Alex transferred to SLA in his junior year from one of large comprehensive schools in Philadelphia after it closed. Toward the end of the first week, I asked him how SLA compared to his former school. It was similar, he said, many of the same classes he’d seen where he came from.
“But that learning, though…You guys are way ahead of us on learning.”
It took time for him to become accustomed to the way of doing things at SLA. The transition was a culture shift, and it wasn’t one he’d asked for.
If we had administered test, I’m sure we would have found gaps in Alex’s literacy and math scores. In conversations in class, he would often ask for clarification on historical ideas that were common knowledge to his classmates.
Using these pieces of assessment, we would have enough data to draw up a deficit model of Alex that fit him somewhere in a remedial class in a traditional school.
That wasn’t the philosophy of the school.
If you want a dipstick along the way, use a quiz or test. If you want to know what a student has truly learned, assign a project.
Throughout his first quarter with us, Alex was assigned a joint project through his English and history classes. He was to find a named building in his neighborhood and research both the building and the person for whom it was named. That done, he was to tell the story of both.
Alex selected a middle school near his house and decided a video documentary would best convey what he found.
The physical structure of the school, Alex found, had been under contract for sale to a local business. Though the contract had fallen through, it hadn’t fallen through before the district installed a new heating system as part of the deal.
Alex found the heating system hadn’t been connected or made operational. It sat in the basement unused while the inefficient system the building was built with limped along.
Then, Alex found something on the tour that changed the story he was telling. In the school’s library, he found bare shelves and was told the school hadn’t purchased a new book for the space in more than five years.
When he returned to SLA, he was impassioned. Recognizing the injustice he’d uncovered, Alex approached the editing and production of his project with new intensity. He had found something real through the asking of authentic questions, and worked to marshal all of his abilities to make the best product he could.
While Alex’s case is not the norm for all projects, it does highlight what can happen with projects at their best. Because he had been givent he scope and charge to build something of meaning that required dexterity with primary sources, interviews, storytelling and myriad other skills, Alex created something that blew the possible deficit understanding of his learning out of the water.
The video narrative he created laid out in stark relief the images he’d captured of the heating system and juxtaposed them heartbreakingly with his images of the library. After the viewing in class, his classmates gave him a round of applause and peppered him with questions, hungry to better understand what he’d uncovered.
As teachers were able to assess his discrete skills through quizzes and other assessments and and offer Alex help in augmenting the areas in which he was weakest. Because of the project, though, we were able to see the best of what Alex was capable and, in turn, she the best of Alex.