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What is an Academic Exhibition and why are eight exhibitions part of the graduation requirement at MSS?

February 9, 2021 | Abby Liu

Mustard Seed School seventh and eighth grade students complete eight Academic Exhibitions as a part of their graduation requirement. In this video, you will learn more about the value of exhibitions and what students learn. Middle School Director and incoming Head of School Abby Hall Choi interviews Dr. Jessica Smith about the music exhibition.  And they discuss how she incorporates Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles into the  project so that all students can be successful.


(:18) What are exhibitions? Why are they an important part of the learning process?

(6:55) What is the music exhibition? How does it work?

(13:22) How does Dr. Smith incorporate Universal Design for Learning principles into the set up of the music exhibition?



Ms. Hall Choi: Hi, I’m Abby Hall Hall Choi. I am the current middle school director, and in the 2021-2022 school year, I will transition to Mustard Seed School’s Head of School.

What are Academic Exhibitions? (:18)

You selected this content to learn more about Academic Exhibitions at Mustard Seed. Welcome. In education, the term exhibition refers to projects, presentations, or products through which students show what they have learned. It is often a way of demonstrating whether and to what degree students have achieved expected learning objectives. Students exhibit what they know.

At Mustard Seed School Academic Exhibitions are long term projects. They often last weeks, and sometimes student work grows over the course of months. Our exhibitions require deep inquiry, iterative drafting, and meaningful expression of understanding. Seventh and eighth grade students complete a total of eight Academic Exhibitions as part of their graduation project. Mustard Seed students have been doing long term studies and projects since pre K. And now, they get to show it all off.

In this video, I want to introduce you to Dr. Smith. Together, we will share about our exhibition program, and then we will examine in more depth the music exhibition. I am so grateful for Dr. Jessica Smith sharing her Academic Exhibition insights today. Thank you, Dr. Smith. 

Dr. Smith: My pleasure. 

Ms. Hall Choi: Dr. Smith has worked at Mustard Seed since 2008. She was our development director and then transitioned to sixth through eighth grade general music teacher and chorus director. Additionally, she is our pre K through eighth grade worship coordinator. Before she came to Mustard Seed, Dr. Smith got her doctorate of Musical Arts in vocal performance, with a minor in voice science and pedagogy. Dr. Smith has also earned her guild certification as a Feldenkrais practitioner, a method that uses neuroscience and movement as a catalyst for potent learning. 

Dr. Smith, you have been thinking about how our brains work for a while now, and in a few minutes we will hear from you about how you design the music exhibitions, with students’ brains in mind. First, let’s jump into exhibitions overall. The idea for the Academic Exhibition grows from what we know about living and adult life in a complex time. As we prepare middle school students for adulthood, Academic Exhibitions are a reflection of adult practice.

Dr. Smith: So consider how gymnasts train and prepare for a demonstration of their skills and abilities, or how a researcher presents her work in science as the oral defense of a doctoral dissertation. (I know about that.)  Obtaining a driver’s license requires demonstrating competence and operating a car, and knowing the rules of the road.

Ms. Hall Choi: As middle schoolers make their way through high school, college, and careers, they will need to continually hone their learning literacy, and life skills, the kind of 21st century skills that are challenged through exhibition work. We hear from alumni that exhibitions prepare them to manage the complex work and presentations they are expected to do in high school, college, and even after college graduation. 

Dr. Smith: Our exhibitions require a broad range of evidence for a student’s readiness and competence for many of life’s demands, including high school level work. Through the framework of exhibitions, students challenged their connection, curiosity, and risk taking. 

Ms. Hall Choi: Additionally, exhibitions allow students to practice, grow, and display 21st century skills such as their critical thinking, communication, literacy, and communication across media. Further, exhibitions draw out and demand the application of the 21st century life skills. Students must demonstrate flexibility, leadership, innovation, and productivity. Educators look to long term projects like these because of the rigor and content, and the rigor in terms of planning, self direction, and maintaining interest or stamina. 

Dr. Smith: Exhibitions put students at the center of the process. They’re given the opportunity to thoughtfully prepare and defend what they’ve learned through demonstration, conversation, and written material. This process of presenting and defending one’s work before a group of peers, parents, and teachers is tangible, interactive, and consequential. Exhibition work is full of meaning and purpose.

Ms. Hall Choi: Mustard Seed’s exhibitions span eight domains: visual arts, music, history and government, leadership and service, mathematics, science, literature and writing, and an area of Hall Choice.

Dr. Smith: Exhibitions are presented to a committee during the seventh and eighth grade school years. In each exhibition students are expected to demonstrate an understanding of essential questions, critical and creative thinking, alternate perspectives, relevance and connections. Students who are purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, strategic and goal oriented, successfully engage with and complete the exhibition. In other words, students need to show themselves to be individuals who are well prepared to do high school work and have 21st century skills.

Ms. Hall Choi: Exhibitions of students’ achievement are part of the graduation requirement. While graduation standards apply to all students, the way they present their work certainly varies according to individual interests. Teachers use rubrics to communicate the expectations that must be met in each domain.

