Learning that Goes Deep

Insights   23 June 2016
By Monica Snelings and Susan Stancampiano

WHAT DOES A YEAR OF LEARNING AND REFLECTION LOOK LIKE FOR A LEARNER? At the end of the school year, the learners at City Neighbors Middle School—one of three schools in a Baltimore-based charter network—conduct a thirty-minute Presentation of Learning (POL) to show just that. These presentations address challenges, successes, and much more.

We were thrilled to be invited to attend this year’s POLs by Bobbi Macdonald, founder and director of City Neighbors Schools. She told us, “These are not big productions. The learners lead, and we keep it simple.” We were curious to see how this yearly assessment of learning worked and to discover what POLs might yield for learners.

In preparation for the POL, learners create a portfolio of their work, spend time reviewing what they’ve learned, and write a series of reflections on the past year and thoughts about the year ahead. During the POL, learners present their work and reflections to their parents, faculty advisor, teachers, invited guests, and guests of the school.

Armed with three-ring binders, the learners entered the room ready to share their year’s work. The conversations that followed blew our minds. Learners voiced sincere self-assessment. This held true whether they were looking at a challenge they had faced or a big success they had achieved. The self-awareness and growth in confidence was apparent in each learner we saw.

We observed, listened, asked questions, and filled out rubrics—checking to see that these 12- and 13-year-olds addressed each aspect of the past year. We saw evidence of the learners’ deep investment in their work: they lit up as they touched on their passions and interests and expressed real honesty as they shared some of their struggles and questions.


My big lesson learned this year was to be more open-minded and get comfortable doing things that I did not want to do.

Arianna Townes

“My big lesson learned this year was to be more open-minded and get comfortable with doing things that I did not want to do,” reflected 8th grader Arianna Townes. Seventh grader Briana Baker, new to City Neighbors as of this year, stood in front of the room—sharing her first ever POL—and shared that art and music were very challenging for her. She had never attended a school that offered art or music classes before: “Singing opened me up more, and I started to become who I am.”

We were thoroughly impressed with the comfort each of the learners had in presenting to a room filled with both known and unknown adults. A feeling of safety seemed to underlie this comfort. Though they might stumble in the presentation—or in their work over the past year—they knew they would not be judged; instead, they would be supported and guided.

We were also charmed by some of the activities that the learners had engaged in over the past year. There were some standouts that had clearly made a big impact on these kids. In each of the presentations we observed, every child pointed to the same favorite: the “Real Life” game. Brianna was astonished, “I did not know bills could be so much!” And, Arianna noted, “It’s like learning while having fun!”

Each child spoke at length about a personal project—one they had planned and executed all by themselves. Bria Smith made a cookbook of 10 dessert recipes from around the world. Along with researching the history of each recipe, she proudly noted her unique twists on each. From the pictures she showed us, her baked goods were so beautiful they would impress Martha Stewart!


We were curious to hear what parents thought about POLs. The parents we spoke to believed the POLs to be instrumental to their learner’s increasing maturity and progression on the journey towards answering the question: Who am I? One parent noted that, “At City Neighbors, they find what students are passionate about and run with it.”

We also asked: What was the one thing they felt their kids would take away from their time at City Neighbors? The heart-felt and unanimous response—a firm grounding in social justice and the knowledge that “they have a voice for change.”

We came away impressed by the richness of self-discovery, as well as the depth of the relationships in the room—from advisors who really know their learners and “get them” to parents who are committed partners in learning. POLs might look like a simple process—but we saw just how deeply enriching they are for all who take part.

New resources and news on The Big Idea!


We recently announced a new R&D acceleration initiative to connect and support local communities ready to bring public, equitable, learner-centered ecosystems to life.