Creating an Exhibition of Learning: Sparks & Stories
If I had a young Anh Do in my class, how would I help him develop and showcase his talents?
Anh Do is a national treasure. Born in war-torn Vietnam, Do and his family fled to Australia as refugees in 1980, surviving a harrowing five-day trip across the Indian Ocean in a leaky fishing boat. He has since gone on to become a comedian, author, television host and talented artist. He has twice been a finalist in the Archibald Prize, Australia’s most prestigious portraiture competition. Anh Do is a prodigious talent, but more importantly, he is a wonderful human. Try watching this portrait reveal with 2015 Australian of the year Rosie Batty, who lost her son to domestic violence, without reaching for the tissues *I’m not crying, you’re crying*.
— ABC TV + iview (@ABCTV) April 19, 2017
I do have a young Anh Do in my class. In fact, I have 24 of them. All children have extraordinary stories to tell if we take the time to listen. All children have gifts and talents. Our job is to create opportunities and experiences that allow children to find themselves. To help tease out the interests, passions and skills that will ultimately shape who and what they become. We can do school to kids, or we can do it with them.
Sparks & Stories: The Big Idea
This project was the brainchild of Mark Sonnemann, Canadian elementary school principal extraordinaire, who was looking to collaborate on an intercultural exchange of student stories. The idea was to create a sense of connection with our communities by asking “what’s my story?”
Circumstances conspired against Mark and I collaborating on our original plan this time, but perhaps it will be our future “do better”. I ended up introducing the idea of an exhibition to students by showing clips from the documentary “Most Likely To Succeed” including the big wheel project from High Tech High.
The idea behind our exhibition was simple; use a “spark” to capture the audience’s attention, then hook them with the accompanying story. The sparks included artworks, videos, podcasts, home cooked food from family recipes, and even a mini Tesla coil. The most eye-catching spark was a 3-metre paddle board, the smallest, a simple mug of coffee beans. The sparks came together pretty quickly, it was the writing that presented the real challenge.
Once students started to share their drafts, I knew I was going to have to write. There were some funny and heartwarming stories being planned, but others were setting themselves to write about loss, struggles with mental health, disabilities, and bullying. Ryan, who wrote the passage below, is a role model of mine. His courageous story was the inspiration I needed to share my family’s journey.
When I first returned to school after her passing, I would often get upset easily and even run away and hide. But it’s been 4 years now, and I’ve realised it’s better it celebrate the time she was alive than mourn her passing. Even though I used to think life was cruel and unfair, I learned a valuable lesson, never take anything or anyone for granted. — Ryan, year 7 student, Yellow Flowers & Mountain Dew.
In Education, dogfooding refers to “doing the work” alongside our learners. How could I ask students to write with courage and vulnerability if I wasn’t going to myself? So I wrote a deeply personal story about my mother’s battle with Parkinson’s disease called “Battles With Dopamine and Dendrites”. It was one thing to write it, it was another altogether to hit publish and later, to read it aloud to my kids.
As a mentor text, it did the job. I spent weeks thinking about it before I typed a single word. I revised over and over again until it wasn’t finished, it was just due. By doing the work myself, I got an insight into what to expect from the students. I knew I had to be patient. Some would take weeks to find their stories, all would struggle to find the words needed to do justice to their ideas.
A recurring comment from the kids was they felt their lives weren’t unique, that they didn’t have important stories to share. Some students, who were struggling to find their story, used this Find Your Purpose template from Suzanne Kitto to stimulate ideas and conversations. They do of course have many stories to tell, and it quickly became apparent that we needed to crank up our expectations if the exhibition was to match the quality of courageous writing that was being produced.
Connections and Flow
About halfway through the term, the struggle set in. We had been without our usual technology (connected Chromebooks & iPads) for six weeks, and our workflow and feedback systems were stretched to breaking point. I hadn’t realised how much we’d come to rely on the technology until it was missing. Our workarounds were clunky, time-consuming and frustrating for everyone. It was about then I realised we needed an inflection point to regain momentum. That’s when I tagged my international Twitter PLN for a little help.
We created a Flipgrid page with questions about writing with courage and put the call out for help. I cannot thank Joy Kirr, Monte Syrie, Mark Sonnemann, Aaron Blackwelder, Scott Hazeu and Patty McGee enough for taking the time to share advice with us. Connecting with these authors and experts had a massive impact on the quality of our stories. After watching the videos, an impromptu Socratic seminar broke out as the kids discussed what resonated with them, which writing devices they would use, and how the feedback might help them move forward.
