Senior Projects

During a recent professional development workshop in Arkansas, I met teacher Judy Bynum who approached me during a break to share how senior projects at her school motivated student effort. As she shared her story, I knew I wanted everyone possible to hear about it. So here it is:

Judy, tell me about your school and its use of senior projects.
Senior Project® is the brainchild of Carleen Osher of Medford, Oregon, who, in the 1980’s, was searching for an authentic assessment that would serve as a culmination of thirteen years of a student’s education. Hence, Senior Project was born and has proven its worth throughout the United States.

Drew Central, a rural, high-poverty school in Monticello, Arkansas, is one of only a few schools in the state of Arkansas to require seniors to do a project in order to graduate. Although it is housed in Senior English class, there is a Senior Project Director who works with the students, too. Through the process, each senior (including special education students) participates by writing a 10-page research paper on a subject he or she wishes to study; plans and executes a project guided by an adult mentor of his/her choice; organizes a portfolio of materials, forms, photographs, interviews, and other information to document the project; and presents an 8-minute oral presentation to a community board the week preceding graduation. If the board rules that the project is substandard, the student will not graduate.

What has this initiative done for our students? First, it has eradicated Senioritis—they’re too busy to be bored! Second, it has given seniors choice and voice in determining their topic, since it is entirely student-centered and student driven. Third, our seniors have shown a higher level of maturity, responsibility, time-management skills, and the more scholarly writing since our district has instituted it. Although the students may complain during the year, their heightened level s of self-confidence and pride is evident on Senior Boards Day, after presentations.

A bi-product of Senior Project is that when the business leaders of our community see our students dressed professionally and listen to them present formally, they sometimes offer these students jobs in their businesses on the spot. Grammar and presentation skills are honed during the senior years, as in no other year, in preparation for the boards. Colleges have shown strong interest in the projects and the intense study involved as well. And for some of the students, focus on a specific career during their project helped them realize a wrong career choice before expense of four years of higher education began.

Most importantly, Senior Project has made each senior feel proud of his or her accomplishment and has forged a new respect between the faculty and students. Seniors are constantly being asked by the faculty, “What is your project?” or “How’s the project coming?” Some teachers serve as mentors, with one teacher actually doing a Senior Project to show support for what students are being required to do.

Erica Hood, a Drew Central senior, adopted a South Mississippi classroom for her senior project.

Erica, what were your initial thoughts about the concept of a senior project? Did anything change in your thinking as you began exploring and working on it?

I was very unsure about it at the beginning of it. I thought it was going to make my senior year more stressful and would not amount to anything but a waste of my time. When I first began, it was still stressful trying to get everything organized. It was one of those things I had to make myself work on it. Once I actually started doing the project and people began giving money to me so freely, it completely changed the way I felt about this. This was a bigger thing than I thought it would be.

How did you arrive at the idea/focus for your project?

When I was trying to decide on a topic, I knew I wanted to do something that would actually help others. The only disaster I knew about was Katrina. I also knew I wanted to work with kids. So, one thing led to another.

Describe your project:

When I first started working on the project, my actual destination was going to be New Orleans. I wrote my paper on the psychological and emotional effects of tragedy on children. I based my information on experiences children in the New Orleans area had during the hurricane. But when I went to contact the director of departments of education in both Louisiana and Mississippi, the Mississippi director was the first to respond. He told me to get in touch with Harrison County School District, in the very southeast corner of Mississippi where the eye of the storm came through. I immediately knew they would benefit from my project.

Through their website, I contacted every principal and teacher of the school district. The first response was Mrs. Speirs from Lizania, Mississippi. She said that she had a first grade teacher who would benefit with the project, and she put us in touch. Mrs. Dana Ladner then contacted me, explained what had happened to the school in the hurricane, and came up with a supply list of her students’ classroom needs.

I went to work. First, I met with the Ministerial Alliance in Monticello, and they were extremely supportive. I created a children’s packet list of supplies and a teachers’ packet. I went around town and showed businesses the supply lists. Donations began to pour in. Within three days, I had raised over $2000.

On Thursday afternoon, I went shopping at Wal-Mart and literally cleared the shelves of school supplies. That still wasn’t enough. The next morning, accompanied by my mother, little brother, my project mentor, and the mentor’s daughter, we left at 6:00, stopping at every Wal-Mart and Office Depot on the way to buy supplies. We finally finished shopping about an hour outside of Gulfport, arriving at the school about 2:00. When I went inside, I was taken to the class, where I met the teacher and the children. They were so excited.

The teacher, Mrs. Ladner, asked the children to raise their hands if they still lived in a FEMA trailer, and over half the 30 children in the classroom did. It totally shocked me. Many of the families had not received any insurance money yet.

The children followed me outside and helped me unload the van. The amazement and thankfulness in their eyes was unbelievable. They did not know how to react to the gifts. I gave each child a sack, and had my picture taken with each of them for their journal entry. We walked back down the hall to the classroom in a line. The other classes just stared at all the packages. When I asked Mrs. Ladner why, she said that all attention had been focused on New Orleans, yet the eye of the storm had actually been in Gulfport. The city of Lizania was a rural school, not on the coast; and these children were unaccustomed to being given any help. They felt they had been forgotten.

