KATHRYN GATLIN: Participate with senior in required THS ‘culmination project’

By Kathryn Gatlin

For six years, Tupelo has required of its graduates a culmination project presented to the community at the end of senior year.
After 12 years in the Tupelo Public School district, students must show that they can research, write about, organize, produce and present to a panel of adults a spectrum of knowledge about a skill or topic of their choosing. Whether destined to be an engineer, teacher, medical technician, or auto mechanic, the student’s process of completing the project is an important one. Not popular, but important.
I’ve had the privilege of being an evaluator for the projects five times, including the first year. It’s come a long way; improvements have been made on the grading rubric, with clearer expectations listed for each level of performance standard. Fortunately, the weight of the evaluation panel’s grade has been diminished. Teachers should have the final say there, not strangers. Community service is now encouraged, but truthfully, shouldn’t be overdone or it gets plain silly. With that said, here’s how most of us evaluators see our responsibilities.
First, we respect and appreciate the effort and anxiety that goes into each project, and try to be sensitive to each senior’s intelligence, home life, and parental support. Not equal, of course. Some seniors have more financial and creative resources than others and the product might reflect that, but factor in motivation and it levels out. Friendly, social kids come across better than the quiet ones, but we try to look at effort, and it levels out, again. Putting the student at ease (as a parent, not a judge, would do) by sharing a laugh or compliment gets them off on the right foot. Every year, I try to come in with a clean slate, to observe and encourage. I am always impressed.
Last year, I had the challenge of being the parent of a senior. Here are my notes about THAT learning curve. First and most critical note: It’s required for graduation. Stand your ground with your busy, distracted senior. Get past the whining, and don’t pass on your own anxiety about what’s ahead. You may not see the value in the requirements in the beginning, but they are there in the end. Download the deadlines, forms and rubric from the TPSD website and post the dates on your calendar, so you’re ready with reminders to take photos or buy supplies early. It all takes more time than they allow. Take lots of photos along the way.
Offer suggestions of mentors from your network, then help him translate his ideas into a project. For instance, my son, John, loves baseball, but most of his baseball-themed ideas had been used previously. He wanted to learn a new craft or skill, and welding appealed to him. We suggested that he contact Michael Hester, an ornamental metal craftsman from Nettleton. As it turned out, they worked well together, creating a life-sized baseball player made out of metal conduit, sheet metal, milk jug, and rebar (complete with the Tupelo “T” on the cap and jersey). After scouring metal yards for found objects, they donned helmets and gloves for several sessions while John learned the basics, then welded it all together. Suddenly, the research paper on metal art meant something. The mentoring meant something. John finally got excited about the culmination project. He “got it.”
It’s a big undertaking, this culmination project. Those who finish it with a good attitude are the ones who grow from doing it well and on-time. Learning a new skill (technical or artistic) and stepping out into the wider community will force students out of their comfort zone. For the rest of their lives, if they’re lucky, they’ll be asked to step out of that zone to perform, prove and present themselves and their ideas to the world. They’ll need to create solutions while following narrow guidelines, and need to develop networks to widen their opportunities. They’ll be asked to research unknown fields, and be expected to know when and how to ask for help from a mentor. They’ll need to write intelligently to develop an idea (and yes, grammar and spelling count in the real world).
They will have to do things they aren’t comfortable doing, and complete tasks that take time and trouble, without whining. I believe that the senior culmination project adds credibility to a THS diploma, and the process itself gives job and college credibility to the person who completes it.

Kathryn Gatlin is a business owner in Tupelo, a graduate of the University of Missouri, and the mother of four sons, all of whom attended the Tupelo Public Schools. Contact her at hkgatlin@nescoelectric.com.