Models of ExcellenceBy Jill Anderson
Throughout their years of schooling students are given assignments that are completed, graded, and then disappear. Some examples may get stowed away as keepsakes, but most probably end in the trash. Twenty years ago, Ron Berger, Ed.M.’90, a former classroom teacher, began collecting superior samples of student project work. Why? Berger dreamt of sharing the collected work as a model for educators and students to see what good work looks like.
“The power of models is really underused in all that we do in education,” Berger says. “I think we have a fear in U.S. education that if we provide models kids will copy and won’t be original. But I think it is an unwarranted fear because when we learn to be good writers or musicians or athletes, we do it by looking at great models, copying, and, through that, gain skills and learn to improvise.”
As an HGSE student, Berger went to Professor Howard Gardner with his idea and some samples of student work he had collected. With Gardner’s encouragement, Berger began working with then-doctoral student, Lecturer Steve Seidel, Ed.M.’89, Ed.D.’95. Now, many years and hundreds of samples later, this collection has grown to become content for an exhibition at HGSE and will be the focus of a HGSE course this spring. It is also slated to become an online gallery for educators around the globe.
“It seems to me that if the assignments are serious and we value the work, then we should be trying to learn as much as we can from these things that students make in school,” Seidel says. “We can learn a lot about how children learn and [about] powerful teaching in the nature of the work they are doing, whether [in] science, history, languages or the arts. There’s a lot of data, if you will, in these products and we don’t treat them as valuable in the classroom or in education research.”
Berger started gathering examples as a classroom teacher, but his collection grew quickly as he started to pick up work from all over the country, both in his own travels and in the mail. “It was delightful,” Berger says. “I can’t tell you how excited I get when there is a package in the mail.”
Additionally, after Berger left classroom teaching, he became part of the school network Expeditionary Learning (EL), a school improvement organization that was born at HGSE in 1992, allowing him to broaden his collection even more. EL encompasses 165 schools in 30 states — mostly in low-income communities — all dedicated to high achievement and, unusually, creating beautiful, important student work that contributes to the local community.
For years, Berger and Seidel, who stayed in touch beyond their time together at HGSE, contemplated what standards look like in powerful, creative, and serious student work and how to use such samples. Ultimately, they decided that, in order to make it into the collection, the work must embody critical thinking, problem solving, and inspirational understanding.
“This is deeply important because there is very little that helps young people, students, and teachers in school that gives them real flesh to the bone of the Common Core standards or any other standards as a statement of what people should know or do,” Seidel says. “Being able to visualize what a project really looks like when you are doing that kind of work is a huge help and inspires them, but it also helps them see what it actually looks like.”
In trying to determine the best way to get the work to educators and students, Seidel and Berger knew there needed to be an exciting environment where educators could look, use, and learn. Thus, they proposed creating an online gallery where the collection can be housed. Their hope is that the site – slated to launch in about 18 months – will be a way to give value to the student work, as well as help educators and researchers pay more attention to what’s being done by students. With the help of funding from the Nellie Mae Educational Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Berger has been able to scan student work, develop context, and conduct research and trials.
Some of these trials came in the form of actual exhibitions of student work in Longfellow Hall this past year. “It’s a beautiful wall in a prominent place and a place to start testing how to take the samples of work and create education displays that might provoke thinking,” Berger says. To date, Berger and Seidel have used the hallway outside of the Eliot Lyman Room to showcase two exhibitions of student work that have been well-received both inside and outside the HGSE community.
Ben Mardell, an associate professor in early childhood education at Lesley University, has brought two of his classes on teaching to view the exhibitions
“It showed real world possibilities for engaging children in deep and powerful learning,” Mardell says.
The positive response to the exhibition of the work during the 2010–2011 school year, propelled Berger and Seidel to design a course surrounding the topic, which they will coteach this spring. The course, Models of Excellence: Inspiring Students and Teachers with Outstanding Classroom Work, is project-based where students create exhibitions in Longfellow, and also conduct development and research regarding the online gallery.
“From a central content perspective, we will be exploring the idea that using models can really help and inspire students, teachers, and the work they do in the classroom,” Seidel says, noting that it will link to standards and examine what student work and standards look like in reality. The course is open to all students from every program. In fact, Seidel pointed out that many students across different disciplines can benefit from the experience.
In the meantime, until the launch of the gallery, people can check out the student work in Longfellow – something that Seidel and Berger encourage educators to do.
“We underestimate the capacity of kids to do great work, especially in low-income urban schools,” Berger says. “The sense is that they are not capable of great work but when we see it – it changes that vision. We want to open people’s minds to this notion that, ‘Wow there is much more capacity to students than we thought.’”