051519_MNS_Atlanta_Classical_003 Chris Knowles Joe Santifer Margaret Taylor

From left, Atlanta Classical Academy Principal Chris Knowles stands with seniors Joe Santifer and Margaret Taylor at the school’s veranda.

The seniors at one local high school are completing a project that may be unmatched by all other high schools in metro Atlanta and possibly Georgia.

Atlanta Classical Academy, a K-12 charter school in Buckhead, is mandating all of its seniors complete a senior thesis project as part of their graduation requirements, something usually ordered only by colleges in bachelor’s degree and/or graduate programs.

The seniors must write a 15- to 20-page paper that is the culmination of everything they’ve learned at the school. Then they have to defend it in front of three faculty members in public, with their fellow students, family members and friends watching.

Mary Ellen Cenzalli, the school’s spokeswoman, said the project “is not being done by any other school in Atlanta, as far as we know.”

How it startedAaron Schepps, an Atlanta Classical literature teacher, is one of the two educators leading the senior thesis project program. He said it’s been part of the school’s identity since it opened as a K-8 school in 2014, which was also when he started working there.

“It’s something our first principal, Dr. (Terrence) Moore, talked about pretty regularly, both to cast a vision for the students, (but also), I think, to scare them a little bit about what was to come,” Schepps said. “It’s been something we discussed as a plan for a long time, even as early as ninth grade in classical literature.

“The main writing project of the first semester is an essay on ‘The Iliad’ that is presented in essay form but is also defended in class. On a very small scale it’s a five-minute presentation, (then) a five-minute defense. But that project is designed looking toward what would eventually be the senior thesis.”

Josh Andrew, Atlanta Classical’s upper school humanities chair, is also leading the project and has been at the school since 2016.

“I think that in so many of the texts we read together, there are these moments where characters undergo moments of education where they are challenged, they are harrowed, split open, and in that moment they experience failure of some kind,” he said. “They experience a moment of feeling deeply vulnerable. And in so many instances, these stories end, they culminate with these characters returning from whence they came with an end of teaching those that they left with a moment of education themselves, (which) they are responsible for. Characters returning home, returning to their families with a lesson to offer.

“I think in many ways this process has been an opportunity to stand up before their classmates and testify to the nature of education they’ve had, to say something about what they’ve learned and to do it before teachers, to do it before their peers, to do it before their families.”

Andrew said at this moment the students become educators.

“It’s this incredible opportunity for the education to sort of turn in a moment and for them to be charged with the responsibility of teaching,” he said. “It’s really a beautiful turn that happens at the end, and I think in many ways it is sort of the fullest manifestation of what an education can be, that a student steps into the role of teacher.”

Schepps said the seniors started discussing the project in the fall during the first semester of his modern literature class. Starting with the second semester in January, the class became the school’s senior thesis workshop.

“So they’ve really been working on it in earnest this semester,” Schepps said. “So from Day 1 of this semester, developing a question, which we did a little bit of in the fall, reading material, gathering evidence and building the essay all happened in the last few months since January.”

How it worksWhile the school encourages its students to think independently and not rely on others’ opinions of classical texts such as Homer’s works to form their own opinions, the senior thesis gives them the opportunity to read others’ views on these subjects as part of their research.

Each senior comes up with a topic for his or her thesis and then writes it using texts that provide evidence to back up his or her thesis. Some seniors even use music or art as part of their theses, Schepps said. The seniors present their theses for 10 minutes before the three faculty panelists grill them with questions for 50 minutes to poke holes in them.

Senior Joe Santifer, whose thesis was on the moral responsibility of man, said defending it was tough.

“I thought I thought of everything, but I didn’t think of everything,” he said. “But at the same time, I liked it because ... I was passionate about my thesis and you’re trying to genuinely defend it, but there’s some things you didn’t think about.

“At the same time, even though you’re trying to defend your thesis, you’re actually learning more about your thesis. And then it was a great learning experiencing by learning to defend your thesis but also learning more about the topic you’ve chosen.”

Senior Margaret Taylor’s thesis was on “the birth of the reader reading intentionally in negative space in literature,” where the negative space is “things that are left unsaid in the narrative,” she said. Taylor was interviewed three days before she was to defend her thesis.

“I would say writing it was tough, but I think of it less as a writing experience as it was a research experience for me,” Taylor said. “It was the chance to, like Joe said, pursue one of our interests that started in a curricular text. You would pick a point you had discussed in a class and then go and expand on it and look for information yourself and research for it for yourself.

“The research part of it was, I really didn’t want it to end. I kept reading more and more about my topic, and I think that was what probably made the writing part difficult, because I had the chance to go seek out all this research for myself that I had to then compose my own thoughts about it.”

Atlanta Classical Principal Chris Knowles, who started working at the school in July, had experience being involved with junior and senior theses and taught rhetoric classes as part of that program at his previous school, Westminster School at Oak Mountain in Birmingham, Alabama. He credited Schepps and Andrew for the program’s success.

“We really view it as a culminating experience where they’re working primarily on they’re making an argument through writing. But then also just what’s it look like to reflect clearly on what they’ve been doing?” he said. “And then to be willing to speak about it in public is another level of challenge. Those two elements of speaking in public and writing publicly stood out in my previous school. The same thing would apply here.

“I can say that every part of the experience is always experienced joyfully by students inasmuch it’s kind of one building on (top of) another. But the end product has been amazing to see.”

Defense sessionsSchepps and Andrew said the thesis defense sessions had gone well thus far. Schepps said he has a lot in common with the seniors because he attended a classical school, Chandler Preparatory Academy in Chandler, Arizona, and was part of that school’s first graduating class that also had to do a senior thesis.

“I have the fondest memories of having done something really hard but that ended up being good in some ways,” he said. “I think the defense at its best is a conversation that’s really dynamic between the three panelists. … To a degree it is a defense and there are questions that need to be answered and we want answers to certain questions, but at its core I think it’s a conversation. … And I’ve definitely learned a lot of things from the insights that have emerged from the written theses but also from the conversations in the defenses.”

Said Andrew, “We have not gone easy on them. We’ve spent a lot of time in conversation in advance of these presentations looking over their papers, planning our questions, thinking about different routes a conversation could take. Our hope for each of them is that they aren’t static conversations. We hope that learning is actually happening in the midst of them. And at their best, we are learning alongside the students. …

“So I think the joy of it for us is to be literally sitting at a table, across from the student, on level with them, engaging in a conversation as peers. In that moment, they are positioned as the teacher and we’re peers with them, equals with them. A hierarchy is broken down and it’s this opportunity for us to engage as intellectuals that are participating in and furthering a tradition we’re all committed to.”

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