In the 1960s, World of Inquiry School #58 opened as a progressive, inquiry-based school in the Rochester City School District, and for years parents lined up to put their children’s names on the waiting list. Yet over time, the school began to lose its original identity. Parent involvement dwindled, discipline problems increased, student performance declined, and school culture suffered. In 2002 when I began working with them, there wasn’t much inquiry happening in classrooms.
We worked on many dimensions of school life – faculty culture first, then instructional practice, curriculum development, assessment, and although there were pockets of growth, the school as a whole did not make significant progress. Teachers loved the ‘idea’ of genuine inquiry, project-based learning (at the center of the school’s mission), but very few embraced the work it would take to implement it well.
The second year we worked together, I suggested we put a day on the calendar towards the end of the year to celebrate the work students had accomplished in their various projects. It was September, so everyone agreed to a day in June, far enough away they didn’t have to worry about it. That was the important move – getting the day on the calendar, the public calendar!
Musicians celebrate their weeks or months of practice with a concert. Athletes celebrate their exercises and drills with a game, hoping to win a championship. Actors and actresses with a performance. Artists with a gallery show. Writers with a public reading. In all cases, the audience plays a significant role in motivating the “performers” to do their best work, to accomplish even more than they thought possible.
But what about student academic work? Who is the audience for their work? In most cases, it is the teacher. And when the teacher is the audience, that makes it school, somehow separate from active engagement in the fullness of life with the rest of the community. If I had to choose one thing that would make the biggest difference in school, for kids, for teachers, and for the church, it would be this idea of audience. Intrinsic motivation for students, rather than grades. Excitement and creativity for teachers, rather than following the script of the textbook. Engagement and commitment in kingdom work, rather than fulfilling requirements to advance to the next grade, the best college, a good job. As Wolterstorff warns,1 “It is nothing but a pious wish and a grossly unwarranted hope that students trained to be passive and non-creative in school will suddenly, upon graduation, actively contribute to the formation of Christian culture.” (See more on the Power of Audience here.)
The audience can be simple – consider writing book reviews that get posted in the library instead of turning a book report in to the teacher. Or they can be a little more complex, such as a 3rd grade class at New Covenant School in Arlington, MA, who last night presented biographies they had written of senior citizens to the person they visited all year long and their families. The point is, when students learn content and skills in the process of doing meaningful work, they feel what is like to be engaged in community, to make a difference in people’s lives, and ultimately active members of the body of Christ. (See hierarchy of audience here.)
As the school year progressed at World of Inquiry, the day for the Celebration of Learning began knocking at the door of their classrooms. Now teachers experienced the same excitement (read “terror”) that students face when they realize “company is coming.” There is a lot of pressure to show your best work.
The first celebration was attended by 350 parents and community members! Up 200% from previous end of the year ceremonies that did not feature student work. The kids were so excited to share what they had done that they made sure their parents, relatives and friends came to see it. Community officials were invited. Experts who helped with various projects.
Their excitement actually covered a “multitude of academic sins.” The quality of the work varied greatly, but getting the date on the calendar was the key to getting everyone started on the journey to align their work with the school vision, even the most reluctant teachers. And the overall success of the event demanded it should be repeated the following year.
As teachers reflected on the whole process, they came up with many ways it could be improved. The most significant of which was that you have to start preparing way more than two weeks before the celebration! In fact, the project from beginning to end is really all in preparation for the celebration, just like our athletes, musicians, and artists know full well.
As this year comes to an end and you are planning next year’s calendar, choose some day in late May or early June, far enough away not to spoil anyone’s summer vacation, and designate it the day we will celebrate our students’ work. If your whole school commits to it together, it will be an engaging community event. If not, put it on your own classroom calendar and do it for your students.
A few examples of Celebration of Learning:
Sample programs for a Celebration of Learning
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the CACE Blog on June 6, 2017.
Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Educating for Life: Reflections on Christian Teaching and Learning. Baker Academic, 2002.