• Beth Overby

Re-thinking the PYP exhibition's authenticity

Climate change. Gender equality. Animal rights. Waste. Mental wellbeing.

We can all name the groups that seem to always get formed during PYP exhibition, and we have watched students grow in their knowledge and understanding of these very large, important issues. It is astounding to watch 11-year-olds develop awareness through research and then find ways to take action on such a global problem. After mentoring and then facilitating the exhibition for many years, however, the same issues came up again and again. This led me to question:


Is this really what fifth graders are passionate about? Or are we somehow guiding them to think that this is what their exhibition needs to be?


We decided to take a step back and really reflect on our own journeys. What were we interested in when we were that age? For me, it was painting my nails, playing with my friends, and singing. For my colleague, he remembered having a one-track mind for soccer. For our students, we noticed how they didn't sit around chatting about how to make sustainable changes to reduce their carbon footprint. Instead, they made up games, watched DIY videos on YouTube, played sports and video games, and talked about clothes.


We reflected on how amazing it was that our students were so knowledgeable on world-wide issues (or even aware of them at all...5th grade Beth didn't know anything about any of these things!), but that perhaps their real interests and passions lie elsewhere. Students could, however, dig in deeper into their interests by researching, gaining a wider perspective, experimenting, and developing further knowledge on them. This created an opportunity for authentic learning rather than a global issue that might lead to inauthentic action .


With that in mind, we thought further about taking action. With the students, we talked about what responsible action looks like, and the idea of sustainability was really important to them. This did not necessarily mean sustainable in the "save the earth" sense, but rather thinking about it as, "If we take this action and then leave, will it continue to help others without us?" Our students created criteria for responsible action based on their research and discussions.


Responsible actions...

...happen because we are passionate about them and we care about them.

...are sustainable, going on even if we are not a part of them anymore.

...have a positive impact on us and on others.

...require collaborating with an open mind in order to best combine our own and others’ skills.

...are well-researched, well-planned, and well-organized.


Our students developed an "algorithm" for responsible action as well.


Personal passion/interest + Skills/knowledge + Collaboration = Responsible action


This became the crux of our exhibition. We realized we needed to start with the PERSONAL. Why do we always start exhibition in groups? Why not let the groups naturally form after each individual furthers their knowledge and skills in their own passion? Students brainstormed their own passions and interests, and then found connections that allowed them to dig in deeper.


Example 1: Student A loved to snowboard. He also loved science and had a lot of questions about science. He chose to deepen his love of snowboarding by learning about the science behind the sport. He researched G-force, board materials, friction, and so on.


Example 2: When brainstorming, Student B listed singing, acting, and dancing multiple times. When we conferenced, he said he wanted his exhibition to be on climate change. When I asked him why, he said he thought it was important. When I pointed out how many times he wrote down drama and music, he said, "Huh." Through our discussion, he decided he wanted to learn all about how musicals are developed. "I can do that for my exhibition??" he asked. This proved to me that we were really on the right track.


After students researched independently, they started seeking out people they wanted to collaborate with. We discussed how we often collaborate with people who have different skills and knowledge than our own in order to meet the needs we have when taking action.


Example 1: Student C had independently researched how board games are created. He knew he wanted to take action by creating his own board game, but he was missing the content for what his game would be about. So, he teamed up with Student A in order to develop a game that used the scientific principles of snowboarding. Together, they conducted experiments in the science lab and collaborated with an expert mentor who was a big gamer. They then created a board and card game in our Makerspace that used the results of their experiments in the rules and the points. They also developed a commercial and a jingle that would advertise their game as a great way to spend indoor recess.


Example 2: Student B decided that he would write his own musical after researching the various roles and responsibilities that are required. He, too, was missing content for what his play would be about. Student D had a passion for pop music and he volunteered to write the music and lyrics for the play. Student E had researched computer viruses, so together, they decided that the musical would use his research as the content. I personally struggled to imagine a musical about computer viruses, but they collaborated with the drama team as mentors to plan and write the script. They wrote a musical that was set inside a computer and the characters were all the icons at the bottom of the screen being attacked by a virus. They designed and created the set, costumes, and props, composed the music, auditioned actors and singers, and led the rehearsals. Our classes voted to continue developing the musical in order to perform it at their promotion ceremony.


In reflecting on their journey, students and their collaborative action groups realized that perhaps their actions weren't fully sustainable. However, they all agreed that they truly cared about their exhibition and that they had created opportunity for change within themselves, our classrooms, and our school. They were able to distinguish local and global changes, and many of them commented on how their actions might appear local, but that the impact that would carry on inside of them would extend further than just that exhibition.


As a facilitator, I saw a major shift in the excitement of the PYP exhibition. These students were EXCITED every day about learning, planning, researching, making, creating, doing. I felt that the actions were authentic to THEM, and that they were totally original. If we had done the exhibition as we had in the past, would we have grouped together someone interested in computer viruses and someone who has a passion for drama? Would we even have known that those were their greatest interests? Or would we have accidentally misled them into a group focused on something that they thought they should have been learning?