High Quality Work: Claim 1

McAuliffe scholars produce complex work that demonstrates synthesis of complex texts and sophisticated writing.

“McAuliffe prepared me for essay-writing through the iterative writing process. The amount of practice I had was vital.”
-McAuliffe Alumni, Class of 2016

At McAuliffe, our scholars articulate the depth of their learning by using their background knowledge to articulate complex ideas. Rigor, in particular, has been an area of focus over the last three plus years; as a school we have raised our expectations of what middle school scholars are capable of. We’ve worked hard to realize the belief that all scholars can get to the top of the mountain, while ensuring that the climb to the top is challenging too. We believe that cognitively rigorous work asks scholars to synthesize their own ideas with the ideas of others, to engage with challenging texts, and to transfer ideas across contexts. We also believe that scholars complete rigorous work when that work has meaning for them and when they are offered strategic supports.

Our scholars work hard to meet challenging learning targets through tasks that mirror the work of professionals. When engaged in writing, our scholars do not simply produce an assignment for a teacher;  instead,they work as journalists, science writers, and oral historians. These roles are challenging - they require the skills of adult professionals, including the ability to synthesize information and use evidence -- but they are also inspiring for our scholars. We put structures in place that enable all scholars to succeed: our increasingly curriculum-embedded HOWLs work means that scholars gain the skills necessary to be successful at challenging tasks (see Character Claim 1 for more information). Additionally, final product work has an impactful process of models, critique, and descriptive feedback. Finally, major projects are accompanied by scaffolding, including  clear task descriptions, note catchers that emphasize synthesis rather than a recounting of facts, and differentiated supports for diverse learners.

The high-quality writing that our scholars produce is a result of their own hard work and the continued growth of our instructional practices. Over the years, our teachers and coaches have collaborated  to design tasks that engage scholars in critical thinking and guide scholars to compose sophisticated writing. In particular, general and special educators have developed instructional tools that provide all of our scholars access to higher level thinking skills and supports to produce sophisticated writing. Below are two examples of expeditions that illustrate McAuliffe scholars engaging in complex work: 1) 7th Grade Hero’s Journey, 2) 8th Grade Space Expedition.

The 7th Grade Hero's Journey

The 7th grade humanities expedition, which has evolved over the last four years, combines a study of the classical hero’s journey with a project focused on interviewing local immigrants and writing narratives to capture their stories. Scholars begin by building background knowledge on the archetypal hero’s journey and closely reading many mythical allusions. During the second phase of the expedition, scholars dig deeply into the nonfiction book, Enrique’s Journey, by Sonia Nazario, about a teenager who embarks on a dangerous trip from Honduras to the United States to find his mother. Through this text, scholars trace the hero’s journey and build background knowledge about immigration. This notecatcher guides scholars’ to select evidence from a narrative and connect the evidence to the hero’s journey.  

In the final stage of the expedition, scholars shift their focus to narrative writing about local immigrants. A series of narrative writing lessons guide scholars toward their final performance task in which they apply their knowledge about the hero’s journey. Scholars conduct interviews of local immigrants. They examine immigration closer to home by composing a narrative of an immigrant who settled in our community. This expedition culminates in a public presentation of the narratives, attended by those interviewed as well as scholars’ family members. Throughout the course of this expedition, scholars synthesize the complex texts they read with real-world examples, and use evidence from both written and oral sources to build their understanding.

Over the last two years, the complexity of scholars’ final product work has improved. In particular, we created structures that supported scholars to have more open-ended, genuine interviews with their subjects, and to then use those notes to craft a narrative.  When they conducted more open-ended interviews, scholars not only learned more about their subjects; they also learned to think on their feet while gathering information from a new person and synthesize a greater quantity of information.

To the right are sample final products for the 2016 and 2017 hero’s journey expedition. The products illustrate scholars’ sophisticated writing and synthesis of texts and their understanding of the hero’s journey. We made several improvements to our reading and writing instruction from 2016 to 2017 (detailed below), which helped our scholars engage with complex learning tasks. We also saw substantial improvements to student work. For example, in the narrative about Gizely Vianna at right, you’ll see that Anton’s profile of her subtly synthesizes Gizely’s story with elements of the hero’s journey. Anton’s writing demonstrates understanding of the story of a person very different from himself and understanding of the literary structure of the hero’s journey.

From one year to the other, teachers made improvements to instruction in order to better support scholars as they grappled with multiple texts and synthesized their learning in writing. Below are examples of the instructional moves used each year and sample accompanying materials:

2015-16 Final Product

Click to view- one of four volumes

2016-17 Final Product

Click to view- one of four

Click to view

Hero’s Journey 2015-16:

  • Scholars recorded their interview and took notes.
  • Once the interview was complete, scholars listened to the recording and took notes on a structured notecatcher, which was the first step in their writing process. Here is one of our scholar’s notecatchers. Scholars struggled to use this for transcribing. The scholars felt this was constricting because the interviews take off in different directions and the graphic organizer wasn’t flexible enough. Additionally,  this structure limited the quantity of information that students had at their disposal when they went to write profiles.
  • Scholars studied a teacher-created exemplar. While this was helpful, we decided to use a student-created exemplar in 2016-17.
  • Scholars studied how the Hero’s Journey could be traced across multiple texts, including multiple genres, prompting them to transfer understanding of this literary construct to several contexts.