Dr. Smith: In an exhibition, each student will perform an on demand and or a plan task, as well as present a portfolio project or artifact which shows evidence of learning in important areas. As students present their ideas and work, a committee of adults, including a family member, an advisor and teachers will view the evidence of the student’s work.  Teachers and advisors will then determine whether academic expectations have been met, or whether more work must be done before graduation can be awarded.

Exhibition Example: Music Exhibition (6:55)

Ms. Hall Choi: Let’s gain a clearer picture by looking specifically at the music exhibition. Dr. Smith, could you help us picture what the music exhibition looked like this year?

Dr. Smith: Sure. So the music exhibition was an eight-week project that seventh and eighth graders completed at the very beginning, at the top, of the school year.  For the seventh grade, this is their first exhibition so I have to keep that in mind when I’m designing it. We’ve got eighth grade students who have done four exhibitions already and seventh grade students are just starting. 

So, as I was designing the exhibition, I have to answer the question, what do musicians do? And so musicians perform and compose and create. The object becomes to design a project that really shows what student musicians do. Because our students are musicians. So they’re not writing a paper per se, they’re not doing something else, they’re not doing a historical essay–which– music history is a real thing. But what they’re doing is actually creating a project that is unique to musical study. So this year the exhibition was to create an audiobook of an Aesop’s fable. So they didn’t have to write the text, a text they got to choose a text from an Aesop’s fable, and then use a digital audio workstation called Soundtrap to create their audiobook. 

And with that audiobook they had to create a prelude–so music beforehand–the reading of the book. They had to find at least one place to create an interlude–so music in the middle, and then continuation of the book, and then a postlude at the end. And along with it included sound effects and also they had the opportunity to do some voice transformation things that are quite fun in the digital audio workstation. So as long as it worked with the fable. So, the big goal is to have some meaning– and another layer of meaning I guess– was to create also as a seventh and eighth grade, to create a website of all of our audiobooks that then younger students could go and listen to. So they’re not only doing this significant project because it’s important to do this significant project, but it also has another meaning, and it also is in some ways a service project for our school.

Ms. Hall Choi: That’s really incredible. And [it creates] another authentic audience. Not only did the musicians present to their advisory groups, then they also have another layer of presentation as well. And those authentic audiences are so pivotal and important in our development.

So Dr. Smith, how does the music exhibition invite students to incorporate the knowledge they already have and to deepen their learning?

Dr. Smith: Well music is a huge part of the curriculum at Mustard Seed School. So as you mentioned earlier, you know, that project work and the things that students are doing start in preschool. So this process of being a musician has been happening since preschool. And students perform annually at our Las Posadas Christmas Concert and at the Spring Concert, but that’s not quite enough to be an exhibition. So we already have these performances that are built in, and there’s all these wonderful things happening, students are playing these music games when they’re younger, which weaves into eventually learning to play the recorder in fourth and fifth grade, and ukulele in seventh and eighth grade. 

And there’s all these skills that are in terms of performing and creating and music literacy that are happening, as well as responding to the music that we’re hearing. Going to see performances. And then connecting to other subjects and connecting to the world around us. So, as we start to have this music exhibition students are–let me give you some examples: so this starts to get woven through like, for example, in younger grades, students are learning about ostinatos they’re learning about repeated rhythm patterns, right, and they’re doing composition with them. And they’re performing with them. You’ll hear the third grade playing though barred Orff instruments at the spring concert. 

Well fast forward to the seventh and eighth grade in this digital audio workstation. We have pre recorded loops and the ability for students to make their own loops, which are essentially these repeated ostinato patterns. So this knowledge has been growing through the curriculum, and we’re always working on musical expression, especially in chorus and then our performing on the Spring Concert. We’re working on expressing the mood and the meaning of the text. So here we have a text that they’ve chosen. They’ve chosen their fable, but now they have to think about the expression themselves in the text. 

And we know that for seventh and eighth grade students, chorus becomes an option. Some students love to sing and some students are sort of ready to move on to other things. So, we take that choral piece, and we turn it into a reading piece where students are reading with expression, And they’re looking at the mood of the story. And they’re looking at where they want to heighten the drama and where they want things to taper off, and they’re creating that through use of sound effects. They’re creating it with the way that they are composing the music, and in that way they’re either using pre recorded loops or they’re recording some of their own. 

So those are just a couple of examples of ways that this sort of weaves all the way through and becomes a pivotal project that shows knowledge that they’ve gained throughout their years.

Ms. Hall Choi: And all of the critical thinking that the students must do to weave the experiences together into this application. And this year for their audiobook. It’s really beautiful to see the entire program come together as well as the students needing to weave it all together to demonstrate their critical thinking and to practice that.

Dr. Smith: And for them to realize that they know so much. Because I think that sometimes it’s easy for us to keep working over years. But for them to have a moment to look and be like, “Wow, I have mastery of these things.” 

Ms. Hall Choi: What a thing to carry with ourselves!

Universal Design for Learning and the Music Exhibition (13:22)

So Dr. Smith, you know, we want to share with everyone else that we work so hard and so intentionally to engage learner diversity. We celebrate each child’s gifts and support each child’s challenges to develop understanding. One of the ways that we engage with all of our learner variability is through the framework Universal Design for Learning. What role did UDL play in designing the music exhibitions?

