by Lin Stone
If you have had a senior in high school, you may have noticed the annual epidemic of what is commonly referred to as “senioritis.” Primary presenting symptoms are an increase in procrastination and flagging energy between 8 am and 3 pm Monday through Friday, particularly noticeable in the spring. Complicating the situation further, if your student attends CVU, they also have been tasked with completing an independent learning project known as “Grad Challenge.”
CVU’s Grad challenge asks that students take increased responsibility for their own learning and chart a course of independent study for themselves. That navigation includes selecting an area of interest, finding a community consultant (an expert in the field to act as mentor), engaging in 20-45 hours of project work and study, and producing a well-researched paper and public presentation. This year the results of CVU’s seniors’ independent study will be shared with the community on Friday, May 18. CVU’s Grad Challenge program coordinator MaryAnne Gatos commented that this is often many students’ first steps engaging in a new and productive manner with the world outside of CVU’s walls and their family and peers. The projects chosen are as varied as are the students, and range from journeys of self-discovery – perhaps new interests or latent talents – to exploring their curiosity about the world and their relationship to it – such as engaging in service projects in the community or around the globe.
Here is a small cross section of some of the seniors’ projects from our town.
Alex Feldman wanted to learn to play a new musical instrument. Music was a big part of his life growing up and he said he wanted to keep a small part of it alive and growing still. He has played the saxophone for many years and made mention that he liked the process of learning to play an instrument best. For his Grad Challenge he wanted to learn to play a string instrument, and because “everyone plays the guitar” Feldman chose a unique and very different musical challenge. He learned to play the banjo. He linked up with a community consultant and accomplished fiddle, banjo, and mandolin player (and composer) extraordinaire, Pete Sutherland. Feldman commented that what was most rewarding about this Grad Challenge was “going from zero to banjo-playing in just 45 hours; that was amazing.” He said that what was most challenging was learning to play chords and getting his left hand to hit the right fret. Feldman said that taking lessons from a master like Sutherland made the learning curve both easy and fun because he accompanied Feldman during the lessons, and was most generous in passing on his knowledge. Feldman claims that he will take his banjo to college with him in the fall.
Lazrin Schenck wanted to do something fun that she hadn’t tried before. Her decision to learn to cook before she heads off to college and embarks on life was attractive on both counts. Last summer Schenck worked with a trained culinary chef and caterer, Frank Pace of Pace Catering (and on the staff of Healthy Living). Schenck shared that “Catering is a fast paced business and I had absolutely no training for this…Frank was a great mentor and very understanding when I made mistakes. I learned about a lot more than just the cooking; I learned about teamwork and communication and how what you do or don’t do affects everyone else down the line. I also learned to like new foods and what foods go together well. I would start by thinking I’m not sure I’m gonna try that, but then I’d take a bite and I’d think ‘Oh, I’ll have some more of that.’ I also learned to appreciate the time and care that goes into cooking. I also learned to like waitressing even after realizing how difficult it is. One of the hardest events we did was one for 140 people at Shelburne Farms; it went from noon to midnight preparing, serving, and then at the very end when you’ve been on your feet for 12 straight hours, bucking up to do dishes! I was tired, but I liked it. I’m going to waitress at Breakwaters this summer.”
Thomas Gallagher raised $2,000 for the 52 Kids Foundation and traveled to see the people and project in action as his Grad Challenge project. He said that his choice of project was the result of CVU’s class trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. “It inspired me to do more for others. I signed up the weekend I returned from the Museum. I’d been on other trips, vacation trips as a tourist, but these trips were really enlightening and amazing.
“We were in a very rural section of Uganda and there was real poverty. And I saw firsthand the good work that 52 Kids was doing. Recently John Koerner (52 Kids founder) decided to add fund cash bearing crops such as Jackfruit and mangos on a plot of farmland to help create both food and jobs. I learned about other people in the world from these experiences, and I also learned from Grad Challenge that fundraising takes a lot more time and work than you might expect (even though my parents warned me repeatedly). I had procrastinated a little with the fundraising and that made it harder later. But I learned about time management and how to ask people for support and money for projects you believe in and I found people to be very generous when I did. I think that the Holocaust trip and the Grad Challenge trip to Uganda made me very interested in studying international relations and affairs at college.
Mary Anne Gatos said Grad Challenge is a real celebration of learning. It’s always inspiring to watch students pursue a project on their own. The project encourages the development of critical life skills that all students will need after high school: self motivation and time management, in addition to developing areas of interest and learning to ask for help independently. Additionally, Gatos encourages community members that are interested in student learning to volunteer as a community panelist: “You don’t have to be an expert in a particular field; there are eight different topic areas and what you do have to be is simply interested in student learning.”