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Senioritis -- or an Opportunity for Growth?

Dr. Lori Desautels

Assistant Professor in the College of Education Butler University
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Walking into the kitchen, she spots the community college acceptance letter on top of a stack of mail. Early in December, the Marine Corps notifies him that basic training starts in six months. She's dreamed about attending her mom's alma mater for the last few years, and admissions has responded positively. The auto shop where he's had an afterschool job since junior year has just promised full-time employment beginning two weeks after graduation.

Now what?

This question concerns me as an educator of K-12 and higher education.

The Genius in All of Us

Whether talking with seniors and staff at public high schools or greeting undergraduates in my college courses, the response is always the same: "Yes, Dr. Lori, the last part of my senior year was a waste! It didn’t matter what or how I did. Even if the colleges told me I had to keep up my grades, they rarely check!" Year after year in many public high schools, seniors in their second semester subconsciously take four months off, becoming increasingly bored, restless and unproductive. Research reports that during this period, the U.S. has the highest dropout rate of any country -- almost 40 percent. This is a national crisis.

And yet, at the district and school levels, there is something we can do to change the trajectory of this listless, apathetic and stressful period that plagues many adolescents preparing for one of the most monumental independent shifts in their lives. The change calls for collaboration and engagement. I cannot imagine anything more significant than equipping our young adults with knowledge of their strengths, passions, abilities and the opportunity to experience and discuss this world of future learning before it becomes a reality!

In these late adolescent years, the brain's frontal lobe is still developing based on the experiences and environment provided. This is where the sub skills of decision making, problem solving, empathy, emotional check-ins, planning and organizing are unfolding. It is imperative that educators, parents and community become aware of the high need for experiences that stimulate learning connections in the senior year of high school.

According to research by David Shenk, lecturer, filmmaker and author, we are living in a time when adaptive behaviors are critically important for success. Yes, we need the rigor of math, linguistics, science and technology, but we also desperately need to recognize and tap the creative genius of every student. In David's most recent book, The Genius in All of Us, he writes, "Limitations in achievement are not due to inadequate genetic assets, but in our ability to tap into what we already have." What does this mean for educators and students?

We now know that the environment we create and the classroom opportunities we provide are integrated and interact with the thousands of genes to produce dynamic strengths and expressions of multiple intelligences. Children develop only as their environment demands development.

Asking the Right Questions

So how do we rejuvenate passion, uncover student strengths and, most important, create a service curriculum reaching out to the community and touching our students' minds and hearts in this time of great brain growth? We begin by asking students the questions that drive them to self-reflect while listening to their own passions, strengths and interests. As educators and parents, we have the ability of integrating these questions inside everyday classes and home environments:

  • If I had all day to spend on one project or activity, what would that be?
  • What activity or skill has always intrigued me and would I want to know more about?
  • If I could choose three of my classes for next year on any topic, what would they be and why?
  • If money didn't matter and I could design my own career, what would that look like?
  • If I could design the perfect school day, what would that be?

What if we begin annually assessing strengths, passions and interests during freshman or sophomore year using surveys, rating scales and anecdotal notes? What if we incorporate and track these assessments just as we do with end-of-course assessments and AP tests, recording and revisiting this data each semester? What if we began grouping students according to their interests and passions, meeting three times a year in student-led collaborations where second-semester professional learning plans begin to develop?

What if these professional learning plans called upon the community, bringing in guest speakers from civic organizations, businesses, vocational schools and various institutes? What could we learn and apply from listening to the abbreviated seminars with time set aside for questions and discussion two days a week? What if students learned to deeply research their topics of interest, integrating Common Core ELA and math standards, embedding the history and needs of the organizations and businesses, and finding ways to propagate outcomes and production as part of their portfolio? This could become meaningful learning in these adolescent years for students driven by a personal sense of autonomy, purpose and mastery.

What if students took their ideas, studies and questions into various field experiences eight to ten hours a week during the school day, collaborating with these organizations in designing novel ways of service?

What if each student created a professional learning plan of studies and experiences with three actionable ways to improve and build upon those individual field experiences? These professional learning plans would be shared and reviewed by school boards, parents, and the actual business or organization where the student was mentored. What if students acquired hours of experience plus college or trade school credit, scholarships and recognition not only for their project outcomes, but for their effort, their oral and written presentations, and the practical application of their ideas?

Resources for an Action Plan

Below is a sample list of community organizations and specializations that call for a preparedness of "synthesizing ideas," generating a compassionate presence of service while strengthening the passions and interests -- and the innate genius of every student.

What service organizations and topics for professional learning plans can you suggest to engage our students as they battle senioritis?

