To Know What You Are Talking About

To be a parent at Parker this week meant you came to school, and learned. Not from the adults, but from the students. This week showed the brilliant arc of our program: from the preK art show to the grade 8 thesis presentations. In between we had grades 2-3 teach us about China, grades 4-5 teach us about famous historical figures through their living museum, and grades 6-7 teach us about a wide array of current events through their posters presenting evidence based arguments.  (Grades K-1 will present next week, a culminating show of work about self and community– and visitors will see the same principles described below.)

Whether you consider our youngest or our eldest students, these shows of work demonstrate some important principles of a Parker education. First, the project tasks are broad and don’t lead to just one right answer. When a preK student is experimenting with color, for example, it would be easy to get them to recite names of primary and secondary colors. It is more meaningful, though to have them figure this out on their own, by providing raw materials of paint, brushes and paper. In preK 4, asking a child to draw a self portrait is a fun and freeing exercise. These young children don’t care if they represent themselves accurately. By digging into the task, they are showing us what they think is important about themselves.

As students get older, they like learning factual information. Alll of us learn best when we can connect new information to old. So, to learn about China in the 2-3, students make comparisons between China and what they know about their own lives. They compare food, traditions, music scales, geography, and clothing. Comparisons help us analyze and remember because comparing is an active way of thinking.

The arc from preK to middle school in these shows of work also demonstrates how powerful learning can be when the student has the ability to exercise some choice. Again, the personal meaning was evident in the 2-3 class: a student who loves to build, presented about the Great Wall, one who loves dinosaurs, integrated that love into learning about the dragon dance, and a student who had recently moved houses, studied fen shui room layouts. Again, personal meaning connects new learning to old and makes it more memorable.

Students had more than one way to show what they know, and they had to use visual as well as language based ways of presenting to their audience. Selecting the visuals to accompany an explanation is more than just decorating a poster. Between the internet itself, as well as hand held devices, images may be more important and prevalent now than at any time in civilization. We saw the curation of visuals in all presentations, A specific example is in the grade 6-7 posters. Students had to search for graphical data and relevant illustrations, editorial cartoons and photographs. As students move through middle school, their ability to curate grows more sophisticated. In the grade 8 thesis talks, the accompanying slides had few words. The images enhanced and deepened the audience’s understanding of the talks they were hearing.

These projects also show that Parker prepares students to be able to learn on their own. Grades 2 and above all researched to learn. In the 4-5, at the living museum, students actually displayed their source material. We don’t want students to just recite; progressive educators know that memorizing is not the same as knowing. Source material for the living history museum is usually biographical, and the challenge of a presenting living museum is that the students are acting out the historical figure. Each student had to “translate” the biographical research into an imaginary first person account. It was like writing an historically accurate one actor play, a much more demanding task than just listing facts.

Once you master something, you take pride in sharing it. Parker has long been proud of its ability to hone the craft of public speaking through its program. Shows of work are important in building confident speakers. We trusted even the youngest students to talk about their work with their families. In grades two through seven, having your own display place, and presenting to small groups of visitors over the course of an hour or more, improves presentation skills. As the visitors ask students questions, the students realize how much they know. All this builds a lifelong ease with speaking.

Our rigorous eighth grade year requires students to speak in front of an assembled audience several times. Thesis night is attended by many: not only immediate family and middle school teachers, but also parents and teachers of younger students. Every student is challenged by this process and every student is able to succeed. The months of preparation are individualized and feedback is tailored for each written and spoken draft. The evening is impressive. Students look at the audience– not their notes or slides, they pace their information appropriately, and they carefully explain slides with technical information. 

We are very proud of every student, and also proud of the creative and dedicated work that the teachers who assign these projects do. Every student was held to a high standard for personal achievement. The high standard does not have to be the same for everyone– but every student was pushed to reach a new level of academic skill. Well done, one and all.