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Volume 19, Number 2
March/April 2003

Keeping It Real

How can we transform high school so that students engage in—and not just prepare for—the "real" world?


There seems to be this perception that in order to get the most out of high school, you have to take the most AP classes, when there is actually so much more that can be learned. . . . As shut off as it seems, high school is actually the real world, if you allow it to be."

This reflection by a student at Evanston Township (Ill.) High School (ETHS) recalls John Dewey's admonition that "education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself." Too often, high school, especially senior year, seems irrelevant to students and disconnected from the "real world." Students at ETHS have made the compelling point that by treating high school as simply a time of preparation for life, the importance of senior year is diminished, especially when they have already accomplished their goal of getting early admission to college, finding a job, or enlisting in the military.

At ETHS—a racially, culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse high school with 3,200 students located just outside Chicago—we have tried to find ways to remove the artificial boundary between high school and the real world. To this end, we have developed workplace internships, included a senior project in all second-semester courses, offered an array of challenging multilevel electives in English and history, and passed a graduation requirement for the class of 2006 that requires students to select a "focus"—a three-course sequence in science, world languages, fine arts, or career pathways. One of our most successful efforts has been the invention of the Senior Studies program. Senior Studies has prompted us to reexamine not just the senior year, but the entire high school experience.

Senior Studies centers around a daily, team-taught class (2 hours, 15 minutes) that awards credit in English, history, and community service. The 60 students reflect the school's student body in terms of racial diversity and level of academic performance. The first semester is organized around thematic units—education, violence and crime, writing, community history, community activism, and the arts. During the second semester students undertake independent projects, pursuing one or more of four paths: career exploration, traditional academic research, artistic expression, or community service.

But Senior Studies is more than just an antidote for "senioritis"; it has helped us identify ways to reconceptualize all four years of high school. While ETHS, or any other high school, must devise its own ways of making high school "real" for its students, we propose six guiding principles.

Lesson #1: The classroom must become a community of learners.
We build strong and meaningful relationships among students, and between teachers and students. Senior Studies begins with an orientation unit in which we foster positive group dynamics and identify and challenge individual comfort zones. Students go outdoors for group games and problem-solving initiatives, and they learn about one another's personalities. They create personal profiles, collect personal artifacts, take a "name quiz," and react in writing to their first impressions of the course. Orientation culminates with a scavenger hunt around the city of Evanston, which requires students to work together in a diverse group, share differing perspectives, and learn essential information about our community.

Once they become a part of a supportive community, "Senior Studiers," as we call them, gain the confidence to take risks. As they formulate opinions and voice them in a variety of group settings, they are empowered to act. As one student said, "I have grown from a little girl sitting in the back of the room to an organizer of a successful fundraiser."

Lesson #2: Students need to go out into the "real world."
Experiential learning—from field trips and service-learning opportunities to career exploration internships—is integral to the program. For example, during a unit on violence and crime, students share personal experiences to deepen their understanding of the impact violence has on their classmates; they research current alternatives to traditional incarceration; they talk with police officers, public defenders, and reform advocates; and they tour and meet with inmates of Cook County's Correctional Facility. Senior Studiers consider a wide range of careers and ways of living, many for the first time. One student said, "I think the most important thing I learned was that you can do whatever you want. I don't just mean in terms of projects, but in life. I can't put my finger on exactly what gave me the impression, but I think it was the real, wide-world experiences."

Lesson #3: Students' work should be relevant to their lives.
Students must see or be shown that what they are learning is important and that the products they are creating are useful. For example, students spend three weeks examining the critical issues of education. We visit other schools, public and private, big and small, traditional and alternative; we observe classes, shadow students, and interview teachers; we watch videos about other countries, such as Germany and Japan, that have different educational systems; and we read and discuss books by Dewey, Delpit, Kozol, and other classical and cutting-edge theorists. This investigation concludes when students, in groups of three, design their ideal charter school. They "sell" their school and its philosophy at an education fair where other students, staff, and community guests serve as prospective "parents."

This task requires students to be decisionmakers as well as informed activists. As one student said, "During the education unit, we ended up discussing alternative views of education. Our charter school design project was the first time that I was forced to convert idealistic, abstract opinions into realistic proposals." To increase student engagement, we build in choice where appropriate; for instance, students might have a choice of education theorists to study or a choice of media for presenting a project. We also organize units around essential questions and assign tasks that require authentic performances.

