Student Engagement

Building a National Archive of Student Work

April 5, 2010

Ron Berger has been lugging a 100 pound black suitcase around the country for the past 20 years. It contains his personal treasure: a collection of poems, art work, scientific studies, field guides, and books created by K-12 public school students. Now Berger, Chief Program Officer of Expeditionary Learning Schools, is seeking to lighten his load by digitizing his personal collection and other outstanding examples of project work.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to spend two days at Harvard's Graduate School of Education with a distinguished group of PBL devotees (including John Mergandoller, Michelle Swanson, Ken Kay, Bob Pearlman and others) who were challenged to generate ideas for the construction of a digital gallery of project exemplars. As Harvard's Steve Seidel, who masterfully facilitated the group, put it, The Gallery will be a testament to what is possible in public school. It will also promote the "black suitcase effect," inspiring teachers, administrators and students and raising the rigor bar simply by showcasing great student work.

The questions we wrestled with included:

  • Who would find it useful and how? (audience)
  • What should be collected?
  • How could we avoid amassing a pile of second-rate work?
  • From what places should it be collected? (K-12 schools, Non-schools, International?)
  • How should the products be curated?
  • What kind of contextual info should surround the work?
  • Should the annual school play or concert be included?
  • Should the work demonstrate 21st Century skills, like collaboration?

We began thinking about the task with a museum metaphor: a relatively large number of works would be collected and stored in the basement, with a small subset of them selected for public exhibit in various galleries, by various curators, organized by grade level, core content, media type, etc. I pushed back that the museum model didn't seem to fit the digital realm. Think Google not Guggenheim. Teachers, I thought, were too busy to browse. High Tech High's Ben Daley suggested Netflix as a model, Lisa Wing mentioned

One of the more enlightening moments came when Berger invited us to browse a portion of his collection and share what we found compelling about some of the work. I found a beautifully illustrated flip book written in Hawaiian and English by middle school kids to help younger students with language skills. Another book, written by 8th graders, featured stunning woodcut drawings, accompanied by original fables which had been adapted from a student's personal life event, complete with a moral at the bottom of the page like, "most of what your elders say is true."

Having had the opportunity to document some of the amazing work produced at schools like High Tech High, Aviation High, SES, ASCEND, EAST, and King Middle School, I am convinced that a digital archive of great student work, along with the proper context and supporting material, would inspire and motivate a significant number of teachers and students. What do you think? How would you design it?

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