The Power of Taking Student Work Seriously - A Washington D.C. Elementary School’s Story

For the past two years, we have been working with Cleveland Elementary School in Washington D.C. to provide personalized professional development in student agency, school culture, and using data. In a future blog, I’m going to share a detailed overview of what this support looked like in action. Today’s post is about a powerful student exhibition at Cleveland, and how the experience of professional learning was a stepping stone to getting there.

It all started when the second and third grade teachers at Cleveland realized that in order to truly get to student agency — with students driving decisions and taking ownership of their learning — learning experiences had to be way more engaging. Students needed to be doing authentic work for that to happen, and teachers landed on project-based learning (PBL) as the vehicle to get them there.

Everyone needs a coach.  Our partnership with Cleveland is built on personalized coaching and development, so we move in whatever directions the teachers identify as needing. Developing PBL chops in service of student agency and engagement became our north star.

Everyone needs a coach. Our partnership with Cleveland is built on personalized coaching and development, so we move in whatever directions the teachers identify as needing. Developing PBL chops in service of student agency and engagement became our north star.

With that goal in mind, we rolled up our sleeves and spent our time together developing PBL chops and planning a prototype that teachers would launch and test out by the end of last school year.

I visited Cleveland monthly, meeting with teachers to collaborate and design learning experiences. We would always head off-campus to plan and learn. (I’m a big believer in respecting the teaching profession, and to do this deep learning and planning work we needed the adequate space and the inspiration. Rather than spend those days squished into a busy teacher’s lounge at school, we chose spaces around the city that allowed us to spread out, think, learn, collaborate, and work.)

While together, we would dig into learning activities, like this one where we did student empathy interviews. And this one, which is a self-guided playlist of materials. After eight weeks, teachers launched their PBL prototypes.

With the prototypes in full swing, we decided to take a day trip to visit another DC school doing PBL. Two Rivers Public Charter School was nearby, and uses an expeditionary learning (EL) model for PBL. They were happy to have us. During our visit we spent time in a third grade classroom where they had just finished an expedition, which was very similar to the prototype third grade teacher Yolanda Johnson was in the midst of at Cleveland.

Yolanda’s students were working on designing a new local monument, based on an important person or event, or redesigning an existing monument to better reflect its purpose. The Two Rivers’ class had just finished creating guidebooks of DC, monuments included.

Bells went off! Wouldn’t it be cool if this class in Two Rivers became the peer experts for Yolanda’s class? Cleveland students could present their monuments, and Two Rivers’ students could give feedback based on what they learned and the research they had completed to create their guidebooks. We ran the idea by Sharanya Sharma, the third grade teacher there and she said: YES!

So in design-nimble-bias-to-action style, we got to work planning the day. A few weeks later, Two Rivers came to Cleveland! Two Rivers’ students shared their expedition and explained the process of their project to Cleveland students, which included sharing their research, identifying key questions, and showing the guidebook.

Two Rivers' students share their "All About DC" expedition in Yolanda Johnson’s third grade class at Cleveland Elementary School.


Two Rivers' students partnered up with a Cleveland student and shared their guidebook. Cleveland students gave them feedback about what they liked and what it made them wonder.


After the Two Rivers students shared their guidebooks the Cleveland students shared their monuments. They told them what their monument was, whether it was a new monument or a redesign, the important features of the monument and why they felt those were important, as well as why they had chosen that monument. The Two Rivers' students then gave them feedback, using their model of two stars and a stair.


The day was really, really special.


These students became colleagues to one another, and it was obvious to everyone in the room the power in getting students together to share their important work. The students felt proud and excited. It made them realize what they were doing had resonance and life beyond their school alone — their peers were interested and that mattered.

Here’s what a few of the students thought about the work and why it was important.

So in the end an unexpected thing happened, something we educators didn’t plan for deliberately. This learning experience transformed into a social mixer for third graders. Over pretzels and juice boxes, eight-year-olds moved naturally from conversation to conversations; making friends, talking about their work and beyond. Just like we do as adults. How often do we experience these types of situations in the professional setting, for example a cocktail networking hour before a conference? THIS part — the socializing and connecting — was also THE learning.

And this all happened because student work was taken seriously. Students were given the chance to be experts and collaborate authentically about their work. Not just with adults for the purpose of us grading them on a rubric. But for them — to connect them with the world outside of their classrooms and with peers who were doing similar research.

When you give students real opportunities to have a venue for why their work matters, it allows them to see the importance of what they are doing. They now have an audience of many, and engagement becomes the standard not the sought-after-rarely-happening moment. Every learner deserves that their work be taken seriously, and be carried out with and for an authentic audience.

There is an initiative happening right now called Share Your Learning that is aimed at creating more opportunities like this one. Its goal is to "increase student engagement by making learning public" by having five million students share their learning by 2020. If you want to learn more about how you can create these types of authentic exhibitions please visit,

Students are doing work that matters now. Our job is to give them opportunities to share it. We’re so excited for what’s in store for Cleveland students and teachers next.