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Revitalizing Rochester: Illuminating Standards Video Series

Sixth grade students from Rochester, NY transformed their own community by leading a successful campaign to revitalize the downtown of Rochester through re-watering closed sections of the Erie Canal. Students did original research in other cities, interviewing city leaders, engineers and business leaders who had successfully renewed their downtowns around a waterway. They created a report that helped convince the city to invest in this urban renewal project. This film features news footage of the students and an interview with the mayor. Illuminates CCSS ELA standard W.6.1.B.

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.


- Mayor Bob Duffy got some suggestions this morning on how to bring Rochester back to life. One proposal, bring the Eerie Canal back downtown. But the idea didn’t come from adults, sixth graders from the Genesee Charter School made a PowerPoint presentation to the mayor this morning. They studied the benefits of turning the city’s old subway bed back into a canal. They visited four other cities that have canals. The students shared stories from St. Antonio, Ottawa, Providence, and Oklahoma City.

- [Narrator] The Revitalize Rochester Project empowered students to impact their community while also enabling them to meet and exceed state standards. As a result, the project exemplifies many common core standards. Let’s explore how the Revitalize Rochester Project illuminates and goes beyond common core standard W.6.1.b. Support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence, using credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text. Students supported their claims using clear reasons. They open with a strong case. Rochester needs revitalization! We need more jobs and a reason for businesses and people to come to the downtown area. We need a reason to stay!

- We learned from all four cities that revitalizations of their waterway sparked economic growth, brought people together, and created pride in the community.

- [Mark] Rochester was one to boom town with a thriving canal and later, a running subway. Now, the tunnel is deserted and the canal path a street. This abandoned tunnel has become a dangerous, unprotected place. Something needs to be done.

- [Narrator] Students also site relevant evidence. For example, they found that property values had increased dramatically in Oklahoma City after the construction of the Bricktown Canal spurred other investments.

- We discovered that the waterways cause tourism, business, and residents to skyrocket in the downtown areas of these states. We learned that Oklahoma City built a canal where no waterway had been before. They funded the project with an extra penny sales tax. And the property values around the canal increased 235%.

- [Narrator] Finally, students use credible sources. By traveling to cities similar to Rochester and interviewing politicians, community members, and experts on canals, they were able to demonstrate a deep understanding of city planning. In Providence, they learned that the city had to move a railroad and a highway in order to proceed with the renovation, similar to proposals in the Grasso-Zimmer Plan. Students concluded that it worked in Providence, so it could work in Rochester. Mastery of this common core standard was no accident. Teachers carefully planned an interdisciplinary series of investigations that went far beyond state standards. The unit was centered around guiding questions and learning targets that allowed students to consider thought-provoking questions. Such as, how is a city’s image related to its economic potential? And, what makes research respected? By going beyond the standards, students developed lifelong knowledge, skills, and most importantly, felt empowered to effect change.

- Our class had a voice at Genesee. I learned how to ask meaningful questions and synthesize information in order to solve real problems. I learned how to articulate a message to figures of authority. I learned ethicacy. I learned that quality work can make a difference.

- These are great examples of the talent of our young people but I want to make it very clear that the work that this class did, impacted me both personally and professionally in being a big supporter of this project. And I can’t wait until this first phase is able to break ground and move ahead because I will ensure that this class is given credit, in writing, and memorialized in a way, that they receive the credit that is due for the work that they have done.

- [Narrator] Genesee’s sixth grade students proved that through thoughtful planning, students can meet standards and change the world.

- We now pass the torch onto you. We encourage you to give your students the same tremendous opportunity for community involvement and for purposeful work that our school has offered us. Regardless of the scale of the project, give those students a chance to make their work matter and to recognize their potential to serve as a catalyst for change, is the truest definition of education that we know.

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