Six-Word Memoir Self-Portraits: Illuminating Standards Video Series

According to education researcher, Camille Farrington (2013), a strong correlation exists between success in school and students having these four academic mindsets: 1) I belong in this academic community; 2) I can succeed at this; 3) My ability and competence grow with my effort; and 4) This work has value for me.

Even before we work on Growth Mindset, students must feel that they belong. While the Common Core Standards don’t address social and emotional development, we can engage in meaningful, standards-based projects to build community and help students develop a sense of belonging. Second grade students at the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School created Six-Word Memoir Self-Portraits to share important moments from their lives. This film illuminates ways that students can use personal narrative, in written and artistic forms, to develop a sense of connection that facilitates learning throughout the school year.

This video examines how student work illuminates—and is illuminated by—the following standards: CCSS ELA standard W.2.5 and W 2.8

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] Walking into downtown Denver Expeditionary School, a sign reads, “We Are Crew, Not Passengers.” The message is clear, we are a community that works together toward our learning goals.

- Building a strong sense of classroom community is the foundation for the the learning that happens for the rest of the year. So before we can jump into an expedition, where kids are going to be pushed past their comfort zones, academically and socially and emotionally, it’s really essential that we’ve built that sense of crew.

- For me it’s really important because it helps my students feel safe and in art I push them a lot and I ask them to take a lot of risks. We also give a lot of peer critique and peer feedback and so they have to feel safe to be honest with one another and take critique and use that to help push their work.

- [Narrator] While the common core standards don’t address social and emotional development we can build community in the context of standards-based projects. A narrative writing standard exists at each grade level, K through 12. What happens when we expand our approach to narrative writing. And how does it focus on personal narrative through poetry and art develop students’ sense of belonging.

- Hanukkah is an awesome time, Dreidel.

- Two big hippos with a baby.

- So students collected many different moments about their lives that they thought really represented them, represented their families. Then they went through these memoirs and chose what they thought were six really powerful words that were emblematic of the spirit of what it is they were trying to convey about themselves and the narrative that they had written.

- One, we drew self-portraits, realistic self-portraits. Number two, watercolored a background that represented their memoir. And number three, they stamped six or seven words on top of the water color. For me, narrative is the most powerful tool of building community that’s available to us as teachers. And over the years, I’ve seen the power of allowing kids to come into a new space and to tell their story and to say this is who I am. But also to listen to other kids share their narrative.

- I see self-portraits as a form of personal narrative. It’s in just a visual arts form. These self-portraits were literally themselves with the self-portrait drawing, but then they were telling a story from their life through their watercolor and through the words. And this project really helps students feel seen and known through a number of ways. Number one, literally, they are seen because their self-portrait is on... The drawing of their faces is on the pice of art. And then they are also seen in a different way because their thoughts and their story is in the art as well.

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EL Education

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