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.
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."