Dr. Smith: Oh, I have so loved learning about Universal Design for Learning, because in music, we are naturally, always designing for learner variability. Students have so many musical backgrounds. We have students who have only taken music at Mustard Seed School and we have students who’ve taken advantage of our after school private lesson program or have been taking lessons elsewhere. And so we have students with various levels of skill. 

And so constantly thinking about how do we meet students where they’re at and help them to move to the next level while challenging this student that has a lot of expertise and this student over here who’s maybe a little more of a beginner in this area?  So using Soundtrap as our digital audio workstation this year was really key I think in this project because the platform has pre recorded loops. You can think about pre recorded loops more like working in collage, where there’s like some sounds that are given and you’re putting them together. And then there’s also the opportunity with this project for students to create their own loops in Soundtrap, but then also we use music notation software called Noteflight. So students can work in Noteflight or students who play piano, ukulele, guitar can also record directly into their computers and put that into Soundtrap as well. 

So students who are beginners were able to sort of use this collage technique, and students who had a lot of skills had all of these other pieces that they could use. And so as I was designing it and creating the step-by-step. So each week, there would be another piece of the puzzle that they got. So it’s a huge project, but students got [it broken down] each week. This week we’re doing this. This week we’re doing this. And at the beginning they received sort of the outline of everything. 

But, as they’re getting the pieces, I gave them in video lessons, so students could move ahead a little bit. Or if students wanted to do something more complicated, there were video lessons that show them. [For example,] Here’s how you take what you’ve created a Noteflight and pull it into Soundtrap. So students who are more advanced could do one set of things, students who are less advanced still making very critical decisions, making beautiful music, creating really wonderful audiobooks, but working at the level that they have in terms of skill. So, there’s a wide, wide range of how students could show their knowledge and their learning, and create their audiobook to present to the audience. So we had clear goals and a project where everyone was able to shine with pieces that were broken down every week.

Ms. Hall Choi: And Dr. Smith I know that they were able to shine because of the way that you really thought through the design of the work and the tools that would be accessible to all students, so that everyone, no matter where we are, could express and engage with the goals of the assignment. It’s very, very well designed. Thank you Dr. Smith. 

Dr. Smith: And I think they were really proud of their work which I think was so, so important. To look back on something that was an eight week process of intense learning with homework and lots of pieces, and to have a sense of pride and a sense of accomplishment.

Ms. Hall Choi: Exactly. And that efficacy is a wonderful gift. Thank you. So we have one last question for you, Dr. Smith. What is the benefit of having a music exhibition? 

Dr. Smith: There are so many. I mean, just like the example of the gymnast at the beginning of this program. Music is a beautiful art form that we constantly are working at. And so, this is just another platform to continue working, step-by-step. Also you know we know that middle school students need large challenges. Our friend and educator Kathy Hanson–I hear her voice ringing in my ears– saying they need a project, middle school students need a project that they are not really quite sure they can do. As teachers we know they can do it and we know we’re going to design it so that they can do it. But they need to feel a little overwhelmed and like they’re not quite sure how they’re going to do it. And then they need to prove to themselves that they can do it. And that’s part of stepping into this young adulthood, 

It’s so important that they do a music exhibition because they have a goal that they’re achieving over time. They’re seeing academic rigor and music. They’re building grit and determination which musicians need so so much! I mean, I think we can say that for everything but of course I’m a music teacher, so I have to highlight it for my own academic subject!

So I think that also there’s this sense of creativity, editing, looking at your project with other people. And certainly for variability in this project students have the ability to work by themselves, or to apply to work with somebody else. And so there’s this piece of collaboration, and students looking at work with each other, and saying ‘Hey, I don’t think that quite works or let’s try this again.” 

So, as musicians we’re always practicing. And it’s not about perfection, it’s about the process and it’s about creating something beautiful. So, the music exhibition really gives students the opportunity to experience what that kind of performance is like. What it’s like to work for a long term goal, and something that you’re composing and creating. 

Ms. Hall Choi: Well, Dr. Smith, you mentioned collaboration as one option for your exhibition and I know that I always learn much more through collaboration than when I work by myself, I am so grateful for you, designing that aspect as a feature for students to choose. And I’m very grateful for your collaboration today as we roll back a little bit of the mystery or share some of the magic around our exhibition program, and how it ties into UDL and the 21st century skills.

Dr. Smith, thank you for this collaboration and for sharing your thinking. 

Dr. Smith: Thanks so much.

To learn more about Universal Design for Learning, read What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and how will it help your Mustard Seed School student?

Abby Liu

Former Director of Marketing and Communications

Abby Liu was the Director of Marketing and Communications from Sept. 2018-August 2021 and was an employee of Mustard Seed School for over 14 years. She’s the parent of two Mustard Seed School alumni. She's seen the impact of a Mustard Seed education from the early preschool days all the way up to eighth grade and beyond, and thoroughly enjoys sharing the Mustard Seed School story to this day.

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