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June 1, 2008
Vol. 65
No. 9

Senior Studies: Life Prep 101

At Evanston Township High School, an elective class for 12th graders brings the community into the classroom and the classroom into the community.

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High school prepared me for college; college prepared me for work. I think Senior Studies prepared me for life. It opened questions for me about privilege and race, community dynamics and economics, personal character and family structure that inform my thinking to this day.—Nate, a former student
Every year, 65 students at Evanston Township High School participate in a program called Senior Studies, a two-and-one-half-hour interdisciplinary elective for 12th graders that combines English, history, and service learning. At Evanston Township—a racially, culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse high school with 3,200 students located just outside Chicago—Senior Studies is part of our ongoing effort to remove the artificial boundary between school and the real world.

Overview of Senior Studies

Each year, we choose 65 students by lottery from the 80–90 seniors who apply to take Senior Studies. The class meets daily for the last three periods of the day. The 65 students and three teachers are grouped flexibly—on some days we all meet together; on Tuesdays and Thursdays, one-half of the students are off-site performing their community-service requirements; sometimes we split the class in half, with some of the students studying history and the others studying English. For some activities, students work in permanent small groups of five or six students.
The first semester of Senior Studies consists of a series of two- and three-week units, including Orientation, Community Activism, Local History, Writing, Education, Crime and Punishment, Identity, and The Arts. Students engage in required reading, self-selected reading, writing, research, group projects, field trips, expert panels, weekly community service, and service learning.
el2008summer newman0923-w
Photo by Matt Walsh
The Mass Pass activity assesses students' communication and problem-solving skills.
In the second semester, each student designs and implements an independent project. Inspired by some of the experiences, concepts, and people they encountered in the first semester, students transfer their passion, curiosity, and motivation into their second-semester projects. Projects usually fall under one or more of four strands: career exploration, creative expression, academic research, or service learning.
At the heart of the program is the opportunity for students to discover their true passions, determine effective ways to follow their curiosity, enhance personal responsibility in real-world situations, and gain confidence by becoming successful, self-directed learners. In Senior Studies, students keep one foot in high school while stepping with the other foot toward the next level—college, travel, the military, or the workforce.
Senior Studies is a life-altering experience. It is a way to buck senioritis and defy the notion that has been ground into your head for years—that you are too rambunctious and immature to be given freedom and independence with regard to your own academics.—Joe, a former student

Components of Success

We have found four components essential to success of Senior Studies. Each of these components is worthy of consideration for any educator striving to create relevance in the high school curriculum.

Create a Community of Learners

Our first goal is to build strong and meaningful relationships among students and between teachers and students. Senior Studies begins with an Orientation unit in which we try to foster positive group dynamics and identify and challenge individual comfort zones. Students create and share personal profiles and artifacts in groups of five. We go outdoors for two days for group games and problem-solving activities that lay the groundwork for working together throughout the year.
For example, we start with an activity called Dealing with Social Order, in which participants treat one another according to the value shown on a playing card that is held on their forehead facing out. After a few minutes of interaction, we ask everyone to line up according to what card they believe is on their forehead. In groups, we discuss the insights this exercise has provided into various groups and stereotypical treatment in high school. Then we ask all the participants to symbolically rip up their cards to illustrate the new, equal playing field that we need to establish for the rest of the year.
el2008summer newman0911-w
Photo by Matt Walsh
The opening-day activity called Dealing with Social Order helps break down stereotypes.
In an activity called the Giant Maze, a group of 15–20 students navigates through a maze constructed of duct tape on a giant tarp. There is only one continuous safe path that the group must figure out by trial and error. The only way to complete the task is for students to use one another as resources, to consider risky steps, and to determine how to gather and remember information. As we talk about this activity afterwards, we focus on the balance between exercising independent judgment and using others as resources.
During the Orientation unit, students also write about their first impressions of the course. These reflections allow them to become more self-aware and give us a chance to learn more about their unique personalities. At the end of the week, they take a name quiz on all 65 of their fellow students. The unit culminates with a scavenger hunt around Evanston, which requires students to work together as a diverse group, share differing perspectives, and learn essential information about our community.
We also use literature to help break down barriers. For example, we look at Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago (Scribner, 1997) to observe the perils and effects of living in a Chicago Housing Project. We read Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (Basic Books, 2003) to examine race relations in our society, especially Evanston. And we look at Never a City So Real (Crown Journeys, 2004) to scrutinize the complex issues of many Chicago neighborhoods. These books not only enhance our thematic units, but also enable our students to learn more about one another by exploring some thorny issues through different lenses.

