Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Combating Senioritis: How to Keep Soon-to-Graduate Students on Task

The best way to motivate seniors who’ve cut their jets is to treat them like adults.

September 14, 2004
Credit: Photodisc | Getty Images

You know the look: that gauzy and distant expression that says the body is present but the mind is miles away. Among high school seniors, it becomes increasingly pervasive in that no-man's-land between the time the last college application is filed and the day of graduation months later. Physically, they show up for school. Emotionally, they're miles away.

This fall, seniors everywhere will become afflicted with senioritis, an ailment that frustrates educators and parents -- and, perhaps surprisingly, drives the students nuts, too. They'll lose interest in their courses, let their grades drop, and even cut classes. They'll slide deeper and deeper into the dreaded senior slump.

After twelve years of school, high school seniors have switched gears and are ready for something more relevant to their lives as adults. They want a taste of what awaits them in college, at work, or in the military.

So that's what we give them at Evanston High School, in Evanston, Illinois. Our Senior Studies course, now in its seventh year, has proven to be a highly effective antidote to creeping senioritis. At the heart of the team-taught elective program is the opportunity for students to discover their personal passions and learn how their actions can have larger consequences in the local community and the world at large. The yearlong class mixes traditional studies like English and history with equal parts community service and activities, offering a nontraditional curriculum during the first semester and a chance to design and implement an independent project for their final term in high school. "We are encouraged to follow our hearts," says senior Laura Jaffe.

We begin Senior Studies by establishing some common ground among students enrolled in the course. They participate in small- and large-group activities, sharing personal profiles and artifacts and participating in a local scavenger hunt, during which they work together to learn vital information about their community.

This bonding period is critical. As students get to know and respect one another, they meld into a community of learners. Together, they develop the confidence necessary to take risks and to formulate and voice their opinions. They feel empowered to act -- an important trait as they move into the next phase of the course.

All students in the course must complete fifty hours of community service per semester. Past projects include obtaining supplies for the area's homeless, collecting and donating food for poorer residents of the community, and building a teen-oriented Web site for an upcoming election and voter-registration drive.

The classroom curriculum is organized in two- and three-week units in which readings and classroom discussions are combined with trips into the community. For example, as part of a three-week unit on education, students examine critical issues affecting K-12 schools in their community and throughout the country. They visit a variety of schools, watch videos on education in other countries, such as Germany and Japan, and read the works of leading pedagogical thinkers like John Dewey and Theodore Sizer. Groups of students then design their ideal charter school and "sell" it to the class and the community during an education fair. "It was the first time that I was forced to convert idealistic, abstract opinions into realistic proposals," says student Annie Heindel.

Students are also encouraged to engage in discussions about the self-segregation and political inequalities that exist in their community, and to compare the situation with that detailed in a book, like The Other Side of the River, the true story of the conflict between two towns -- one white and one black -- on opposite banks of Michigan's St. Joseph River. For many, this is the first time they "ever truly discussed racial issues with real depth in a classroom," as senior Mike Eisenstein puts it.

Senior Studies recognizes that the learning must be not only personally relevant but also intellectually rigorous. The first-semester assessment is a writing portfolio that includes literary analyses, college essays, narratives, persuasive essays, a résumé, and creative-writing assignments. The resulting collections, enhanced with revisions, self-reflections, and evaluative letters from adults, become the students' most comprehensive representations of writing in their academic lives.

In order to deepen the themes explored during the first semester, students read fiction and nonfiction, such as The House on Mango Street, to learn about the needs and assets of a community, Our America, to examine the power of point of view, or Hamlet, to simply read a work of art. The approach to these texts is more collegiate than in a regular high school class; instead of students reading the typical one chapter per night, followed by quizzes and tests, they complete entire books with only one or two checkpoints.

As the first semester progresses, students gain more independence and responsibility. Whether they go to service sites once a week on their own, leave school to complete a scavenger hunt in town, or simply take a day off to conduct research, students quickly realize the power of being treated like an adult.

At the start of the second semester, students begin with the toughest questions they have ever encountered: What do you want to learn? And how do you want to learn it? Before students begin their final projects in February, they must complete an approved proposal with personal and academic goals, activities, readings, intended products, a plan for service hours, and a daily schedule for fourteen weeks.

The independent projects pursue one of four paths: career exploration, traditional academic research, artistic expression, or community service. Each student meets weekly with a staff member to report on his or her progress and to solve problems. At their "oral defense," in late April, students make a formal presentation to a group of their peers, three community members, and a teacher to demonstrate the result of more than three months of work, assess their goals, and answer challenging questions. In May, they give a one-hour final "community presentation" to family, friends, classmates, administrators, and teachers.

Past projects have included organizing donations of supplies and money for a school in Liberia, serving as a teaching assistant at a local school for children with multiple disabilities, and designing and building furniture. Other students completed internships with senators, stock market traders, public-interest lawyers, and architects. One teenager organized a community antiviolence campaign, including a symposium attended by one-hundred people. His project landed him on Good Morning America.

These second-semester projects, together with readings, classroom discussions, and community building that occur throughout the year, provide students with a taste of a different type of education. When asked to redesign the school's senior year as part of the education unit, one student vehemently objected, arguing, "We can't just redesign the senior year. We need to change all four years of high school."

He was exactly right. Senior Studies has provided important lessons about the high school experience -- not just for seniors, but for students and educators of all grades.

Steve Newman, David Allen, and Shelley Gates are educators at Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Illinois. Write to

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  • 9-12 High School

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