Senior Thesis: The Capstone Project

New Covenant is well-known for its emphasis upon reading and writing. From preschool through the earliest years, our students are given a strong foundation in language skills, not only in English, but in Latin as well. One of our highest goals is to help a student become eloquent in the written and spoken word.

The pathway to achieving this is a curriculum that offers students great literature, so that they learn to hear their mother tongue in its most beautiful form. This means that they memorize poems, read great books, and learn recitations in every class. It also means that students will learn to write—and writing is hard. Their earliest attempts begin with copying and learning to create simple summaries of things that have been read. In middle school this advances towards book reports that analyze characters, plot development, settings and mood. Because writing is “foreign” to the brain, it is an exercise that must be repeated over and over. It’s rather like playing the violin; it requires practice which, in the early stages, neither sounds good, nor is it fun.

As students emerge from middle school as “rough writers,” they move to the School of Rhetoric where they begin to study classical rhetoric techniques. They learn that writing takes many forms and that, depending upon the form, it requires particular kinds of content. If one is writing to persuade, for example, there are various kinds of evidence that can be employed.

Throughout three semesters of rhetoric as freshmen, sophomores and juniors, students write various papers employing the techniques they’ve learned. Moreover, they are given extensive instruction on how to research, what qualifies as a good source, and, very importantly, how to document such sources in footnotes and bibliographies. All of these tools are essential for success in college and in life. The writing process trains a student in the art of expression, and the ability to formulate thoughts with precision and to express them intelligibly. Eventually, writing becomes a way of discovering knowledge as thoughts put to paper stare back at them, begging to be edited, reformed, supported, or reversed.

Good writing habits underlie and inform good speaking habits. Our high school students have spent years at New Covenant standing in front of their peers, reciting memorized passages, or explaining their work in short speeches. Standing before a group and speaking is a normal part of their experience at New Covenant, and most of them left stage fright behind long ago.

As our students reach maturity in their senior year, they are ready for the capstone project of the Senior Thesis. This project begins at the end of the junior year, and includes research over the following summer, and the final writing project begins in earnest in the fall. The students are encouraged to treat a question of significance, what we call a “great question.” It is always a debatable question, and sometimes very controversial. Source reports—short commentaries on how a significant source will be used—and first drafts are completed by the time students leave for Christmas vacation. (A list of this year’s thesis titles can be found in the March 15, 2021 Quid Novi.)

In the second semester, student papers have been read by thesis advisors (every student has two readers), and they are returned with suggestions, criticisms, questions, and yes, a grade. Students have until February to revise their work into a second and final version. This version is read again, and a student is given a “ready to defend” status, or the paper is referred to them for final tweaks and revisions.

By the end of March, the students are ready for thesis defenses, where they prepare a 15-minute PowerPoint summary of their arguments and publicly explain what they have written, while fielding questions from their thesis advisors. The normal school schedule is suspended for the high school students as we model defenses as a type of academic conference with multiple seniors presenting at once. Food is abundant in the Commons, and parents, along with faculty readers and their fellow students, are on hand to share in the great day. (Current COVID mitigations will modify our tradition this year.) Upon completion, the sense of accomplishment is palpable. Students know that they have finished a signal achievement.

The New Covenant student experience therefore concludes with a demonstration of the many tools of learning students have acquired in the long journey to graduation. The end result is a student who is eloquent in the written and spoken word, a young adult who thinks critically, and who is well-spoken on matters on which he is informed.

Photo: Unsplash / Scott Graham