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Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Reg's picture

Once more, we AGAIN advocate training students that the world revolves around them. As seniors they have largely chosen classes that interest them! But the author recommends kowtowing to their "boredom." No wonder there are so many who can't find work today. Besides the lousy economy, we train them for 12+ years that, "If you don't like something darling,, we will change it to suit you!"

Dr. Lori Desautels's picture
Dr. Lori Desautels
Assistant Professor in the College of Education Butler University

I appreciate your concern for an "entitlement" mentality... and I see this too! But I wrote this article based on research hard quantifialbe and perceptual data ... we have a disengaged and very multifaceted bright student population who are dropping the ball, not because they don't care... but because they cannot find an area in this era of standardized testing ( to math and Language) where they can connect with their strenghts , passions and creativity! Policy or no polict , right or wrong... we are not reaching this most highly diverse, talented and populous group of future world citizens... we are raising digital learners who are globally connected and in these secondary years we cannot afford not to tap into real world real life experiences where we all test the waters in professions that are so differentiated, many have not even been created and as I type these words... This is why we have to create engaged learners who are ready to learn through the multiple intelligences that are have now been researched and embraced by even large corporations and companies in what they desire from their employees!!

Carolyn Stein's picture

I teach at a Career Center where virtually ALL of their classes are because THEY chose them! However, they STILL must complete their core curriculum and still complete and pass the state testing. My constant and consistent answer to their question of "Why do we have to do this?" is "Because the ODE said so" or "Because Gov. _____ said so" This seems to satisfy them more than any other answers that I have ever tried to give them! Becoming a well-rounded student? THEY DON"T CARE! So they are an educated work force? THEY DON'T CARE! But, for some weird reason, if I have shifted the "blame" to someone else, they are ok with that?! Weird, huh?

Rosemarie Schaut's picture
Rosemarie Schaut
English, ESL and A P Literature and Composition Teacher Ridgway, PA

I teach all of the seniors (and juniors) in my district. All seniors are required to research a "question to answer" or "problem to solve" that relates to their plans beyond high school. In addition to a full, academic research paper based on multiple full works, both classic and modern, fiction and non-fiction, as well as theoretical research, and interviews with professionals, many students also conduct surveys and gather statistics. They then compose a research paper and corresponding visual (technology-based) professional presentation of their results in the auditorium, on stage, and opened to the public in which they field questions from the administration, community members and a guest of their choice who has expert knowledge of the field researched. It's "good stuff" that leaves no time or use for senioritis. If you have any questions about how students are evaluated or what their specific requirements are for the paper or presentation, contact me at

Rosemarie Schaut's picture
Rosemarie Schaut
English, ESL and A P Literature and Composition Teacher Ridgway, PA

BTW -- this is a graduation requirement of ALL seniors from Special Education students to Advanced Placement students.

Sulyn Bennett-Hennessey's picture

I too work in a Career & Tech Center. The earlier comment does not accurately summarize the article. We are not "kowtowing" to the students, but rather, attempting to tap into their strengths and interests. The Post WWII era of trained skills is not enough anymore, as our brilliant corporations have shipped many of those jobs overseas. We must help students find their gifts and foster development of all aspects of their intelligence rather than expecting that academic studies will naturally produce results. College is a viable option for many, but it is a waste of money if the students don't even know what they are good at. Why? So they can accrue debt and come out with nothing tangible? Education must evolve, just as our society is evolving. Not "we'll change it to suit you," but instead "if you figure out what you're good at, develop it."

Reg's picture

Too bad you conflate so many issues. I also have taught in Centers. You don't understand "brilliant corporations." Smart businesses have a set of skills THEY require. Jobs are shipped overseas because government taxation and regulation in US make them less profitable-- not because of students. What does it have to do with college debt? There must be a K-12 winnowing, but students need a baseline of knowledge and skills and a variety of guided experiences. The natural extension of student choice projects is stagnation where kids only pick what they are interested in, which may only develop what they are comfortable with. (Ever have a kid submit the same type of work over and over when they can??)

It's a shame so many teachers can't even find enough worthy knowledge and skills to teach their students for a semester. Colleges and technical schools both have their purposes and debt is not a necessary outcome for savvy parents-- especially with all the post WWII help these days. After 18 years, parents can't tell and help guide a child into whatever he or she would have facility with? Sad.

Your thesis is that there is no set of skills corporations need; just let students 'find their own." Great-- so where are out jobs going? See how China, Japan, Germany, etc., prepare theirs. All are rigorously prepared, then sent to the appropriate secondary schools for advanced training. It's very competitive. That's the post WWII environment we are in. Deal with the "Common Core."

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