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  • Gabriel Kraemer

Rethinking Senior Project

The Senior Project room May 31 / Credits: Gabriel Kraemer

Senior Project is one of the defining elements of the Walls curriculum. In the class, which is presented as a rigorous capstone to our high school education, students gain valuable experience writing extended, college-level papers; conduct in-depth research on a topic for an entire year; and, ideally, have an opportunity to learn about and make a positive impact in an area they are interested in.

Yet this is not how seniors see Senior Project. Instead, it’s “disorganized,” “tedious,” “dragged-out,” “a waste of energy” or “mismanaged,” according to the first five people I asked. Senior Project in its current form — characterized by a lack of structure and clarity, insufficient guidance from instructors and inconsistent standards — simply doesn’t facilitate the student growth it’s supposed to.

Senior Project might meet at regularly scheduled times, but any senior will tell you it doesn’t feel like a real class. The vast majority of classes are used as work periods with little to no instruction — and, for plenty of students, little to no productivity.

There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that students have every incentive to procrastinate. For one thing, what many see as the most daunting part of Senior Project, the 15-page paper, coincides with another daunting writing project most seniors face: college essays. Moreover, lengthy periods of time go by during which students don’t have to submit substantial work on the paper or the product. Out-of-class expert interviews, the mentor search process and other secondary assignments don’t really require the weeks — even months — of class time we get for them. Later in the process, students have a full month to finalize plans for their products, and then another month before the mid-March product deadline comes on the radar. Without any accountability for progress, time is simply wasted.

Flexibility is key to Senior Project — every project is vastly different, and a demanding schedule of strictly defined assignments would hardly be conducive to students making the course their own. Still, more frequent, substantive benchmarks, especially in the fall, would keep students on track. Even simply requiring regular meetings with Senior Project teachers throughout the year to check in on progress, a requirement that already exists in March before the product is due, would put some much-needed pressure on students not to treat the course as an afterthought.

More fundamentally, though, the fact that so many students are able to procrastinate until the last minute on multiple portions of their projects and still be successful in the course suggests that an entire school year is simply too much time for Senior Project in its current form. As it is, we have almost four months to write a 15-page paper — less than a page a week, not including time spent weighing potential topics in AP Lang at the end of junior year and intended research time over the summer. We have more than a month to produce a PowerPoint presentation in the spring. And even this very generous timeline extended only to April 14 this year, leaving about two months for, so far [as of May 22], nothing at all.

The April end date is supposed to leave time for students who fail their presentations to retake them. And Jenine Pokorak, the Senior Project coordinator, said that the timeline makes sense if we “understand that writing is a process,” arguing that “whether or not we are successful in getting students to follow that [process is where] we have a lot of work still left to do.” That’s certainly a valid consideration. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t use “process” as a justification for lack of progress. Whether adding to the Senior Project curriculum, condensing its timeframe, just conceding that some Senior Project classes serve as free periods or some other solution is the best option is not up to me, but there is no getting around the fact that the current timing is problematic.

Another reason many don’t maximize the time they have is that throughout the Senior Project process, but especially during the paper stage, students suffer from a void of adequate resources for strong support. Because Senior Project teachers are selected seemingly at random — they are equally likely to be from the humanities or math or art departments — some are inevitably better equipped than others to teach what Ms. Pokorak called a study in “research and composition.”

This is not at all meant as a criticism of individual teachers — speaking from personal experience, the teachers this year have put a ton of effort into their classes and provided great advice and guidance. Ms. Pokorak noted that administrators have argued all teachers “ha[ve] had to write their own research and do their own documentation … and have been in a similar situation to the students and therefore should be able to help them.”

But it should not, as a general rule, be the responsibility of a teacher whose area of expertise has nothing to do with writing research papers to give feedback on research papers.

“When I get a physics problem from a student, I’m able to go, ‘This is the mistake they made, this is why I think they made the mistake, so here’s a comment to get them to think about how to fix that,’” said Harrison Davis, the physics teacher who teaches my Senior Project class. “It takes me a lot of time to think through that when it comes to writing — how to give good feedback. I think that’s something that the people who teach writing in this building are much better equipped to do than I am.”

Alternative supports are few and far between, and — crucially — rely on students seeking them out. Ms. Pokorak is always available for students who need help, but she said many never reach out to her, especially post-COVID. People from the GW writing center were available to give feedback on papers in December, but only for a few select days and not during class time. Expanding opportunities like that, and mandating that students receive high-quality feedback — beyond the existing requirement that we get feedback from anyone at all (parents, for instance) — would go a long way toward improving the standard of Senior Project papers.

The grading processes for stages of Senior Project also raise multiple issues. For one thing, GW’s Nashman Center still [as of May 22] has yet to return a significant share of the Senior Project papers its affiliates were supposed to grade, five entire months after it received them. Why? Because, according to Ms. Pokorak, only during the university’s winter and summer breaks will professors spend time on Walls work.

Not having those grades for most of the school year is more than “a frustrating part of the process,” as Ms. Pokorak put it. In theory, paper grades should not just serve as valuable general feedback, but should also inform students’ work on their products and presentations.

“We are exploring ways to guarantee [the delay] will not happen again,” Ms. Pokorak said. The school should keep in mind that any advantages GW graders offer are somewhat diminished if people can’t see their scores until June.

The grades themselves (if and when students do get them) reflect inconsistent standards of quality and come with varying levels of feedback. One teacher who has taught Senior Project in the past said some graders very clearly score papers more harshly than others. Moreover, some of this year’s seniors got feedback on content, and not writing; some got feedback on writing, and not content; some got only grammar edits; some, like me, got a single numerical grade and nothing else.

Ms. Pokorak said students can challenge their grades or request additional feedback, but while those are good options to have, they don’t address the fundamental problem: that those responsible for our grades, which have real consequences, are interpreting the Walls-provided rubric and instructions differently.

The presentations have just as few safeguards for ensuring equal standards. Teachers and outside experts who graded students’ presentations were given no scoring instructions beyond a one-page, ambiguous rubric, hardly providing an objective measure of performance.

Even small steps to make sure graders know how they are supposed to grade would make a big impact on consistency in scoring. Exemplars, more detailed rubrics, minimal oversight — anything to streamline what many students see as an unfair and haphazard process is welcome.

Senior Project, in spite of what some seniors may tell you, is not pointless. The experience students gain by writing the paper and the chance to do some good in the world that the product provides are not opportunities we should discount. We should simply consider whether we are approaching them the right way.


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