Why Important Work Matters

Sara and I have been thinking a lot about what students are able to do and under what conditions. We’ve been talking with innovative schools as part of our work on engagement-based education, and we’ve been going on school visits. We recently spent a day serving as panelists and audience members for Senior Exhibitions at the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, MA. Like Sara, I was impressed by the poise, passion, depth of knowledge - and courage - those high school seniors displayed as they presented their work. Two weeks ago – while attending the King Middle School Site Seminar in Portland, ME – I had a chance to observe what is possible with younger students. A few quick things about King: it’s one of three district public middle schools in Portland, but the only one that follows the EL Education model. In the fall and spring, students do eight-to-twelve-week interdisciplinary units of study, called Expeditions. In this post I want to highlight three things that stood out:

1. High quality student work was everywhere at King. The hallways were a gallery of effort, thought, and perseverance. Big questions were a part of all the exhibits – why do people come to America? What runs off into the ocean over impervious surfaces and what is the effect? How do some freedoms conflict with other freedoms? What rules should we live by? The displays were visually stunning, and all students had work represented. In many cases, it was evident that students had wide latitude in choosing their topic and/or how they would approach it. I was glad when a fellow visitor asked a student guide if all the work had been put out just for us. “No,” the student said, looking a little surprised. “They’re always like this.” One teacher described the hallways as an extension of the classroom, and that’s how it felt. The hallways made me want to jump in and explore something. 2. The work was deeply felt. One of my favorite parts of the two-day experience was a 75-minute session run entirely by students. One 8th grader described how much he had enjoyed his 7th grade Expedition called Works in Progress (they’d studied the Industrial Revolution, child labor, and sweat shops). He wanted to continue the work (!), so he had chosen the world-wide abuse of child labor as his topic of study in the Four Freedoms Expedition this year. Several students said they still think about the Works in Progress Expedition when they are shopping. One boy mentioned he no longer shops at a certain big box store (rhymes with Balmart) because of what he had learned about sweatshops. We asked if students talked about their Expeditions at home. Two students answered in unison, “All the time!”

3. No topics were off limits. I had a chance to speak with several 8th graders about their chosen topics for the Four Freedoms Expedition. Among their topics: the unfairness of the death penalty, access to safe abortion, why the drinking age should be lower, the inequality of African Americans in the United States. (May I mention again this is a middle school?) Faculty at King don’t shy away from heavy or controversial topics. That willingness to face things head on builds trust and deepens the work. King’s principal, Caitlin LeClair, recounted a time when someone had been upset to learn that a student was presenting work on police violence. She asked him to go speak with the student about the work. He did, and she heard no further complaint. Students at King explore things they care about. That said, the bar for work is high. They are asked to think deeply, look at multiple perspectives, provide evidence. We sometimes think that twelve, thirteen, fourteen-year olds are too young to do important work or that the topics they pursue must be carefully curated. But King and other schools where deep learning takes place show the opposite to be true. With the right opportunities and with trust that what they are doing matters, they’ll dig in. As one student told me, “the expeditions really help me form my opinions.” A final thought is that some readers might wonder if this is only possible because King serves an affluent student body. In fact, more than 30% of the students are English Language Learners and nearly 60% qualify for free and reduced lunch. It is also the middle school that serves Portland’s homeless students. Which is to say that King is a regular public school serving a diverse population with many strengths and many challenges. And its students – with the appropriate opportunities, supports, and guidance – are doing amazing things. Images by Kristin Blais; work by students at King Middle School, Portland, ME