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Remaking the K12 classroom

Superintendent Pam Moran embeds maker movement education into every aspect of Albemarle County Public Schools
  • FARM PHILOSOPHY—Superintendent Pam Moran (middle) says growing up on a farm inspired her to provide students in Virginia’s Albemarle County Public Schools with instruction that centers on making things and solving problems connected to real-world challenges.
  • Medicine and Motion—Monticello High School students dive into hands-on projects across the K12 curriculum. In the Health and Sciences Academy, above, a student learns how to give a flu shot in a pretend arm.
  • ENGAGING SPACE—Students have a range of furniture on which to make themselves comfortable as they collaborate on assignments in the multigrade classroom at Agnor-Hurtt Elementary School. Students can move freely as the education team guides them on multidisciplinary projects.

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

  • Schools:
  • 26
  • 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 wheels, prevents the motorcycle from flipping over when the front wheel lifts into the air during rapid acceleration.

“These ninth-graders hadn’t taken trigonometry yet, but they did it—we did about three weeks of math lessons in 20 minutes,” he says. “They realized they needed math to make the wheelie bar purposeful, and make it look good.”

Fostering intellectual freedom

When I walked into the multi-age classroom at Albemarle’s Agnor-Hurt Elementary School, I wondered “Where are the desks? Where are the worksheets? Where are the teachers?”

The teachers had spread themselves throughout the large, open, naturally lit space. Some wrote math lessons on dry-erase walls while others worked with students in small groups or planned future activities—such as an engineering exercise where students try to build baskets that will protect an egg from a six-foot drop.

And one teacher perched on a stool in front of a fully functional kitchen, showing third-, fourth- and fifth-graders how boiling water creates vapor and rain.

Their classmates, meanwhile, gathered on the floor, or around bean bags, couches and tables of various heights. They shared laptops and collaborated on puzzles and paintings—all without teachers standing over their shoulders.

Community spirit

Albemarle County Public Schools in November passed its first bond measure in 40 years. Voters approved a

$35 million

package to make improvements at 25 of the district’s 26 schools.

Perhaps most striking, I watched as students moved from group to group, without asking permission. Some even sat on tables and balanced awkwardly on stools—seating choices that might draw a safety lecture from teachers in a typical classroom. And I didn’t hear the disorganized noise one might have expected in a classroom where students can move freely.

“We let them make a lot of decisions, be leaders and pursue their interests,” Principal Michele Castner says. “The kids never want to miss school.”

The program, which has a waiting list, also combines students in kindergarten through second grade. A driving factor is how the students of different ages benefit from each other’s presence, Castner says.

“The third-graders can be accelerated by the [more advanced] fourth- and fifth-grade content,” she says. “And fifth-graders can develop leadership by reteaching concepts to the younger kids. It’s a very loving environment.”

Ecological lens

The multiage classroom represents several of Moran’s core beliefs about education: First, that children should make their own choices. Having influence empowers and encourages learners to pursue more challenging projects—even if they fail.

She worries that society has become overprotective of children. “Risk is what drives invention,” she says. “If we didn’t have people willing to take risks to try things, we wouldn’t have electricity, we wouldn’t have the telephone, we wouldn’t have democracy.”

This wasn’t the only idea that began germinating during her childhood on a farm, where tasks and resources are deeply interconnected. She views her school system through an “ecological lens” in that it forms a network, with all of its various functions influencing one another.

“People who live on farms understand relationships, they understand an ecosystem,” she says. “When you look at the schools you have, they create a web that connects people and content through the experiences kids have. You have to be thinking all the time about how the things you do impact other areas of the system.”

During the Great Recession, for instance, she cut staff and resources as far removed from the classroom as possible. She reduced central office staff and scaled back on transportation and maintenance, but she kept music, art, PE and librarians. And the district added some programs, such as the makerspace summer camps.

“Children center the work we do—my goal is to keep kids in school, and keep kids coming back to us every day,” she says. “Always err on the side of children, and have fun with the kids.”

The Learning Commons: How creativity becomes policy

The once-sleepy library at Monticello High School—Albemarle County Public Schools’ most diverse building—still has books, but now offers a lot more. 

Visits to the space that feels more like a college student union have risen from about 400 a year to almost 100,000. The noise level has also increased as librarians have made a wide range of maker materials available and encouraged students and teachers to pursue projects that they are passionate about. 

Recently, students have been creating podcasts. And in a merger of English literature and makerspaces, they’ve also made models of book characters out of plastic bottles. 

“The maker movement is about allowing us to provide teachers with more options to get kids out of that test-test-test, essay-essay-essay environment,” librarian Kelly Kroese says. “It’s getting rid of constraints and that ‘shushing’ mentality.” 

The library’s transformation to its vibrant new life as the Learning Commons began about eight years ago, when a teacher asked for and received permission to build a rudimentary music studio there. 

Trying to always say “yes” to educators’ ideas is critical so as not to stifle innovation, Albemarle County Public Schools Superintendent Pam Moran says.

“If you say ‘no,’ not only will that teacher not come back, he or she will tell 10 other people and those 10 people will never come to you with their ideas,” Moran says. “Getting to ‘yes’ is the  first step in creating a culture of invention and creativity.” 

The new facility was an overnight sensation, she says.  “We had kids coming in who had never ventured into the library on their own volition, starting to write music,” Moran says. “AP English students who love rap helped kids who were near-dropout material, but who had things they wanted to say about their lives.“

The students collaborated on songs that have been posted to YouTube. And the studio—which has moved into its own, high-tech space overlooking the library—has gone viral: Other district high schools and middle schools have been inspired to create their own music studios.

“It started out as inventiveness by a teacher, and what we’re really after is how we continue to modernize and shift contemporary learning and look at libraries as a hub,” she says. 

As a leader, she adds, it’s important to not only champion ideas like the music studios and the Learning Commons, but to get a group of educators behind it to add their own ideas and sustain the project. Then, developing such concepts across the division’s schools becomes a policy that guides future decisions, Moran says.