Made a supercut of my Ss fav pieces of writing advice featuring the amazing @JoyKirr @MarkSonnemann @pmgmcgee @AaronSBlackwel1 @MonteSyrie and @scotthazeu. I am so grateful to these selfless educators for the impact they had on our #SparksAndStories exhibition. #tg2chat #aussieED pic.twitter.com/MkHRFtVTcP
— Abe Moore (@Arbay38) October 19, 2018
We deliberately waited until about the half-way point to formally co-design the success criteria. Our driving question was: “what makes a good story?” We used peer feedback driven writers workshops to polish our hooks and vulnerable moments, working off the idea that we had seven seconds to hook the reader. I didn’t want to bog students down with rubrics and contrived outcomes from the curriculum and achievement standards. Our success criteria were:
Write to connect
Write with courage
Write with compassion
Disrupt the reader’s expectations
The skills needed to achieve these outcomes were more complex and asked students to draw upon previous learning. We had many adults, including support staff and parent volunteers, provide feedback as we approached the print date. For the most part, we helped students find and eliminate irrelevant information and modelled how to jigsaw puzzle paragraphs to create a flowing narrative, but otherwise, we tried to stay out of their way. It was important that we not insert ourselves into the writing to make it “publish quality”, that responsibility had to rest with each individual. When I read the stories, I can hear each of their voices.
The last piece of the exhibition puzzle was the gallery. How could we turn an empty gymnasium into an inviting space that visitors would want to linger in?
I’d never seen an exhibition of short stories before, so I was unsure how to best share the sparks and stories at a scale that was appropriate for the space. We decided to print the stories on A1 size paper, which was perfect. A local engineering company (GPA, Adelaide) kindly printed the stories on a plotter normally used for engineering drawings. Then the idea for a cafe/gallery came about. Students researched possible designs, then we begged, borrowed and stole from everwhere and everyone to make it happen.
When lesson prep start at 7am at Bunnings, it’s not going to be a normal day! Plenty of glueing, joining, sanding, painting and interior design happening today. #SparksAndStories#DisruptExpectationspic.twitter.com/sxPN6jBVu9
— Abe Moore (@Arbay38) September 19, 2018
A parent involved in the local wine industry organised delivery of 24 wooden pallets. Another parent, the amazing Jon Ault, led a build-team of students who constructed coffee tables, a LED-lit cafe bar, seats, and planter screens. The kids learned to drill, screw, sand, glue, paint and varnish, many working with wood for the first time. None of this would’ve been possible without Jon’s selfless guidance.
Big picture, we made sure that everything we built had a specific purpose beyond the exhibition. We put wheels on every piece of furniture, to make our classroom space even more flexible. Options abound. So now, students not only help design our classroom layout, they’ve also built half of it. That’s ownership.
Shifted the furniture students helped design and build for #SparksAndStories back into the classroom. Almost everything is on wheels to make the space as flexible as possible. We’ve added standing desks, coffee tables for floor work, pallet screens with plants. pic.twitter.com/3YSm2sNCgv
— Abe Moore (@Arbay38) October 15, 2018
Best of all, the whole thing is repeatable. I hope that others will be inspired to go on a similar journey with their classes. Rather than weeks, our next school exhibition could be set up in a matter of hours. We have the furniture, the space, a layout blueprint, we just need the imagination of some teachers to will it into existence.
The Student Experience
I was so caught up in the moment of our gallery launch, that I didn’t take a single photograph or video. Fortunately, another incredible parent/daughter combo captured the mood beautifully. I’m grateful to Trudy & Sarah Knox for their selfless work which helped make this short video possible.
The day after the launch, I asked students for feedback about the process via a Google form.
What have you learned about others? “That most of us have had something happen in our lives that not only shaped who we are but deeply affected our lives.”
What would you Keep/Change/Delete from this project? “I’d keep everything, the whole ‘struggle’ part of it made the reward more worth it for me and all the time we put into our stories made the experience better.”
What have you learned about yourself during this project? “I’ve learned that I can achieve things I didn’t think I could do if I just put effort into it. I feel like this has been my best piece of writing and I hope I can do something like this again.”
Finally, I wrote the bones of the following as a thread of tweets immediately after the launch which I shared in a recent post, The Power of Experiential Learning: Sparks & Stories. It was a special experience, one that I will long remember, and I hope students and families will too.
Hands down, this was the most challenging and rewarding experience of my career so far. We transformed an empty gymnasium into a gallery and filled it with stories and artworks and food and families. Perhaps most importantly, we filled it with memories. We turned an idea into a living, breathing space that celebrated courage and vulnerability, empathy and compassion, and displayed the very best of the young people I am fortunate to spend my days working alongside.
We spent nine weeks crafting stories that mattered. We opened ourselves up for all to see with the bravest writing I’ve seen. We struggled and persevered and ultimately, succeeded in connecting with our audience. There were many tears, both of sadness at the depth of experiences being shared by 11 and 12-year-olds, and tears of pride at what they achieved.
The longer I do this job, the more I’m convinced that my responsibility is to create opportunities that allow kids to shine. To imagine and set in motion experiences that enable young people to achieve things they might’ve previously considered impossible. Forget loading kids up with endless cycles of content that lack meaning and context just because the curriculum says they might need it at some magical time in the future. Instead, seek out problems and projects and experiences that drive curiosity and inspire children to seek knowledge and skills. Create the need to want to know.