Make Learning Visible

Public displays of excellent student work should be the rule, not the exception

June 14, 2017 1:45 PM
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By Jessica Lander

Jessica Lander, a high school teacher and 2015 Harvard Graduate School of Education alum, is blogging for Usable Knowledge about what happens when research ideas, policy initiatives, and best practices meet the real world. (Read previous posts in her Usable Knowledge series.) Jessica also writes about education for the Boston Globe and other outlets. Follow her on Twitter at @jessica_lander.

After school one recent day, my students and I ferried 35 3D models of Holocaust and World War II memorials down the hall, in search of the one glass cabinet in the main corridor of the school.

“Can we really do this?” they asked.

“Absolutely!”

Together we arranged and adjusted — propping up project descriptions and pasting a large title detailing the assignment. With the shelves full, my students stood back and started snapping selfies.

What if all schools proudly displayed the academic work of their students? Could we turn drab school hallways into pop-up museums? 

My students had been studying World War II and the Holocaust for a month and a half. For their final project, I had borrowed an assignment my own seventh-grade teacher had used: Create a memorial. In addition to a model, I challenged students to write an artist’s statement describing the symbolism of the different elements of their memorial, what materials it would be constructed from, and what messages they hoped visitors would take away.

And, I told them, we’d be displaying the final memorials publicly.

Student exhibition has strong roots in the Reggio Emilia school model. To document learning, Reggio teachers create “documentation panels,” displays that go beyond mere presentations to tell the full story of a class project; they walk viewers through samples of research, rough drafts, and final versions, with descriptions explaining each step — much like a great museum exhibit. 

The concept is also core to the pedagogy of schools in the EL Education network, all of which are annually evaluated on whether they have models of excellent student work lining the hallways. These public displays of high-quality work enhance academic engagement and pride, among both students and teachers — and they increase the community’s pride in the school building itself.

I wanted my community to feel the same sense of pride. In the final days of our project, my classroom morphed into a gallery, with miniature memorials displayed on almost every available desk. As I wandered among them, I was awed by their power and creativity. Six black candles filled with ash to represent six million Jews; a rotating pedestal, one side with see-through hands lined with veins, the other with just the shadows of hands to represent the bombing of Hiroshima; a sealed glass jar with an intricately sculpted starving man screaming and trying to break free.

This work simply had to be shown. But where?

The halls of my school are filled with row after row of metal lockers.  There are only a few small bulletin boards scattered in between, filled mostly with announcements and sign-up sheets. Colorful posters on mill life, essays on To Kill A Mockingbird, and diagrams of organelles line the walls of individual classrooms. But almost nowhere are there public display spaces. 

After much searching, I located the lonely display cabinet filled with a dusty oil portrait near the cafeteria. With a little persuading, my students were granted permission to display their work for a month. We seized the opportunity. 

When schools put up student work for all to see, they send a powerful message to students that educators respect their academic effort and their intellectual contributions. After all, we publicly display what we value. 

And students pay attention. As one New York teacher told me, “when new student work goes up outside my classroom, the halls buzz. I see students pointing out the work, calling over other teachers to read it, bringing friends, reading each other's work, sneaking clandestine cell phone pics.”

This spring, a collaboration among 17 education organizations across the country launched the Share Your Learning campaign, with the goal of growing a national community of educators to support and expand public exhibitions of student work. The campaign created a series of toolkits to help educators launch student exhibitions, student-led conferences, and other types of student presentations of learning.

What if all schools proudly displayed the academic work of their students? Could we turn drab school hallways into pop-up museums, with rotating exhibits on ancient Egypt, dioramas on wind patterns, and poems modeled on e. e. cummings?

Here are three concrete ideas for making that happen — and making learning visible in our communities:

  • Create a public display case at the front entrance of your school and curate a rotating display of excellent work. Better yet, create display spaces throughout the school.
  • Designate a “gallery space” in a well-traveled area (say, the main office) that regularly hosts student art shows. Invite families, students, colleagues, and community members to join the opening celebrations.
  • Organize and train a group of students to be your curators. One teacher at San Diego’s High Tech High founded a Curating Club that shows students how to display work in meaningful ways. (View examples of High Tech High student projects here.)


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