Over the past few weeks, both of our lab schools held their celebrations of learning called Mid-year Exhibitions. Celebrations of learning (COL’s) are extremely important experiences for our schools and our students because they give us a chance to pause and spend some time reflecting on our accomplishments and celebrating our students’ learning. For me, these celebrations are always bitter-sweet because, not only do I really miss teaching students, I miss the process of first getting students to discover something they are passionate about and then doing something they would have never believed they could do. To me, that is the essence of project-based learning and one of the foundational building blocks of our model.

Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do. I love the process of helping educators solve problems when implementing a radical change in how school is structured. In some ways, it’s the ultimate expression of a creative process I have been practicing for my entire professional life. How cool would it be if all schools in our network held COL’s and those student projects were featured and shared with students from around the country? Also, it’s quite a rush to think that our work could be a catalyst for a larger movement in education…

But…there will always a part of me that misses teaching. For now, I will live vicariously through our teacher’s experiences helping students find their passion. Here are a few observations and anecdotes from our mid-year exhibitions.

#1 STRATEGIC

One school had a fairly ingenious albeit simple idea. All students were responsible for exhibiting something during the afternoon exhibitions while school was in session but they asked for volunteers to exhibit during the evening. The evening exhibition was publicly advertised and was a little more formal. My guess is that the school is trying to increase the stakes by also increasing students’ exposure to the public. We had parents, industry partners, higher-ed partners, and other curious individuals attend our evening session. I would like to imagine that students could continue to volunteer to attend this future exhibition to market themselves to potential schools or internship providers.

#2 PERSONALIZED

I noticed a pattern this year that I haven’t seen during other exhibitions. There were several students exhibiting something they learned or created on their own time. One of our design principles was to create a school structure that credited learning that happened anywhere and wasn’t necessarily controlled or created by the school.

This student told me how he really wants to play football in college but he also wants to have a backup. He said he doesn’t really know what he’s passionate about but he really likes building and construction. He had the idea to take the blueprints of the building and create an accurate and complete scale model using the 3D printer in the makerspace.

“I’m doing this for y’all.”

He wants to print each section of the school and create an interactive scale model that can be displayed to show off our building.

This 9th grade student attended a summer coding camp where he learned Java. For fun, he created his first game which is a text-based fantasy strategy game. I chose to be the assassin and was quickly killed by the goblin. You can see Chip Linehan (Building 21 co-founder) in the image playing. He was smart and chose to be the knight.

#3 PASSION

The biggest indicator that we are on the right track is listening to students talk about their “passions” and the “impact” they want to have.

One 9th grade student was asked to complete a passion project in her Foundations Studio. She remarked that, at first, she didn’t know what to choose but that she was concerned about homelessness–particularly women that were homeless. She talked about the need to abolish taxes on feminine hygiene products in order to create access for women with low income. With some coaching from her teacher, she planned a process to raise money to create care packages for women, stocked with feminine hygiene products. This Spring, she plans on executing this plan and delivering the packages to local shelters.

Chip recounted his conversation with another student that was tasked to write a narrative essay. This task was part of a studio focusing on ELA competencies. He chose to write about a friend who committed suicide. When asked why he chose this topic, he said,

“I wanted to write about something that mattered.”

On his table, he had two jars. One jar was filled with little pieces of blank paper. The other jar was filled with the same paper but with notes of encouragement written on them. Passers-by were offered the choice to write something encouraging to someone and deposit it in one jar or take a note from the other jar if they were currently struggling. Impact doesn’t always have to big and complex.

A student’s passionate presentation on the impact of the African slave trade stood out amongst her 9th grade peers, who chose to exhibit their research on a major human rights violation in World History. Moved by reading about the slave trade, this student expanded her research and connected her learning to her family history in Nigeria. During her exhibition, she engaged in dialogue with her audience about the family members and history she and other African Americans would never come to fully know because of the slave trade. One of her project’s goals was to educate her audience on lesser known facts. She shared chilling stories of slave castles and images the massive ships used to transport Africans across the ocean. Her impact, she hopes, is that people will never forget about this human rights atrocity and will come to understand how it impacts the African American community today.

#4 TEACHER EXHIBITIONS

All of our teachers are asked to design studios which are project based units. Ideally, they design these studios in Google Sites so they can share them with teachers across our network. They are difficult and time consuming to create. One of our teachers created her first Google Site studio and was proud of this accomplishment. Always wanting to model for students, she set up her exhibit and talked with attendees about her accomplishment and how she will improve on her design next time.

I would love for our exhibitions to include both students and teachers as they show visitors their hard work. I can imagine teachers from other schools attending as an informal professional development experience where they might find inspiration for their own classrooms.

#5 CAPACITY OF 9TH GRADERS

My favorite exhibition was created by a 9th grader in his Foundations Studio. Maybe it’s because I taught 9th graders throughout my teaching career but I love seeing our youngest students get excited by an idea and run with it. Too often, I used to hear that 9th graders are too far below level for PBL and that they need basic skills before they can tackle complex projects. I just can’t tell you how damaging that misconception is…but that is a topic for another article. This student created a commercial for CBE that explains the difference between the “traditional model” and a “CBE model”. Why is this my favorite? This student clearly had a vision in his mind about what he wanted the commercial to be. There is evidence all over the place that indicates that this project was more than just a task given to him by the teacher. He cared about it. Not having an actual green screen, he created one using individual pieces of green paper taped to a wall. He scripted it before filming. He did multiple revisions to cut down the time so it felt more like a commercial. Probably the biggest indicator that he cared about this project was that he presented the video in front of all attendees and talked about how he would improve it next time. You will definitely see a revised version of this video soon. Enjoy his current draft.

Each time our schools hold a celebration of learning, we see more students show more rigorous artifacts from their learning. COL’s are stressful and a lot of work and the fact they keep getting better is a testament to the mindsets of our school leaders and teachers and their unwavering belief that they can and should help students discover their passions and build agency to change their world.

Yes, I really miss teaching but working with educators to create schools that embody our mission statement is just as exciting and just as rewarding as helping a student do or create something that empassions them.