Paige Legel and classmate Aarav Pathak are poring over pictures pasted on poster board.
Their goal? To identify the connections among people on a "relationship tree."
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"They look like they're in the same family," says Paige, a third-grader. "They're wearing the same sweatshirt, whispering to each other, telling each other a secret."
Paige and Aarav are students in Michelle Spratt's Level 2 literacy class at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Glen Ellyn District 41. Kicking off a unit about how we function as a democracy, Spratt's class is examining the most basic building block of society -- but in a unique way.
Some students are building the relationship tree. Others are interviewing people in the school about the word "relationship." Still others are looking at different instruments to see how they're related.
"We are building their foundation for the word 'relationship,'" Spratt says. "Everything we do will be connected to that word, building a deeper understanding of it."
It's an example of an approach to education called Project-Based Learning that has taken off at Franklin and around the district over the past two years.
Such avenues for student development are a big part of why Franklin is one of just 25 schools nationwide, and the only one in Illinois, to be named an Exemplar School by an organization called Partnership for 21st Century Skills.
The group was founded in 2002 as a coalition of business leaders, educators and policymakers to promote 21st-century readiness in education. This is the first year schools have been recognized with the group's Exemplar award.
Franklin won the honor for its successful implementation of learning practices like Project-Based Learning.
Members of the partnership's site evaluation team visited Franklin in May to talk to teachers and administrators and observe instruction, basing their conclusions on criteria such as "engaged learning process" and "evidence of commitment to college and life readiness."
The group only recognizes individual schools, but in Glen Ellyn's case it also celebrated the entire district's systemic approach to education that officials said is often found only in individual charter or private schools.
"It affirms that we're moving in the right direction," Assistant Superintendent Karen Carlson says.
Through "case studies" like that at Franklin, the partnership hopes to identify key innovations and learning conditions and then spread the word to others.
"It is powerful to see the ways in which teachers and school leaders are using 21st-century learning practices to increase student achievement," says Helen Soule, the group's executive director.
In the summer of 2011, District 41 created a think tank of educators and administrators to look into the future of education in light of increasingly rigorous Common Core standards. The group recommended introducing multi-age student groups, teacher specialization and block scheduling.
Two years ago, Project-Based Learning was launched. The first project was a marketing campaign for The Bookstore in Glen Ellyn to try to appeal to intermediate students. A subsequent project centered around the emerald ash borer.
Some projects are less involving. In the case of Spratt's literacy class, students will create a product that shows their understanding of the word "relationship" and present it visually or orally.
"What we're trying to do is make things more authentic and more meaningful to kids, and also let them have more choice," says Sarah Rodriguez, a teacher at Franklin. "Our kids are becoming more independent thinkers and independent workers and collaborative with each other. It's a culture now. My kids are more comfortable presenting to an audience by fourth grade than some adults."
Rodriguez first started doing Project-Based Learning in her fourth-grade class three years ago. Franklin Principal Kirk Samples says students have grown accustomed to being autonomous in the work they do through workshop models in reading and math for the past several years.
"We're really asking kids to be able to think critically, to be able to take concepts that they have learned and apply them," Samples says. "I give the staff all the credit in the world. They have been very open to trying new things. They pick things up and run with them."
Spratt, moving around to check on small groups in her classroom, smiles while admitting the structure "can be messy."
In her 25th year at Franklin, she says teachers must be able to step out of their comfort zone.
Ultimately, there is the reward that goes beyond the Exemplar distinction.
"The kids are taking ownership of their learning, every single one of them," Spratt says. "If it's just me up there talking, I'm doing all the talking and all the thinking. When they own it, and they do it, they remember it."