Senior project program promotes learning as labor of love
"Senior-itis" is a familiar malady to anyone who went to high school. Finished with the classes that count and counting the days until graduation, many seniors find it hard to maintain any enthusiasm or motivation, especially in their last semester - and more so if they have been accepted early to college. Their bodies may be in school, but their minds have left the building, teachers complain.
A pilot program at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) this year offered a few seniors a taste of college independence to come - before they graduate. Instead of taking eight courses they might not need to meet graduation requirements, they could opt to complete a senior project of their choice that takes the place of four courses and counts as 10 credits. Those working on projects attend school on an alternate day schedule similar to the work/study program.
A senior project consists of three components, a journal to document progress, a 10-page minimum paper, and a 20-minute presentation at the semester's end before a five-member committee, including two chosen by the student. The project is graded on a pass/fail basis.
Katelin Medeiros. Photos by J. W. Smith
As the first students in the pilot senior project program, Katelin Medeiros and Tiffany Smalley both say the experience proved valuable in laying the groundwork for the transition from high school to college. And, in the course of doing something they really enjoyed, they learned a lot about themselves.
Although about 10 juniors expressed an interest in the pilot program when guidance director Michael McCarthy told them about it last spring, Ms. Smalley and Ms. Medeiros ended up being the only ones to see it through. Both had strong ideas in mind for their projects, which they found they had to redefine along the way - a valuable learning experience in itself.
Ms. Medeiros, a photographer, planned to focus on racial tension as experienced by Brazilians on the Island, through interviews and photographs. However, the first interview she conducted with a Brazilian woman went poorly. "It was very daunting - I had all these high expectations, and I wanted it to be really influential project, and it didn't fall that way," she admitted.
After putting the project aside for three weeks, Ms. Medeiros realized she should change direction, creating what she describes as an autobiography about her growth as artist through a visual medium. Due to her delay in getting started and the change in her project, she was given a two-week deadline to produce 50 images. Her in-school advisor, Chris Baer, technology teacher in the art, design and technology department, and his wife, Janice Baer, an outside advisor, gave her encouragement which helped her succeed.
"I've been trying to teach myself new forms of art through the project, like teaching myself to weld. I went from just photography to a 3-D medium," Ms. Medeiros said. "It's a whole new world for me, because I'm experimenting - and that's what this project is about."
Instead of writing a paper, she will write extensive captions for her photos. In addition to photographs, she has produced two-dimensional and three-dimensional artwork. Ms. Medeiros has to complete her senior project by May 24 for exhibition at the high school's Evening of the Arts. She also will have a week-long solo art show at Featherstone's Pebble Gallery, starting June 17.
Ms. Smalley's project also changed from her original plan, which proved too ambitious. In keeping with her heritage as a Wampanoag, she wanted to learn her tribe's language and become fluent enough to create a curriculum for teaching it to children.
"Once I started talking to my outside advisors, they kind of brought me back down to earth," Ms. Smalley recalled with a laugh. Realizing that learning the language would be difficult in itself, she narrowed her goal to creating a game to teach children.
Ms. Smalley knew only a few Wampanoag phrases that she had learned as a child at a tribal day camp taught by Jessie Little Doe Baird of the Mashpee Wampanoags. Ms. Baird now teaches Ms. Smalley in language classes and serves as her outside advisor, along with Tobias J. Vanderhoop, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribal Council. Ms. Smalley's in-school advisor is Spanish teacher James Powell, who has proven an asset on the subject of language acquisition.
Ms. Smalley takes a one-hour immersion class in the Wampanoag language on Mondays and gets together with other class members on Thursdays to practice speaking the language. She also practices speaking the language with others in her neighborhood.
"I'm planning on having a day when I teach and play a game with kids in my community, and I'm going to have it videotaped for my presentation," Ms. Smalley said.
In addition to their projects this semester, both seniors carried tough course loads. Ms. Medeiros takes advanced placement English, honors pre-calculus, government, and a television class. Ms. Smalley takes English, physics, calculus and Spanish. Despite their busy schedules, both young women said they would recommend the experience.
Assistant principal Stephen Nixon with Katelin Medeiros (left) and Tiffany Smalley, the pioneers of the high school's pilot senior project program.
"It's something you love to do and something you want to be doing, so you don't realize you're doing a ridiculous amount of work," Ms. Smalley said.
Ms. Medeiros agreed, adding "It was just as much work, if not more, than four classes, but I had more fun with it."
Ms. Smalley, who will attend Harvard University next fall, said the project provided a good transition into college and independence. Ms. Medeiros said her experience helped reinforce her confidence about going to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. "Through this project, I reassured myself that I can be independent and go off to a city far away, and I can actually pick up new techniques and be fine with them," she explained. "To develop my own project made it much more comfortable looking forward at what I'm about to do."
Those kinds of comments bring a smile to the face of assistant principal Stephen Nixon, who came up with the senior project idea. "That, to me, is what it's all about, getting to work on something you love - and that comes across with both of them," Mr. Nixon said.
As a former classroom teacher, he remembers all too well how difficult it was to keep senior students interested and to get them excited about something. He also is mindful of the many students who never receive recognition for their skills or talents.
"Kids can go through four years and sort of blend into the background, if they're not in a play or not on the football team or not getting the high grades," Mr. Nixon said. "This is a chance to let them be a star at something that they love."
Mr. Nixon proposed the senior project idea to the MVRHS school council, which formulated a committee chaired by Todd Sawyer and made up of parents, teachers, and students. They looked at senior project models from other schools and designed one to pilot at MVRHS this year, which Mr. Nixon presented to the MVRHS school committee last spring.
Mr. Nixon meets with the junior class next week and hopes to build up the program to five or six students next year. However, Mr. Nixon said, the program may not be for everyone, and is unlikely to be made mandatory.
After praising this year's mentors for giving their time to Ms. Smalley and Ms. Medeiros, Mr. Nixon made an appeal for more of them. "If you have a particular skill or passion to pass on to a young person, let me know," he said.