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Small Acts of Courage: Illuminating Standards Video Series

Seventh grade students in Portland, ME researched Civil Rights events, interviewed unsung local heroes of the Civil Rights movement, and celebrated their interviewees’ stories of courage in a book of first-person memoirs and photographs. This film features interviews with the ELA and SS teachers, and with former students. It raises important questions about what we mean by “evidence-based” writing and speaking: is all evidence equal, or are some types of evidence more valuable and generative?  Illuminates CCSS ELA standard W.7.3.  

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.


- In Windsor Seven, we’ve been working on an expedition called “Small Acts of Courage.” This expedition focuses on the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and the local community members whose small acts needed to be captured for all to read.

- This is a great expedition for a number of reasons. It has strong content. It has a strong process, and strong product. The content is compelling. It’s important. Kids need to know about this time period. Clearly, the focus was a complex piece of writing. So they had to take a story that was given to them with evidence, and turn it into a narrative. The process, in terms of interviewing someone, and integrating that with their own research about that particular time period, or that particular event is really important.

- We learned a little bit about the event, what our person was going to be talking about. So, for Joy and I, our person went to the March on Washington, and we needed to learn a lot about that so we could have a good background to ask questions based on that. Joy and I interviewed Kristina Minister.

- We didn’t know exactly what happened until we met her. It really helped to interview her.

- What was challenging was to go back to the interview. Every time you get something wrong, you always have to go back to it.

- After we had our story done, and we had most of the information done we got from the interview, we send it to the interviewee.

- [Karen] And the process of giving their writing to the person they’re writing about, and asking for feedback is incredible.

- We had a group of kids who were like a team of editors.

- Right, right.

- So as we finished the product, they took the stories, and they were the final editors.

- [Karen] We had a team that collected and scanned all the artwork that went in the book creation team. We had a team of kids who created the index.

- So it just goes to show on how much work goes into an expedition, or how much control kids have on actually producing the final products, and how amazing that it actually comes out.

- [Karen] The fact that it’s real, the fact that it has to please the person that they interviewed, and really tell that story accurately, the fact that it goes into a book with their peers, and is given to a museum and a library collection helps to make the work real for kids.

- [Caitlin] They were presenting something at that point that they owned. They really owned that person’s story, and they were ready to proudly share that.

- Ida Marie Gammon Wilson’s small acts of courage contributed greatly to the Civil Rights Movement.

- [Student] Everybody’s parents were proud of the work we’ve done, so it was an amazing moment.

- [Karen] I think that a lot of kids felt like, “I didn’t think I could do this at the beginning, “and I did it!” Everybody wrote their story. Everybody got up on stage.

- Honestly, the kids practically did everything, and I think that’s one of the best part about the expedition.

- [Student] We really got to make a personal connection with the people who we were interviewing, and we really got to hear about their lives, and really understand what they had to go through.

- You know, it’s really wonderful to find that something small that you did has an impact on the next generation.

- [Karen] They brought history to life, and suddenly they realized that history impacts people. Events impact people, and people impact events in history.

- This kind of presentation by these young people, I think, would be just an absolute wonderful experience for everybody to have, because we are making some strides in this mission.

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