Teachers and staff see potential in Capstone

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While eighth-grade students at Rachel Carson Middle School are aware of the stressful effects of the new Capstone Project, some students may not realize the project is just as unfamiliar to their teachers as it is to them.

Capstone projects are most often seen in college or graduate school environments. The idea behind the long-term project is that students research a topic, but instead of writing a report on it, they turn it into a product, performance or presentation. The driving motivation behind these projects is that they are better at demonstrating learned skills than standardized testing.

Projects like these are being introduced by Fairfax County Public Schools to supplement the SOL tests. The idea behind FCPS Capstone is to work in tandem with the county’s Portrait of a Graduate, and teach skills such as creativity, communication, cooperation and critical thinking. These are skills that FCPS considers necessary in the 21st century.

How well Capstone lines up with Portrait of a Graduate will determine its success, as well as its future. “As a county, the county is looking for different ways to assess student learning,” Principal Gordon Stokes stated. “It’s a lot more complex than an SOL.”

As it is right now, Capstone is seen by many Carson staff as an idea with great promise, as well as several flaws. Both Mrs. Leslie Hanna, the Yellow Jackets’ science teacher, and Ms. Victoria Begg, the X-treme Team’s English teacher, agreed that there was not enough time scheduled for planning the project.

“Students started taking over the project too late,” said Ms. Begg. “Ideally next year, kids would start getting their hands dirty by January.”

Mrs. Hanna also suggested the project could improve by becoming truly interdisciplinary. She suggests, “By including all four core classes, it would give the students more time and make the project more fun.”  

This idea was suggested by all other teachers interviewed. Ms. Begg added, “It would be more of a team effort and allow for students to have a broader topic choice, therefore increasing their interest.”

Staff interviewed did seem to like that the Capstone was a possible alternative to SOL testing. Mrs. Hanna called the project an “authentic alternative,” and Ms. Carmen Johnson-Donald, the English teacher for the Dolphins team, said that it was a “good idea.”

Teachers and administrators were quick to point out that while the Capstone project is not perfect, this is the first year of operation, so many issues were simply matters of staff being unfamiliar with the new material or encountering unexpected obstacles, and Carson will certainly review what went well and what needs improvement for later versions of the Capstone project.

It is very likely that the Capstone project will continue into the 2018-19 school year, but it is doubtful that everything will remain the same. Principal Stokes has stated that “I think there’s going to be a lot of reflection.” He also said that the school might not use the energy efficiency theme for the second year, and may give students more creative freedom. As of right now, however, little is clear about how well the Capstone project has done at its goal, and whether it is a feasible replacement for SOL tests.

Teachers believe that the Share Fair in early June, where students will show off their projects, will be a key determining factor.

Mr. Stokes has said that whether information students learned matches the ideas in FCPS’ “Portrait of a Graduate” will be important in deciding the Capstone project’s success.

 

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