Managing Messy Learning: Public Performances Create Private Successes


By Dafina Westbrooks

Westbrook Messy Learning 300x300Performance is the ultimate assessment. Getting Deborah Sampson to say “thigh” instead of “tie”; Thomas Jefferson to confront Ben Franklin; George Washington to get out of the bathroom; and Joseph Brant to remember to weep after he reflects on his Revolutionary War experience—all in front of the director of Outward Bound, your school’s board members, the principal from the school with which you share a building, a mom and dad who have never seen their son do anything in school, and 55 other family members, friends, and stakeholders—makes for an assessment of learning at its purest form.

Exhibition Night: Presenting Their Learning

I teach at an expeditionary learning charter school in the heart of Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and for the last two years, we’ve hosted an Exhibition Night—a night where our students present their learning to the world. These presentations are thoughtfully planned and structured so that all students are supported and can communicate their learning and present high-quality work to an authentic audience (Berger, Rugen, & Woodfin, 2014). We hold this event, during which we literally transform our school, to create spaces for students to share their final learning products from our second expedition. Expeditions are defined as “in-depth studies” in which students participate in “original research, critical thinking, and problem solving” and “build character along with academic skills” (Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, 2011)

In our 7th grade social studies class, my coteacher and I decided to challenge our students to turn their final product, which was a first-person historical fiction article from one of five perspectives present during the Revolutionary War, into a play. We took a task that was incredibly challenging to begin with and raised the rigor by requiring students to become their characters and condense a two-page article into a two-minute performance. Despite being a bit nervous, the students were up for the challenge because, all of a sudden, the Common Core State Standards came alive in a new way. Students weren’t just citing evidence from primary and secondary sources; they now had to meet performance standards. This not only piqued their interest but also transferred the ownership of learning to the students.

From First Draft to Showtime

Our students had to “find” Deborah Sampson’s voice and imagine how an unknown Haitian soldier might feel once he realizes that the world doesn’t know who he is and what he sacrificed. Throughout the process, students took the work, which was intended for a public audience, “through multiple drafts and revisions” (Berger, Rugen, & Woodfin, 2014). In our case, this meant putting on several performances of our play, which we titled “Perspective Is Everything,” for a number of different audiences, including the principal and assistant principal of the district school whose building we share and our instructional leadership team.

There was definitely panic as showtime approached because we had a most unlikely group of performers who represented a very diverse learning group. We had a group of 20 students, half of whom were students with special needs whose reading levels ranged from 2nd to 7th grade. Furthermore, we built in a question and answer session at the end of our play that demanded that our students be able explain “how the standards and targets are linked to the final product and serve as a presentation of learning” (Berger, Rugen, & Woodfin, 2014).


Differentiation for Success

Throughout our rehearsals, we had to refer back to our students’ work in order to ensure that their content knowledge was strong and they could answer questions that might be posed. This required us to continuously differentiate how students reviewed their material and even practiced their lines. Carol Ann Tomlinson put it best when she said that we should always be asking, “How do I build ladders to the good stuff?” (Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2010). As educators, we have to always be “teaching up” because we are establishing expectations for a majority of students to become creators of knowledge. And create they did! Our play was the hit of Exhibition Night, and some of most struggling and reluctant learners were the absolute stars of the play. No one in the audience could discern that the students playing George Washington and Deborah Sampson had IEPs, because we as teachers and learners never made that distinction. We simply worked through the messiness of writing and practicing a play in a week’s time and rallied our students around the fact that it would be their learning on display, and, therefore, opting out was not an option. Throughout our process we found that messy learning is effective when you

  • Encourage students to “own “ their characters or task (i.e., make it challenging)
  • Present in front of an authentic audience (i.e., make it public)
  • Include all learners (i.e., make it collaborative)
  • Involve props/costumes and believe that everyone can be successful (i.e., make it meaningful)
  • Regularly refer to the learning target/goal during instruction and subsequent revision/practice (i.e., make it active)

By night’s end, the fact that all one of my student’s father could talk about was “the Dominican Ben Franklin” proves that messy learning is the richest type of learning because it makes the longest-lasting impression for both the audience and the performer.


Dafina Westbrooks is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders class of 2014.  Dafina currently serves as the Special Needs Manager of grades K-8 at Bedford Stuyvesant New Beginnings Charter School in New York. She was recently awarded the 2015 Outstanding Special Educator Award by the National Association of Special Education Teachers. As an educational advocate, Dafina also shares her views on a wide range of topics as an Educator Voice Fellow for America Achieves New York.


Berger, R., Rugen, L., & Woodfin, L. (2014). Leaders of their own learning: Transforming schools through student-engaged assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound. (2011). Expeditionary learning core practices: A vision for improving schools. Retrieved from

Tomlinson, C. A., & Imbeau, M. B. (2010). Leading and managing a differentiated classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.