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Launching the First 8th Grade Capstone Project

Launching the First 8th Grade Capstone Project
Sophie Shulman

“Our job is not to prepare students for something; our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.” - Spencer & Julian, Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning

As students enter the 8th grade, they are ready to take more ownership of their own learning, build upon the wide range of skills they have gained thus far, and become leaders among the student body. In many ways, it’s a culmination of their time here. There are a number of exciting milestones for 8th graders in the second semester before graduation, including Media Literacy Week and the spring Outdoor Ed journey. And this year, for the first time, an 8th grade Capstone Project, which just started earlier this month.

The behind-the-scenes work to get to this point dates back nearly six years to 2017, when Head of Grades 5-8 Dave Hickman and the Upper Division faculty began a multi-year design thinking process to envision how we might design experiences in the second half of the 8th grade year that engaged the students differently. The idea of a Capstone Project arose from considering questions like, “Because we know that 8th graders look for meaningful personal experiences, how might we offer a connection between their passions and their accumulated skills?” and “Because we know students are going to need to take even more control of their learning as they move on to high school, how might we help them create and produce an independent passion project and develop advanced research skills?” The faculty’s initial work involved joining the National Capstone Consortium, a peer-to-peer organization of educators in middle and high schools across the country who offer capstone projects, and speaking to educators at other schools who had developed capstone projects specifically for 8th graders. Mark Day’s Capstone Project was initially slated to launch in the spring of 2020—but then the pandemic hit, and the next couple of years were focused on educating students in conjunction with ever-changing health and safety protocols.

Finally, on January 17, 8th graders had their first Capstone session. They learned about the goals and expectations for the Capstone Project, and also heard from Mark Day alumni who have turned their own interests and passions into an independent project of some kind. “As much as possible, we want to give students age-appropriate opportunities to drive their own learning through choice and natural interest,” says Mr. Hickman. “For the first time, they won’t be given a topic. They will be taking everything they’ve learned about learning during their time at Mark Day and applying it to a topic they choose.” Students will have a fully fleshed out topic by the end of January, conduct research in February and March, and work on product development in April. They will give their final presentations to the wider community at the end of April, which will include a Capstone Expo.

Stay tuned for more information about students’ Capstone Projects as they develop!