Lesson #4: The tasks must be intellectually rigorous and relevant.
These instructional approaches help to make the learning personally relevant, but as teachers we also have some traditional, non-negotiable requirements. For instance, when designing a charter school, students must have a typed rationale that explains their philosophy and reasons for their design, a school brochure, an annotated bibliography on a few educational sources, a detailed sample unit, and a thorough lesson plan. By making explicit our expectations for quality work during the first semester, we help students internalize standards of quality that apply when they work more independently during the second semester. One student said, "First semester prepared me for the independence that I would experience. All of the small assignments [such as] personal essays and reflective letters, the outside experiences [like] community projects, and the choices that we were given made it easier for me to work independently second semester."
Lesson #5: Individual accountability is enhanced by authentic assessments.
In the second-semester project, students are required to make presentations to real audiences of parents, students, and community leaders. Some projects have included:

  • raising money and collecting school supplies for a destitute school in Liberia
  • reading the works of David Mamet and Ayn Rand and incorporating the themes into a two-person play
  • researching, designing, and hand-sewing an Elizabethan costume
  • studying the cultural ramifications of Dominican immigration in New York City
  • conducting a 100-person symposium for local leaders to address violence in our community

Some students choose to work in professional internships at, for instance, advertising agencies, architectural firms, or the Chicago Board of Trade. In all cases, students design their own projects and develop detailed proposals about what they expect to accomplish.

Students meet weekly with an instructor and a faculty mentor, and they maintain a daily journal that logs research and development. At the end of the experience, students present their work in two forms. First, they defend their work, present their products, and discuss their development at an oral defense before a small committee of eight or nine classmates, teachers, and community leaders. They also organize their own presentation for an audience of family, friends, and members of the community. In both arenas students learn from their successes and failures, and the final grade is often less important than the personal learning. One student put it this way: "I have never put so much time and energy into one project in my life. I was more passionate about my work for this class and for my presentation than I have ever been about anything."

Lesson #6: Students need feedback from a broad audience, not just teachers.
We regularly ask students to reflect on their learning by incorporating feedback from others and by making personally meaningful connections to their experiences. In addition to teacher feedback organized around rubrics, students are expected to elicit and make sense of feedback from other adults. For instance, before turning in their first-semester portfolios, they must submit a letter written by an adult (often a parent, tutor, or community leader) who has reviewed it. During the second semester they must submit a letter written by a sponsor (often from their community-service site) about their internship. They also learn to give feedback by participating in small "pods" that meet to review one another's proposals and presentations. Drawing on feedback and their own reflections, students write self-assessments to accompany their portfolios and their final independent projects. By connecting the academic and the personal, we help students make sense of what they are learning and increase the likelihood that they will take it with them for life.

Rethinking High School

When asked to redesign the senior year of high school as part of the education unit, one student vehemently objected: "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 some important lessons and shaped necessary questions about the high school experience, not just for seniors but for students of all grades. The mantra to "learn this because it will prepare you for a good job or help you get into college" no longer satisfies when students question the assumption that high school should be a relentless exercise in resumé-building and in collecting academic credits, athletic championships, and extracurricular kudos.

Reflecting on a college-admissions interview, a Senior Studies student commented, "We spent a few minutes talking about how jarring the visit to the jails was for me. The visit and my research gave me the capabilities to debate with my interviewer the effectiveness of the legal system with a confidence that could never have been possible otherwise." By transcending the artificial boundary between high school and the real world, this student found an antidote to senioritis, turning the senior year into a memorable time of academic, social, and personal achievement.

Laura Cooper is assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, David Allen is a history and Senior Studies teacher, and Steve Newman is an English and Senior Studies teacher, all at Evanston (Ill.) Township High School.

Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    M.W.Kirst.“Overcoming the High School Senior Slump:New Education Policies.” Washington, DC: Institute for Educational Leadership and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2001.

    National Commission on the High School Senior Year (final report).“Raising Our Sights: No High School Senior Left Behind.” Washington, DC: National Commission on the High School Senior Year, October 2001.

    National Commission on the High School Senior Year, 400 Maryland Ave., SW, Room 4W307, Washington, DC 20202; 202-260-7405; fax: 202-205-6688.