As we were about to board the plane to return home, my 12 students, two colleagues, and I circled around and said one word that captured how we felt about our trip. Many chose the word “blessed.” Yet it was I who felt blessed to be a part of the experience that redefined what it meant for me to be a teacher.
Three days before, we had met at school before dawn to catch a 5 a.m. shuttle to Los Angeles International Airport. We were on our way to the U.S. Department of Education in Washington D.C. to present an exhibition on the importance of the arts and student voice in education reform for their Student Art Exhibit Program.
Throughout the school year leading up to that day, my students had explored the question: “What does it mean to be a learner?,” situating themselves at the center of their own educational journeys. We started small, looking at individual student experiences in education and the challenges they faced in my English class and my colleague’s government class. The question culminated with our life-changing trip to D.C.
This project was a special learning experience for my students, myself, and the other teachers involved. Though it’s rare for a learning experience to involve giving a presentation in the nation’s capitol, many of the principles I learned through the process can be applied to future classroom projects designed to engage students in real-world learning experiences. Here are my five takeaways:
1. Get students excited and involved. Our project took place across disciplines, grade levels, community organizations, and even countries. Since the exhibition was a bicoastal event, we developed a shared presentation with the Boston organization Elevated Thought. This partnership sparked interest and authenticity for students and enriched the process.
To prepare for the art exhibition and engage as many students as possible, we had freshmen interview seniors and create symbolic portraits of them, while seniors interviewed community organizations and created a plan to develop their own community organization addressing a need in education. Later on in the process, English teacher Sarah Brown Wessling’s students in Iowa commented on entries in our student-run blog, while students from the Ambience Public School in New Delhi submitted entries. This created excitement, showcased multiple perspectives, generated visible accountability, and brought shared value and collaboration to the work.
2. Cultivate school and community connections. From start to finish, community connections were the heart of this project. Various organizations presented to our class on ways they advance education in the community. They also evaluated and gave feedback on student presentations. Volunteers from 826LA assisted students in writing learning statements, and the Educare Foundation conducted afterschool classes in poster design and video production.
Each partner played a crucial role that made our project possible—and better for it. Though it took time and planning to cultivate community partners, it made all the difference in supporting the growth of our students and bringing the outside world into their lives.
3. Create authentic learning experiences for students. This project blended into our school’s new Linked Learning approach, which aims to create authentic college and career-ready experiences for students. Students took part in conference calls with the Department of Education, wrote memos about the First Lady’s College Initiative, and presented their art and their voices to educators and officials in Washington D.C.
Following the trip, students shared their experiences with educators and community partners at a Linked Learning United Way event. This made the experience even more real for them and extended learning beyond the classroom. At some point, I realized students weren’t doing the project for me or for a grade, but rather because they realized it was a responsibility and an opportunity bigger than any of us. They wanted to shine by making their voices heard and representing a new model for what it means to be learners.
4. Create meaningful opportunities for involvement. Since we were only able to take 12 students to D.C. (through an application process), I tried to offer other opportunities for students to become involved in the project. Students created a video on what it means to be a learner, which was shown during the presentation in D.C. They also wrote learner statements that were made into a book, which we took with us and shared with policymakers.
At the six-week exhibition, we displayed 60 art pieces from three arts classes. Students also created posters that were displayed at the exhibition. When the time came to prepare and rehearse for the presentation, students received feedback from their peers in multiple classes about their topics and presentation techniques.
Though only 10 percent of my students attended the actual presentation, all of them had meaningful opportunities to become involved in various aspects of the project and have a voice in the final outcome.
5. Place process over product. Ultimately, the product isn’t as important as the skills, knowledge, and dispositions that students cultivated along the way. To this end, we made sure to scaffold each skill repeatedly and incrementally.
We started with an essential question that was personal to students (“What does it mean to be a learner?”) and built outwards from there: layering skills, analyzing the core values and mission statements of organizations, conducting interviews, researching education topics, presenting to a panel, and examining various writing and artistic techniques.
Ultimately, the project came down to how students viewed the world and how they saw their place and agency in it. This type of teaching and learning involved a degree of risk and faith in the process. As can be expected, some things worked better than others, making feedback, a growth-model mindset, and room for risk taking in teaching and learning essential to allowing the space to thrive.
When the time came for the exhibition and one-hour presentation to the Department of Education, students shined. They spoke about the need for equity and access to resources, the importance of family and community involvement, and the capacity of art as a transformative tool for self-expression. In a roundtable discussion with Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Deborah Delisle, students expressed both their hope and determination to go to college, as well as their fear of being among a small percentage of minorities at their future colleges.
In our closing circle, our art teacher, Eric Garcia, grappled to find the word to capture his thoughts about the trip. He said that the picture imprinted in his mind came from the presentation our student Maricruz had given about the challenges of being an undocumented student. As Maricruz struggled to find the right words, her classmate Juan had reached over to soothe her and hold her hand.
All at once, we spoke the word he was looking for: family.