The Transylvania Times -

Regrettable Demise Of Graduation Project

Everyday Education


Last updated 10/14/2019 at 3:07pm

“Was that a hovercraft that just went by the window?”

“I never thought I would learn to play metal music on the mandolin.”

“My nephew absolutely loves the treehouse I built for him.”

“I hate this project.”

Over the course of my 14 years at Brevard High School, I have heard students say all these things regarding graduation projects. And to be fair, I heard the last one the most, but I’ll discuss that later.

Recently, the N.C. General Assembly has essentially outlawed the graduation project unless schools can come up with local money to provide all economically disadvantaged students with a $75 stipend to use on their projects. This is problematic for a number of reasons, but the main reason: we don’t have the money.

Of course, I have watched many students, and mentored some of them myself, who completed projects for zero dollars, especially now that the portfolio is digital. I mentored a kid learning to play the mandolin, though he learned the metal song on his own time.

There are a number of administrators, teachers, support staff and community members who have worked diligently on revising the graduation project over the years, and it was painful to watch people without firsthand, professional knowledge of the process and goals make a law without a real attempt at educating themselves before doing so.

Every single requirement and process in these projects is supported by current educational philosophy and research. The current research supports project-based learning, a growth model for student learning, allowing student choice in some learning contexts, and avoiding one time, high stakes testing.

Many people only know the broad requirements of the projects and many people have overly broad opinions, often based on a few projects gone terribly awry or terribly well. I would like to share with everyone some of these lesser-known details and lament their demise.

Long Range Planning And Organization

Transylvania County Schools required students to spend 15 hours minimum to complete their projects — they needed to spend 26 hours to get full credit in the time category. It sounds like a lot, but it’s not that bad if students take the time to review their schedules and plan accordingly. Putting in one hour a day would fulfill the time requirement in less than a month or just over a half a month to meet the minimum requirement. Only got weekends? How about spending 6 hours on three Saturdays?

We, as teachers and educators, like to talk about time management, but so often we do so regarding daily time, not monthly time, which is more appropriate for young adults who will have to complete long term tasks at home, at work, in college or in the military. The graduation project required this type of planning and helped students learn the importance of breaking large endeavors down into smaller pieces in the process.

Student Choice

I often teach juniors, and we used to discuss options for their graduation projects toward the end of their time in my English class. They were frequently shocked to realize just how wide open the possibilities really were for their projects.

As previously mentioned, students built hovercrafts and clocks, made sushi and cakes, organized fashion shows and fundraisers, and so on. One student made a flintlock rifle of such quality I’m sure it will be a family heirloom. Graduate Amarech Richmond raised more than $4,000 for Ethiopian Adoption Connection, hosted a dinner where local businesses provided raffle items and presented to the group her experience as an adopted child.

I could use up a quarter of my word requirement for this article simply listing all the projects I’ve seen. Furthermore, I have been blown away by the quality of many of them.

In her article, “The New NGSS Classroom,” Nichole Holthuis, a senior researcher at Stanford, argues that project-based learning combined with student autonomy can enhance student motivation, increase content knowledge and retention, and bolster students’ creative problem-solving abilities. We saw all of these gains in many of our students. In fact, we saw students’ pride really shine through when delivering their graduation presentations, a part of the graduation project. Sure, they complained to their friends and parents, but what do we expect? Students praising a school project in front of their friends? Surely, that would be too much to ask.

Community Connections

Finally, the graduation project presentation portion required students to create a 7-10 minute discussion of their project, outlining what they learned, how they demonstrated what they learned, and what life lessons they would take away from the project.

I have helped judge these projects for years, and I have noticed at least two absolutely wonderful things that happen every single year.

One, students dress professionally, speak articulately and clearly evince pride while talking in front of the judges, who are comprised of community members and teachers. Students stand on equal footing with members of the community, thereby engendering a positive relationship among both groups.

Second, these presentations allow our community to see a different side of our students, a side frequently obscured by social barriers on an everyday basis. So often the 24-hour news cycle focuses on the sensational, which means many stories are those of violence and heartache. Professionally dressed students discussing the capstone project of their high school careers helps our community understand just how wonderful, thoughtful and conscientious teenagers can be.

Furthermore, students had to have a mentor, and this requirement has led to some positive relationships and intergenerational learning for our students.

Finally, a question for the naysayers and supporters of this change in law: If we can agree that assessing student learning is important to know what and how much they’ve learned, and if we can agree that this learning should include content knowledge and life lessons, please propose a way of doing this other than a graduation project. Another big test? A one size fits all approach to measuring the size of the widgets kids are making?

As a testimony to the lofty ideals of this process, the legislature made this law change after our students had started their projects. Even though the requirement is no longer in place, a number of them are continuing their projects because they feel passionately about them, especially a few that focus on helping others. Graham Phillips has raised $400,000 for scholarships in the county. Other students are coaching young children and don’t want to abandon them now that the rules have changed.

Too often we hear adults say, “I wish I had learned _____ in school.” The graduation project taught so many important, life-long lessons. I can only hope we can find another, similarly effective way of measuring student success, of building bridges between our students and the community, and of allowing our students to authentically learn skills they may use for the rest of their lives.

(Tinsley teachers English and is the AIG coordinator and yearbook advisor at Brevard High School.)


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