middle-class schools, rural, suburban, and demographically diverse urban schools -- including one where over 60 languages are spoken.

"We serve children from age four, all the way up to our post-high students, who are our most handicapped students that stay with us until they are 21," says Superintendent Pam Moran. "We want all of our learners to embrace learning, to excel, and to own their future."

Reaching all students through student-driven learning is Albemarle's vision. One way the district achieves this is through maker education, which taps into their students' passions, fueling their engagement and giving them autonomy in designing their own learning.

How It's Done

Connect Maker Ed to Your Curriculum

Maker projects can be created to support just about any subject area, from science to history to language arts. Maker education can be a tool for teaching the curriculum that you already have, and Albemarle begins that process with their standards.

When planning a maker project, Albemarle teachers consider these questions:

  • What do I want my students to learn?
  • What skills do I want them to develop?

In addition to embedding the Virginia Standards, they focus on creating a concept-centered curriculum.

"We're really going after a bigger picture of what are the essential understandings associated with what we want our kids to learn," explains Moran. "What are big questions that we want kids to ask?"

At a glance, maker projects may appear disconnected from the curriculum. What may look like an arts and crafts activity, or just a bunch of kids playing with Legos, is actually a way to teach about ancient Rome or how to write a persuasive essay.

Eric Bredder, Sutherland Middle School's career and tech teacher, remembers a student who didn't understand the concepts in geometry until she was making stools for their class.

"We were measuring the circles," recalls Bredder, "and as she's cutting them, she goes, 'This is the thing we did in geometry.' She did fine on her homework, she got A's in class, but not until she was making this really beautiful stool did she say, 'Holy moly, this makes sense.'"

Create a Maker Project

Starting something new is never easy. That's why Albemarle teachers collaborate as part of adopting a maker mindset:

  • They reach out for support from their instructional coach.
  • They ask for help from their personal learning network.
  • They brainstorm with their colleagues and library media staff.
  • They connect with department leads.
  • They partner with a university to gain expertise that they don't have in their school.
  • Most importantly, they talk to their students.

Collaboration with students is key. By creating a maker project that aligns with their students' interests, teachers are ensuring their engagement.

Planning is another key element of creating a maker project. Here are some questions that Albemarle teachers consider:

  • What space will I use for the project?
  • What materials do I need?
  • Are there collaborators who can assist me?
  • At what points throughout the project will I include formative assessments?

By having these things in place before the project starts, students can focus on the making, and by planning multiple formative assessments for the project, teachers are able to see how their students are doing and how they might make adjustments to better suit their students' learning.

Failure Is a Part of Success

Learning can look very different when students are making. Adopting a maker mindset includes getting comfortable with struggle, and understanding that failure is part of learning and achieving success. Knowing what to expect has helped Albemarle teachers . . .

  • Be prepared to watch some of their students struggle -- perhaps even the students who typically do best academically.
  • Recognize that they, as teachers, might also struggle, especially at the beginning of the process.

It's important to start small with maker education. One Albemarle teacher used the same Legos-based maker project to teach content in history, science, math, language arts, reading, and writing. That wasn't every teacher's first-time experience. They began by focusing on something small -- like creating a 3D shape for geometry -- and then building from there.

Maker Education Is About Student Choice

Moran believes that it's critical for students to choose the kind of project that most interests them.

"Kids should have a chance to really think, 'How do I want to show what it is that I'm learning here?'" says Moran. "We have kids that use multimedia. We may have kids that are making movies. We have kids that are designing websites. We have kids that are doing 3-D printing. We have kids that are writing skits or stories. It should play out in such a way that kids have choice."

At Albemarle, teachers notice that, as their students are given choice around maker work . . .

  • Attendance increases.
  • Discipline issues decrease.
  • Students needs are being met.

"To me," reflects Karen Heathcock, a Broadus Wood Elementary School third-grade teacher, "maker is just giving students the choice to learn in a way that makes sense to them."

As her students studied the architecture and daily life of ancient Rome, Heathcock gave them the choice of researching and building either a Colosseum or an aqueduct, and then teaching their friends what they had learned about it. Some students built with available supplies like two-liter soda bottles, tubing, and glue; others used Minecraft or Scratch; some worked with building blocks; and others used the 3D printer that was available to them.

Kendra King, the principal at Broadus Wood, was excited to see students building aqueducts. "Well, last year this time," recalls King, "four of those students were having major behavior problems. So it just shows the power of engagement, the power of choice, and maker allows for that."

Fund and Find Maker Supplies

Albemarle supports maker education through funding for supplies and spaces, a wide range of professional development, and division-wide resources -- like instructional coaches -- who work closely with teachers. In doing so, the district has created a culture of making. This is especially important in a diverse county like Albemarle, as students with fewer resources and who may have failed in more traditional classroom settings are finding new ways to succeed at learning -- by making.

In addition to district budget allocations for maker education, the Albemarle staff also seeks maker supply donations. Teachers reach out to their students' families, and kids bring recyclable materials into the classroom. The schools use 3D printers, Legos, and games like Minecraft, but they also use cardboard, scissors, duct tape, and empty milk cartons. Just about anything can become a maker supply.

"What we try to do is give the kids tools," says Moran, "and that can be as simple as cardboard or as sophisticated as 3D printers and music production studios, and basically say, 'Let's turn people loose and unleash the potential to make.' And so for me, it's not about the cardboard or the glue gun. When kids become agents of their own learning, when they embrace their own learning, when they own their future, that for me is giving kids a lifetime of learning that will carry them through job after job, through learning experience after learning experience, into the workforce, past the end of post-secondary education, into their homes, into their communities -- it's all important."


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JayKay's picture

I like what the Albemarle County Public Schools are doing. The concepts behind the Maker Education: student autonomy, choice, interest, and creativity are things I believe all teachers want to foster in their students. Concept-centered curriculum is also becoming one of the innovative ways teachers are supporting their students' learning. While my district is not doing either of these things, I am going to take some ideas back to my classroom and try them. As always, I wonder how to collect the resources and funds the classroom needs in order to do some of these things, but I am willing to try!

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