Hero’s Journey 2016-17:

  • We provided additional time teaching scholars to conduct effective interviews, including working with a journalist.
  • Scholars transcribed their interviews, which allowed them to use the words of their interviewees more strategically. They also used the transcript for fact-checking purposes. Transcripts served as a natural scaffold for struggling learners.
  • We improved the quality of the notecatcher. Scholars listened to the recording multiple times: first to capture questions, and then to transcribe. This process allowed students to capture more of the information gathered in the interviews in their notes. Here is one of our scholar’s notecatchers for 2016-17.
  • In addition to the teacher-created exemplar, scholars examined the previous year’s product and identified suggested improvements.
  • In 2016-17 there was sustained interaction with the interviewees: from the outset, interviewees committed to giving feedback to scholars on drafts of their narratives and to come to the culminating event to listen to scholars’ presentations of their stories and to receive a bound copy of the book.

At the end of the expedition, scholars presented their profiles to the people who they had interviewed, as well as to the McAuliffe community as a whole. Our 7th grade teachers are running this expedition again in 2017-18; the primary change this year is an increase in the quantity and rigor of the texts students are aligning to the Hero’s Journey.

8th Grade Space Expedition

Our 8th grade space expedition has become an important way to honor the legacy of our namesake, Christa McAuliffe, teacher astronaut who died during the Challenger disaster. This space expedition has evolved over the last three years in order to engage all scholars in complex scientific thinking, and to ensure that they were engaged in evidence-based writing. To this end, the rigor and interest level of the guiding questions has increased, as has the task itself to be more in line with “mirroring the work of professionals”. 

In addition to the guiding question and content shifts, the final product has shifted from a science fair threefold visual presentation to a magazine format with scientific, technical writing and a digital picture layout. By 2016-17, the product was much improved with regard to rigor, authenticity, and craftsmanship. Scholars’ writing process was more rigorous, including several rounds of critique and feedback. Teachers also used a less formulaic graphic organizer and criteria. Scholars worked with two experts who helped with improvements to craftsmanship. The first expert was a technical writer who taught scholars how to transfer their background knowledge to a magazine-like format. The second expert was a graphic designer who helped scholars develop an understanding of layout with text, visuals, captions, and title.

Below we show the progression of the Space Expedition over the last three years including guiding questions, instructional tools, student work, and final products.  In 2014-15, scholars’ research including locating and reading several sources on one topic, then create an informational display. Some scholars synthesized their findings in these displays. The 2015-26 format, a magazine article, allowed many more scholars to genuinely bring together multiple complex texts. In 2016-17, we narrowed the topic from a broad prompt about space to a more specific question, “Are We Alone?” With this narrowed focus, teachers were more able to support scholars to select genuinely complex texts and truly synthesize them.




Guiding Questions How has human desire changed our understanding of the universe and shaped our exploration of space? What is our place in the Universe? How can we use space research to improve life on Earth? Are we alone? Could life exist outside our planet? Where is there water, essential elements, or energy in the solar system?
Instructional Tools Task Card

The task card from the 2014-15 Expedition is illustrative of the focus on research, rather than the synthesis of ideas in writing.

Student notecatcher

In the 2014-15 academic year, students gathered information that answered scientific questions, but were not required to synthesize the information they learned.


Because of the increased focus on student writing in 2015-16, we created this note catcher to help scholars gather and make sense of information on their topic.

Peer Feedback Rubric

Student work showing the process  Scholars’ work improved over the course of the expedition, due to careful scaffolding, feedback from peers and teachers, and ongoing revision. Scholars moved from summaries of facts gleaned from their research to an article that pulled their research together.

 Final Products 

Final products from the last three years are showcased below. Notice the increasing complexity and authenticity from product to product starting with tri-fold displays in 2014-15, “Spinoffs” Space Magazine in 2015-16, and “Are We Alone” Space Magazine in 2016-17.

2014-2015 Visual Presentations 

During the 2014-15 school year, scholars focused most of their energy on research and relatively little on writing; instead, the produced presentation boards with key facts.

2015-2016 "Spinoff" Space Magazines

The 2015-16 school year represented a major step forward for our scholars’ work. Instead of presentation  boards, scholars produced magazine articles that synthesized the information they learned from their research and mirrored the work of professionals.

Click to view

2016-17 "Are We Alone?" Space Magazines

A narrower topic allowed scholars to create richer, more sophisticated magazine articles.

In their article, “Life on Uranus,” (Pages 2-3 in the magazine to the right) a group of students wrote, “The first consideration is the presence of liquid water. All known life needs it to survive, and it is indeed present in copious quantities on Uranus - essentially the entire planet is a gigantic ocean with up to 65%-70% water by volume. With the extreme temperatures of the planet, it seems more likely that this water would be ice, but the equally extreme atmospheric pressure keeps it liquefied.” Here they have synthesized their understanding of the requirements for life with the scientific information they gathered about Uranus to create a fluent sentence with the tone of a science article.


Click to view

As the space expedition evolved, scholars increasingly did the real, complex work of science writers, pulling together information from multiple sources to create a final product that demonstrates evidence-based understanding of their topic.

In each of the examples above and increasingly throughout our curriculum, we find that when scholars are asked to do the authentic work of professionals, and are guided to meet professional standards, they create high quality work that demonstrates complex understanding. With our 2017-18 work plan goal focused on authenticity, we look forward to continuing to deepen the quality of our scholar’s work.