The kids announced to the class what was in their sack. When they pulled out the new books, they immediately began reading them. That was their favorite thing. After sorting through the suppIies, Mrs. Ladner realized we had brought enough supplies to share with the whole first grade, so the three other classes were given supplies as well. I then went on bus duty with the teacher, and she showed me the FEMA trailers used for classrooms.

After the buses left, Mrs. Ladner began to tell me stories of the hurricane. Her oldest son, who had been renting a house in Gulfport, lived beside an elderly couple who refused to leave their home and drowned together in their house as a result. Her own extended family was without electricity for fifteen days. At night, she said, the windows had to be left open, and love bugs came in the windows in droves, turning the carpet completely black. Mrs. Debra Spiers, the principal, worked at another school during Katrina, and the school was turned into a homeless shelter. The first night, they had only half a Dixie cup of soda and two cookies for each person, since they were not prepared. When the hospital filled up, the ambulances started bringing the injured to the school. People were soaking wet with water or blood, having sat on rooftops for hours with broken bones. One night a girl came in with a dog and was told she could not bring the dog in there. The girl said the dog was all she had left, since her house collapsed and the dog actually found her in the rubble. The principal allowed her to bring the dog in. Later a young male came in alone. When asked where his parents were, he said they were all on the roof of their home, holding hands, when the current swept both of them away in the waters. Another family came in and said they were trying to knock a hole in the roof to get out; before they could pull the grandmother out, she was swept away. The assistant principal loaded 5-gallon buckets for gas and drove to Alabama to buy gas to power the generators. She had to take a gun, because people tried to stop her and get gas. Even the army needed their gas for emergency purposes and stopped other trucks to get it.

The teacher took us to downtown Gulfport to the Hancock Bank that had a Hurricane Katrina museum, which we toured. We could actually see pictures, a video of the hurricane, a quilt about the hurricane, and art made from debris of the storm. On the coast, it was devastating to see the plantation houses totally gone, souvenir shops gone, stairs to houses with no houses—“stairs to nowhere,” they called them. You could see people picking up old bricks to build new houses. Mrs. Ladner pointed out churches where she had worshipped as a young girl that were now replaced by a tent. Swimming pools were surrounded with a big orange net, with rusted cars in some of the pools. Cars were also scattered around here and there. Some of the beaches had debris from the storm washed up. In Bay St. Louis, it looked like a hurricane had come through only weeks ago. It was all so disturbing to see.

How would you describe what you learned in the project? Did you learn things that connect to your classroom/courses learning? Are there things you learned (skills) that you might describe as life skills?

I learned both life skills and classroom skills. In collecting the money, I had to learn to be able to approach people I do not know. Before my project, my life plan was to go to get a degree in Business Marketing. After this project, however, I now want to obtain a degree in speech pathology and language. I fell in love with the children of Mrs. Ladner’s class, and I knew then that I wanted to have a career that helped special education children who have speech problems. Although I had tossed this idea around for several weeks before the trip, I knew for certain of my career plans.

In school, I had learned about Katrina and had watched the news, so I thought I knew the ins and outs of what had happened. When I got down there, however, I was totally shocked. It was nothing like what I had imagined. It was nothing like people had said. It was horrible, after all these years. Seeing the devastation made me understand the whole aspect of the hurricane. It had not been real to me until then, and it hit me hard. I had no idea… I had assumed, like so many people, that all the hurricane areas had been cleaned up and rebuilt, but that was certainly not the case.

The trip was life-changing in many ways. It made me more grateful for what I have–my family, my house, electricity. And the town of Monticello has been so supportive in everything I asked.

What advice would you give to teachers, students, parents, who are thinking about adding projects to their school plans?

If schools decide to implement Senior Project, they need to make it important—if you don’t do it, you won’t graduate. Truthfully, I personally wish all the kids had to do a service-related project to help others, because it made me feel so good inside. And I want others to feel that happiness. It made me so happy to “give rather than to receive.” Students might get more out of the project in this way. I truly recommend Senior Project as a requirement for graduation. Seniors I know in other school districts are just required to write a standard research paper, and not even a long one at that. Drew Central builds us up and prepares us for major projects in our future lives.

Anything else you’d like to share with us?
Senior Project has made a real difference in the relationships between faculty members and students. Teachers that I used to pass and speak to in the hallway now ask about the trip, and they have been so excited for me, and have told me they are so proud of what I did. The encouragement I received from everybody was just overwhelming. It made me less stressed just to know I had made a difference in the lives of the world.

Thanks Erica for your work and for sharing it with us. Copies of my books Tapping Student Effort and Wow! Adding Pizzazz to Teaching and Learning will be donated to Mrs. Ladner’s colleagues in your honor.

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One Response to “ Senior Projects ”

  1. Lori Cingolani, SEARK Coop Science Specialist Says:

    Awsome example of students and schools making a difference!

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Steve Barkley

For the past 30 years, Steve has served as a consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. Read more…

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