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How My Senior Project Encourages Self-Motivation and Deeper Learning

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This post is by Cristina De Almeida Amaral, a Senior at High Tech High Chula Vista

As part of the graduation requirements, students at High Tech High Chula Vista must complete a Senior Project. This project is student-designed and usually reflects their intellectual interests. To successfully complete this project, seniors are given an entire day each week where we work independently, meet with teachers or mentors, and work with other students. For me, as a student currently working to complete my Senior Project, it is shaping up to be one of the biggest learning experiences in my life so far. The following are the key components that I've found to be the most essential to my success.

Interest, Inspiration, and a Beginner's Motivation

Women empowerment has been a recurring interest of mine throughout high school, so I knew that my project would include this as a focus. At the Girl Scout National Convention in 2014, I listened to women speak about how heavily modern media can impact a girl's self image. I had a project idea that I was inspired to put into action for my Girl Scout Gold Award, so when our teachers launched the Senior Project, it was clear to me what I was going to do.

I named my project the Social Media Detox, and I'm working with a mental health professional, teachers, and adolescent girls to address the mental and emotional effects of social media. The first phase included creating lesson plans that involved middle and high school girls learning about mindfulness and the teen brain, and taking time to analyze their media consumer habits. I also hosted a 12-hour all-girls lock-in, where we each pledged to disconnect from our media for the entirety of the event. The second phase included sharing my project plan and materials with teachers who wanted to cover similar content in their classrooms.

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Girls who made the media detox pledge. Photo credit: Maricarmen Garcia 

Support System

Each Senior Project has at least one component that requires students to seek mentorship, regardless of how knowledgeable we may think we are. Not only is this a humbling experience, it helps us learn how to reach out for help. For me to make effective lesson plans to address the issues teen girls encounter online and through social media, I contacted Dr. Divya Kakaiya, a psychotherapist in San Diego and nationally recognized expert in her field. Dr. Kakaiya has been working with cross cultural issues, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, women's issues, and substance abuse for the past 30 years. She connected me with her high school, undergraduate, and graduate interns, who have experience teaching girl empowerment and brain health workshops using curriculum from the handbook Full Of Ourselves. By sharing her first-hand experiences in working with the impact of media on teen girls and allowing me to learn from the information and research from her own practice, Dr. Kakaiya provided me with professional mentorship and an authentic view into how this work is active in the "real world". I also met students who are taking action on the same issue, which expanded my own network, fueling my motivation and pushing my project forward with momentum.

Finally, I was fortunate to have teachers who believed that my project was addressing an important issue that they see in their own classrooms. Mrs. Alicia Crump and Mr. Ted Cuevas allowed me to teach my workshops in their 6th period and x-block classes. Without this teacher support, my project would not have been possible.

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Girls wrote down their media pledge and place it in a plastic bag with their phones to lock them away for the night. Photo credit: Marissa Villanueva

An Opportunity for Deeper Learning and Introspection

Throughout the planning and implementation of my project, I've learned many valuable lessons. Adults often say that they could improve their time management skills and I can confidently relate to that from my Senior Project experience. It's hard to self-regulate and keep motivation up for long periods of time. For many students, it's our first time having this much freedom in a workplace. We either over-schedule our day, or allow ourselves too much free time, overestimating our time and abilities. As seniors who are about to embark on the adventures of adult life after 13 years of consistent school structure, we are lucky to have the opportunity to make these mistakes and learn from them in a supportive environment.

One of the most important lessons I've learned is that having a plan is absolutely crucial to any project. I know this is second nature to teachers who have their weeks completely planned, but for a student who is used to simply showing up to class and organizing her homework assignments, it is shocking to realize just how much time and thinking ahead it takes to organize a successful project or event. I learned this when I began to draft the outlines for my social media detox workshops. Not only did I have to think about the content that I wanted to share, I also had to keep in mind the time that I had for the class period. I had to plan, type, and print what action assignments (or "homework") I wanted students to complete. I also planned meetings with teachers, which sometimes turned into making a choice between seeing my friends at lunch or keeping a scheduled meeting. In this way, I learned what it's like to be a leader. It meant making these types of sacrifices, pushing myself with the reminder that this work was going to impact girls' lives now and in the future.

Another challenge was working with the students. We like to chat and don't always want to listen. We also take a long time to do small things, like circle up in class. Sometimes, the group discussion would get derailed because girls wanted to socialize. Often we didn't get to every activity I planned because it was hard to get everyone focused in a timely manner. These are all lessons that taught me about the flux of life and the necessity to be overly prepared, because even though you spend a ton of time preparing something cool, it usually doesn't go as planned.

As I start to think about college next year, I recognize the valuable skills I have learned that I will carry with me beyond school. My Senior Project gave me a glimpse of what the professional world holds for my future. By taking responsibility for scheduling and completing my own project, I learned about the challenge of motivation and self-discipline. I learned that with inspiration to design an interesting project, motivation to create a plan, and the structure of a support system to create accountability, every student can have a valuable introspective deeper learning experience that prepares them for life. 

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