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Sixth-grade teacher Keith Fowler beside student Gavin Dunn who proudly displayed a primitive yet sturdy temporary shelter. (photos by John Gregory)
Exhibition Night: a student showcase
By John Gregory

Innovations Academy held one of its Exhibition Nights shortly before winter break in December. This is a time for students to exhibit a project they have worked on during the semester. A visit to the campus on such a night is an eye-opener for anyone not familiar with the school.

Innovations Academy is a charter school and its curriculum centers around project based learning. Students may choose a project and explore the subject from A to Z. The effort ends in a major presentation which is showcased on Exhibition Night. Attendance at Exhibition Night is required of the students as well as the parents. Interestingly, the public is invited.

A program such as the one at Innovations Academy is not for anyone, but it fits the type of students who might otherwise be left behind in conventional public school settings in which the entire class moves ahead whether each individual has learned the lesson being studied or not. It might also be a better fit for students who are not relating to conventional methods of teaching.

“I think the advantage is the passion and motivation,” said Innovations Academy Director Christine Kuglen. “Sometimes children in a conventional model don’t really understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. … Here, doing a project, we’re applying skills from almost every subject area.”

Director Christine Kuglen

Exhibition Night is the culmination of each semester’s projects. These are six to eight-week projects that allow students to explore a big question in a deep way, according to Kuglen.

“We don’t give grades the same way (as conventional schools),” she said. “We believe that final products can look like a lot of different things, not just an essay or problems on a math test, but really demonstrating what you learned in some other format.”

One eighth grader made a series of public service announcements. Some of the kindergarten students put on a presentation of songs they learned in a variety of languages. Another class presented a detailed documentary-style video.

“Projects are not the only things we do. … We still have math time and writing time,” Kuglen explained. “We still do some conventional things. The way we teach them is different. Most everything they do is hands-on. So, we like kids to do role play and readers theater, we do a lot of performance. So, kids are learning the same material but in a different way.”

Some of the students in sixth grade set up presentations outside in the garden space under the illumination of spotlights. There were a handful of exhibits highlighting the challenges faced by early humans, and some of the solutions they had for those challenges. There were hands-on demonstrations of tools used to make fire, early stone tools and a temporary shelter made from found materials. Sixth-grade teacher Keith Fowler, who was overseeing the outside exhibit, explained the advantages of learning through such projects.

“The real-life connection is a huge part of the learning because when you know that you have to create an interactive, hands-on exhibit where you are the expert and you are the docent in your own museum, then it gives you that impetus to really research powerfully and to think dynamically about how we can engage our visitors,” he said.

“You find that you can actually trust students … to create amazing projects more than you thought that you could,” he added. “When you set them lofty goals and you put them in groups and you trust them and set high standards for the final product, what they come up with and create is sometimes quite amazing.”

Jennifer Franklin
Jennifer Franklin was attending Exhibition Night to see her eighth-grade daughter’s display. Her daughter’s class was studying the colonial period of America and her daughter built a replication of an early printing press.

Franklin’s son, now a high school junior, also attended Innovations Academy, starting in the fifth grade. She described the advantages the school offered him.

“He is really advanced academically, but needed more social support than he was finding in a traditional school,” Franklin explained. “I was hopeful that project based learning would allow him to work at whatever level he needed to accomplish his academic goals, and that was the case. Even more important was the social-emotional curriculum that’s part of every day at Innovations that really supported him to make more friendships than he’s been having at a traditional school.”