I have long been a believer in students making their work public. When I started teaching my school was working with some of Ted Sizer’s ideas, and “public exhibition of mastery” was an important one of those ideas. I came to believe that when students control their learning and are expected to show the results of their learning in public they do amazing things. So I have tried over the years to create just such an environment. I have learned that it isn’t an easy environment to create. Sure we can have students write blogs or create web sites. These are not too difficult to create, assuming the web filters aren’t overly restrictive. But my experience is these digital public venues, for all their strengths, just don’t pack the same punch as a student standing in front of a perfect stranger, looking them in the eye, and explaining some piece of work the student has done. Something really magical happens when these are the expectations.
This year we decided to create a new public exhibition event at our school. We participate in SkillsUSA, and we decided that students who go to the state competition would participate in our own event before the state event. Our local Chamber of Commerce recruited a couple dozen volunteers who have some expertise in the projects the students are doing. We bought the volunteers breakfast, invited the school board and top administrators, and suddenly we had our first annual Merlo Expo! Our school secretary said it went from a backyard bbq to a full blown Quencieta! It got complicated quickly. But our school community stepped up and made it a really special event. Our leadership class and their teacher really did an outstanding job with the details. The whole office staff did a great job with the logistics. The support from the whole school really made it a fantastic event.
The results were simply amazing. We have a couple dozen new industry supporters who think highly of the school. We heard nothing but fantastic comments about our students and their work. Our students were really excited about the feedback they were getting on their projects. Many of the students have already begun adjusting their projects in preparation for next weeks SkillsUSA event. That is something that has never happened before; in the past the state event was the first, and often last, public viewing of the projects. The students are considering feedback from a variety of real people, and making adjustments based on that feedback. One student called me over in the afternoon and told me one of the industry people told him his project would be better if there was an app for it. So he started sketching out plans for an app. That is simply awesome.
I think of equal importance is that the district administrators were able to come and interact with the students and see what the students are actually doing and learning. I don’t think we let them do that enough. We like to complain that district admins only care about the numbers. But when do we give them something else to consider? They see the numbers; they see the test scores and graduation rates and attendance and all the rest of the data. We complain that there is more to learning than that, and there really is. But when do we invite them to come and see the learning? I, for one, intend to invite them more often.