School Notes: January 2020

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Miriam and Everlee program ALEX to find his way during national Hour of Code at Crozet Elementary. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Crack the Code  

Students at Crozet Elementary celebrated Computer Science Education Week in December along with their peers worldwide by participating in the “Hour of Code,” an activity intended to demystify the basics of coding for anyone willing to give it a try. “Hour of Code was originally created for teachers to be able to approach the subject with their students,” said CES second grade teacher Gay Baker. “It helps them feel like, ‘Oh, I can do this for an hour,’ and not be intimidated.”

Not restricted to only an hour of time, the Hour of Code activities are loosely coordinated by an national advisory committee made of up education professionals and supported by institutional partners such as Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and the College Board. Teachers (or anyone interested) can go to the website hourofcode.org and access tutorials and links to resources to introduce themselves and their students to simple coding games and applications in an accessible, low-risk format. The access is free and does not require registration.

Second graders Parker and Dean and their classmates collaborate to solve programming puzzles during national Hour of Code at Crozet Elementary. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Baker’s class was one of several across the school taking part in the event, and her students fanned out across the classroom engaging in coding activities of their choice. Caroline and Sarah set up a mechanical mouse and a plastic wedge of cheese on a gridded board, then programmed the mouse using buttons on its head to make a series of moves and turns to reach the cheese, at which point the mouse’s nose lit up in success. 

Sometimes the mouse didn’t make it to the cheese, and Baker says that’s a key part of the process. “They’re learning to take small steps and put them together to solve a bigger problem using trial and error,” she said. “It’s okay to make mistakes. That’s what I really want the kids to learn.” Other coding games took the form of apps on iPads, the devices provided by the school at a rate of one per every two students and loaded with only safe content and county software. 

Everlee and Miriam huddled together on their iPad programming a robot named ALEX to step along a path to reach the end, whereupon he did a little dance. “You use the arrows and turn buttons and it’ll make him go in whatever direction you say,” said Everlee as she reconfigured her instructions after ALEX went flying off the path into space.

Some students reveled in creating chaos where possible. Dean, Parker, and Thomas worked on an iPad game which used crane arms to stack crates into piles of specific color patterns. They discovered a twist in the code that forced the crane to overload a pile and explode the boxes, which they found quite amusing. “This is funny because in the end it just crashes,” said Parker. “It’s called impossible,” he noted, and indeed the group had chosen to set their game set on Impossible mode.

Baker pointed to the effort to attract more girls into computer science fields as part of the motivation for the Hour of Code, which its website describes as a global movement in over 180 countries that has reached 100 million students. “Less than 50% of computer programming people are women, so this is part of the drive to get girls excited about STEM work, too.

“I love seeing the collaborative piece in these activities,” said Baker, “and the students are all so excited. It’s the engagement part of it that’s inspiring, and every kid can be successful. Some kids who aren’t strong in other areas can really shine in this, because it accesses different skill sets.” 

All Systems Go  

Murray Elementary third graders presented their research on world ecosystems to parents and fellow schoolmates in December with an array of interactive projects set up in the school cafeteria. The presentations followed a full semester of study, exploring animals and their habitats and learning how to do research on a scientific topic.

Third grader Luke describes his rainforest ecosystem project at Murray Elementary. He chose this region because “it has a lot of animals and I love animals.” Photo: Lisa Martin.

“We worked with the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro, both taking a field trip there and having online sessions where we can ask live questions of the staff,” said third grade teacher Ellen Patterson. “We went to the Ivy Creek Nature Trail to learn about which animals are in this ecosystem, and then the students learned about ecosystems around the world and how what we do here can impact systems everywhere.”

The students chose their favorite ecosystem and then learned how to perform research on that system, from consulting library books to using online platforms such as the Epic! Books digital library. They chose the form of their presentation—tri-fold poster, diorama, or online digital slideshow, and followed a checklist to structure their progress.

Third grader Keelan shows off his desert ecosystem project at Murray Elementary. Photo: Lisa Martin.

“We work with scientific vocabulary such as producers, consumers, omnivore, carnivore, and they learn to use Google docs and slides,” said Patterson, “and they have a few requirements that must be in their project—two animals, two plants, a map of your ecosystem. They get a little bit dressed up and try to summarize their work for our ‘guests’ rather than reading the whole report. It’s really a big effort for them.”

