[I've been meaning to write this post for a few weeks now, and I finally have the mindspace to clear the cobwebs and write.]
I was really blown away by our senior capstones this year. They were truly amazing. I saw students doing amazing projects that mattered to them. But most importantly, I saw kids who were ready to do so because of the four years of work that had preceded that presentation.
At its root, senior capstone at SLA is a student’s opportunity to take on the blank slate of the inquiry process and fill it with content of their own passion and creation. The basic framework as represented by the document we give to parents can be found at http://bit.ly/SLACapstone. But essentially, students have to take on a topic, idea, project of their own passion and create or do something that matters, all the while defining for themselves the way they will interact with the five core values of SLA – inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection. There is a framework for the project, and there are certain “must-haves” – a proposal, a reflective paper, an annotated bibliography of their research, but beyond that, the students really have to fill in the gaps with their own ideas.
And what I love is that it doesn’t have to be an “academic” pursuit. Not every student wants to make the project something traditionally academic, in fact many don’t. But what’s amazing is to hear them talk about how they took the topic – no matter what it is – and applied our values to it. When I sat in capstone presentations, I was struck by how our seniors really did understand how to make each of those core values – the inquiry process – part of the way they both learned and lived. For me, it doesn’t really get much better than that.
Sadly for me, I can’t see all 120 senior capstone presentations – it’s just a logistical impossibility, but this year, I sat in on about twenty presentations, and every single one was a powerful representation of who that person was. I didn’t see a single presentation that I thought didn’t represent something of importance to the student. I didn’t see any student who I thought was mailing it in. Sure, I knew that some kids had worked harder than others, but every single student had invested something significant of themselves in their project. I am always skeptical of schools who say they get 100% of everything, and so I own that my data set is incomplete and anecdotal, but still… I was incredibly impressed. Here’s some of what I saw:
- I saw Emma design a mural on our third floor, and I saw her explain how every choice was a symbolic representation of a part of her experience and belief about high school – including the part of the mural that she painted with dry erase paint so that the students who follow her can make her mural part of their experience, much as she left her mark on SLA.
- I saw DJ create a working wind tunnel so that he could test the aero dynamics of various shapes, because he’s interested in biomechanical engineering (I hope I got that right), and he wants to design vehicles (mostly airplanes) that borrow more directly from the natural world for their design.
- I saw Dennis write a 250+ page novel — and yes, we’ll have it up on Lulu soon.
- I saw Mustapha – a future elementary school teacher – talk about what it was like to form a youth basketball team and coach it, and the joy he got from learning how to coach. He is a young man who will profoundly influence young people for the next forty plus years, and his capstone was a meaningful step toward that goal.
- I saw Josh record an album of his original music – and I was lucky enough to hear him play a song live. I listened as he talked about how he used the inquiry process to learn about how to make his own music and how that process gave him the confidence he never thought he would have to do so.
I saw Newon create Liberian Inspired Beauty – her own dress company with six original dresses whose designs were inspired by her heritage. I saw her friends model her creations and I saw the confidence of a young woman as she narrated the fashion show in front of a packed room of her colleagues.
And there were so many more… and I can’t do justice to them all.
In almost every presentation I saw, kids also talked about their failures through this process. They talked about iterations of designs that didn’t work. They talked about struggle and frustration. They talked about changing tactics, and the fears that they would run out of time. And they talked about overcoming those struggles and learning from them. They talked about trying new things and pushing themselves past what they thought they were capable of. As many folks in the ed-innovation (is that a better term than ed-reform) world talk about teaching kids that it is o.k. to fail… the fail-fast and try again model… I saw first-hand how this kind of student-owned, student-designed project enabled just that. And I saw how powerful that was for our students.
And another thing I saw was, in presentation after presentation, students supporting each other, clapping for each other, crying with each other. I saw students asking amazing questions during the presentations, wanting to know more about the projects they were seeing. The students were so proud of one another, and I saw parents looking at their children with awe and wonder, seeing the incredible young adults they had become.
As I reflect on what I saw, it struck me that this is what happens after four years of engaging in this iterative process of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, reflection. Our students have a truly deep understanding of what it means to learn, create and lead. They’ve done it over and over again. I love capstone because it is our students’ opportunity to stand in front of their community and say, “This is the person I have become through my years at Science Leadership Academy.” And they were, to a person, beautiful… powerful… ready to go on to whatever comes next.
We’re not perfect, and we still want to do this better. I want to get better at cataloging digital artifacts of these capstones. Many students created them, but we don’t have a unified way of collecting them yet. I want to find a better way to do a school-wide exhibition of capstones, so that we can celebrate these works together. I want to ask students to journal through this process more than we have, but I can’t decide if that’s for the students or for us, so I don’t know that we will. I want to find a way to formally include more underclass students in the capstone presentation process, not just the juniors. Many 9th and 10th graders came on their lunch breaks, but we should make that more formalized, I think, because the underclass students would – as Larry Rosenstock says about High Tech High students – see themselves in those powerful roles. And I do want to find ways to help students to spread the work out a bit more, because as I am sure you can imagine, there was a lot more work done on many of the capstones in May than there was in December. Maybe that’s inevitable and o.k., I don’t know… and maybe SLA students have learned procrastination from at least one of the adults at SLA… maybe from the guy who has nice office in the front of the building. Sigh.
But even though I know we have more work to do as the adults who shepherd the students through this process, I’m thrilled with our evolution now three years into senior capstones. Much of that success can and should be laid directly at the feet of Roz Echols who has taken on the role of Capstone Coordinator every year, and the clarity with which students can undertake their projects is because of the framework she has put together. And that’s no mean feat – the capstone process has to have enough structure, enough signposts such that students can undertake a year-long project without getting lost along the way while also having enough flexibility and freedom to encompass the diversity of the kinds of projects I listed above and another 115 more. It is a yeoman’s task, and I am always in awe with how well Roz does it. This year, as soon as the presentations were done, I saw Roz in the library, reflecting on how the process went, talking to other teachers about their experience in mentoring students and watching presentations and already making notes about how she wants to tweak the structure for next year. Her work has been simply incredible.
But the other reason the process works is because every teacher at SLA has such a deep commitment to our core values, to those deep pathways of curriculum design and pedagogical thought so that when the time comes for the students to design their own, the students – the scholars, the activists – have so deeply lived that process for four years that they are set up to succeed, because, of course, they already have.
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