Painting a Portrait of the Elementary Graduate

School system creates interdisciplinary curriculum projects to build student skills.

Topics: School Culture and Climate

A handful of 10-year-olds are gathered around a green screen, organizing scripts to record public service announcements. Another group is designing an ecosystem model, Sharpies in hand to write labels and captions. Four students are giving feedback to partners on their independent reports on an endangered or threatened species. All are creating authentic projects to support conservation in Connecticut; the students read, research, write, design, and create in an effort to be difference-makers in our community. 

While it might be surprising to see fifth graders be empowered citizens, effective communicators, authentic innovators, engaged collaborators, and critical thinkers, this is what graduates look like at the elementary level in Coventry (Connecticut) Public Schools. Elementary students are working toward a districtwide vision of graduates as “empowered learners who have the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind to thrive as members of a complex society.” That official “Portrait of the Graduate” embodies the goals and dreams we have for our students, and its implementation has assisted in the redesign of learning tasks for all students, including elementary students.

There are several aspects to consider when teaching K–5 students the skills and competencies to support your vision of the graduate.

Instruction and Assessment

The Portrait of the Graduate is not just for high school students; the entire K–12 community must feel invested. From the outset, stakeholders in our effort included staff from each school, students, parents, members of the community’s public and private sectors, and administration. Together, we identified five things we wanted graduates to be: empowered citizens, effective communicators, authentic innovators, engaged collaborators, and critical thinkers.

Naysayers charged that K–5 students needed to focus on the basics—learning how to read, write, and do basic math; they said to leave our lofty aspirations for graduates to the middle and secondary levels. But for our students to attain these expectations by high school, we thought it was essential to define, explore, teach, and practice these skills from the beginning. Here’s how we did it:

Repeated instruction and exposure. We realized that we were asking a lot of young students, so we broke down each of the competencies into attributes we could teach in the context of curricular units. Students need opportunities to learn and practice these skills across a variety of contexts and subject areas throughout the year.

For example, collaboration involves flexibility, so in grades 3–5, we teach students to “value and appreciate the various ideas, opinions, and skills of all group members.” In teaching these skills across content areas, we offer repeated exposure and an opportunity for students to generalize their skills, and we also provide the opportunity for all teachers in all departments and grade levels to become invested in the Portrait of the Graduate and share ownership for teaching these skills and competencies.

Customized rubrics. To instruct and measure each of the five competencies, we developed rubrics. Each had to be tailored to match the developmental level of students in grades K–12 while maintaining the same attributes. Using resources from the EdLeader21 Network, we developed a K–12 model rubric for each competency, and each school adapted each rubric to meet the needs of its learners.

Regardless of the students’ ages, for example, the Critical Thinking rubric includes attributes of information and discovery, interpretation and analysis, reasoning, problem-​solving, construction of arguments, and self-reflection. Then, the descriptors for each of those attributes were adjusted to be developmentally appropriate. Teachers use the rubrics for a range of purposes throughout the units.

Self-reflection. Student-friendly versions of the rubrics support self-reflection and help them identify what’s expected. Students use rubrics to guide them during learning tasks, as well as to assess their own progress. The approach fosters a growth mindset, as students work on competencies throughout the year and become more adept as they go. While we are still in the beginning stages of integrating all of the rubrics across the K–12 continuum, students are already identifying how to be effective communicators and engaged collaborators. They use the rubrics to reflect on their performance and set goals for their growth.

Following Ron Berger’s Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools Through Student-Engaged Assessment, we try to put students in the driver’s seat. We offer opportunities for self-reflection such as annual student-led conferences in which students discuss their own learning and progress using rubric-scored work samples to illustrate achievement.

Piloting the Program

Once students were familiarized with the core competencies and aligned rubrics, it was time to implement interdisciplinary projects that apply the five student competencies in multiple grade levels, including the elementary grades. While designing the projects looked insurmountable at first, teachers collaborated over the first year to develop projects that incorporate our Portrait of the Graduate, ensuring meaningful, rigorous, and relevant learning for students.

In the grade 5 passage presentation example spotlighted earlier, students explored human impact on endangered and threatened species in the local ecosystem. Over the course of a year, students researched and wrote informational presentations on a chosen species such as the sand tiger shark, salamander, and bald eagle.

Next, they designed a visual ecosystem model and—in partnerships or small groups based on species—created public service announcements (PSAs) identifying the human impact on the animals, including a call to action urging people to get involved. Students shared their projects with other students, parents, and the community at large, motivated by having an authentic audience.

Here are some considerations when designing your interdisciplinary projects:

Curriculum alignment. Our curricular units are jam-packed, so we needed to alter learning blocks rather than add to their scope and sequence. We shifted grade 5’s informational writing unit to support the project, providing students with seven choices to research an endangered animal in Connecticut. The writing skills taught align with the “effective communicator” rubric and standards.

In a previous science unit, students learned how to create detailed, scientific ecosystem models, so that skill transferred easily to the new assignment. Students addressed media literacy standards through research and integrated technology standards in creating PSAs using their devices and green screen technology. 

Authenticity. Students genuinely care about conservation efforts and the impact of humans on animals. With Portrait of the Graduate, they tend to see themselves as difference-makers and are motivated to create posters, essays, and videos that they can share with their families and local wildlife organizations. We immerse students in real-world problems and ask them to develop potential solutions. 

Student agency. Students choose the endangered species they research and have access to myriad ways to share their knowledge. The project runs throughout the year to allow for group work and individual learning, and it offers students the option to showcase their work through digital media, poster projects, presentations, and written essays.

Collaboration. Any interdisciplinary project needs the support and leadership of numerous teachers. What we ask of students requires a lot of research, technology integration, and adult scaffolding to create high-quality learning. In the grade 5 project, teachers get significant professional development time to meet with K–12 literacy, technology, and library media specialists, among others, and these specialists join teachers in classrooms to collaborate on specialized student learning.

By collaborating with each other and investing in group outcomes, reasoning effectively to solve problems, learning to communicate effectively, engaging as empowered citizens, and demonstrating the ability to persevere in the face of real-world challenges, our elementary students get a jump-start on developing the skills that can help them lead successful lives after graduation. And our Portrait of the Graduate is the North Star of that work.

Michele Mullaly is director of Teaching and Learning for Coventry Public Schools in Coventry, Connecticut.

Jennifer DeRagon is principal of George Hersey Robertson Intermediate School in Coventry, Connecticut.