Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Power of Students Working Hard and Showing What They Can Do

| by Cory Curl, Associate Executive Director |

“I didn’t expect…to be so absolutely captivated by my students’ performance.”
-        Katrina Boone
If there is one conclusion I’ve reached during my own journey to understand what works well in education, it’s that there is no silver bullet, no panacea, no one perfect shot that is going to solve all of our dilemmas and produce the results that we have so long sought for our kids.

(It would be very nice if that were the case, though!)

But I do hold dear a few Powerful Concepts. They help me make sense of the thousands of ideas – some good, some not so good – that are floating around out there.

One Powerful Concept that has been tugging on me lately is this simple proposition: learning emerges through quality work.

In a recent blog post, Katrina Boone, a teacher at Shelby County High School and a teacher-in-residence at the Kentucky Department of Education, reflected on the power of a Socratic seminar to help students master several state English language arts standards in reading, speaking and listening. Before the lesson, she didn’t know if the students could pull it off. But they did. They wrote “ridiculously good” discussion questions. She found herself “absolutely captivated.”

Kids can do more than we ever imagined. Engage them in good work. Give them good feedback. See what they learn.

I am not a courageous teacher like Katrina Boone. I am a trying-to-do-the-best-I-can parent of a four-year old. But I recognize that feeling – the feeling of being absolutely captivated.

My child does good work in his school. I know that because he talks to me about it, because some days he doesn’t want to leave school because he is still absorbed in his work, and because he brings his work creations—the products of his work process, the evidence of what he is learning—home. I’ve had moments of being absolutely astonished by what he can do.

Recently, I heard Carmen Coleman, from the University of Kentucky College of Education and Center for Innovation in Education, reflect on efforts in Danville to engage students in deeper, project-based learning. What struck me most was this – she said that, for students, being engaged in this learning environment looked like – well, work. The students had meetings. They made plans. They adjusted their plans. They solved problems together. Work.

Kentucky is fortunate to have visionary teachers who have taken on the challenge of working together to truly bring the still-new Kentucky Academic Standards to life for students. It takes a lot of effort to lay the foundation needed to engage students in aligned, high-quality lessons that expect them to work hard and show what they know and can do. Bold efforts such as the Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC), Math Design Collaborative (MDC), and the recent Common Assignment study are incredible examples. 

* Note: See these past PrichBlog posts on LDC ( and MDC (, and see this recent blog post on Common Assignment from Renee Boss at the Fund for Transforming Education in Kentucky.

The challenge for all of us is to ensure that students throughout Kentucky are engaged in quality work that leads to real learning – particularly for students of color, students in poverty, students with disabilities, and those in other student groups that so urgently need access to the most stellar opportunities to learn, to grow, to succeed – to absolutely captivate their teachers, their families, and their communities. Thanks to the LDC, Sherri McPherson’s students at Lafayette High School in Lexington are doing just that.

As parents and advocates, by asking good questions, communicating our priorities, and supporting changes, we can help meet this challenge—to rally for our children, our neighbor’s children, and all children across the Commonwealth to do high-quality work that absorbs them in the learning process, empowers them with knowledge, and prepares them for what comes next on their educational journeys. 

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