For ten years I worked for Modern Red SchoolHouse (MRSH), one of the original Comprehensive School Reform designs under the aegis of New American Schools. One of the most powerful parts of that design, which often got short-shrift during implementation in schools, was what the original MRSH designers called the Capstone Unit.
Think of the Capstone Unit as a three-week-long, interdisciplinary course of study that caps what students have learned previously. In mathematics, in language arts, in science, over the course of several weeks before the Capstone, imagine that students are studying a variety of ideas – the calendar, fractions, perimeter – and are developing various skills – being able to read a graph or use reference tools. The teacher carefully plans what students study the weeks leading up to the Capstone; in fact, these are the prerequisite core knowledge and skills that they need for the Capstone Unit, not just so that they can complete it but so that they can succeed.
Now, once the prerequisite knowledge and skills are mastered, the Capstone Unit kicks in. Imagine now a three-week-long project that is interdisciplinary, weaving together the various disciplines; that has students working at different paces and in a variety of groupings – on their own, in small groups, maybe at times with the teacher; and asks the students to do more than regurgitate what they had learned previously, pushing them to synthesize that information, with their newly built skills, into something new, inventive, their own. At the Capstone’s end the final product might be an extensive oral presentation, a television or radio show, a play, a multi-room museum exhibit, with student docents; that final product goes beyond the typical paper or report, with a performance aspect to it.
I wish that students had the chance to undertake more of these big, end-of-marking period projects. Too often kids will do discrete activities in a classroom, without the chance to bind all that knowledge, all those skills, into one significant project. On their own the activities might be very cool, and the kids might be engaged with and learn a ton from them. But will they be given a chance to put those pieces into a whole?
In this post in September, I wrote about Expeditionary Learning, another design from the Comprehensive School Reform days, and its “expeditions,” student-focused projects that are authentic and real world-focused. Look at this project that sixth grade students from Rochester’s Genesee Community Charter School did; here’s its description from the Expeditionary Learning website:
“Sixth-grade students…were involved in an urban renewal project to re-water derelict sections of the Erie Canal that once ran through the center of the city, to create a revitalized business and community district. Combining studies of history, engineering, government and economics, students met with local officials, surveyed residents, traveled to other cities to research successful water-centered urban renewal efforts, and prepared two reports for the city. Due in large part to the research and civic advocacy of these students, Rochester is poised in 2010 to begin this urban renewal effort, a multi-million dollar commitment.”
Pretty cool, huh? It states that they studied history, engineering, government, and economics but think of all that they studied that’s not stated: How to develop an effective survey. Public presentation skills. All that goes into writing a report that city officials will read. I wonder if they got into water chemistry. And ensuring that students must share their learning with the public – parents, the town council, even kids from another school – sharpens their focus and makes their work more real, more authentic; it’s not just something to share with teacher or classmates but with a much wider community. The work by these sixth graders caused the city of Rochester to take action.
The “exhibition” from the Coalition of Essential Schools is very similar – a public demonstration by students of their mastery. I like what Joe McDonald wrote about exhibitions in 1992: The Coalition’s late founder “Ted Sizer reached all the way back to the eighteenth century in search of an assessment mechanism that might function in this way. He found at least the possibility of it in a ubiquitous feature of the early American academies and of the common schools that shared their era. The exhibition, as practiced then, was an occasion of public inspection when some substantial portion of a school’s constituency might show up to hear students recite, declaim, or otherwise perform. The constituency might thereby satisfy itself that the year’s public funds or tuitions had been well spent and that some cohort of young scholars was now ready to move on or out.”
Now, yes, there’s much in a school setting that can interfere with this kind of performance assessment: a daily schedule, for example, that moves children from one room to another, from one subject to another, or a district’s curriculum or state’s pacing guide that has students and their teachers march through the year at a certain cadence, with little time to undertake these rich, multi-layered projects. But I know several schools and teachers that take them on whole hog, working around the potential impediments, and many more that take on pieces of them – for example, having students present their work in front of an outside audience, to get that real world feel.
So, I might ask a teacher: My daughter really liked and got a lot from the activities during these last few weeks: How do you imagine these activities building on each other, maybe into some large, final project? And how are these activities – and the potential project – connected to the world outside the classroom? My daughter also felt really good about her presentation to the other class: Do you ever have students present their work to an audience from outside the school?