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This is Why I Cry: Illuminating Standards Video Series

This film features a project with unusually high standards for historical depth and accuracy and high standards for quality writing. Common Core literacy standards for narrative writing are exemplified in the powerful prose of the book, in which the student voice is inspiring. The film is a fine example of how to infuse literacy standards into the heart of social studies projects.

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 (Expeditionary Learning) 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.


- [Reader] The professor leaned back in his chair, “so why do you want to talk to me “about your life as a slave? “Aren’t those memories painful?” Charles nodded, but sat forward in his chair, the fire kindling in his eyes like a chained spirit behind bars of glass. “Yes it’s painful, but I want all the people to know “what goes on down South and even around here, “and to know what a horrible thing it is.” He looked straight into the professor’s eyes. “I received an education and spent four years “working and studying for it, and three months “running through the wild to get it, “just so I could talk to someone like you “and show people that we are humans “and can have an education. “I want people to know what happens to us. “I want to tell them why we cry.”

- [Narrator] This example of student work is a historical character file produced by an eighth grade student at the Pioneer School, now called Polaris Expeditionary Learning School in Fort Collins, Colorado. When asked about the project, history and literacy teacher Matt Strand explains that history is not just dates. In undertaking this project, Matt wants his students to gain a different perspective of and respect for the people of history.

- Doing this character file project on slavery, I’m really clear that I want students to know what it felt like to be enslaved.

- [Narrator] This character file project required students to participate in an in depth study of African-American slavery. Through this project, Matt pushed students to go beyond memorization of text to actually understand the human beings that lived through slavery in America. With this knowledge, students then had to present this experience through a historically accurate fictional narrative told from a realistic character’s perspective.

- [Matt] I mean it’s funny if you only look on things that are maybe troublesome in terms of history and some of the injustices that were happening and the oppression that was happening. Students want to revise history and I think sometimes we’d like to go back and undo things or be able to swoop in and make positive change and so sometimes they would create characters that were like superhuman almost. We call them super slaves because no man could hold them down and they rebelled against all these people and the master wouldn’t dare touch them. That was their way of reconciling history I think. So we would get into these interesting conversations about whether or not that is authentic.

- [Narrator] Students process of grappling with these historical injustices demonstrates a deep understanding of historical realities and Matt had to carefully guide students from wanting to change this history to recognizing the value and presenting a realistic slave experience in their narratives. In working to create these realistic narratives, students had the opportunity to develop the knowledge and skills represented in the common core eighth grade writing standard 8.3 which states that students will be able to write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details and well structured event sequences. This student’s narrative demonstrates a use of realistic descriptive details to create an authentic portrayal of a slave committing subtle forms of subversion instead of unrealistic rebellion, to experience power and dignity. The student also demonstrates his deep understanding of the humans who experience slavery. Through out the writing process, Matt was very intentional in developing students’ abilities to use details in building a realistic narrative product.

- [Matt] You know in moving from the character map now to narratives, we would, I would do workshops on sensory detail and trying to create a balance of those. So we’d play with the sensory details, background and foreground detail, embedding the historical detail. Start playing around with word choice and we weren’t using the same words all the time.

- [Narrator] Through use of the character map to develop detailed and specific character traits, students prepared to include relevant descriptive details in their narratives. This particular student included intriguing details about his character’s physical appearance describing the difference in his character’s skin color and his sorrowful eyes. Tentative details about his character’s parents and his traumatic experiences of physical violence. This thoughtful use of detail demonstrates a command of this narrative writing technique and increases reader engagement in the student’s story.

- [Matt] Something inside them would lead them to rebel or to resist. We talked about human dignity and how maybe that’s not necessarily something that’s learned, that that’s something that’s innate in all of us.

- [Narrator] As Matt explains, this character file project allowed students to engage in high level inquiry that lead to an authentic understanding of the slavery experience which students were able to demonstrate through high quality written narratives. So, what would it look like? Certainly it could look something like this.

- [Matt] Red now rimmed the green of his eyes and still, only the line of the one tear ran down his face. “This professor” he whispered, “is where all the tears are from. “This is why I cry.”

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