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Great Displays in the Great Outdoors: Bringing Student Work to Life

Heather Calabro

Teacher in Simsbury, CT
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A photo of a group of students looking at the outdoor display.

Why should your classroom walls be the only place to display your students' work? While it might not be the best season for this where you are right now, once weather permits, the great outdoors can prove to be a great display area for your projects! As the ninth grade humanities teacher of a completely project-based curriculum called MPX at Mid-Pacific Institute in Honolulu, I always have more student project work than I do display space. And because MPX fulfills the requirements for both Social Studies and Language Arts, there's a lot of student project work to display.

A photo of one of the "timeline" art pieces created by the students.

My colleagues and I have found that displaying our students’ work brings a sense of pride and ownership to all they do. One of my mentors, Laura McBain from High Tech High, once asked my colleagues and me to take a walk around our campus and look for all of the places that we could display student work. I was dreaming about a World War II "timeline" project for my students, but wondered where I could stage such an exhibit. Then I looked out of my classroom window, and there it was -- a grassy area next to an asphalt pathway connecting two buildings on campus. I knew right then that I could concoct an outdoor exhibit for my students' timeline, which I will explain below.

Don't let the great outdoors scare you! Student work on picnic table tops under plexiglass, mounted on or hanging from the ceilings of pedestrian walkways, as pennants on flagpoles, or mosaics on the vertical parts of exterior stairs -- these are just a few options that educators can consider as outdoor exhibition spaces.

A Weather-Proof Research Project

Before I could display my students' work outdoors, the timeline project needed to come to fruition. The project steps were as follows:

  • Give students basic knowledge of WWII.
  • Allow them to choose a specific WWII event to research.
  • Require them to create an MLA-formatted "works cited" page.
  • Allow them to choose a person associated with their chosen WWII event.
  • Assign an outline and rough draft of the chosen event through the 
chosen person’s point of view.
  • Hold a peer feedback session and require students to make revisions.
  • Give them basic knowledge of working with clay or ceramics.
  • Assign a finalized draft including MLA-formatted citations.
  • Guide students in creating a ceramic cylinder engraved with their finalized draft.
  • Require them to create a QR code linking to our class' timeline website.
  • Assemble the outdoor ceramic biographical timeline, and invite an audience.
  • Require students to write a reflection essay on their learning experience.

Click here to download a PDF of our project sheet. You can also visit the corresponding website for the outdoor biographical WWII timeline. Here you'll find more photos of the outdoor display, as well as the content that our ninth grade students were able to tackle through project-based learning rather than textbook-directed learning.

Student Engagement and Peer Feedback

The People of World War II Timeline project was a way for me to bring history to life for my high school freshmen. Learning WWII history through a textbook can be quite dry for a teenager's way of thinking. I decided to hook my students into the topic through allowing them some choice with what they wanted to research. Then, by writing about a historical event through the eyes of a person involved in it, the students were able to absorb empathy as well as retain the content. Student Cami Kai wrote:

I am now able to comprehend why Admiral Spruance decided against further strikes on the Japanese fleet due to how he followed caution instead of the prospect of an utter dismantling of the naval forces of Japanese, and how this affected the outcome of the entire Pacific War, inevitably dooming Japan to lose in the end. And to me, this became the most gratifying, enjoyable area of the project.
A photo of a female student next to one of the art project pieces.

Every time another history class visited the timeline outside, my students would point out of our classroom window, proud that their work was being examined by someone other than their teacher. By incorporating QR codes into the outdoor display, they were able to read the digital comments shared by visitors. Since my students couldn’t be outside all day and every day with their work, the digital comments helped them gain feedback on their projects.

If the season isn't cooperating enough for a truly outdoor display, consider the sheltered areas on your campus. Cafeteria walls can host extra-large artwork. Conference rooms can be cleared of their chairs to host a student-work gallery after school. Large-paned windows in a technology center can easily be converted into a canvas for student’s products. Even bathroom stalls (provided the work displayed is a copy, not an original) will guarantee exposure to the masses. The great outdoors can make great displays!

How have you used outdoor spaces at your school for student projects?

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Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

Most adults generally don't see children for what they are -- capable and amazing people. Displaying their work tells them that their work is significant and that grown-ups value their work. The children in my class enjoy looking at documentation about their previous experiences in the classroom. They also enjoy looking at the individual portfolios. Among the major findings of Harvard Project Zero's collaboration with Reggio is that teachers learn a lot from documenting their students' work.

H Bullock's picture

Hi Heather,
My sister works in Honolulu, so maybe I can come see your students' installation next time I visit! (I hope to visit again!)

Last summer, a colleague and I developed assignment options for gifted students in our AP English Language course so that we could better incorporate both the higher order thinking skills of the Revised Bloom's Taxonomy and the multiple intelligences of Howard Gardner. Your outdoor installation is a fantastic example of creating/evaluating from a "Naturalist" learning style. Thank you for sharing it!

I've shared your post with the professor under whom my colleague and I worked, and I'm linking it as an example in the assignment "menu" I will share with students. Thank you again!

Heather Calabro's picture
Heather Calabro
Teacher in Simsbury, CT

Thank you so very much for sharing my students' work! And yes, please come visit our school. Our Mpx students love to discuss PBL with visitors! Aloha!

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