Ambitious Projects

March 16, 2015

Dear Friends,

For those of you new to the school the 8th grade Ambitious Projects are not looming large in your minds yet.  I am going to try to bring them into focus for you in this letter.

At the Center School there has long been a tradition of Ambitious Projects (AP‘s), which are designed to follow a unit called Self Class, where 8th graders prepare to fledge from our nest. They prepare by “coming of age” so to speak. In the Jewish religion they’d have a very special rite of passage called a Bar or Bat Mitzvah at the special, age of 13.  In the Center School temple of learning, 8th graders take a Self Class, do AP‘s, write 8th grade plays, and, finally, go through a transformational graduation ceremony.  Which is just to say, at the Center School there is a unique approach to celebrating and fostering our eldest students’ growth and maturation.

So, last week the 8th grade class under the tutelage of Bob Strachota (who has taught at the Center School for decades, and wrote a wonderful book called On Their Side*) and Josie Dickson-Dulles (who has loved working with Bob and learning about his passionate approach to the inner world of the 8th grader), spruced themselves up pulled their work together to share.

What were the assignments?  Here they are in Bob’s words:

“The basic structure of the Self curriculum is that students create pieces using several modalities and then think and talk about what their work shows about them; what makes them happy, stressed, ambivalent, and so forth.  Some examples of the kinds of projects they will do: photos of their room, a sculpture showing what they are like on the inside versus the outside, cartoons based on Lynda Barry’s book 100 Dragons, a reflection on what they were like when they were younger, abstract art based on their main emotions, and journal writing.The rationale behind this work is that self-esteem and self-knowledge are often enhanced through expression, reflection, and discussion.  The Self class is an opportunity for building empathy and confidence, which are main tenets in the Center School’s overall pedagogy.  Children bring to the table only as much as they feel comfortable sharing or exploring. Over the years my students have discovered important things about themselves, as learners, as friends, as sons and daughters, as people, during the Self class. At the end of the process there is an evening exposition for Uppers and their families during which an adult is selected (such as a Center School teacher, former teacher, or other community member) to offer each student feedback on their work, and a conversation between adult and student ensues.

Directly following the Self class, they undertake an AP, designed to build on the knowledge and acceptance the students have just explored.  Emboldened by their new discoveries, students are now asked to stretch by taking on an extraordinary effort of their choosing.  This is the Projects curriculum on steroids: bigger, lasting longer, done entirely out of school with only weekly teacher check-ins.  At the conclusion, students each make a 5-minute presentation about the result of their efforts to an adult feedback panel.”

Well, this year’s results were breathtaking, all who were there that night will agree.

Edwin carved classical fruit sculptures out of soapstone.  When he talked about the process that night he reflected,  “I never got frustrated with my carving, I was peaceful with it.”  His original idea was to make a marble sculpture!  Ambitious alright… carving stone!

Sky learned how to play cello from her dad, and then on the night of the AP‘s they played Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as a duet, her dad’s cello’s strains wrapping around Sky’s in a dialogue that sang, “I love you.”   Sky said “I wanted to learn the cello, because normally I don’t stick with things, but the structure of the AP would make me!”

Tai designed and modified a school chair that he could rock back on (note: the school rules say, “4 feet on the floor.”) and be “legal.”   “One of my edges is to ask for help when I need it.  I learned to do that with this project.”  Innovation loves company!  Tai found a way to include others in his unique vision.

Margo learned contortionism, as part of her Circus arts background.  She bent herself into new challenges, with amazingly accomplished results, feeling her way to her own limits.   “I’m a teenager. I feel self conscious about my body.  That’s why I’m glad I did this project.  I could appreciate it more…. It made me feel better about myself in general.”

Andrew learned woodcarving and then made an exquisite wood sculpture of a penguin, “I found myself carving and carving and my mom came in and saw what I was doing [I was carving too much off the neck, maybe] and she said, “Is that really what you want to be doing?’ and I said ‘Yes.'”  The result?  The most penguin-ish penguin, ever.

Cassidy did a sort of “Humans of New York”  photojournalism piece, taking pictures of interesting, sometimes unknown humans and asking them to tell a story from childhood.  “I found myself taking advice from my subjects on how to do my interviews!”  Of her work, a panelist said, “You strove to make connections with others.”  And succeeded too!

Emma drew pictures to accompany interviews she did of people on the topic of what made them happy.  While she was toiling away on her project she noted, “Creativity decided to take a quick vacation right when I needed it!  I felt my project wasn’t ambitious enough for me and I’m still not completely done.”  Ah, the process of knowing oneself and desiring to be better.

Recognize yourself in any of these kids?

I must say I almost didn’t recognize them!   In a blink it seems, and they are poised and thoughtful young adults.

So proud

Charlie Spencer, Head of School
Contact Charlie: Email
Phone: 413-773-1700
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