George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Building a National Archive of Student Work

Ken Ellis

Former Executive Producer, video , Edutopia
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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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Expeditionary Learning's picture

Thanks, Ken, for posting this. We're very excited by the project and look forward to seeing what great ideas your audience comes up with.

David Markus's picture
David Markus
Former Editorial Director of Edutopia; dad of 4 (3 kids in public school)

The teachers I talk to would love something like this that they could turn to 24/7. Especially, as Ken says, with the right supporting material and instructional help.

Ben Blair's picture
Ben Blair
Curriculum Developer

This is an inspiring idea. Having access to actual student work as a gauge, or as something to work toward could change education. Getting the right form is everything, and I like the analogies proposed. Wouldn't Google dedicate a department to figuring this out? Aren't they organizing the world's information?

Jen's picture

Wow! This sounds like such a great idea! I am always keeping student samples of work that has been done well. However, I always feel like I should be doing something more with the exceptional student work besides just hanging it in and around my classroom. I think that creating a showcase like this could really creat some healthy competition between all students.

A showcase of phenominal student work could also help students see different creative pieces which could spark an idea that a student would not have had otherwise. Not only do I like this on a national level, but I would love to create my own showcase where I wouldn't have to lug around a "100 pound suitcase." Doing this would also create an area for parents, the public, and other educators to really see how much effort students and teachers put into assignments.

I feel as if this would help improve student learning in so many ways. Students could feel proud of what they do, they could get new ideas, they could have the chance to get a scholarship, and they would have a new media to communicate with other students from all over. I also feel that doing this would take teaching to a new level. This could help show how students learn differently and see things in different ways.

I really hope this idea can happen in the future!

CarlyIM's picture
I am a school librarian at an elementary school in North Minneapolis.†

I have been toying with eFolio, which is a wonderful web-based portfolio program. Student work can be scanned (if it is art) or uploaded right to the eFolio, and saved indefinitely and accessed from home.

My biggest concern is that teaching students this technology is quite a process. I teach in a k-4th grade elementary school and although I would love to teach students eFolio, it is not worth it if the middle school they move on to does not also reinforce using eFolio. There almost needs to be a district level mandate (or larger, maybe state level, since we have a pretty mobile population) to use one program or another for it to truly be successful.

Jennifer Stoffer's picture

As an educator, I would love to be able to view a collection of student work. Wouldn't it become even more inspiring if it became a collection students aspired to become part of that displayed or represented student work from all 50 states...and even the world.

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