The Capstone Project, loosely defined as an independent project, typically completed during junior or senior year, allowing a student to complete an in depth study or exploration of something that is meaningful to them that either isn’t included in the school’s curriculum or that allows exploration at a much deeper level. They research it, reflect on it, and then present their findings to their school community. In short, they are going to become your on campus expert on something. A much better, much longer definition is here. Each school puts their own spin on it: will it be required, opt-in, or by invitation only? Will it culminate in a research paper, a TED-style talk, or something else? Will students be assigned or will they seek out adult mentors? Will there be internal mentors, external, or both? The potential scenarios are enough to make your head spin.
My school is in its second year of a pilot capstone program. We call it the “Signature Program“, as in a culminating educational experience as unique to our students as their own signature. We have approximately 36 students (mostly seniors) participating and they apply, find their own on-campus mentor, and most of them also have off campus mentors. Sometimes we help place them, other times they already know of someone; we are constantly seeking out alumnae who might mentor. We have a program coordinator who also teaches biology here and two co-managers who monitor student blogs; I am one of the two. We also have three other faculty members who serve on our planning committee who offer invaluable insight. Our students blog to reflect on and share their journey. I created a libguide to help them get started. Last year, the library was lucky enough to host the Signature exhibition where each student set up either a poster session or a digital representation of their work and the school community came through to listen and ask questions. This year, we are planning the exhibition around reunion weekend and including sessions by notable alumnae as well, to be distributed throughout campus.
In the next few weeks, I will be working with the students to help them research and develop annotated bibliographies for their topics. I am brainstorming ways to create an internal “Mentor Marketplace” where kids can shop for mentors (alumnae and faculty alike) based on interests/skills that they might not be aware of. A math teacher who’s an avid fly fisher-woman? A science teacher who’s a certified pilot? Awesome! We can’t be bound by curricular tie-in’s in independent schools; we are working with some very dynamic individuals. I’m always looking for ways to do more for the Signature program. Last week, I attended the excellent (free!) AASL Webinar entitled, “Senior/Capstone Project: The Role of the School Librarian” (archived here for members: AASL eCOLLAB) . Many of you asked me to take good notes as you were unable to attend so here goes! I will share with you what I learned and hope that you will respond with your own thoughts and experiences.
I was surprised to learn in the Webinar that there was an actual library/capstone task force out there investigating things, looking for exemplary programs and activities, who published a formal report, the AASL Senior/Capstone Project Task Force Report. Take a look. Webinar presenters were some of the exemplary program coordinators who were recognized by the task force.
First up: Kay Wejrowski, Swan Valley High School (2013 AASL National Program of the Year). Kay described the themes that her school uses: “Leadership takes many forms” and “One person can make a difference“. All must answer a few universal questions, “How can I contribute to the world in which I live?” and “What responsibilities do individuals have to our global society?”. Her students do something that is meaningful to them, they “discover their own purpose”. Wejrowski says that the library helps them with each step of the process. They help sort and narrow topics, help them locate and sometimes purchase a specific “anchor text” for their research. They help the students locate resources outside of the school, identifying potential speakers or local organizations they might partner with. The librarians might edit the student’s research paper, help them locate visual aids for their presentations, or they might host after school work sessions to guarantee that students have adequate time and support to complete their projects. Each student chooses a mentor for their work; the librarian might be one if asked. My favorite piece of Wejrowski’s talk had to do with librarians capitalizing on their personal relationships with their students to help them find their passion. She said, “the goal is for them to grow academically and as young adults. We [as librarians] talk with them, we get to know who they are and where they are coming from.” In short, knowing our students can help us guide them towards meaningful capstone experiences. I love this.
Brenda Boyer was the next presenter. Side note: this one was my favorite. Brenda is the librarian at Kutztown Area High School in Kutztown, PA. Her presentation was entitled “Raising Rigor Through the Capstone Program” and was recognized by AASL as an award-winning collaborative effort between the school’s library and language arts department. Boyer partnered with two language arts colleagues, fully supported by their administration who secured substitutes for them while they essentially holed up for a week of 8 hour planning sessions. Their goal was to ensure that their students were college ready–that there was uniform information fluency, assessment, and preparation. They really needed that week of planning as their challenges included isolating specific information fluency skills, determining how/when to target these skills, agreeing upon formative and summative assessments, developing rubrics, developing a reflection piece, determining how to “package” content, and developing a process guide. Here’s what they came up with:
An Inquiry Process Guide (Google Doc) where all student work was recorded. They queried faculty to get a feel for “in previous years, students really needed help with ____”, they also spoke with recent graduates about their preparedness for college, and Boyer used her own previous Senior Advanced Research class experience to establish information skill needs. The school is a 1:1 school utilizing Mac Book Pros, so they knew that they wanted to choose platforms that would allow for 24/7 access. They opted to house their project in Moodle. This included all content, instruction, reflection prompts, a glossary of 200 research terms, links to Libguides and actual Libguide content boxes utilizing the API utility. They created a “Virtual Library” using a Libguide loaded with database widgets that they refer to as “Search Apps”. Their goal was to make information accessible in 2 clicks or less. They replicated much of the Moodle instruction within the Libguide as well to make it accessible wherever the student was. The Google drive was then used to house all of the students’ work, the formative evidence, information fluency skills, reflections, rubrics, etc.
The final presentation was given by Michelle Fossum, Research Teacher and Educational Leader, and Lindsay Downs, Research Teacher, of City Charter High School in Pittsburgh, PA. Theirs is unique in that their school has four dedicated “library science certified teachers” who are assigned to a cohort (grade). Each teacher loops with his/her cohort as they advance through the school so their kids get consistent research instruction from the beginning to the end of their high school career. The Capstone is a graduation requirement for each student. Theirs is a year-round school and is divided into trimesters. Each 9th and 10th grader spends a trimester with their research teacher learning the basics. They select their capstone topic as a junior and spend the year doing background research, compiling a 16+ source annotated bibliography, and complete the written component of the project. Senior year is dedicated to completing the action part of the project and presenting their findings to the community. A challenge that they faced was adjusting expectations of rigor as needed for students of differing abilities. They define rigor as being “fully engaged in a personally challenging activity that requires applying knowledge, analyzing information, evaluating situations, and/or creating projects derived from that new understanding.” While interesting, this was the least helpful presentation for me. I am a solo librarian working with students who apply for our program and while subject matter might require some adjustment of expectations of rigor (say, coaching a children’s basketball team vs. writing a novel vs. working with with graduate students at RPI on biomedical research aimed at opening the blood-brain barrier); I simply can not wrap my mind around having four dedicated research teachers to support a program.
The most helpful/doable pieces that I took from the Webinar are helping students explore topics, select, and perhaps order good ‘anchor texts’, working 1:1 with students to create annotated bibliographies, and utilizing technology to weave information literacy into the project. I am currently working on creating a Schoology page in lieu of Moodle, a Libguide loaded with widgets organized by subject, and I really like the Google doc idea. I could potentially teach a research basics course for sophomores or juniors considering Signature. I’m thinking that I could use a Google doc to meet synchronously with students for virtual reference support. It would be great to answer questions and to record our process for future reference.
If your school is considering a Capstone project, check into the Capstone Consortium (resources, Summer Summit info, etc.). Our program coordinator attended the Summer Summit last year and did some invaluable networking, not to mention the awesome ideas he brought back for enhancing our program.
Does your school already have a Capstone Program? If so, how does the library support it?