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Senior Projects: A Cure for Senioritis

By Nancy S. Gardner — October 24, 2011 6 min read
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In the early 1990s, two epiphanies changed my ideas about my teaching. First, I realized that I taught students, not English, so they should be the focus of my teaching. Second, I recognized the intellectual deaths of our seniors at the end of the first semester. When Macbeth died, they died, and the rest of the year involved what I like to think of as “gurney learning"—pushing them from one class to the next. With frustration, I realized that teachers were working much harder than the students. While the seniors were lying on the gurneys, we were struggling to push them up and down the hallways!

About this same time, I attended a professional training about the Senior Project, a concept designed by Carleen Osher in the late 1980s in Medford, Ore. My students had been writing research papers about British authors and then presenting their findings to the class, but the Senior Project idea seemed more relevant. This authentic assessment potentially had more rigor, could strengthen community connections, and best of all, was a student-driven rite of passage for all seniors, not just those in upper-level classes.

In 1993, my school (Mooresville Senior High in Mooresville, N.C.) implemented Senior Projects, and then the district adopted them. Here’s how they work. In the early weeks of their senior year, students select a topic of their choice, but it must involve a personal learning stretch that they articulate in a letter to a committee. Topic choices vary from genetics to cake decorating, from race-car aerodynamics to homelessness in Mooresville. One student built a model locomotive powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, while another held a fundraiser for breast cancer. One student studied ballroom dancing and took classes with her father, while another studied learning styles and tutored in an after-school program.

After the Senior Project committee approves a student’s topic, the senior works toward “the four Ps": paper, project, portfolio, and presentation. First, each student writes a thesis-driven research paper. The paper has a specific length and required sources, including a personal interview as well as a student-generated graph or other visual. Papers are not eligible for grading unless they competently meet minimum requirements. After the finished papers are approved, students work with a community mentor (a professional involved with the student’s topic) for at least 15 hours. They document their work with the mentor through reflective journals, photographs, podcasts, videos, or other tangible products that become part of a digital portfolio. If a student successfully completes the first three Ps, he is eligible to share his Senior Project in a fifteen-minute formal presentation before a panel of faculty and community members.

After 18 years, the Senior Project remains an essential and pivotal piece of the senior experience. It is definitely a capstone achievement, completed in its entirety during a student’s senior year, but it draws on skills students learned throughout their K-12 experiences. In other words, all Mooresville teachers teach seniors, or as a 1st grade teacher said, “I teach seniors, too. I just teach them in the process of becoming seniors.”

The Mooresville Senior Project has continued to evolve because it is not a “check-off” program of compliance, but a genuine commitment, an effort we nurture and hone each year. We get better at letting the students know our expectations, they get better at meeting those expectations, and we continue to ratchet up those expectations a little every year. When alumni return as judges, they say, “This wasn’t this hard when I was here,” to which I reply laughingly, “Ah, you see, these students are smarter than your class.”

While that isn’t quite true, there is some merit to my answer. We are preparing our students today for a very different world than the one that existed even five years ago. Advancements in technology affect everything we do, including the knowledge and skills our graduates will need to be ready for college and careers. Proficiently completing their Senior Project gives them a taste of what 21st-century expectations and work look and feel like.

About 15 years ago, we added an ethical strand, which I think of as the heart and soul of the Senior Project. Seniors and their parents sign a pledge that acknowledges their understanding that they will not graduate if they are guilty of any ethical violation in the entire process, including plagiarism (we all must teach students how to avoid this), falsifying signatures, submitting inaccurate time logs, or using someone else’s work. This addition has led to meaningful discussions about ethics, integrity, and professionalism.

What makes this project work so well is that it involves authentic experiences for graduating students. Senior Project goes far beyond the “four Ps.” Students frequently tell us of the joy of finding a new talent or interest, of the difficulties of time management during this very hectic year, of the fear factor when calling a mentor on the phone or setting up an interview, of the courtesy skills required in networking, and ultimately, of the incredible feeling of empowerment after finishing it all alongside their peers.

One of the most powerful aspects of this program is the bonding it generates: AP students are high-fiving special education students, seniors who eat lunch alone are interacting with others, and overall the students are supporting one other and celebrating their accomplishments. On graduation morning, I proudly observe the seniors as they enter the stadium, and I remind myself that they have all completed the Senior Project—whether they are first in the class or 412th.

The voyage is not just for the seniors: Many in our community are affected by discovering unexpected joys and challenges along the way. The graduates leave, but many return to serve as mentors and presentation judges, and then become parents of students who will go through the same experience. So many community stakeholders participate in the process that we develop a sense of joint ownership and pride.

One of my students once said to me, “Don’t go around telling other schools about this. It’s like spreading a flesh-eating virus.” Yes, it is. A virus that has kept me focused on the real reason I teach: I value application of their learning over teaching isolated content. Now I teach students and not just content.

The same virus has helped cure senioritis, saving teachers from gurney-pushing duty during the second semester. Yes, seniors still whine, but they whine because they are having to work, adhere to deadlines, dress professionally, keep commitments, solve problems, read and write critically, and analyze the validity of information on the Internet. Though the Senior Project was designed 20 years ago, the attitudes, skills, and knowledge embedded in it are very closely aligned to the standards in the new Common Core and to 21st-century skills. I can’t think of a more appropriate way to assess students’ mastery of these objectives.

It’s rewarding for my colleagues and me to know that we have made a lasting change in the culture of our schools and community. Recently, one of my colleagues was watching her little 3rd grader work on a project and a presentation. The student proudly told her mom, “I’m just trying to learn this now so I will be ready for my Senior Project!”


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