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You Grotto Go to Hemlock Gorge: Illuminating Standards Video Series

Sixth grade students in Boston, MA created a geology book for young readers with a unique format: it is written as a graphic informational book, similar to the graphic novels that students enjoy.  During a four-month investigation, the students explored a nearby geological feature, Hemlock Gorge, in order to understand geological processes. This film features interviews with the teacher and former students, and poses the question of what understanding actually looks like, and how students can demonstrate it. Illuminates Massachusetts Science Standard: Earth’s History: "Describe and give examples of ways in which the earth’s surface is built up and torn down by natural processes, including deposition of sediments, rock formation, erosion, and weathering."

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.


- The United States is at a moment where it could really transform its assessment systems. Most of our testing is multiple choice tests. Pick one answer out of five. Our assessments need to evolve. To reflect the skills and knowledge that we actually value. And that we need schools to teach and our students to learn.

- [Narrator] Assessment is intended to measure understanding. But what does understanding actually look like? Do we know how to reveal it or create it? Sixth grade students at Conservatory Lab Charter School, an Expeditionary Learning School, had the opportunity to illustrate their understanding of geology in the form of this graphic book.

- At the beginning of 2012, we did a lot of work in that sixth grade classroom just on who are we as learners and how do we think and participate, so we used our Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences and what came to light was that students generally identified as being visual learners and they loved graphic novels. This was a huge part of who they were as a class and so, we decided to create a project all around that. And “You Grotto Go To Hemlock Gorge” was the culminating project for our year.

- We really wanted them to as a group go out and just be in nature together. And then also to feel a individual connection to a particular feature in the land and to look really closely at it.

- When the geologist was taking us around Hemlock Gorge, he was telling us about different rocks there. And when he told us about puddingstone, I found it interesting about the name and how it was formed.

- We talked about how glaciers, when they were melting, they just dropped rocks on the ground and those rocks stayed there and over time the water that passed by was changing how those rocks looked.

- What is it about this rock or this particular formation in the land that sparks a question? And that’s where we got into the standards for Earth’s history. In this case the standard that we looked at is how do you describe the Earth’s surface and how do you explain how it got to be as it is?

- [Narrator] After looking closely at geological formations at Hemlock Gorge, students came up with their own questions that they wanted to explore. Such as, how did the Charles River form? How do glaciers create hills? How do rocks plate apart? Students then worked with a local geologist to gain deeper insight into the geological processes. They also engaged in hands-on activities and looked at computer simulations to gain deeper understanding.

- The challenge of making a comic out of it, was then how do you communicate this understanding? We had to rely on artists’ ideas of understanding what scientists’ believe have happened over time.

- We studied The Arrival and American Born Chinese as a class and used that as a vehicle to identify literary themes, character traits, story development, all of the other literary aspects that come up in all of the genres you studied some, scientific graphic novels and we wrote essays and then we translated them into graphic novels.

- The project and this product is so great but I think what I hope that the students are getting from it is being critical artists, being geologists who are able to ask questions that get them to a deeper level of understanding.

- [Narrator] In creating this graphic book, students revealed their understanding by graphically illustrating various geological concepts like rock formation, deposition of sediments, weathering, and erosion.

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