No More Assemblies

How to make engaging with outside professionals count

An exploding mixture! A cloud in a bottle! Every student’s hand in the air to volunteer. Everyone’s laughing. Sounds like an educator’s dream. But when the dust (or simulated volcano) settles, it is often difficult to pinpoint what students learned. Did they leave with a stronger understanding of a concept? Did they develop the skills of a scientist—crafting a hypothesis, making predictions, testing through experimentation, or analyzing results? Were they inspired to approach their class differently by the connection between the experiment and a real-world problem? Probably not.

Drop-ins by outside professionals often last just an hour, so they have to jump straight to the punchline. These experiences then quickly fade into the blur of the school day without having the lasting impact we envision.

An Alternative

At Harlem Academy, we’ve developed an approach to making collaboration with outside professionals worthwhile: (1) go big, (2) weave it into the curriculum, and (3) make it a true partnership. We’ll be zooming in on these themes using our eighth grade architecture unit as a case study.

Go big. Rather than a series of one-off assemblies, speakers, and class trips, we dive deeply into just a few extended experiences with practitioners that will stick with students. As a rule of thumb, we aim to dedicate 20 or more hours to a professional engagement experience. In some cases, the collaboration might take place a few hours per week over several weeks. In other cases, we spend a full day on it for three days in a row. In still other cases, it is a relatively short experience that repeats for several years.

We’ve found that this shift from a one-time burst of attention to enduring engagement encourages real learning. A depth-over-breadth approach allows students to immerse themselves in the material they are studying, positioning them to remember what they have learned and grapple with the larger questions of each discipline rather than just scrape the surface.

Architecture case study: Our students work with architects for four hours per week over a five-week period (20 hours), with hands-on exposure to foundational concepts and processes in the field of architecture.

Weave it into the curriculum. It is critical to keep learning goals at the center of planning and build from there, not the other way around. When developing professional engagement opportunities, this means starting with the skills you are advancing and then determining whether the engagement can help students to develop them.

Architecture case study: Our architecture unit is part of the eighth-grade applied science course. In eighth grade, we focus deeply on four core skills outlined in the Next Generation Science Standards, and this unit advances all of them:

  • Developing and using models. Develop or use a model to test ideas about phenomena in designed systems following a protocol to generate a testable model.
  • Constructing explanations and designing solutions. Undertake a design project, engaging in the design cycle to construct or implement a solution that meets specific design criteria and constraints. Students practice all the steps of the engineering design process.
  • Engaging in argument from evidence. Make an oral or written argument that supports or refutes the advertised performance of a device, process, or system based on empirical evidence. Students evaluate the performance of design models following the testing process, suggesting areas for improvement in design and construction of a model.
  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information. Communicate scientific and technical information in writing or through oral presentations.

Make it a true partnership. We aim to get as close as possible to genuine, on-the-job experiences that will expose students to career paths and develop the early skills they need to succeed in the training for those fields. We therefore listen carefully to the professionals’ ideas for authentic, challenging, and meaningful engagement to frame the program, while our teachers ensure the lessons and unit are well constructed and advance curricular objectives. The best of our programs could not have been written without substantial input and collaboration from both parties.

Architecture case study: Harlem Academy’s program team worked closely with Rafael Viñoly Architects (RVA) on the development of this unit. As a result, students have authentic exposure to the field, creating designs, scaled drawings, and 3-D models following typical design parameters (e.g., setbacks, height limitations, etc.). Ultimately, students present their drawings and model to a jury panel at RVA’s offices, fielding questions, defending their concepts, and listening to critiques.

Implementation Tips

Look within your community. Start by taking an inventory of your community, considering which hospitals, colleges, private companies, and nonprofits are nearby. Your school might tap a local university to shape a weather unit, an arboretum to work on plant biology, or a manufacturing plant to guide a unit on the engineering design process.

In addition to RVA, Harlem Academy has substantial collaborations with:

  • Poetry Society of America: Professional poets visit each middle school classroom to guide the drafting, writing, and revision process during a month-long unit.
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: Students spend three days each year working in university labs and experiencing life on a college campus.
  • Columbia University Neuroscience Department: Neuroscientists work with students for two months as part of our seventh-grade human biology course.

For some of these experiences, we engaged in the full process described above. In other cases, we took advantage of the organizations’ existing outreach programs. We recommend exploring both options, with a focus on ensuring that “off-the-shelf” approach to advancing learning goals.

Just ask! Schools might think that an outside professional would be hesitant to make such an extensive commitment, but we have found just the opposite to be the case. Partnering institutions are willing to put in an extraordinary amount of work to develop meaningful, long-term collaborations that will move the needle for students. Many senior professionals have flexible schedules and find tremendous reward in these experiences. It takes some time to get the right people and the right institutions involved, but when you do, these collaborations become central to the curriculum. At the end of the day, one of the biggest barriers to success is simply a failure to ask.

Know when to say no. When separately considering a series of shorter commitments over the course of a year, it is easy to add in activities on a one-off basis. Ultimately this is not as innocuous as it seems; it distracts and pulls resources from core programming and the realization of the school’s mission. Similarly, even when you have the right collaborator, don’t assume that you have to say yes to every suggestion because they are donating their time. Instead, build at least four hours of planning time into the collaboration and don’t be afraid to share exactly what you need to maintain the focus on your curricular goals.

Persevere. It is best to think of this as a three-year process. Our first-year programs have always had positive outcomes but with significant points for improvement. We have found that our approach to professional collaboration starts adding real value when we take that first-year experience and build on it…and then build on it again. Schools need to be willing to stick with a process, reflecting on what worked and what didn’t, and then revising through at least the first three cycles.

Architecture case study: In our first year, we found that students were not getting enough practice at various stages. Students spent four weeks working on their first concept, and the work was much more about the manual creation of a model than about the design process. Over the next two years, we honed a curriculum that placed more weight on concept development and the design process. Now, students get peer feedback on at least three early-stage concepts before choosing one to take to the next stage of developing a scale drawing and model.

What Next?

Students need time to learn and understand core concepts, to struggle to apply them in the face of authentic challenges, and to synthesize what they’ve learned, often in the form of a final product. The approach we described provides the time and exposure necessary for this critical process to unfold.

So, are you ready to cancel all of next year’s assemblies? Probably not … and neither are we. But is it worth evaluating existing and new opportunities through the lens of “(1) go big, (2) weave it into the curriculum, and (3) make it a true partnership” to decide whether to pursue them? Should you put some of the time and resources that go into developing professional engagements into deeper, long-term collaborations? To these questions, our response is an emphatic yes.