Albemarle County Schools’ Journey From a Makerspace to a Maker District

column | Maker and DIY Movement

Albemarle County Schools’ Journey From a Makerspace to a Maker District

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     May 2, 2016

Albemarle County Schools’ Journey From a Makerspace to a Maker District

This article is part of the guide: What's Next for Maker Education.

Superintendent Pam Moran and the whole crew at Charlottesville’s Albemarle County Public School system have received their fair share of press (from to Edutopia) for bringing the Maker Movement to Virginia schools. Back in 2013, for example, NBC highlighted the district’s library-turned-makerspace.

But Albemarle elementary teacher Andrew Craft is the first to admit that he doesn’t want maker activities to be confined solely to one room. “Making shouldn’t be isolated. We want to get away from that idea. Makerspaces and classrooms are one and the same,” he says.

And he’s not the only one that feels that way. Moran agrees, and Craft's other Albemarle colleagues are infusing making into everyday activities across the district, ensuring that students will be “making” from Kindergarten all the way up through high school.

Here are snapshots from two of Albemarle’s schools.

Making from a young age: Agnor Hurt Elementary and the mixed-grade experiment

Most makerspaces have saws, electronics, and wood. But Agnor Hurt Elementary isn’t exactly like that. Rather, making pops up in all aspects of learning—without necessary dependence on complex equipment. And this year, Agnor Hurt has decided to take the makerspace and go one step further, where faculty and staff have created a grade level-agnostic environment that focuses on incorporating maker ideals of collaboration, experimentation and creation.

“Making is not necessarily definable,” says Michael Thornton, an Agnor Hurt “multiage” teacher who teaches K-5. “Making is creating, it’s writing… you don’t just look at it as a building or a room.”

For the last year, Albemarle has been running an experiment with 117 kids from all grade levels mixed together in a giant, one-room learning space (pictured above). There’s a gentle hum of activity, with students around the space learning and tinkering both in groups and separately—something that the students seem to love.

“I like it because your friends are in different grade levels, and you can do math lessons together,” says Maggie, a 4th grader.

From Curriculum to Projects: Across Agnor Hurt, students often work in groups on a variety of tasks. For the students in this space, here’s what an average Tuesday morning looks like: In one corner of the room, 4th and 5th graders practice writing and storytelling by taking screenshots in Minecraft and assembling them in Google Slide presentations. A few feet away, a large group of Kindergartners receive direct literacy instruction from a teacher, surrounded by movable bookcases.

A few maker items, like power drills, are off to the side of the room in boxes; students can engage with them if they so choose, such as at the end of the day during free “center time.” But there’s more than that—a sand table to make sand castles, and walls with dry-erase whiteboard paint, for example.

No matter what, student choice makes up a large component of the instructional day. Ratliff shares that “we do have direct instruction, but there’s a balance” between 1) traditional instruction and 2) the needs of a maker curriculum and student-guided learning. Ratliff also says that teaching in this environment requires careful planning and awareness, but more importantly, it takes a willingness to give up some control—which the teachers welcome.

“We have to be comfortable with student choice,” says Adam Mohr, a teacher who came to Agnor Hurt from a Montessori school. “It’s the only way to make this work.”

Many Forms of Assessment: Agnor Hurt does not employ any one form of assessment. While traditional quizzes and tests are still there (as is the annual Virginia state exam), portfolios are also seen as an effective means to document learning. In fact, Albemarle is currently partnered with the maker Education Initiative on the Open Portfolio Project and Indiana University’s Creativity Labs research effort, to better identify how to use portfolios in practice when assessing student work.

Superintendent Moran also shares that she and her team “strive to balance content assessment with real-world skills, getting students further up the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.” So, Albemarle currently employs “Performance Tasks.” Every student must perform skill-based tasks each year to demonstrate lifelong learner competencies, such as whether he or she can conduct research or analyze data.

Becoming Maker-mature: Albemarle High School

Move into middle and high school, and natural student groupings start to pop up—by grade level, by Advanced Placement classes. But once again, at Albermarle High School (AHS), there isn’t one singular makerspace.

Libraries Aren’t Just For Books: Books only take up about half of the space in the AHS library. Three years ago, librarian Erica Thorson and her team got rid of half of their books—and recirculation (meaning the number of times books get loaned out) went up 600%. But what she’s most excited about is the collaboration spaces and resources that have been assembled in the library.

A mish-mash of equipment—a Makerbot 3D printer, sewing machines, Spheros—sits around the library, atop tile floors that Thorson reports were laid to accommodate “messier projects.” Thorson also calls attention to “a collaboration room and a peer tutoring center” in the corner, and in the far back of the library, students in a music studio create soundscapes. In the library, any teacher or student is welcome to use the space as they wish.

With the redesign of the library, Thorson’s own role has changed—and she has welcomed it. Her team has worked with teachers to help them find the best ways to utilize the space, and her openness to change echoes that of Agnor Hurt. “Before, the library was a lot more hands-off, all about rules,” she says. “This was really about giving this space back to kids.”

Making in Classes, Formally and Informally: While not every classroom at AHS has a 3D printer or set of power tools, students gets interdisciplinary “making” time every week through a variety of methods—both formal and informal.

Formally, there’s MESA (short for the Math, Engineering & Science Academy) and Team 19. MESA was built to prepare students to explore engineering careers through a series of collaborative projects and assignments. Team 19 is a program piloting this year that puts 20% of Albemarle freshmen in three uninterrupted hours everyday of cross-subject classes like “Sci-Algebra.”

Team 19: Rapid Innovation in Public School from Ian Midgley on Vimeo.

But the opportunities don’t stop there. On the bottom floor, there’s a workshop covered head-to-toe in maker equipment as far as the eye can see—and it’s open to students and teachers, all day, every day. “We really pride ourselves on interdisciplinary learning, so this space can be used by anyone,” Ratliff says as he stands in this mix of a makerspace, woodshop, and high-tech computer lab.

On this Tuesday afternoon, teacher Joe Frankfurth leads a group of students in a crossover history-science lesson about topography and change over time. In the center of the students sits an "augmented reality sandbox”—it’s data visualization in real time, and the students are quite literally digging their hands into it.

When Superintendent Moran speaks about AHS, she remarks on her own shock and awe at what students have produced—outside of classroom time—when under the “maker influence.” She mentions a female student from Nigeria who’s planning a bridge-building camp for girls; another student made a drone with duct tape and laser cutters, and brought it into the cafeteria for other students to play with.

“We don’t put limits on this. Because there are informal making opportunities all over the place, the students can do something they’re interested in—whenever they want,” she says.

Should every student be making—everyday, all the time?

Despite growth in the number of school makerspaces and maker curricula, not everyone is a fan of the proliferation of making in schools. There are skeptics like Olin College professor Debbie Chachra, who claims that making promotes a damaging message “that artifacts are important, and people are not.”

But Superintendent Pam Moran believes that this is just the beginning. She admits that integrating making districtwide or trying out new pilots can be challenging; take the Agnor Hurt learning space—some parents opted their students out of that pilot in favor of more traditional instruction. But Moran stresses that the maker movement has still touched every student in her district, and for the better.

“When people make, they get back to the basics of who they are as humans,” she says. “Making puts the learner at the center of the work—and when that happens with our kids, the content makes sense to them.”

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