Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Graduation Project: Teens Pursuing Passions

In 78 out of 115 counties in North Carolina and in several school systems throughout the United States, in order to graduate, high school seniors must pass the Graduation Project. In North Carolina, this project involves four parts:

1) An 8-10 page research paper written on an approved topic of student choice.

2) A product related to the paper that requires significant hours of work. Students find a mentor and work with that person for at least fifteen hours learning about their chosen topic and creating a product.

3) A portfolio that reflects the Graduation Project process. This portfolio includes their research paper, reflections, a description of their product, a plan for their presentation, and a ton of paperwork.

4) A presentation to a panel of community and faculty members.

The topic each seniors chooses is completely up to them. Teachers start prepping students for this during their sophomore and junior years, and then senior year, students research their chosen topic, develop a product with a mentor, and present it to a panel of five judges. The topic chosen has to be a “learning stretch” for the student. For example, if a student has danced since the age of four, that student can’t choose ballet as their topic, but he/she could study choreography. Some students choose to develop a product based on career choice. But others choose something they’ve always wanted to try, but never had time to.

I’ve had the fortunate pleasure to interact with students through this process. I edit tons of research papers, discuss with them their topic choices, monitor rooms and halls as they present their senior product. It’s a lot of work for anyone involved, and you may think,” Why bother?” Why not just study the literature classics and write a paper on that?

Read on. I’ll think you’ll get your answer.

Here are some examples of what my students have chosen to study in the past:
Learning to play the piano, mixology (as in deejaying), tattoo artists, surfing, designing skate boards, nursing, hip hop dancing, martial arts, Marine archaeology, golf, culinary arts, training for a marathon, mask making, designing houses, welding, operating heavy equipment, dog training, photography, cake decorating,…the list is endless.

One of my students wrote and published a children’s book. One learned sign language and performed a song she learned. Another traveled to a third world nation on a mission trip as part of her senior project.

So many opportunities for students to pursue a passion that they might not have time to study. And just to give you a little more insight into this “growth process” today I bring you highlights of projects from three students, each with very different projects and with varied perspectives and experiences.




Taylor, a Varsity cheerleader and president of the National Honor Society, chose non-profit organizations as her topic. Why? “Because I wanted to open one.” For her research paper, she explored general information about non-profit organizations and then studied two specific non-profit organizations: Clothed in Love and Taylor’s Closet.

Her product? She visited Clothed in Love, helped workers set up the store, helped customers find clothes, and then used what she learned to set up her own store inside her church.

According to Taylor's website, the mission of her store,Inside Out, is to serve God, proclaiming His Word, by providing a shopping experience where teenage girls without financial means can find cute trendy clothes. Girls can come into the store and shop like any other store. They may pick out up to ten items a week to take home at no cost.

As part of her own store opening, she asked for donations of clothes and money, bought racks for display, sorted a plethora of donated clothes, and publicized the opening.

What was her favorite part? Seeing people’s reactions when they leave the shop.

Least favorite part? The sorting. "There are always ongoing donations coming in." It became routine. "Brush teeth, sort clothes."

As for anything she would change about her experience? Taylor wishes she would have done more publicity for the store.

And for the future? She has store dates (the store is open two Saturdays a month) planned through May, and then someone to take over the store when she leaves for college next year.

And if you want more information on Taylor’s experience and her store, she’s got her own website! http://insideoutjacksonville.weebly.com



Matt, a four-year Varsity soccer player, had never played an instrument. So, for his graduation project, he chose to study the banjo. Why the banjo? “I heard it one day and it sounded interesting.” For his research paper, he delved into the history of the banjo, blue grass music, Earl Scruggs, and the role musicians played in history.

For his product, Matt took banjo lessons. And practiced A LOT—at least thirty minutes a night. Then, for his presentation before a panel of five judges, he played a song he learned.

Any obstacles to overcome? According to Matt, parts of the learning process were very challenging, such as how to position his fingers. It was frustrating, and at times he wanted to quit, but he knew it would eventually pay off.

His favorite part of the project? "Learning everything. The chords, the songs…the lessons."

Least favorite: “The paperwork was stressful.”

And as for what he would change? Matt wishes there was more time to learn.
Currently, he still takes banjo lessons—he’s learning Earl Scruggs’ material now—and he wants to pick up the guitar next. And his grandmother is teaching him how to play the piano.

So, for Matt, someone who had never touched an instrument before this year, it seems the graduation project has sparked a passion for music.

And finally, I interviewed our very own Lynsay. You know her as one of our SPIES, but thanks to the graduation project, she is also a quilting extraordinaire!



Why quilting? “I can’t draw or paint and have always been amazed by people who can. So this (quilting) was a way for me to be creative.” Lynsay researched the history of quilting and it’s role in various eras. “I didn’t realize it (quilting) had such a prominent place in major time periods.”


And for her product, she studied under someone who had worked in a sewing plant. Her mentor taught her how to cut out fabric and put squares together so that Lynsay could continue practicing her new craft at home. For Lynsay, the sewing techniques were difficult to pick up at first, there was a lot of wondering, “Am I ever going to get this? There was a lot of sticking myself.”


Favorite part of the project? Presenting it (to the panel of community members). Telling other people about it.

Least favorite part? All the paperwork that needed to be signed. (Agent A note: mentors, parents, and teachers have to sign off on LOTS of forms)







Lynsay's growth process!



Like anything, the graduation project has its pros and cons. Some people feel it infringes too much on the current English curriculum (whereas it ties directly in). For the students and teachers, at least at my school, it involves a ton of work. And not every student gains the same result. For some students, it’s a hoop they have to jump through, and they put forth only what they have to. But even for the ones that drag their feet through the process, they still get an opportunity to study something they may never have gotten a chance to do, maybe a closet passion. And in the process, many students gain public speaking and interviewing skills—skills that will definitely be helpful to them in their futures.

And it is a growth process. Students spend countless hours researching, learning, practicing. Along the way, they encounter various faces of adversity. Perhaps meet new people. And maybe through their own growth process, they help others to grow and change as well.

Wait. Learning, changing, growing. Overcoming obstacles. That sounds A LOT like what our protags go through. And for this little writer, the graduation project, the growth process, connections, the adversity faced...they weave a small plot line through one of my stories.

Yep. Those teens are inspiring me once again.

So, this is what some of our seniors are doing across the nation in order to graduate. Are there any high schools in your area with this requirement? What are your thoughts on it?

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