“I researched the rainforest,” said Khloe, “and my favorite thing about this is the kinkajou. There’s lots of rain, and it’s warm and wet and the trees can be up to 200 feet tall.” Khloe did her research via computer, and printed off “amazing” pictures to add to her display. “I liked learning about how to save the rainforest,” she said, “and to teach others about living in a way that doesn’t harm it.”

Layla made a 3D model of the savanna, her ecosystem of choice, using a surface cut with a slit so she could manipulate her figurines of wild animals attached to flat sticks from underneath so they seemed to move through the terrain. “I had lots of savanna toys in my house, so that’s how I made this,” she said. 

Lulu showed off a 3D display of a lush rainforest scene. “My dad and I went shopping and got glass to look like the water, and I got moss and branches from my backyard, and I made these clay frogs,” she said.

Ajay noted that most of the world’s ecosystems are warmer than the one he chose. “I like the tundra, it’s my type,” he said. “It’s kind of unique. I like the arctic hare and foxes.” 

Third grader Like chose the temperate forest ecosystem for his research project at Murray Elementary. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Leke was the only student who researched the temperate forests. “It’s the ecosystem where we live here, and I like the possums and the white-tailed deer.” His advice for protecting the environment? “If you cut down a tree, plant another one.”

Keelan, who studied the desert, said he’s always really liked the desert, partly for a personal reason. “I love it because my dad used to live there, and it’s where my parents met,” he said. “I really like the many kinds of cactuses. One has thorns so delicate that if you run past it the wind will cause them to shoot off into your legs!”

What’s in a Name?

Almost 14 months after the Albemarle County School Board directed Superintendent Matt Haas to initiate a review of all county schools named after people, a committee tasked with the first review has decided that Cale Elementary shall henceforth be called Mountain View Elementary.

The 12-member committee determined in September that the naming of a school after Paul Cale, who served as Albemarle schools superintendent from 1947 to 1969, was not consistent with the School Board’s vision, mission, goals and values. School Board member (and then-Chair) Kate Acuff set the naming review effort in motion in October of 2018 after the discovery of a 1956 Commentary magazine article containing paraphrased statements attributed to Cale that expressed frustration with school integration efforts and the competence of African-American teachers.

Cale Elementary’s new name will be Mountain View Elementary. Photo: Lisa Martin.

To choose a new school name, the committee solicited suggestions from both the students and the school community and received more than 300 entries. Suggestions included kid-inspired names like Awesome Colts, Ice Cream, and Hufflepuff, thematic names like Friendship, Kindness, and Don’t Bully, and scenic names such as Skyline, Lakeside, and Willow Valley. 

To narrow the field down to six finalists, the committee selected several of the names with the highest suggestion rates, and ended up with a pool containing Avon, Avon Ridge, Biscuit Run, Mill Creek, Mountain View, and Southside. Variants of the original school name, Paul H. Cale, garnered as many suggestions as several of the finalists, but the committee had resolved to not choose any person’s name for the school. Indeed, perhaps in response to that restriction, the name receiving more suggestions than any other was Kale Elementary, replacing the C with a K. One of the texts accompanying the suggestion explained that “[c]hildren are really upset about the thought of a complete name change.”

The student body voted in early December for their favorite among the six finalists and Mountain View won with slightly more than 50 percent of the total. Superintendent Haas lauded both the process and the outcome in a division press release. “The reason why a new name was being considered in the first place,” he said, “was to put greater emphasis on the values we share as a school division, including excellence, young people, community, and respect. Students, parents and staff did that exceedingly well,” he said.

Cale renaming committee chair Dennis Rooker noted that “Mountain View reflects both a sense of place and nature. Personally, I think a beautiful natural feature of the county landscape seen from the school and its grounds reflects values important to the school system. One student commented that she saw the mountain when she arrived at school, when she played on the playground and from the windows in many of the school rooms.”

The remaining 13 county schools named for persons will undergo similar committee reviews in the coming months and years. These include Agnor-Hurt, Baker-Butler, Broadus Wood, Greer, Meriwether Lewis, Murray Elementary and Murray High School, Stone-Robinson, Burley, Henley, Jouett, Sutherland, and Walton. Division officials have not yet decided which school will be next. 

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