Several months ago, my middle school head (not the head of school) and I were shooting the breeze [shivering while walking to work, actually], and we discussed two things during that walk… my recent conference where I heard about the cool capstone project the eighth grade does at IDS, and the difficulties our school has with eighth grade retention.
Since our school goes up through ninth grade, but a lot of secondary schools also start in ninth grade, a lot of eighth graders look around and choose to opt out of our graduation year. Instead, they go off to secondary schools a year early, trying to get a leg up in a new environment, and get a head start on high school. We lose a lot of kids that really need another year of a program like ours, and we lose a lot of really talented kids, too, that we want to stay and have a great experience with us. Every division and department in the school has been asked to find ways to improve eighth grade retention, and it was on our middle school head’s mind that day. “We should have a capstone project like IDS,” I said.
He didn’t have time to talk about it that day, but he did put it on his calendar for March vacation as a topic he wanted to discuss with me. And discuss it we did, over a nice lunch at a local café. I brought index cards. Here’s my “Last Day” card, which shows a ninth grader presenting a pie chart to the whole school. If you click through, you can see the other four cards in the series (which I had to redraw from memory, because he took my originals).
The core of the idea, of course, is this image: all the students in the school should make a five-minute presentation to all 200 students and all 60 faculty. There should be a panel of reviewers, some faculty and some students, who are prepared to ask questions at the end of the presentation. The presentation should include writing a paper, creating a movie or a slideshow, some analysis of mathematical data, and some information gathered through research and actual conversations with experts.
All that takes time and energy and motivation to do. It requires visits to field sites, and awareness of maps and capabilities to e-mail and talk on the phone and talk to people in person. You have to know how to use spreadsheets and databases and how to build slide shows and create movies or podcasts. You have to know how to use a library and how to ask for help and how to speak before an audience. None of these things are impossible, but they are challenging.
Instituting this kind of capstone project might encourage a lot of next year’s ninth graders to wish they had left at the end of eighth grade… but next year’s eighth graders may change their minds and decide to stay, if they see what kinds of things will be expected of them.
I told our middle school head that the most important part of this process isn’t going to be what the kid does. It’s how he, and the teachers under his purview, prepare for this project. Because it’s all about planning first, organization second, collaboration third, and marketing a very distant fourth.
And none of us teachers here have time to work on these kinds of projects right now, one on one, with students. Especially not projects where they decide on their own topics. If they put these capstone projects on the faculty without a reorganization of our academic responsibilities, the students will fail because the teachers will fail.
I think I have to make a new set of drawings to pass on to him about how to organize the faculty to support this project.