A Thousand Visitors Per Hour is Not a Fairy Tale

September 29, 2016
Driving Question: How do we celebrate learning while engaging parents within a project based learning environment?

Picture this: The bell rings at the end of the day at Katherine Smith. Students ask to call their parents to stay afterschool to put finishing touches on their products and presentations.

Kinetic energy flowing from principal to teachers to students. All students in every classroom wrapping up their projects on the same day and preparing to share their learning with their parents and other guests from the community. A few hours later, the Katherine Smith campus is teeming with people.

Students in every grade are dressed to impress and share their learning with guests. Parents proud of their children speaking in front of crowds of people. Teachers impressed with the confidence of their students.


When we started the reinvention 5 years ago at Katherine Smith, we were unsure how to effectively share what Project Based Learning looked like with parents and the community in general. Sure, we sent homework samples and invited parents to end of project presentations, but was that really telling the story of what our students were learning and accomplishing?

The question kept coming up as we progressed through the year.

We knew that we couldn’t have a traditional Open House at the end of the year given the untraditional methods we were employing. Our Buck Institute for Education coach, Gina Olabuenaga, gave us the answer. She had all of the teachers participate in a “Back to the Future” protocol where we wrote about what our successful Open House looked like, as if it had already happened. From there, we designed our “Exhibition Night” where we decided to create experiences for our public audience.

The fifth grade created a living museum on the American Revolution where students built models of battlefields, dressed as important figures from that time period, or created replicas of famous paraphernalia.

Kindergarten students in their “Stray, Stray Go Away” project created presentations where every student spoke in front of the audience on how they could help stray animals in the community.

A Lemonade Stand was created by our first grade as a culmination of a unit on learning to count money. Students had to learn how to count and make change for guests and provided refreshments for the crowd. As questions were posed to students about their projects, they were able to explain to anyone who asked, in detail, about all parts of the project.

All told, at the end of the night, we had over 2,000 visitors to our campus in a 2-hour period!

As a result of this successful first Exhibition Night, they have continued and we see a higher number of visitors year after year. It’s really turned into a celebration of learning over the course of the year, not merely the sharing of one project’s deliverables.

Now, as grade levels complete their projects, Exhibitions are routinely held as a culminating event. Parents, instead of coming to look at what their child has completed, now take pleasure in looking at the work of all students and listen to what they have learned. The ability with which students are able to share what they have learned publicly continues to impress me. Parents are similarly impressed


We learned a few things from that first Exhibition Night that stuck with us:

  • Students rise to the occasion when the presentation of the work is public. Consistently, our students prove this to us.
  • All students, even students who are second language learners, have the ability to share during an exhibition.  Don’t underestimate them.  Keep your standards high and consistent.
  • All parents have a desire to see their child be successful.
  • Invite them and they will come
  • Keep your doors open. Always.

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