Hangout Recap: Public Exhibitions of Student Project Work

Our first Hangout in May featured guests reporting on exhibitions of student project work this spring, held in two of BIE’s systemic partner school districts. We were joined by Sonya Mansfield of Metro Nashville Public Schools, and York County Public Schools principal Karen Cagle, teacher Kristin Barr and Superintendent Eric Williams, who wrote more on this topic in a recent blog.

What the exhibitions were like

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools held one big event in April, with over 300 projects on display in a local college’s exhibit hall from 8:00am to 8:00pm. Over 900 people attended, including middle school and high school students, parents, teachers, administrators, and partners from the business community.

York County Schools asked each of its 19 schools to hold its own exhibition sometime in April or early May. District leaders asked principals to make sure at least 20% of their school’s teachers participated, but each event could look different – for example, a school could focus on one grade level or department.

Karen noted that her school’s families loved it: “It was a wonderful celebration of what we do in our schools every day. Some parents even asked if they could do this every quarter,” she said (with a chuckle, because of all the work it took to produce such an event).

Favorite projects at the exhibitions

Kristin described a “virtual zoo” project, in which students created multimedia posters using Discovery Education’s Board Builder. Each student picked an animal to become expert on, she said, and “it was more engaging & meaningful to research information they knew their classmates would be learning from.”

Karen liked the 6th grade “Mars Survival Project” where students constructed habitats for human settlers of Mars. They also had to create advertisements, to convince their audience to choose their habitat. Among the guests was a researcher from NASA, who had worked with the students during project, and several other NASA scientists. Karen was impressed that the students – on their own – made connections to colonization at Jamestown, which they had studied earlier in the year.

Eric told about a project that started when first-graders read a book about a dog and cat that survived Hurricane Katrina. Their Driving Question was, “How can we help dogs and cats in our community that do not have homes?” The class heard from a representative of an animal shelter down the street, and decided to write book called “18 Reasons to Adopt a Dog” for an audience of their peers, family members, and neighbors. Students also decided to produce an audio book to go on the school’s and the shelter’s websites. Finally, they made dog cookies for a fundraiser for the shelter, Eric reported, “and found a home for one dog.” This school's exhibition took the form of a film festival with videos students made to document their process on a project.

In another primary school project Eric described, the children read the book Augie about a boy with a facial deformity. Out of this grew a project to encourage others to “Choose Kind” – the tagline from book – in which they wrote precepts for “morals for good living” and wrote books with in-depth stories behind their precepts. Inspired by Skyping with a boy about their age who has a facial deformity, the students ran an awareness-raising drive in their school and made PSAs to promote the precepts.

Sonya told about two of her favorite projects. One, in a high school Business Academy, was about the value of home ownership and the pros and cons of renting vs. owning. This school is in one of Nashville’s highest-poverty communities, where 75% of the parents rent their house or apartment, “leading to a lot of transition in our school.” Many students even wound up challenging their parents on the issue, Sonya said, which resulted in a few phone calls, but “it was exciting to see one of those times when a project goes home.” The project resulted in several instances where parents were connected with Fifth Third Bank, one of the school’s business partners, to clean up their credit, so “it’s really a project about trying to transform the community around the school and hopefully stabilize the neighborhood.”

Another project that “brought tears to my eyes,” recalled Sonya, was done by their life skills class (Special Education) students. It began in the previous year. There was a washer and dryer in the students’ classroom, and the sports teams would come in and do laundry, but sometimes not pick it up. “So the life skill kids said, we can do this for them, why don’t we take this over?” Their teacher developed this into a project to create a laundry service, which expanded to serve a local homeless shelter.

“Some of the kids are nonverbal, or have cerebral palsy or other physical conditions that limit what people think they can do. This project showed how much they can do. It opened a lot of eyes.” The best part of it, Sonya said, was at the exhibition night. The students’ teacher, who is with them all day, is allowed to stay with them during such events because it’s in their IEPs. “But the kids said, no, you have to leave, we’re going to do this by ourselves.” As people came around to their table, “the teacher stood in the aisle and cried (happily) because they didn’t want her to be around, they knew they could handle it on their own.”

Purposes of public exhibitions of project work

Our guests mentioned five reasons:

  1. Promotes a shared instructional vision - “Not only among staff, but also it gets external stakeholders excited. It shows we don’t just have a test-prep mentality; parents of high-achieving students concerned about test scores saw the depth of learning.”
  2. It's a great marketing tool - “When people from the business community and parents came in, it gave them a different perspective on the students and what they’re learning.”
  3. Helps inspire teachers and generate ideas - “From a teacher’s perspective, I don’t get to go to a lot of other classrooms. It was great to see what other teachers were doing, what was working for them.” “Teachers who had not been not involved in PBL were seeing other teachers – ones they respect – having success with their students and saying, this makes sense to me.”
  4. Increases student ownership and engagement - “All year we’ve been collecting data on student engagement; it increased so much during the year as they worked on these projects. Walking around classrooms we were amazed at how engaged they were the week and the day before spring break, leading up to exhibitions, it was 100%!”
  5. Celebrates student success - “It improved their 21st century skills, like communication, and it was an opportunity to practice those skills with someone besides their teacher.” “A lot of students see school as something they just have to do; it was really refreshing for teachers to see students get excited about what they’re doing in the classroom.”

Lessons learned and final thoughts:

  • Eric: Give voice & choice to adults when planning exhibitions, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.
  • Sonya: From a district level, start planning early, meet often, and communicate thoroughly; set strong deadlines.”
  • Karen: “Give students voice and choice too, get them more involved in how to share their work.”
  • Kristin: “Go for it, you’ll make mistakes but learn from them. Involve as many students as you can, reflect on it, and go at it again next time!”