Imagine every student at Jefferson County Public Schools starts off the year with an empty backpack — a metaphorical backpack. Over the year, students fill it with evidence of what they’ve accomplished: group projects, experiences they had in and out of the classroom, and their own retelling of learning moments.
JCPS is bringing that concept to life by giving students a virtual backpack: an online Google platform developed especially for the district. JCPS launched the Backpack of Success Skills program district-wide this fall.
Now, fifth graders, eighth graders and high school seniors must go in front of a panel of judges to defend what they learned this year by showing stand-out items in their backpack — in a format similar to a graduate school dissertation defense.
“When I first heard we were doing a presentation in front of administrators and stuff, I was kind of freaking out a little bit,” said Abdullah Al Rawi, an eighth grader at Kammerer Middle School.
When he gave his Backpack presentation last week, Abdullah dressed up, wearing a green tie. As his name was called, he brushed off his nerves and went into a small room off the middle school’s library to show the stand-out items in his backpack to two parents and his assistant principal.
Abdullah has three artifacts to show: a math project where he designed a waterpark with a friend, a picture of him at Louisville’s World Fest, and a video he made as a book report. His objective is to show that he is a resilient learner, a culturally competent citizen, an effective communicator, an emerging innovator and a productive collaborator. As he shows each item to the panel, he explains how it demonstrates those skills.
Parent Leslie Gladys says serving as a judge for this backpack defense has helped her understand the program — after her initial confusion when the district rolled it out this fall.
“I didn’t have any idea what they meant,” Gladys said. “I literally was like, ‘So they’re putting stuff in a backpack, like a physical backpack?’”
Gladys said she likes the way the Backpack program brings out a student’s personality and interests, and lets kids showcase skills that don’t always come across on paper.
“I think it’s really neat to see how different learners come across, because it’s not al[ways] the top learner that gives you the best backpack,” Gladys said.
JCPS Chief Academic Officer Carmen Coleman said that’s one point of the backpack program — which she helped develop. She said another goal is to get teachers thinking about more ways to capture student growth.
“Instead of always thinking ‘Okay, I need to test to measure this. I need a pencil-paper-multiple choice test,’ we want them to think about, ‘What would kids need to do to provide sufficient evidence that they had learned?’”
And Kammerer eighth grader Karli McCloud said the new initiative has succeeded in broadening the classroom’s focus to include more than just testing.
“Last year we would just focus on getting ready for K-PREP and now we focus on having projects ready for backpack to put in,” she said, referring to Kentucky’s statewide standardized test.
Coleman said the idea for the backpack came from a single question: what does a diploma from a JCPS high school really mean? The program tries to answer that question by asking students to make a case for their own skills.
The Backpack program is brand new, and still a work in progress. Schools are developing their own ways of implementing it. Students are figuring out how to pick the best examples of their work, and most are anxious about presenting in front of judges.
One of Abdullah Al Rawi’s classmates asked a teacher she trusted to watch her defense, for moral support, and the student shed a tear of relief after she finished.
“I didn’t expect them to be as nervous as they were,” said Gladys. “But I would see one leave and look at the next one and go, ‘It wasn’t bad.’”
Coleman said she hopes students will grow more comfortable with public speaking, with group work, and with demonstrating their content knowledge through creative projects — because those are skills students will need as adults.
“I believe that once we have fully embraced the spirit of this in every classroom, our kids will have an advantage over anyone else they come across,” Coleman said.
Abdullah passed his eighth grade defense, and can breathe a sigh of relief. Now, he and his classmates will spend their four years of high school filling their backpacks with evidence that they’re ready for life after graduation.