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Catching Fire: Models of Student Work Can Spark a Chain Reaction of Deeper Learning

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    Alexis Margolin

Education Week’s Learning Deeply blog featured posts by Expeditionary Learning (EL) and its partners. This piece by Wilhelmina Peragine, a Teaching Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), discusses how one exemplar EL student project at Four Rivers Charter Public School inspired the creation of high quality work in two other EL schools: King Middle School and Polaris Charter Academy. The projects were studied by HGSE students as part of their class "Models of Excellence – Illuminating Standards and Inspiring Learning with Outstanding Classroom" work led by Harvard professors Steve Seidel and Ron Berger, EL’s Chief Academic Officer.

There is almost nothing more powerful for students than seeing models of great work by students their own age. While many teachers see models as creating limits, the power of models can be limitless.

There are many reasons that educators hesitate to show their students models before they begin a unit or project. Some of these reasons include:

  • Models limit creativity and innovation. By showing students what others have created, students might aim to copy their work instead of creating their own, novel work.
  • Models suppress spontaneity. In encouraging students to aim for a certain outcome they might hesitate to try new or inventive ideas because they feel they must adhere to the exemplar.
  • Showing students finished products distracts them from the learning process. If students are oriented around achieving a desired end product, their learning might be hijacked by an obsession with reaching the finish line.

How can students and teachers use models for limitless inspiration?

In 2003, eighth grade students at Four Rivers Charter Public School decided to tell the stories of "community cultivators" (citizens contributing to a better world) in their town, Greenfield, MA. Students became journalists, interviewing, transcribing, editing, and shaping their stories into a book, A Little More Than Just People. Tarin Griggs, a Harvard graduate student who investigated this project, described why she was drawn to it: "I was also in eighth grade in 2003 and this was the type of sophisticated work I didn't get to do until I got to college. The fact that they were able to produce something this polished that was connected to their community amazed me because I never had a school project that was actually focused on the community around us." Everyone who read the book was similarly amazed, including fellow middle school students.



In fact, seven years later, as King Middle School seventh graders in Portland, ME began an exploration of Civil Rights, they read A Little More Than Just People and sparks flew. They realized that they could create an impactful book, too, but with their own topic: telling the stories of local Civil Rights heroes whose stories had not yet been told. They used the model created by students at Four Rivers and analyzed it, critiqued it and learned from it. They borrowed the book's format for presenting interviews graphically on the page, with pull-quotes, multiple columns and photos, and compiled them into a book, Small Acts of Courage, which was inducted into the African American Collection of Maine. They went beyond the page as well, sharing their vignettes through a community presentation that included many of the local leaders featured in their project. Harvard graduate student Nicole Shelpman recalls why this project caught her interest: "I was looking for something I could see my students creating a version of--something that got them connected to the community. This project helped me to see students as an untapped resource in communities." This community-connected learning had a lasting impact, with one student sharing, "This [project] made me realize that the struggle for Civil Rights is not over; there is still work to be done."



One year later, seventh graders at Polaris Charter Academy in Chicago set out to continue doing this unfinished work by learning what they could do to curb gun violence in their neighborhood. Polaris students analyzed Small Acts of Courage and critiqued it, as the King students had done with the Four Rivers model. Ignited by the King model and their desire to make change, students embarked on a slightly different mission: sharing stories of contemporary neighborhood change agents who promote peace, authoring the book, The Peacekeepers of Chicago. Polaris students didn't stop there. They wanted to apply what they learned from those they interviewed so they created public service announcements about gun violence and hosted a citywide Day of Peace. Chicago educator and Harvard graduate student Basanti Miller was drawn to this project for many reasons, most notably because she has lost several students to gun violence. She shared, "It's always been obvious to me that learning should happen in relation to the real world, so going out into the community and talking to leaders and activists has always made sense. When I was in school it was those types of projects that I still remember to this day." Basanti also shared some of the ways she thinks this project could spawn a new model: "This project helped students develop more intentional views of themselves so diving in and sharing portraits of each other could be a powerful next step." There's no telling how students will choose to continue iterating on this project but one thing is certain: the lineage of these models will continue to grow.

So how did one project, created twelve years ago, live on in the form of such profoundly different, site-specific and authentic projects?

  • Quality examples are motivating. Work of this caliber and impact motivates viewers to try it out themselves. The original model was so professional, well crafted and polished that just seeing what their peers could do motivated other students to want to create something as powerful and meaningful. Work of incredible quality and depth begets work of incredible quality and depth.
  • Constraints can be liberating. An outstanding model can act as a framework that promotes creativity by imposing certain constraints while also offering limitless applicability for new iterations. Much as a poem format--such as a sonnet--can help elicit profoundly varied results, having the successful example of what exemplary work can look like allowed students the freedom to breathe new life into this work, taking it in uncharted directions.

But this is just one story. Do more of these stories exist?

The Center for Student Work is an online, open source collection with hundreds of examples of jaw-dropping models of excellence that we hope you will translate and transform with your students, in limitless ways.