What is Exhibition and Why Do We Do It? By Julia Jacobsen
Every year, I notice a really big shift in students’ seriousness about their work as exhibition approaches. Right now, my class is working with a new intensity. When I was celebrating them, and asking them where this new energy came from, they told me that it’s because everyone will see their work! The knowledge that their work will be seen by an audience (who matter) increases the amount that kids care about what they are doing.
The second reason we hold exhibitions is that they are affirming for kids. After sharing their work at exhibition, my students feel elevated as scholars. They have worked hard, felt proud and been recognized for that hard work. It’s beautiful to see.
For me, the best exhibitions are ones in which the exhibition itself serves a purpose. It it the moment that kids get to test out or reveal what they have created! A few years ago, my team and I did a project about boats with our fourth graders. In order to build boats, students learned about buoyancy and the science of boat design. Exhibition was the moment when students got to see whether their designs worked–each group paddled their boat out into the bay! It was authentically high stakes, and the kids felt incredible when their creations worked. This year’s exhibition will be the grand reveal of the first graders’ school beautification project. Last year a fifth grade class held an exhibition which was a presentation of their proposals on city design to a panel of experts who they had worked with. That was really powerful too.
Lastly, exhibition is great because it’s a chance for us to communicate what we are all about. We have a different approach to learning than most parents experienced when they went to school. Sharing learning at exhibition is a great opportunity for families to see what learning looks like at our school.
Exhibition can be stressful. Some children definitely find exhibition stressful, and as a teacher I recognize this. To help keep things feeling normal, I try to build in as much routine as possible in the time leading up to exhibition. We have been working on our math and reading workshops since the beginning of the year, so right now these feel really stabilizing for kids and I still make sure to do them everyday. Although exhibition can feel stressful, I can see the ways in which it helps students to grow as presenters and communicators. I worked with one fourth grader who had been too worried about exhibition to participate in the past–he had either not come, or hid when exhibition started. That year, we worked together to write up a script of what he wanted to say so that he could practice in advance. He built up his confidence and presented his work for the first time at exhibition. He was so proud of his work, and of his ability to share, he couldn’t wait for more “customers” to come to his station! He had built an enthusiasm for sharing his work–presentation skills which can be terrifying for adults!
(From the High Tech Elementary Explorer series, What is…and Why do we do it?)
What Are Student Led Conferences (SLCs) and Why Do We Do It? By Jeff Govoni
A student-led conference is more than a parent teacher conference that the student sits in on. The focus is on the student, rather than about the student. It helps them feel empowered to really own their learning by providing space for them to have their thoughts and opinions heard by some of the most important adults in their life: their parents and their teacher.
One of the reasons that I really love SLCs is because it helps the student reflect on each part of the project and draw out the bigger learnings. This requires a great deal of planning and preparation from both the teacher and the student but it pays off. Sometimes kids get stuck on the what we did for each part of a project but they don’t think about the why, or about how that learning has impacted them. A student-led conference helps us to go back and make sure that this important thinking, this metacognition is happening.
With each SLC that a student does, they begin to realize that the quality of their work is valued and that it is worth examining. The self reflection makes their accomplishments and goals seem very real. Although I try to keep it pressure free, students realize that this is an important conversation. The audience and content is high stakes and, as the SLC draws nearer, kids realize how important it is to plan and to prepare. If a child has not been taking the work seriously, I find that they often have an epiphany moment in the conference where they realize how important their learning is and how much they want to do well. When these moments happen, the parent and the teacher can help the student to think about how they can do things differently in order to accomplish their goals.
After the SLC I find that students are more motivated to work on their goals because they know people are paying attention and because they have been able to share their experiences and they have been listened to. It helps build upon and cultivate the intrinsic desire to do well.
(From the High Tech Elementary Explorer series, What is…and Why do we do it?)
What is a Presentation of Learning and Why Do We Do It? By Alec Patton
A Presentation of Learning (POL) requires students to present their learning to an audience, in order to prove that they are ready to progress. Effective POLs include both academic content and the student’s reflection on their social and personal growth. They are important rituals – literally “rites of passage” for students.
At my school, every student gives two POLs per year – one at the end of fall semester, and one at the end of the year. They happen at the same time that most schools have their final exams, and serve a similar function. However, unlike exams, POLs happen in front of an audience that includes their teachers, parents, and peers. By requiring students to present to an audience, reflect on their learning, and answer probing questions on the spot, we are helping students build skills that they will use for the rest of their life. Taking an exam, on the other hand, is a skill that students will rarely, if ever, need to utilize after they finish college.
Every team’s POL expectations are slightly different, but they all fall into one of two broad categories: “presentation” or “discussion”.
The presentation is the “classic” version of the POL. A student gives a prepared presentation on their own, and takes questions. Designing a POL structure is a balancing act for the teacher: require students to cover too much material, and every one of your students will march in and recite a near-identical list of assignments completed and skills learned. On the other hand, make the requirements too open-ended and the POL can become an empty facsimile of reflection – or, as students have described it to me, “BS-ing”!
I once saw a POL assignment that included the phrase “it has to have some magic”, which students were free to interpret as they saw fit. It led to unpredictable and delightful presentations, and inspired more thought and extra work than any rubric could have.
The “Discussion of Learning” trades the presentation structure for a seminar structure: a small group of students facilitates their own hour-long discussion, with the teachers initially just listening, then adding questions to enrich and drive the discussion. The parents are invited in for the final fifteen minutes, when the students summarize the discussion thus far and invite the parents to participate.
In my experience, this format tends to lead to meatier, more honest reflection than presentations. Especially when students are allowed to choose their own groups, they tend to make themselves more vulnerable than in other contexts. This format also opens up a space for students whose voices aren’t always heard in the classroom. The most memorable POL I’ve ever been a part of was a discussion by a group of girls, all them native Spanish speakers, who talked about having been made uncomfortably aware of their accents by peers, and struggling to make their voices heard within our team. It was powerful, effective, thoughtful – everything I would have wanted from a POL, but it never would have happened if the structure had been different.
Which format should I choose, and when?
Students will be best-served by experiencing both the “presentation” and “discussion” format at some point in their academic careers.
I like to end fall semester with a presentation, because individual presentations give me the clearest sense of which skills a student has successfully developed, and what they will need more help with in the coming semester. I then end the year with a discussion, because at this point I know the students very well, and in a small-group setting we can speak frankly both about their successes, and the potential problems they will face in the coming year. I end this discussion with every student setting goals for the summer and coming year that I record and email to the student and their parents, so that they leave my class with the best possible trajectory into the future.
Alec Patton (shown here holding the trophy his Advisory Olympics team just won) has been a high school teacher since 2012 – first at High Tech High North County, and now at High Tech High Chula Vista. Before that, he worked at the Innovation Unit, in London, England, where he wrote Work That Matters: The Teacher’s Guide to Project-based Learning. You can find out more about Alec’s projects on his digital portfolio.