Opportunities to Stumble and Pick Themselves Up: Horace Interviews Nancy Faust Sizer on the Senior Year

Nancy Sizer

Nancy Sizer

Currently a Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Nancy Sizer was the acting co-principal of the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in 1998-99 and served as Parker’s transition counselor, helping lead its first graduating class through the transition to postsecondary education in 2000. She taught 7th- through 12th-grade students at the Wheeler School in Providence, Rhode Island, where she chaired the history department, developed curriculum, and served as a mentor to new teachers. She also taught history at Phillips Academy, at the Bromfield School in Harvard, Massachusetts, and at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. Sizer was a member of National Commission on the High School Senior Year and wrote Crossing the Stage: Redesigning Senior Year. She is also the coauthor of The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract and Keeping School: Letters to Families from Principals of Two Small Schools. Sizer frequently leads workshops at CES National’s Fall Forum with her husband, CES founder and Chairman Emeritus Ted Sizer.

Horace: In Crossing the Stage and elsewhere, you strongly advocate for senior projects. What role does meaningful project-based learning play in creating positive transitions from high school to higher education and the larger worlds of work and citizenship?

Nancy Sizer: I’ve worked with seniors for twenty-five years. All too often, senior year is an awkward time, more about glossing up what students have already done as opposed to doing challenging, exciting, authentic work that would reflect that they are 18 and ready to do new things. Students look back and hang around purposelessly waiting for graduation and college and “real life” to start. That doesn’t make for a good transition. Obviously, there are far better ways to handle nervousness about the future, such as getting your teeth into an interesting senior project that makes you work harder than you ever would. That is the kind of energy to maintain in order to be ready to settle down and acclimatize to a new environment.

Horace: Senior projects help students keep their minds in the game when they’re otherwise at risk for checking out?

Sizer: Yes, their minds and full energies. Senior projects, when they’re done right, allow students to design the work they want to do and work toward something they feel is important and to which they are the main contributor. Many people in the world don’t get to do that.

Learning to use your mind well, as Ted would say, means having the opportunity to sit down with your own mind and think your way through challenges and material that interests you, figuring out what you need to pursue and what you can drop. It sounds simple, but it is very difficult to do. The first time, most people don’t get it right, but with practice with that sort of thinking, people do improve. When you go to college, it’s a new place and people won’t relate to you in the same way. If you know yourself well, you’re less likely to be thrown off course.

High schools like Coalition schools that have been encouraging their kids all along to do different work from each other cultivate the habit on the part of a kid to create his own particular work. Students who work this way aren’t always looking right and left to see what other people are doing. Instead, they learn to think, “Do I understand this material I am trying to master well enough to see where it’s going wrong?” Students should be practicing this in 9th, 10th, and 11th grades; then, when they get the biggest job they will get in high school, the senior project, it will be successful. When I researched In Crossing the Stage, I talked with one school that said, “A senior project would be so great but we couldn’t do one. We’d have to change ourselves down through the 9th grade.” Well, of course you would.

Students should work deeply enough on their projects to have opportunities to stumble and pick themselves up. They don’t get that if teachers handhold them through every moment or if they’re always watching to see how someone else does it. Don’t you wish you could send a kid off to a new adventure who knows that the way she does things well is different than how someone else will do them? This is precursor for persistence in college—and work too. A lot of people whom we interviewed in the Senior Year Commission [the National Commission on the High School Senior Year] never find a way back to their goals if they stumble. The dropout rate during the first year of college is terrible—it’s a social experiment gone very wrong.

Horace: What do you think being ready for college and the world beyond high school should mean?

Sizer: Kids who come from Coalition schools that take them seriously and say, “Your education is important, and lots of people are here to help you,” can get through the challenges of the 13th year. Students from Coalition schools have had a chance to talk through hard times; a lot of schools don’t think that’s part of their job. Schools that are very dedicated to students’ success and believe that there should be no scarcity of success produce kids who go to selective colleges and jobs. They may fear that they may be at a disadvantage in a more competitive atmosphere. Instead a lot of kids from Parker, for example, have something to prove. They’re ready for a new challenge, not worn out, and not bored. They have a sense that they have something worthwhile to do in and for the world, that they have talent and energy to share.

Once in a while, a kid working on a senior project is so passionate about a certain topic that her teachers’ interest doesn’t matter, but a large part of her motivation still is to do well in ways that her teachers value. That’s what our kids have learned to do: identify their own interests and challenge themselves. What matters is the self-consciousness of their education. When you have adults who believe in you, you will feel like you have value. One of the elements of success past high school is knowing yourself well enough to know in which areas you have more or less talent and interest.

Horace: But you’re not saying that all students from CES schools—or at least all students from Parker—do well when they go onto higher education, are you?

Sizer: Sometimes, people don’t start off at the right college—with most of those students, I am pretty sure they wanted to go to sink or swim places. Those that didn’t thrive usually found a new college. Now, you could ask the question, “Did our kids get spoiled by Parker and then blame the environment at college for things that didn’t go their way?” I’d rather think they saw that they were in the wrong places for them and did what they needed to do to make changes. That’s not to say that our students can’t succeed in big institutions and in environments that don’t readily provide personal attention, strong relationships and support. But I do think that if kids want to go to places where they won’t know their professors they need to know if they are ready for that. When I was the transition counselor at Parker, I asked kids to take notes and see how much they were learning while they went to lectures, listened to the radio, listened to people talk. If they got nothing out of that—if they really needed the interaction in order to stay engaged and to learn—then they had better rethink the notion of where they should go.

Related Resource
Horace reviewed Nancy Sizer’s Crossing the Stage in issue 19.1 www.essentialschools.org/cs/resources/view/ces_res/283

Related Resource
For more information on the National Commission on the High School Senior Year, visit www.woodrow.org/CommissionOnTheSeniorYear/