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by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

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Topic tags: why PBL, what is PBL, how to do PBL

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May 30, 2014
From Open House to Exhibition Night

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by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

Last Wednesday I drove down to San Jose, California to attend an event at Katherine Smith Elementary School. It was a warm May evening. The parking lot was filling fast, parents and children were walking in, welcome banners were posted on the wall. Classroom doors were open and teachers were awaiting visitors. So far, this sounds like a good old-fashioned Open House, right?

But actually it was “Exhibition Night,” where each grade from kindergarten to 6th had what the program called “Project Based Learning Showcases: Every Student in Every Classroom.” Families, community members, and special guests (such as the Evergreen School District Superintendent and other administrators, plus a representative of the Chamber of Commerce) spent two hours hearing students make presentations and having us take part in activities based on recent projects.

For example, I hopped around an obstacle course in a gunnysack, which I learned was a game children played in colonial Delaware. I was given a tour by two excited 4th graders of their “Cheesy Fingers” project about junk food and a healthy diet, from their entry event taste-test experiment and their "need to know" list of questions, to their research and final product: a website displayed by each team on an iPad at their table. I heard English Learners in kindergarten tell us, quietly but confidently, what they learned about insects in their “Going Buggy” project. Teams of very poised and well-spoken 6th graders explained the math they used to create scale models of an “ideal house” which they designed with the help of a local architect. Finally I picked up brochures and tasted samples after hearing 2nd graders tell me about edible plants and herbs I too could grow in my garden. Sorry I couldn't get to the first grade (pictured above) and third grade ("Unique Habitats") classrooms. No time either for the food trucks parked on the blacktop.

The traditional Open House is pretty much unchanged since I was a kid, judging by what I hear and my own experience recently as a parent. You arrive on the freshly cleaned-up campus, and perhaps gather for a brief welcome by the principal. You walk into your child’s classroom and see all the nice art on the walls (looking for a certain name, of course) and find a folder of material on your child’s desk. In it might be a note to you about what’s inside, some assignments done during the year, a bunch of writing and worksheets. Science or history-related displays – aka “dessert projects” – might sit on a countertop. If you can wait for your turn, you grab a brief chat with the teacher, who is glad you’re taking home your kid’s pile of paper and lovely ceramic flower pot. If time allows, you run over to check out the classroom of the teacher you expect – or hope – your child will have next year.

It’s a static display of the artifacts of learning and creative expression. Some schools these days might also feature a student performance, presentation, or demonstration of some sort, but the basic purpose of Open House is “look at what we did this year.” It’s not a bad thing, but it’s a missed opportunity. In schools that are using Project Based Learning, the annual spring event can be much more.

At an Exhibition Night, for one thing, students are actively at the center. At Katherine Smith School they were the people doing most of the talking wherever you went. The exhibition had an authentic purpose; in most cases, the students‘ goal was to actually teach their audience something. The exhibition had an assessment purpose; at each grade level exhibition, audience members were asked to use a rubric or fill out a feedback form about the presentations, which students and their teachers would review later. For the school, the event had an accountability purpose; parents could see that their children were learning both academic content and 21st-century 4 C’s competencies. There was a messaging/informational purpose; this is PBL and it’s what we do here. And finally, the evening was a celebration of hard work, well done. (I should add that this kind of event was an adjustment for parents who are not used to playing the role of audience and assessor – but they're learning!)

The first of our Wednesday Hangouts this month featured guests from two of our partner school districts, York County Schools in Virginia and Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee. They described similar, powerful events held this spring, which I wrote about in an earlier post. It was the same story that I found at Katherine Smith, one of pride and accomplishment. What a contrast to nice but superficial Open Houses. What a valuable addition to dry reports of test scores. Let’s hear more stories like this!


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