HOW THE SENIOR THESIS PROJECT FOSTERS SCHOLARSHIP AND EXPLORATION

Natalie Demers, Former Associate Head of School
Each winter, all Kingswood Oxford seniors embark on an exciting, challenging and meaningful journey – the writing a scholarly thesis. Under the guidance of an English teacher, each senior chooses a topic based on a literary work or works, explores and researches academic criticism related to those works, and then writes a 15- to 20-page paper that draws on these literary texts, academic scholarship and the student’s own insights.
Demanding both persistence and passion, the senior thesis is the culmination of each student’s academic experience at Kingswood Oxford. It allows seniors to bring together everything they’ve learned about research, organization, literary analysis, and writing to focus on an author, literary work or theme they love.
Recent thesis topics have ranged from “Shakespeare’s Manipulation of Conscience in Richard III and Macbeth” to “The Rise and Fall of Religious Fundamentalism in Gish Jen’s World and Town and Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood,” to “Comparing the Transition to Adulthood in The Catcher in the Rye and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”
KO’s thesis program has drawn national recognition. During the past two years, Benjamin Waldman ’16 and Noah Stanton ’17 each won the top award (a $5,000 scholarship) when their senior theses were judged to be the best student research papers in the nation by the National Cum Laude Society.

Producing a senior thesis is a rigorous, three-month process that offers students the opportunity to gain and develop a variety of academic and personal skills:

• Decision-making

Seniors are given wide latitude in selecting their topics, but with this freedom comes the challenge of choosing a writer, book or idea that engages them and then refining and shaping their subject to produce a clear and manageable area of focus.

While some seniors have known what they wanted to write about ever since they were freshmen, most students find they need to change or revise their topics several times – a necessary and instructive part of the process.

• Perseverance 

As they begin to assemble and take notes on primary and secondary sources during late January, seniors immerse themselves in the rigorous demands of scholarly research. They learn how to perform the academic spadework necessary to identify, evaluate and assemble evidence. Such preliminary work, conducted weeks before the writing process begins, requires persistence and patience.

• Exposure to Literary Scholarship

For many seniors, the senior thesis provides their first opportunity to immerse themselves in the world of literary criticism. By reading books and journal articles by professors and scholars, they’re exposed to textual analysis, contrasting viewpoints, and a variety of literary theories. They gain confidence by immersing themselves in this provocative academic conversation.

• Synthesizing, Writing and Revising

After formulating a thesis and constructing an outline, seniors craft a rough draft that supports their views clearly, persuasively and eloquently. They learn how to annotate their text to indicate their sources and to edit and revise their prose, not only as they compose the paper, but also as they respond the teacher’s comments and suggestions on their rough drafts.

• A Sense of Accomplishment

After revising their final drafts, seniors make oral presentations of their theses to their classmates, thus sharing with their peers the intellectual stimulation they’ve derived from the entire process and their sense of accomplishments in perfecting a finished product that reflects their best work.

HOW FEEDBACK VS. GRADES HELPS STUDENTS GROW

Jane Repp, Head of the Middle School
I have been amazed over the past year at the change in my students’ attitude towards learning as a result of a simple shift from using the language of “feedback” instead of “grade”. They are consistently striving to learn and grow instead of seeing the grade as an endpoint to their learning. They don’t see “feedback” as an endpoint, but as an opportunity to improve. Grades feel like a permanent and final assessment of their learning, whereas “feedback” is just information to use to further their learning.
This all began last spring when I experimented with “exam wrapping” as a vehicle for our middle school students to reflect on their development as students while studying for and performing on final exams in most of their courses. Teachers worked together to develop questions for reflection after their students had taken their exams in June, and in the process the teachers became more transparent with the students about the study skills they were teaching them and how students might best use them to study in a way that was effective for them.
After the exam, students had the opportunity to reflect on how successful their strategies had been and how they might use this information during the next school year. The last days of school then felt more process oriented and reflective, aligning more closely with our core values and goals for our students.
One of my goals for this current school year was to continue this work. The most effective feedback vehicle I have used thus far is a rubric with the unit goals along with column headings of Beginning, Developing, Proficient and Expert. I evaluate each student’s ability to demonstrate the unit goals and also comment on where improvements need to be made. Even when giving a formal assessment, such as a test, the students receive feedback in this way. At times the rubric is accompanied by a grade and others it is not. Regardless, the students have maintained this shift in perspective! I was especially pleased by the feedback I received from my students in a survey I gave them in early January. They appreciated the new system as it felt to them that they were being given room to improve and grow and that I did not see them as ever being “done”. I love that I am learning from feedback, too!

HOW DOES A COMMUNITY STAY COMMITTED TO ITS MISSION?

Joan Edwards, Director of Diversity, Inclusion & Cultural Competency
It is challenging to keep a New Year’s resolution as an individual let alone a community of hundreds of people. The exercise of goal setting is both inspiring and scary all at once.. We feel the draw of hope for an improved life but fear the inevitable reality of that first misstep when we fail to uphold the promises that we made to ourselves. So how does a community stay focused on its mission?
  • Keep stating the goals and values. When we boldly speak up about how we want to hold ourselves accountable, we increase the likelihood that we will reach the desired outcomes.
  • Prepare for the opportunity to fail. The journey to keeping promises will definitely not be a straight line. We will falter; we will experience self doubt; and we will be tempted to give up. We may even literally give up. This stage in the process is as central to success as the initial steps of setting those goals in the first place.
  • Let go of expectations. While it is important to establish goals and set our intention for reaching them, we need to remain open to how reality will present us with their outcomes. Staying present and trusting the process enables us to learn from the experiences of working to reach our goals.
It is never easy to commit to making community objectives a reality. Chances of falling short are high. Nelson Mandela once stated, “I never lose. I either win or I learn.” I agree. There’s nothing to lose by taking the risk to learn from our promises.