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 (Expeditionary Learning) and Steve Seidel (Harvard Graduate School of Education), co-directors of The Illuminating Standards Project, wondered if this conclusion is 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 and How to Use Them
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 Models of Excellence 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 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 videos in the series are listed below by grade level.
Our Presumpscot School Community – Kindergarten students learned reading, writing, speaking and listening and art skills by creating a guide to the adults in their school community. Students interviewed staff at the school and created cards that featured highlights of the interview and explained and illustrated a tool that each staff member used in his or her job. The film highlights how kindergartners can engage in genuine research and meet Common Core standards, and explores how students come to understand and appreciate the concept of community. Features interviews with teachers and students. Illuminates CCSS ELA standard W.K.8.
Original Physics Experiments – First and second grade students in Santa Fe, NM designed scientific experiments to answer their own questions about the physical world. It raises deep questions about teaching science in schools. This film features interviews with the teacher and two students from the project, now high school students, reflecting on their learning. Illuminates Next Generation Science Standard 2-PS1-2, 1-3, and 1-4.
Snakes Are Born This Way – Second grade students in Boston, MA created a professional-quality music video as a culmination of an interdisciplinary study of snakes. Their song, based on Lady Gaga’s hit “Born This Way”, was written by students, and the video became a viral phenomenon. This film features the video and gives the backstory of the video through an interview with the teacher. It focuses on two themes: how students overcome their fears, and how standards can be joined to discovery, joy, and beautiful work. Illuminates CCSS ELA standards W.2.7, W.2.1, W.2.2, W.2.3, W.2.5, W.2.8, W.2.6, (All of CCSS for Writing for second grade).
Six-Word Memoir Self-Portraits – Second grade students in Denver, CO created six-word memoirs, hand-printed onto artistic self-portraits, to share their background with their classmates. The project and this film focus on the importance of a sense of belonging for students, and how an academic and artistic project can be used to build community. Features interviews with the classroom teacher, art teacher, and with former students. Illuminates CCSS ELA standard W.2.5, W 2.8.
What’s Up? - Third grade students from Rochester, NY created a book for kids, by kids on frequently asked questions about outer space. They shared their book pages and learning in a public exhibition held at the city planetarium. This film asks profound questions about what we actually understand about the scientific concepts we learn in school; why we often retain misconceptions; and explores why the students in this project built more robust understanding. Features interviews with the teachers and a featured student author, now in 8th grade. Illuminates CCSS ELA standards RI.3.3, W.3.2, and W.3.2A.
Get Your Blues On – Fourth grade students from Boston, MA, in an investigation of the Great Migration, used the lens of Blues to understand a part of African American culture. The students created a professional-quality book of original blues poems, illustrated with student collage art; they turned those poems into blues songs and performed them for an audience. This film features interviews with teachers and a student, and shows the poetry, art and performance. Illuminates CCSS ELA Habits of College and Career Readiness: “Come to understand other perspectives and cultures”.
What’s Out There? – Fourth grade students in Boston, MA created and published a true or false book about the universe after choosing, researching, and creating illustrations on self-selected topics in astronomy. This film features interviews with the teacher and with former students reflecting on their learning and their process. It focuses on the importance of cultivating curiosity in students. Illuminates CCSS ELA standard W.4.7, 4.8, 4.2, and 4.2D.
Character File of Autumn Helena Washington Hawn – Fifth and sixth grade students (all hearing students) from Shutesbury, MA created realistic character studies of fictional people who were physically and culturally Deaf. The student books were part of a long-range study of Deaf Culture that included a study of Deaf history; learning the anatomy and physiology of hearing; working with Deaf mentors; and collaborating with students at three schools for the Deaf . This film features an interview with the teacher and with the student author of the featured piece, now an adult. Illuminates CCSS ELA standard W.5.3.
Food for Thought – Sixth grade students in Chula Vista, CA created a professional-quality, whimsical and useful cookbook of healthy foods, with recipes and photographs. The project was a culmination of scientific and social studies, including visiting a community garden, growing and harvesting food, and cooking. Illuminates Mexican Science standard: “Students should be able to connect scientific knowledge with other disciplines in order for them to understand scientific phenomena and natural processes. They should also be able to apply this knowledge in different contexts for it to be socially and environmentally relevant.”
