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Beyond January: No Senioritis for Deep Learners

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This post is by Bob Lenz, founder and chief of innovation at Envision Education

Seniors across the country are counting down the days and mentally checking out of school far ahead of graduation day.  Senioritis is taking hold!  

But does it have to be that way?

Deeper learning doesn't have to dwindle in the closing days of high school; in fact, in some schools across the country, rigorous and engaging work continues and even increases in the days and weeks before graduation.

Each year around this time, I reflect on what our students are accomplishing.  This year, more than 90 percent of our graduating seniors--who are overwhelmingly from low-income and minority communities--will be going to college.  And the work they do to get there is still going strong right now on our Envision Schools campuses.  There is no senioritis for these kids: they don't have the time!  Here's how seniors spend the last several weeks at Envision Schools and at schools working with Envision Learning Partners:

Before seniors ever walk down the aisle or throw their hats in the air, they gear up for their culminating presentation: a public defense of their College Success Portfolio (CSP).   In this presentation, students defend their best work before an audience of teachers, parents, and peers. Unless and until the work is completed, presented, defended, and (importantly) found to have met high standards, the student doesn't pass.  If a student does not pass on his first try, he leaves the room knowing what needs to improve, he reworks and revises, and he comes back to do it again in a week or two.  Teachers work with him until his work meets the standards to pass.  Critical elements of the CSP include:

  • Evidence of Academic Work: The portfolio includes the completion of tasks across all the core academic disciplines, including science, math, language arts, social studies, and world languages. In addition, students are required to produce a college-ready research paper and a multimedia product, and complete a workplace learning experience or internship. Each task is evaluated against carefully selected standards that are clear, challenging, and attainable.
  • Rubrics: The tasks and evaluation rubrics used for each task were developed with education experts at Stanford University.  These tasks are embedded into the regular curriculum rather than presented as an adjunct to other studies.  And the evaluation rubrics, which are used throughout high school, are shared with students at the start of freshman year, giving them a clear understanding of exactly what is expected of them and how they will be evaluated.
  • Reflection: As each task is completed, students write a reflection that describes both the end product and the process they used to create it. They reflect on what they've learned, what they would have done differently, and how they will apply this learning to future projects. Additionally, students must describe how they used at least two Deeper Learning outcomes to complete each task.  Examples might sound something like this:

    • "During our science project, my group got stuck on a part of the process; I collaborated productively by taking leadership of the group to help us agree on a solution and a way to move forward."

    • "I managed my project effectively by creating an action list organized by due dates, and then I checked the list and adjusted it regularly to keep myself on track."

There are (at least) two reasons the CSP model works so well:

First, much of our collective success hinges on the standards.  These are clear, selective, challenging, and attainable--and kids spend their entire four years working towards achieving them.  This means that high school really does prepare them for working hard in the future.  When alumni come back to visit, and talk to our current students, we often hear them say that completing the Portfolio Defense was more difficult than their first year of college.  This project builds both confidence and the right mindset for the coming challenges of college.

Second, the CSP successfully engages students despite the pull of "senioritis" because it makes learning relevant and deeply personal: the Portfolio Defense gives each student a forum in which to tell the unique story of their journey through high school and towards college.  It's a personal endeavor, keeping them motivated to do their best.  High school graduation is one of the most important milestones in a teenager's life: the CSP and Defense process gives their graduation meaning and depth, giving them something concrete to celebrate and be proud of.

While many seniors across the country are taking their foot off the learning pedal, our students are at work harder than ever, making sure they complete the many steps required to prepare for their defense, marking off the boxes of charts like the one in the picture below.  Each sticker or 'X' represents significant progress--real work using critical thinking, collaboration, and communication skills--towards giving their defense.Graduation Portfolio.png

This is in sharp contrast to the typical senioritis experienced by most students, who often burn out by January, much to the chagrin of their teachers.  We've all heard teachers lament about how hard it is to get seniors to focus in the springtime.  But here, well into May, the students' mental muscles are still actively preparing for college in the fall, with the students pushing themselves to achieve success.

What this whole process means is that seniors at Envision Schools and at Envision Learning Partners schools in Detroit and Hawaii, work harder in the last six weeks than they do in their entire four years of high school.  They need to, in order to be ready for the biggest moment of their education, a moment that illuminates how far they've come and where they are headed.  Deeper learning schools across the country have unique ways of engaging students in work that leads to moments like this, work that staves off senioritis and keeps kids motivated and actively learning.   

In fact, Deeper Learning just might be the four-year antidote to senioritis. 


 Photo by Envision Education.

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