Help Students Become Familiar with their Community

One of the first things we do is examine our community's assets and needs, starting with the scavenger hunt and continuing during the next couple of weeks. Students visit the Evanston Historical Society to investigate the history of their community and to research local issues, they tour local alternative schools to gather ideas for their final projects, and they go to the local jail and boot camp to evaluate our justice system.
For three of our first-semester units, we bring in experts in the field to help students grapple with the complexity of some relevant issues. For instance, during the Crime and Punishment unit, a panel of judges, lawyers, former convicts, police officers, and others help students research the position papers they must prepare on an issue surrounding crime and punishment. To inspire and assist students as they design their second-semester projects, a group of six to eight local community activists come in and tell their own stories.
The Activism and Crime and Punishment panels were two of the most interesting experiences I have ever encountered. Just by meeting with each one of the panel members I felt that I had gained a more knowledgable sense of my surrounding community in terms of its people, resources, and needs. In turn, this awareness of my community translated into a feeling of responsibility for the well-being of my environment.—Julia, a former student

Use the Community for Authentic Assessment

In addition to bringing members of the community in as experts, we also use them to authentically assess student work. During our Education unit, for example, students research a neighborhood in Chicago and then create a blueprint for a charter school that would provide a high-quality education and address the needs of that community. As the culmination of this three-week unit, students present their school designs (complete with brochures, visuals, and a comprehensive curriculum plan) to a group of 25–30 critical friends, typically including local school administrators, designers of charter schools, and evaluators of charter school proposals in Chicago.
We also use community members as resources for our students' second-semester independent projects. In December, each group of five or six students meets with three community members who look at their project proposals. In April, those same community members return to evaluate the final products. Students receive both feedback and support; more important, they learn the value of reaching out to external resources for guidance.

Encourage Active Participation in the Community

Service learning is a significant component of Senior Studies. Students learn the differences among community service, service learning, and activism, and they discuss the merits of each.
  • Community service is providing service to a defined population (for example, working for Habitat for Humanity).
  • Service learning is reflecting on that service and learning more about the causes, effects, and status of that defined population or program (for example, researching causes of homelessness).
  • Activism is taking action to address the needs of that population and offer more long-term solutions (for example, creating a Web site to encourage others to contact their state legislators about the need for affordable housing).
Thus, students learn that although community service can benefit others, increasing awareness and implementing longer-term solutions can yield even larger benefits.
All students are required to complete 50 hours of community service each semester. During the first semester, students meet one-half of this requirement through weekly service rotations during Senior Studies period on Tuesday or Thursday. The students are responsible for completing the other half of the hours on their own.
After exploring potential service sites during the first two weeks of the class, students mark their top three choices on a list. (They may also propose a site not on the list.) Service options include tutoring at local schools, assisting students in a school for students with multiple disabilities, visiting the elderly at a nursing home, and working at a battered-women's shelter. Each site can accommodate up to eight student volunteers. During the semester, students also work in groups to create a service project involving their weekly service sites.
In the second semester, students apply all the lessons and experiences they have collected during the first semester to design and implement an independent project or internship. They also perform another 50 hours of community service on their own during this semester (usually continuing to work at their first-semester site). Second-semester projects have included
  • Generating more than $20,000 in donations for breast cancer research.
  • Raising awareness and money to start a cost-effective, nutritional farming system based on soybeans in an impoverished community in Mali.
  • Initiating an antiviolence campaign in the community, which included a 100-person symposium organized and facilitated by the student.
  • Collecting and repairing more than 70 bikes to donate to a local community center.
  • Teaching former gang members the art of monologue at a community center, culminating with a performance.
  • Implementing a dance therapy program for children with disabilities.
  • Researching the effects of music on Alzheimer's and then playing piano weekly for Alzheimer's patients. No single class in my high school career was a better preparation for the demands of college, and more importantly, the surprisingly un-class-like life after college. Senior Studies is a skillful balancing act between guidance and self-discipline. The strong focus on applying our learning to the world around us (particularly through community service) was eye opening. The class was a unique opportunity to stretch the boundaries of high school learning, challenge ourselves to learn independently, practice the invaluable skill of presenting and defending our work, and actually have fun doing it all.—Quinn, a former student

Benefits of Senior Studies

As Quinn and other former students remind us, Senior Studies has helped revamp the 12th grade at Evanston Township High School. The class has helped students develop such essential skills as initiative, personal responsibility, time management, problem solving, and adapting. But Senior Studies is more than just an antidote for senioritis. Ideally, students shouldn't have to wait until the 12th grade to receive preparation for life.
As educators, we should ask ourselves why we don't weave the elements that make Senior Studies so effective into all our classes. For our students' sake, we should establish more programs or entire schools that balance guidance and self-discipline, provide real-world experiences, allow students to master themselves and work independently, provide opportunities for students to present and defend their work to an authentic audience, and enable students to both learn from and contribute to their community.

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