Water Quality and the Future Use of Loon Pond: Illuminating Standards Video Series

The Springfield Renaissance School is a unique public district school in urban Springfield, MA. In a district struggling to develop schools that achieve meaningful student outcomes, Springfield Renaissance uses a focus on project-based learning to bring relevance and rigor to daily learning tasks. This effort started in the very first year of the school’s existence when Aurora Kushner brought a project of major local significance to her students. Students conducted a full, professional water quality assessment on Loon Pond to determine if it was safe to be opened as a public recreation area. In addition to learning how to conduct scientific field work, students gained a deep understanding of environmental science standards, scientific reading and writing standards, and what it means to provide an important service for their community.

This video examines how student work illuminates—and is illuminated by—the following standards: CCSS ELA standard RST.9-10.1, 9-10.2, 9-10.3, and W.9-10.4 thru 7.

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.


- [Manuela] I’m just proud that I actually was part of this school, just knowing all the changes that Renaissance have made in Springfield. We finally have a school in town that changed everything in the city.

- For these students, this first year at Renaissance was their first time really being asked to do work of high quality for an outside audience.

- This project was brought to our attention. We were like, “what do they expect us to do with this big pond? Like, we’re 15 year old students.” We felt a lot of pressure. They were depending on us to decide if this pond was swimmable or not. It was kind of, like, empowering, I guess. Like, oh, they’re depending on this brand new school, you know, its first year, they’re depending on us to give them the information that they’re looking for.

- Each group had a specific section of the pond that we tested. Different groups had different areas of the pond that we were figuring out whether or not the pond was safe to swim in, and that was sort of the ultimate type of responsibility that you can give to a group of students.

- We were told, “this is important, we’re doing this for the community, you guys are responsible, and we’re gonna present it, and some important people were gonna come to this assembly,” and we were to present it as if it was a real setting. And it was a real setting.

- I actually live five minutes away from the pond, so I was actually excited to know what were gonna be the results, just because as a kid I used to walk around by the area with my mom and always wonder how come that pond was always closed.

- [Aurora] It was both the scientific content, because they had to take the state exam at the end of the year, but also as a way to really engage them in the community, and to be able to do scientific field work. I felt that that was an important skill that I wanted my students to have. It wasn’t just a cool project, it was a cool project based deeply in the standards. We read primary sources. We read secondary sources. We read scientific text. We read the Massachusetts Water Quality Standards, and made sense of them. I’m gonna read something, I’m gonna understand it, I’m gonna use that with my field work and my field experiences, and I’m gonna make sense out of that, and apply it through my writing, and show what I know through what I write. And that, to me, is deeply embedded in the Common Core State Standards, and deeply embedded in what it means to be college and career ready.

- It got us ready for the real world, because, me personally, I knew that in college, that line was very important, and part of having a career is knowing that someone is gonna hold you responsible.

- I think that students who are the most ready for college and for careers are students who have a variety of skills that they’ve learned in high school, and the pond was an example of a project that gave us different skills, whether it’s testing water, or whether it’s writing up the lab reports, editing lab reports, it gave students different skills that they may not have normally got.

- At the end of the day, I was proud. I was proud of myself, I was proud of our class as a whole. It came out really great. We presented it to the Mayor of Springfield, and everyone was so impressed with us.

- In my undergrad, I had to conduct my own study, and I had to go out there, get approval, and then I had to start. I had to collect data, do a chart, just like we did for this project, and then the final goal was to have a final paper and present it to the whole school, so it was very similar.

- Our test results in that first year, for the Science MCAS, they were significantly higher than the rest of the city. So, whereas people thought, “oh, that crazy school,” well, all of a sudden, that crazy school was getting good results. I ultimately want my students to believe in themselves and believe in themselves in a myriad of ways. And one of those ways is to believe that they’re capable of whatever it is that they’d like to do.

- I should be in Hollywood. We should all be in Hollywood. Come on, class of 2010, let’s do something.

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EL Education

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