The Power of Student Work

By: Eric Westendorf
At the start of his book, An Ethic of Excellence, Ron Berger is in a panic. He’s at the airport looking for bags that hold everything he uses to teach his middle school students – which is also what he’s planning to share in his keynote speech at a conference the following day.
What’s in the bag? It’s not what you’d expect. It’s also the thing I believe is critical to successfully implementing the Common Core State Standards: hundreds of examples of high quality student work.
To explain the power of student work, we must first agree that one strength of the new standards is that they require students to show their thinking. After a decade of multiple choice assessments, we are moving to a world where students are required to do much more than fill in bubble sheets.
The standards insist that students demonstrate the sorts of things that we actually associate with an educated adult. They will need to write arguments, analyze problems, and explain their reasoning. They will be evaluated on their ability to debate a point, cite evidence, and use the language of math to explain and analyze a situation.
None of this is easy, and all of it requires teachers to shift the focus of class time to critical thinking and reasoning skills, something many have wanted to do for years.

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When I was in the 9th grade, I learned how to write a strong thesis statement by reading an essay written by another student. My teacher, Ms. Ziegel, saw that I was struggling with writing a thesis and gave me an essay by Jordan Davis, the student editor of the school’s newspaper.  Reading Jordan’s essay was revolutionary, and made me immediately attuned to I was doing wrong: unlike what I had written, Jordan’s thesis succinctly and creatively explained what his essay was all about. I remember thinking, “Wait, that’s the thesis. I can do that!” and eagerly diving back into my draft with renewed clarity.

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Too often students don’t know what it looks like to produce “on or above grade level” work.  Parents are even more in the dark. And sadly, in many cases, teachers don’t know either. When multiple choice assessments are the measure of “on or off grade level,” what do you point to as an example? It’s hard to hit a target when you don’t know what it looks like.
The Common Core, however, will necessarily generate thousands of examples of high quality student work. If we are able to share these examples, teachers, students and parents will be able to see what both “off” and “on goal” work looks like. If my personal experience is any indication, this knowledge will absolutely accelerate successful learning outcomes.
My favorite example of the power of student work as pedagogy is captured in a short video by Ron Berger called Austin’s Butterfly. I strongly encourage you to watch it.
In the video, Berger uses an example of high quality work to clarify and challenge students. When he engages his students in an analysis of Austin’s drawing of a butterfly, the message is clear: “You can create something this good. To do it, you need to understand it, take it step-by-step, and work hard. I am going to help you get there. Someday, it might be your work that I’m showing students.”
With this challenge in place, everyone gets to work. Berger’s job then becomes that of coach and guide. He looks at drafts, helps his students identify and understand the gaps between the draft and the goal, and provides brief tutorials on concepts or skills that students need to bridge that gap.
This, as it turns out, is the essence of formative assessment, which research has shown has a significant impact on student achievement.  Identifying a gap, address it; identify, address. As the Common Core gets implemented across the country, the best teachers will be those who effectively diagnose the gap and quickly provide the intervention that propels each student forward.
There are a number of organizations focused on helping teachers do just this. At LearnZillion, our video lessons offer teachers a guide to analyze the gap and take action. For example, when a student is asked to place a set of fractions on a number line, there are a number of reasons s/he could struggle. Did he get stuck on recognizing the units of the number line? Did she understand the fractions that are equivalent? Did he recognize 2/2 as 1?
Quick checks from the teacher can then lead to recommended tutorials targeted to meet the needs of each student. Our growing library of Math and ELA lessons created by practicing teachers also provides a unique form of job-embedded professional development that other teachers can use to discover new teaching strategies while developing expertise with each of the standards.

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You’ll be relieved to know Ron Berger’s lost bag was eventually found, and that he delivered a great keynote speech that was all show and no tell. The audience was dazzled by the evolution of student work from stick figures to blueprints of houses drafted to scale, from sketches to field guides on local amphibians, from notes on radon exposure to essays about environmental policy. The student work was all high quality, and it was all eye-poppingly good. Everyone in the audience was amazed that with guided exposure to high quality examples, regular students could create such impressive work.
As a parent of three kids under the age of eight, the opportunity to accelerate learning through exposure to great student work is why I am excited about the Common Core standards. I’m looking forward to my daughter and sons regularly coming home with work that makes me wonder in delight, “how did they create that?”
Eric Westendorf, co-founder and CEO of
LearnZillion is a portfolio company of Learn Capital where Tom is a partner.

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