The Foundation for a Meaningful Life Kindergarten - Grade 9 in Southborough, MA
Show What You Know
Daintry Duffy Zaterka '88
Winter Term at Fay is a time for Upper Schoolers to demonstrate their learning through hands-on projects and creative assessments.
What do a doctored copy of Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, an eight-foot Roman arch made out of recycled cardboard, and a music video about the 1968 Democratic Convention set to Graham Nash’s “Chicago” have in common? They’re all examples of assessments assigned to Upper School students during Winter Term this year.
While the fall and spring terms culminate in a traditional final exam week, the winter term is a time for Upper Schoolers to demonstrate their learning through a variety of projects. Some require students to apply their knowledge to a problem-solving task, while others have students produce something original that highlights their creativity. Frequently the projects are interdisciplinary, allowing students to synthesize the knowledge, skills, and talents they have developed in other coursework at Fay.
“Sometimes, these projects are a better demonstration of under- standing than a written test,” says Director of the Educational Program Julie Porazzo, “because students have to take what they’ve learned to the next level and communicate it in a creative or compelling way.”
Solving a Problem
When Joe Buteau challenged his geometry students to build a freestanding arch to span the Root Building hallway, some students panicked. “The open-ended nature of the task rattled some kids who didn’t think they had enough information,” says Joe.
However, the students quickly saw that their knowledge of the angles of a trapezoid and the lengths of parallel sides would be critical to the task. Working in small groups, students designed their arches on paper. Some were elegantly simple, while others incorporated keystones and voussoirs. Transforming the two-dimensional paper design into a three-dimensional arch was also a challenge. “Once students started to build, they realized how they had to to rework their designs,” says Joe. The task required grit and perseverance as students leaned into the uneasiness of tackling a problem with multiple solutions.
Students in Cassandra Papalilo’s Algebra 2 class encountered conceptual hurdles with the Algebraic Functions Design project. Incorporating this year’s schoolwide theme, Cassandra asked students to choose a photograph representing how they have “gained perspective” during their time at Fay and recreate it using algebraic equations.
Using all the parent functions and conic sections—cubic, hyperbolic, logarithmic, and exponential, to name a few— students created an equation for each function and shape within the photo and plugged it into Desmos, an online graphing calculator. One student chose a picture of his Fay lanyard and access card to reflect the sense of responsibility and accountability that he has gained at school. “The students experience such a sense of accomplishment,” says Cassandra, “as they use sometimes as many as 500 different functions to transform a completely blank screen into an exact replica of their original picture.”
Some projects required students to transform their knowledge into a call to action. In the ninth-grade elective Diagnosing the Modern World, Tim and Emily McCauley challenged students to audit the availability of energy and water for a populous city like Jakarta, Tehran, or Moscow and draft a plan to improve the availability of those resources by the year 2100. Backed by detailed research, student proposals incorporated cutting-edge ideas like a wireless electrical grid, billboards that can pull moisture out of the air and store it in drums, and large-scale desalination plants. “The students have so much background knowledge, but as soon as we ask them to think about the future, there is no right answer anymore,” says Tim. “The next step is where the creative thinking begins.”
Be Original, Be Creative
In many cases, the winter term assessment projects challenge students to take what they know and create something original that reflects their understanding. “Students are more invested in what they are doing when their individual creative juices are flowing,” notes Julie Porrazzo.
In Chris O’Connor’s biology class, ninth graders were given a choice of three culminating projects. One option (which was selected by the majority of students) was to pick a children’s book with no obvious scientific content and redesign it to highlight the science in everyday life. When Sam-I-Am travels by train in Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham, for example, students might annotate the page to explain the role of gravity and friction in train travel or include a box next to a picture of a plant that explains photosynthesis. The results exceeded Chris’ expectations. Students modified their books to include flaps, pop-up information cards, and even accordion folds that blended seamlessly into the book design.
