Save the Date: EL Education's NEW website launches Monday, June 26!

Inspiring Excellence Part 4: Using Models and Critiques to Create Works of Quality

The Inspiring Excellence Series is a set of six videos that document a learning expedition—an extended interdisciplinary study—involving second-grade students in Jenna Gampel’s class at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston, MA, investigating the topic of snakes. The videos celebrate a powerful confluence of exciting original research that includes fieldwork and experts, artistic skill and critique, and sharp Common Core literacy practices in reading for and writing with evidence. The quality of the resulting work is remarkable.

This video series accompanies the book Transformational Literacy: Making the Common Core Shift with Work That Matters.


- Baby African Rock Python soon passes a river and a giant starving scaly crocodile rises out of the green water on it’s big short legs, and bounced toward her. Crocodiles are her predators.

- And around. This is a pretty coiled snake ... When the students are feeling excited and empowered by what they are learning; it creates the right conditions for producing really high quality work. In getting really high quality work from every student means they have to go through a process of critique and revision. We began thinking about our scientifically accurate drawings of our snakes by looking at models done by kids from earlier years. What are some stars we could give about Goodness’s snake shape? Some compliments, some kind critique. Maxwell.

- I like how he wrote the head and the tail where it’s supposed to be.

- Students worked on one aspect of illustration at a time, starting with their snake shape. I want you to now think about stairs. What are some stairs, some things that he could work towards in his next draft? Turn and talk.

- I think he should make the head, because it kind of looks like its sucking down a little bit. So maybe he could make it a little more rounder.

- I wanted students to not only understand and how to look carefully, like scientists at the work, but also be able to enhance their ability to give critique and feedback by using our rubrics. Okay, if the target’s met, that means that every single place that the lines are smooth. Do you see some smooth lines? Where do you see some smooth lines?

- Right here.

- Okay. Do you see smooth lines everywhere?

- No.

- Can you point to a few lines where they’re not so smooth?

- Over there, there, there.

- Alright so did she hit the target for that?

- [Student] No.

- [Jenna] Okay, so is she getting started ...

- I’ve been traveling around the country for the past ten years with a story called “Austin’s Butterfly”, about the power of critique and feedback. And that story has become a phenomenon in a way. It has taken off internationally. Tens of thousands of students and teachers have found it a provocation to create beautiful work. It’s not bad and it is a butterfly, but does it look exactly like this?

- [Entire Class] No.

- And people often ask me, what would it look like if that “Austin’s Butterfly” process was always there in a classroom? What could a classroom look like? And I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a classroom that’s a better example of that then this classroom.

- [Jenna] Would you agree that the size ... We have three things that we always ask kids to do when we’re doing a critique. Be kind, be specific, and be helpful. And after the kids practiced, we began the process of going back and critiquing each others work. And what I find is that in the beginning kids are really great about being kind.

- So I like that you made like the tail, because I can see in the picture that it goes up ...

- [Jenna] So at the beginning we don’t see a lot of very helpful or specific feedback. Over time as kids do this, and we’re talking about over several weeks, as they practice, critique, and their drawings improve; you can see that the kids recognize the value of that specific and helpful feedback.

- Like right here is like more wider. So one thing I do to get it in proportion, I go like that, and then I go like that, and then I just erase the lines, and then I just make it however my fingers were.

- And the negative space here should be a little bit smaller. And the negative space here could be bigger.

- I also needed to be able to sit with kids individually to be able to help them improve their ability to give critique. So I needed a process in my classroom to give kids more independence in their work. But some of you yesterday finished a draft, and were really hoping to get some critique from peers. For example Marguerite finished one of her snake shapes. So Marguerite would find her name, it says Marguerite, Asian Rock Python. And what Marguerite would do, she would mover her name to being ready for a peer critique. Anybody else who is ready for a peer critique would move their name to ready for a peer critique. I’ve used a project board with kids for a long time, and that helps them become the co-managers of the critique process. They can see where anyone is in the classroom at anytime, and I can see where anyone is in the classroom at anytime, and then they can choose a partner to go and do critique with. It’s great because it means kids aren’t always going to their friends. It’s great because they can take more ownership over the critique process themselves. Over time we focused on other physical features, like scales, patterns and color, and along the way we worked with different experts who taught the kids specific techniques.

- Okay, so sometimes we’re going to see just plain old circles. Sometimes do you see ovals? Oh, oh my goodness, like perfectly perpendicular diamonds like that?

- [Jenna] And for each new aspect of their illustration we created a rubric, and had opportunities for critique and feedback.

- I like how your scales are going in the direction the body is. Like something you can work on like a stair, is trying to make all the scales the same size.

- I had to make them big because you know how it’s facing towards the rattle ...

- [Jenna] Getting kids to do their best work is what learning expeditions are all about. It’s not just about doing it when we’re doing our high quality art work. We take the same process, then we can apply it to the way we craft our written stories. Or in our school we can do the same thing when we think about all the music that’s essential in our school. Learning how to do your best work and learning that that happens through a process of critique and revision is very empowering for students. It sets them up for success in any academic or personal venture in the future.

- Just make it a little bit bigger not just that bump.

Read More

Created By

EL Education

Resource Downloads

Please log in to access the downloadable resources.