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What's Out There?: Illuminating Standards Video Series

Fourth grade students in Boston, MA created and published a true or false book about the universe after choosing, researching, and creating illustrations on self-selected topics in astronomy. This film features interviews with the teacher and with former students reflecting on their learning and their process. It focuses on the importance of cultivating curiosity in students. Illuminates CCSS ELA standard W.4.7, 4.8, 4.2, and 4.2D.


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 is 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? 


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 in Models of Excellence 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 many 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.


- [Female] At the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston, fourth grade students researched, wrote, illustrated, and published “What’s Out There?” a true/false book about the universe.

- Being an Expeditionary Learning School, part of when we start an expedition or launch a new concept, it’s to really get them building up that curiosity.

- [Female] To build students’ curiosity about the universe, students did a gallery walk around the classroom.

- I can just put up a picture of something and say, “What is this? “What do you think about this? “What type of thing do you wonder?” And you’d be surprised, especially in this urban setting, students who haven’t seen a sky full of stars before.

- [Woman] Filled with curiosity and questions, students chose their own topic to research.

- Curiosity is the best launching pad for getting the students to dig deeper. Most them had a real investment in the topic they wanted to research because they found it on their own.

- I enjoyed researching about that planet. I learned a lot of new things about the planet. And it’s really interesting.

- I was curious about how solar systems happened. And it was glowing.

- Each of them became a researcher and once they had everything they wanted to share then we got into the planning phase for their drafting and their writing. We talked a lot about it’s not about what you like. If this is research, we’re just expressing what it is and what’s factual. And students being able to differentiate when something’s actually, you know, solidified. And they feel, like, concrete, great information And when something’s somebody’s opinion.

- Only one space probe has ever visited Pluto. True or false? False. New Horizons, the first space probe ever to visit Pluto, is still on its way. That means it has yet to arrive at Pluto.

- Through this project, students met a variety of Common Core state standards. Conduct short research projects that build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of the topic. Gather relevant information from print and digital sources. Write informative texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly. Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to explain the topic. For the students, the best part was becoming a published author.

- When I first saw the book, I was very excited because it was very nice to be in a book.

- When I first saw the picture, I was proud of myself.

- It took a really long time and we were all happy when we made the book I felt really proud that, especially since we were fourth graders, we were kinda young. We all worked really hard on this.

- I really think that I did a good job on this. And it did take a lot of work to do. But it did pay off when I got to get a book of my own.

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