Mohammed and the Number Genie – Sixth grade students in San Diego, CA created a fictional book for young readers that explains mathematical concepts through an illustrated fantasy story. Inspired by the book The Number Devil, students created a narrative to transform the mathematics they were studying into compelling and clear concepts for readers. This film features an interview with the teacher, and investigates this question: If we want to students to persevere to solve problems, what will give them the motivation to persevere?. Illuminates CC Mathematical Practice Standard 1.
You Grotto Go to Hemlock Gorge – 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."
Revitalizing Rochester – Sixth grade students from Rochester, NY transformed their own community by leading a successful campaign to revitalize the downtown of Rochester through re-watering closed sections of the Erie Canal. Students did original research in other cities, interviewing city leaders, engineers and business leaders who had successfully renewed their downtowns around a waterway. They created a report that helped convince the city to invest in this urban renewal project. This film features news footage of the students and an interview with the mayor. Illuminates CCSS ELA standard W.6.1.B.
Small Acts of Courage – Seventh grade students in Portland, ME researched Civil Rights events, interviewed unsung local heroes of the Civil Rights movement, and celebrated their interviewees’ stories of courage in a book of first-person memoirs and photographs. This film features interviews with the ELA and SS teachers, and with former students. It raises important questions about what we mean by “evidence-based” writing and speaking: is all evidence equal, or are some types of evidence more valuable and generative? Illuminates CCSS ELA standard W.7.3.
Peacekeepers of Chicago – Seventh grade students in Chicago, IL created a book to honor local heroes working to achieve peace in an urban community plagued by gun violence. The book, featuring student essays and photographs of the Peacekeepers, was part of a project that included a study of the U.S. Constitution and the Second Amendment, and a campaign to address gun violence around the school with public service videos, community meetings and a city-wide “Day of Peace” event. This film features interviews with school leaders and teachers. Illuminates CCSS ELA standards W.7.1, W.7.4, W.7.5, SL.7.1, L.7.2, and L.7.6.
The Wolf That Would Forgive – Eighth grade students in Greenfield, MA created a book for younger students featuring original fables accompanied by cut-block print illustrations. The students studied the genre of fables; wrote personal narratives to surface issues in their own lives; created animal protagonists and stories to embed those issues in fables with helpful morals. This video features an interview with the teacher, discussing the process of learning, drafting and critique. It celebrates how academic standards and skills can be built from work that is deeply artistic connects the heart to learning. Illuminates CCSS ELA standards W.8.3, W.8.4, W.8.5.
ReVOLT – Eighth grade students in Portland, ME tackle a real world problem by designing devices for developing countries that transform energy and benefit society during a five-month interdisciplinary project. The project combined sophisticated STEM learning with social studies and language arts content and skills. This film features interviews with former students and with a range of teachers, documenting in particular the collaboration of the teaching team. Illuminates Next Generation Science Standard MS-ESS3-3.
A Rainbow of Religion – Eighth grade students from Greenfield, MA created a book of interviews with religious leaders from a wide range of faiths in their community, as part of an investigation of religions of the world. Through written text and photographs, students portrayed the leaders, described their faith, and shared their views on fundamental life questions. This film features interviews with the teacher and students. Illuminates CCSS ELA standard W.8.2.
The 20 Years Project – Eighth grade students from San Diego, CA created booklets that projected their life twenty years in the future. As a collaborative math and humanities project, the students wrote about their future lives and careers and also created their financial profile - the budget for their lives, with income, debts, loans, bank accounts, taxes and daily expenses. This film focuses on the math, and features interviews with the featured student and teacher and explores how math content standards can be energized by a project with high interest and life purpose. Illuminates Mathematical standard Math.Content.7.EE.3.
A Little More Than Just People – Eighth grade students in Greenfield, MA celebrated contributions made by local citizens in a book featuring first person monologues and photographs. Students learned skills in interviewing, writing and editing and built relationships with the community. This film features an interview with the teacher. Illuminates CCSS ELA standard W.8.4 and 8.5.
This is Why I Cry – Eighth grade students from Fort Collins, CO created realistic, fictional character studies of American slaves, after researching the conditions and history of slavery. Each student’s work features the story of his or her created character and artifacts from that person’s life This film unpacks one student character, and features an interview with the teacher. It investigates the question of what deep understanding of history actually looks like. Illuminates CCSS ELA standard W.8.3.
