As I reflected on the experience, I realized that the joy in these classroom came from a number of smaller, but significant, things happening at Albemarle County Schools. They included things such as: building a culture of YES; deprivatizing practice; a break it, fix it environment; caring at a soul level; student leadership; a culture that promotes create, make, and design; flexibility; a dedication to telling the story; and leadership with belly fire.
Along with the joy in the schools and within the people, there was an infectious energy everywhere that I travelled in Charlottesville. People were excited about their roles and ready without pause to discuss the projects in which they were working. Being among educational energy is a tremendous high for those of us with a drive for educational excellence.
Again this energy came from some essential areas of school culture including: ownership of the vision by all, huge adult energy around learning, open learning spaces, a better balance between push and pull when it comes to curriculum, focus on passion-based learning, opportunities around experiential learning, excellent lighting, acoustics, color in the buildings, new ideas when needed but not new for the sake of new, and essential community connections.
Robert is talking about Pam Moran’s district in Virginia that is one of the most successful old school to bold school projects I know. And while these may be obvious, I want to highlight two aspects of his observations.
1. Pam has “belly fire” for change in schools that focuses on learning. She’s more tech savvy than most school leaders, but she uses that knowledge to amplify her students’ and teachers’ potential to learn in measured ways based on a truly modern context for what is possible. Far too many districts that I visit have really no understanding of how to do that. Far too many district leaders that I’ve met are more concerned with having the technology to compete in the race rather than having it because it provides all sorts of interesting opportunities to learn and go beyond traditional expectations.
2. Make no mistake, Pam isn’t in the business of managing the learning process so every student gets to the intended outcomes. Instead, she and her team are masters at creating the conditions under which learning can happen most powerfully and deeply. And it’s only when the conditions allow for autonomy and agency to be transferred to the student that real joy begins to happen in the learning process.
Most schools and school leaders are trapped in cultures that maintain legacy conditions that restrict learners instead of freeing them up to follow their passions and live in the real “break it, fix it” world. Despite the barriers, the successes in Albemarle should give us all a bit of hope.