In David Olano’s Spanish 2A class, students were tasked with turning their favorite movie or tv show into a 3-5 minute video—en español, of course! Sounds like fun, but the key was that each student had to narrate the sequence of events using the correct form of the past tense, either the preterite or the past imperfect, a tricky grammatical differentiation that doesn’t exist in English. The final products showcased some perfect tense usage alongside sophisticated CGI effects. Similarly, Erin Overstreet assessed her French students’ understanding of the passé composé and imparfait tenses by having them write and illustrate their own endings to Émile Zola’s Histoire D’un Fou in comic book form.
Pop-up Shakespearean productions were spotted around campus during the winter term as students in Dan Roy’s seventh and eighth grade English classes explored A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Winter’s Tale with live readings. “Performing Shakespeare allows students to show their understanding of the text in a way that an essay or text can’t convey,” says Dan, and his students agree. “When we acted out A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it gave us a new perspective on how each character impacted the story, and how extraordinary the play really is!” says Ezra Frain ’20.
Winter term projects also encouraged Upper School students to incorporate talents and knowledge acquired in other fields of study at Fay. In Craig Ferraro’s Pre-Algebra class, the Statistical Servants project requires students to connect their understanding of statistics to the service learning curriculum. “We want kids to learn from each other,” explains Craig, “so we pair students with different strengths. Some might struggle with the math but gravitate to learning about hunger or homelessness, while others can really zero in on the stats.”
Each group identified an aspect of poverty that they wanted to focus on, like helping veterans, fighting child hunger, or combating homelessness; then, students created a presentation using data and statistics that illuminated the problem and tied it to an actionable proposal. With only 5-7 minutes to present their issue, the students had to convince the judges that they had the best solution—an authentic experience similar to defending a thesis or making a business pitch. This year’s winning proposal led to a successful canned food drive, with the donations going to a local food bank.
The interdisciplinary nature of many of the projects also helps deepen understanding of the material. Last summer, seventh graders read William Kamkwamba’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the true story of a Malawian boy who uses scrap metal and discarded parts to build a wind turbine that brings water and electricity to his village. English teacher Deb Smith worked with Director of Creativity and Design David Dixon to have her students build their own wind turbines in Creators Class. The students used that experience to forge a better connection with Kamkwamba’s story, reflecting on their experience through poetry and other writing assignments.
Making Learning Memorable
While the content of a written test is often forgotten as soon as it’s handed in, the experience of creating something authentic and original brings that knowledge to life.
For example, you could use a stack of flashcards to memorize the sequence of events that led to the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, but there are better ways to imprint that knowledge. In John Beloff’s ninth grade history elective, Topics in Modern America, students were assigned a song written about a key moment in the Vietnam War. They used the DaVinci Resolve program to create a music video that combined their song with still photos and video of the event. The finished videos demonstrated the students’ basic understanding of the events, while the combination of media and music also effectively conveyed the emotional resonance of the historical moment. “The project marries research skills with storytelling, which is what a lot of historians do, and it helps students to go beyond dates and names and get a personal feel for what happened,” says John.
Meanwhile, in seventh grade Life Science, teacher Reem Hussein Fricke found an innovative way to help students understand the “invisible” biology of cellular structure. “This is a challenging unit because it can be difficult for students to understand something that they can’t see,” she explains. Harnessing her students’ natural fascination with video games, Reem tasked the seventh graders with build- ing an exact proportional replica of a cell using Minecraft. Reem’s students created cell organelles out of Minecraft blocks, complete with organelles, cell walls, and mem- branes. As Reem introduced the more complex ideas of surface area, volume, concentration, diffusion, and osmosis to the discussion, she found that the students’ 3D cell models had established a strong foundation that helped them visualize and understand the more complex concepts.
Perhaps the greatest strength of these creative projects is that they enable teachers to meet students wherever they are in the learning process. “We have our share of essays and tests,” says John Beloff, “but we also need to offer our students a range of opportunities so they can show what they know.”