Water Quality and the Future Use of Loon Pond – Ninth grade students in Springfield, MA used scientific field work to conduct a full, professional water quality assessment of a city pond, that was closed, to support its use for swimming. All graduates from this urban high school are accepted to college. This video features interviews with teacher and with former students, now college graduates. Illuminates CCSS ELA standard RST.9-10.1, 9-10.2, 9-10.3, and W.9-10.4 thru 7.
Chemistry and Conflict – Tenth grade students from San Diego, CA created a professional-quality book that fuses chemistry and history in an exploration of the power of chemical elements and compounds to shape our world. In science and humanities classes, students explored how chemical substances, such as carbon, have been instrumental in human progress and conflict.The book is illustrated with student-created, oxidized copper etchings. This film asks the question: What if learning in school was like learning in life? Illuminates CCSS ELA standard WHST.9-10.2.
Economics Illustrated – Tenth grade students in San Diego, CA created a professional-quality book explaining key terms and concepts in economics. Students defined economic terms in language that non-economists could understand; described current situations in which those concepts were present in our everyday lives; and created cut-block print illustrations. This film features interviews with the humanities teacher, art teacher, and former students. It raises questions about what understanding and memorable learning actually looks like. Illuminates CCSS ELA standard W.9-10.2.
Iconic – Eleventh grade students from San Diego, CA created a professional-quality book of essays and photographs depicting heroes to the students, both famous and little-known individuals. This film features student voices, an interview with the teacher, and focuses on the power of creating a real book for an authentic audience as an engine to catalyze perseverance, critique and growth in student writers and thinkers. Illuminates CCSS ELA standard W.11-12.2A.
The Human Face of Human Rights – Eleventh grade students from Portland, ME, as part of a study of human rights, interviewed new Americans who were refugees from countries in conflict. Students told the stories of these refugees in words and photographs in a museum-style exhibition and performance at a local gallery. This film investigates the Common Core tenet to “understand other perspectives and cultures” and questions how authentic that can be when limited to books and articles versus learning from real people. Features interviews with students and the teacher. Illuminates CCSS ELA College and Career Ready skill stated as: “They come to understand other perspectives and cultures.”
The Eye of the Storm - Eleventh grade students in Portland, ME, created documentary films to highlight the human impact of Hurricane Sandy on residents of Rockaway, NY; they also did service work restoring homes and businesses. Connected to a larger study of climate change. Explores the power of narrative to effect change in students and the world. Illuminates CCSS ELA standard W.11-12.3.
Ampersand – Eleventh grade students from San Diego, CA created a professional-quality book of personal narratives based on internship experiences in their community. Through photography and writing, students explored life issues from the lens of their internship experience and mentor. This film explores the power of connecting writing skills to the personal journeys of students to make sense of the world and find their path in life. Features interviews with students. Illuminates CCSS ELA standard W.11-12.3.
Perspectives of San Diego Bay – Eleventh and Twelfth grade students from San Diego, CA created a professional-quality field guide to San Diego Bay. As part of an extended, interdisciplinary study involving all core disciplines, the field guide contains standard taxonomic and descriptive text and photos of species, and also includes original scientific research and poetry. The forward is by Jane Goodall. The film features news footage of students, the teacher, and Jane Goodall, and explores how students can build skills and meet standards while producing work of unusual sophistication and value . Illuminates CCSS ELA standard W.11-12.7.
Calculicious – Twelfth grade students from San Diego, CA created a professional-quality book that celebrates mathematical content through artistic interpretations of mathematical concepts and formulas. Students worked with their math and art teacher to create two-dimensional and three-dimensional artwork that captures the spirit of mathematical ideas. The math portrayed in the book is a range of algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus. This film focuses on the importance of elevating the beauty of mathematics. Illuminates CCSS standards MP7 and MP8.
Get Bent – High School seniors in San Diego, California designed and built curved wooden chairs, researching design and marketing, using CAD programs and shop tools. The project authentically incorporated high-level high school math. This film features an interview with the math teacher and the art teacher, and shows multiple drafting of the work. Illuminates Mathematical Practice Standard 1.