Year-end projects complement traditional assessments

Some of Dr. Fenton’s former Latin students preparing for an animal sacrifice in 2018 – courtesy of Dr. Andrew Fenton

This school year, students increasingly experienced school activities and traditions in “normal” fashions. Intellectual Curiosity (IC) Day returned from a COVID-induced hiatus, the entire upper school attended in-person assemblies in Centennial Hall, and the Third and Fourth Forms returned to the dining hall for lunch. Still, many students do not experience one trademark upper school experience—final exams.

Instead of formal exams, many teachers have devised interesting projects to culminate the year, assess knowledge, and offer some fun before summer vacation. Many students are gearing up to demonstrate their learning in creative, untraditional ways.

Students in Mr. Ator’s and Mr. Fus’s geometry classes are working in hallways near windows with sightlines of the upper school building. For their project, students measure the volume of Wilson Hall. Although the classes do have a test to end the year, the project is a fun way for students to use all of their new skills.  

This project is no easy task because the building’s shape is unique. Mr. Fus and Mr. Ator hope to engage their students in an authentic project that assesses not just their mastery of content but also employs their teamwork, application, and problem-solving skills. 

“They have to use all of the skills that they’ve learned… in a unique context,” Mr. Fus said. He stresses students’ innovative thinking and said, “It’s really cool to see [the students] thinking [and coming up with] cool ideas.” 

We wanted to end the quarter with a project that still tested the students’ understanding but was a little more interesting than a ‘normal’ test.

Mr. Matt Ator

The project also helps the teachers assess thinking processes. 

“In the end I am much less interested in each group finding an accurate answer than I am in them demonstrating an ability to make a plan using the skills they learned and executing it to the best of their ability,” Mr. Ator said.

As vacation looms large in students’ minds, Mr. Fus and Mr. Ator hope that this project keeps their students interested. 

“We wanted to end the quarter with a project that still tested the students’ understanding but was a little more interesting than a ‘normal’ test,” Mr. Ator said. 

Mr. Fus said, “The end of May into June is a hard time in the year, and this year I noticed my students being fatigued… Part of that is not being used to this pace and rigor. If I tried to teach the way I usually do, they would not be as enthusiastic and interested as they are with the project.” 

Across the building and up one floor, Dr. Fenton’s Latin II* class took a break from their typical translations, grammar constructs, and Roman graffiti to dive into Roman religion, ritual sacrifice, and augury. One of the class’s final projects involves researching, organizing, and conducting an authentic Roman sacrifice ceremony (using a stuffed animal). Students must strive for authenticity in composing a prayer and reenacting a sacrifice. Then, they examine the fake entrails of the stuffed animal using a 3-D printed model of a liver to infer which deity is sending them a signal. They compile their results in a written report.  

“I always like to say it’s like a lab report…we’re doing [Roman] science here,”  Dr. Fenton said.

Although language classes, which build cumulatively, often hold final exams to assess a student’s retention, Dr. Fenton prefers to give projects. 

He said, “Projects are a lot more interesting and engaging. I particularly like projects that require students to integrate the Latin language, history, literature, and mythology, into a larger whole.” Dr. Fenton likes the sacrifice project in particular because it “requires students to compose something in Latin using some of the grammatical constructions that they’ve learned, but it also requires them to show what they learned about Roman culture, religious practice, and history.” 

Dr. Fenton also believes that projects are more engaging and educational. 

Mr. Ator instructs a group of Calculus I* students during their final project – Joey Kauffman ’23

“It’s fun to do something that’s out of your comfort zone. It is absolutely a ridiculous thing to do to be wearing togas and lighting a fire and singing songs to a Roman deity, but that’s what education is about—pushing yourself to do something that’s new and weird and outside of your comfort zone,” he said.

Sixth Formers in the honors history elective, The History of Science, Sex, and Culture, completed a final project that reflected their understanding of their course while also preparing them for the next phase of their academic careers. In Dr. Gurtler’s quarter-long elective, students study cultural constructs and debates about gender and sexuality. For their final project, the students in this class integrated their learnings into a 21st-century Parenting Manual. 

Dr. Gurtler believes that this project encourages students not only to demonstrate their understanding but also to “think about how to talk about these issues, like gender and sexuality, with people of different ages,” a task for which they must have a deep and thoughtful analysis of course content. 

She also thinks that the component of the project for which students reflect on their own upbringings is “important for seniors in particular.”

Dr. Gurtler believes that the class, as an elective course, lends itself to a project-based learning model. She also notes that “teachers know that many students lose steam by the end of the year.” In particular, keeping a class of fourth-quarter seniors interested and engaged can be a challenge. But Dr. Gurtler found that the project is a fun way to end the year and also an “easy-going way to talk about really tough issues.”