Exhibitions are the best times of the year, the stress, the ups and downs, the tears and the hugs, all dim in comparison to the students standing up and owing their stuff. A lot of my work as a Big Picture Learning coach involves helping schools design and execute exhibitions. At the beginning, there is always a lot of trepidation from adults and students to present learning in a way so differently than they are accustomed to. Afterwards, pride is the most tangible feeling.
The interesting thing about beginning exhibitions is how many times the assumption is that a student won’t be able to “do that” because of their current state in education. The more they are struggling, or the more that the setting heads into the alternative education space, the less that students are expected to be able to do.
At El Centro Junior and Senior High School, the Sacramento County Juvenile Hall School, a group of adults has been working to change that expectation for their students.
The fears about what students could do were always in the background but were never in the driver’s seat. Teachers implemented a Who Am I unit and created an exhibition structure that would allow students to participate in exhibitions regardless of when they entered the school. The units in which Big Picture Learning’s distinguishers were implemented were a girl’s unit, where the majority of the young women are victims of some form of sexual exploitation and the average stay is less than 30 days, and a boy’s max unit, where the majority of the young men will be leaving juvenile hall to go to prison.
Needless to say, the educational experiences of the students have been checkered, at best, and they have struggled throughout their entire education. As we grappled with how to design exhibitions that would allow all students to be able to exhibit in a meaningful fashion, it became clear that we needed to have a structure that was flexible and honored the needs of the student.
The first exhibitions ever held at El Centro were held this past fall and were truly amazing. The students spoke openly about their past, their goals and what they wanted to change to make their lives better. Many of the staff—probation, teachers, and administrators—were present, and saw the students in a very different way because of their professionalism and honesty.
One young man was sharing his personal timeline, as is common in Who Am I projects, but his timeline was anything but commonplace:
His dad beat a murder rap. He saw his first dead body on the street. His brother was killed. He got into trouble and found himself at El Centro for the first time. He messed up big and got there again.
It was like no other Who Am I timeline I had ever heard. He was so matter of fact about his experiences. But he also had hope, plans for the future and goals to have a different life.
Another young woman, who had only been in El Centro for a week prior to exhibitions, shared how her foster mom told her she was stupid and could never do anything. Because of that she courageously decided that she was going to graduate and go to college.
These exhibitions, along with others, were beautiful and heart wrenching at the same time; punctuated by eloquence and grace. I would put their exhibitions up against any from a seasoned Big Picture Learning scholar. They all spoke about Big Picture Learning being the best part of their learning because it centered on them and their experiences. But, the magic was the pride and ownership that the students had on their faces and in their hearts.
After exhibitions, the next collaboration time was full of excitement. The whole group was ready to start on the next part of the work, internships for students in juvenile hall, and no one was focused on what the students couldn’t do, only on how to make the system support the work. Exciting things happen when students are at the center.