Beverly Hoeltke, a teacher at Key Learning Community in Indianapolis, discusses her school's approach to projects and assessment.
1. Describe the project-based curriculum that Key Learning Community has developed.
The school is based on "theme-based curriculum" and each year the staff votes -- with input from parents and students and outside community -- on what the theme is going to be. This year our theme is "Play Around the World." And at the end of this theme, each child is expected to present a project, which is videotaped. The project is supposed to be something that they've researched over time and it's something they are to present in their strength area. So it's important that they know what they're strong in. And that's videotaped in front of the class -- their responsibility is to teach the rest of the class what they've learned in an interesting way.
2. Why are students at Key required to keep videotaped portfolios of their work over time?
If you look at projects of a particular child over a long period of time, such as K through eighth grade, which is what I do every summer, one of the things you find out is that you get a very strong sense of who the child is, what they're interested in, and actually the process of learning. And hopefully, while we're watching and learning about this particular child along the way, they're getting a sense of what they'd like to do in the real world, in life. And if nothing else, they know how to learn.
But there are often themes that occur in projects, too. They revisit something -- a topic that has intrigued them -- and then they'll come back and revisit it and you'll see [that], actually, cognitive ability has grown in the in-depth question that they ask. So it's a very powerful piece that I think that we have to present, and hopefully the student will reflect about this portfolio and then make decisions in life that will be long term.
3. Why doesn't Key Learning Community use letter grades?
We didn't want letter grades because letter grades also stopped children from working at a certain level. They figured out where the A was and then they didn't want to go any farther than that, and that wasn't our intent. So we came up with the symbol system of R being rapid progress, S being steady progress, and N [being] needing help. And that information is based on a continuum that we've come across from David Feldman. It's a developmental continuum of learning. So we based that what we look at from the child on their age and what the expectations would be of a seven year old, for example, and then we just determine whether the child is making rapid progress, steady progress, or needs help.
4. What impact has Key had on the students who have gone on to other schools?
We've had a conversation with children when we didn't have our high school. "What's different about Key and how is it different and what do you feel like has happened to you since you've been here?" And I think the number one thing that stands out in my mind is that we empower children and they know how to learn and they've gone out and told us stories about how they've gone into other high schools and the teacher's given an assignment and they've gone into the assignment and done way more and the teacher's actually said, "I don't want all of this. This is too much." And so they're excited about learning and if you could shoot 'em off in a direction, away they go and you have to sort of hold onto your hat because they'll drag you along on that. So I think that's one of the main differences. I also think that they're very well spoken. They're not afraid of the camera. They'll talk to any stranger if the topic interests them, and so they're not intimidated by others.