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Economics Illustrated: Illuminating Standards Video Series

Tenth grade students in San Diego, CA created a professional-quality book explaining key terms and concepts in economics. Students defined economic terms in language that non-economists could understand; described current situations in which those concepts were present in our everyday lives; and created cut-block print illustrations. This film features interviews with the humanities teacher, art teacher, and former students. It raises questions about what understanding and memorable learning actually looks like. Illuminates CCSS ELA standard W.9-10.2.

The Illuminating Standards Project

In the last two decades of the ‘standards movement’ in American public education, many educators have concluded that ‘teaching to the standards’ and project-based learning are incompatible. Ron Berger (EL Education) and Steve Seidel (Harvard Graduate School of Education), co-directors of The Illuminating Standards Project, wondered if this conclusion was true. Indeed, they speculated that long-term, interdisciplinary, arts-infused, community-connected projects may well be one of the best ways to actually see what state standards look like when fully realized in the things students make in school—to make the standards visible.

Three questions frame the work of The Illuminating Standards Project:
- What does it look like when state standards are met with integrity, depth, and imagination?
- How can we use standards to open up and enrich curriculum, rather than narrow and constrain it?
- How can we use student work to raise the level of our understanding of standards and our dialogue about them?

The Videos

Collaborating with Berger and Seidel on The Illuminating Standards Project, over 30 students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education have explored these questions by choosing projects from the Student Work Archive in the Center for Student Work and considering the ways in which those projects did—and didn’t—meet specific state standards. Further, they examined how the student work illuminated the standards—and vice versa. Many of those students created short films and 13 of those films are presented here.

We invite you to watch these films and we encourage you to use them as the catalyst for discussions with your colleagues about the relationship between your commitment to meet demanding state standards and approaches to designing powerful learning experiences for our students.


- [Narrator] I used to be a high school English teacher, you know, thesis statements, transitions, lord of the flies. Every once in a while, former students will send me parts of their college essays. Soft slow music) Sometimes for help, but sometimes just out of pride. When I came across ‘Economics Illustrated’, I was really impressed. This is a book, written and illustrated by 10th grade students from High Tech High in 2010, the same time I was teaching. This book is filled with killer student art and writing and I wanted to know how the teacher’s did it and what the students remember.

- This is a project that I did four years ago so let me see.

- It was really cool because I think that’s the one project that I did throughout high school. It was very artistic and analytical at the same time.

- My name is Daniel Wise and I was a 10th grade Humanities teacher at High Tech High.

- Dan and I talked about it and I think we came up together with the idea that they would define their subject, what subject of Economics they were studying but then also write a story using that subject which is really transformation.

- I assembled a reading list for the students where some people would reading ‘Freakonomics’, some was reading the ‘Naked Economics’, the ‘Undercover Economist’, ‘The Armchair Economist’. Basically I was looking for a book like this. One that would explain the economic concepts in ways that a 10th grader could understand and I didn’t find one. Subsequently I found ones that would’ve worked pretty decently but I’m sort of glad I didn’t because the idea was, okay we don’t have this book, lets create it.

- [Narrator] Dan’s expectations were the same as every 10th grade English teacher. For students to write informative texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization and analysis of content. Or as I might explain to my students in more user friendly language; write and informative text clearly and accurately by choosing words and examples wisely.

- I remember we got to each pic our topics off the board and there were macro-economics topics and then micro-economics topics. I ended up with marginal utility.

- [Narrator] On the left side of the book would be their term, their art piece and the definition in their own words.

- Let me remember.. I don’t actually remember my specific block prints but I do remember the specific concept and it was regression analysis. Its a statistical tool used to determine trends between different data sets but the general idea is that if you have a set of data and another set of data, you can run a regression on them and depending on how the statistics workout, you can determine whether or not they’re related.

- [Narrator] And then the right side, basically what is this application. I’m looking at now Anthony’s one, he did markets and then he wrote out “why did the housing market crash.” Alex Gomes who’s a sports fan did collusion and then he talked about salary caps.

- [Narrator] Students also had to write three or four real life examples which would help their peers remember their economic terms meaning.

- I remember I eventually came up with the examples of a Chinese buffet and you know its all you can eat so you go up and you keep eating and you keep eating and you keep eating and eventually you diminish the utility of the buffet.

- The block printing process was actually a lot of fu... I really enjoyed block printing. I’m not a very good painter, I do not consider myself an artsy type of person, I can’t draw, I can’t paint but the block printing I was able to create these really cool images just by carving things out of these wooden blocks.

- If you use art to show what people have learned, to explain what they’ve learned in a beautiful way that’s what art is.

- [Girl] It was really neat to be able to learn something that actually does apply to the real world and you really don’t learn a lot of stuff like that in high school.

- [Narrator] So lets just recap for a moment, students read a book about economics, defined a term in their own words, developed real world examples, wrote an essay and created linoleum block prints to illustrate their concepts. Not to mention of course that their work was published and celebrated in the New York Times. I asked the students how they might try and convince me to try a project like this. I think Gabe sums it up best.

- Very simply, students will forget everything they learned in high school like the facts but nobody will forget how to think.

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