On a busy Thursday afternoon at Stevens Cooperative School this past December, eighth grader Grace Leslie-Bonilla was interviewing Dr. Julie Holland, the former director of psychiatry at Bellevue Hospital in NYC. Grace spoke with her frankly about social equality for mentally ill patients and the definition of insanity.
The interview was done as part of a thesis-based research project that Grace will work on throughout her eighth grade year at Stevens. Her thesis statement focuses on common stereotypes of mental illness and the lack of funding available to patients and institutions.
Grace says, “I really wanted to educate people about mental illness and to help them to see the human side in terms of how society thinks about their plight and the lack of effective programming.”
Grace’s classmate, Tais Fontanez, is investigating the effectiveness of The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. Tais’ work centers around three key elements - protection, prevention and prosecution, and the topic dovetails the eighth grade government studies. Tais will be interviewing members of the state department to gather supporting evidence.
“The information I have uncovered is chilling. As painful as it is, the details and statistics derived from this project will give us more details about how well the protection act is working,” says Tais.
These performance-based final assessments are modeled after the dissertation defenses done at the postsecondary level. In the summer leading to eighth grade, students select a political, social or economic issue, develop a cogent thesis statement and work independently with the guidance of a faculty mentor.
They are responsible for developing a 10-20 page research paper, a technology-based project and a thesis statement defense presented to and evaluated by a committee of faculty and peers. Students demonstrate mastery of skills such as argumentative writing, evidence supported conclusions, in depth research and analysis and persuasive speaking, all an extension of the social studies curriculum. Organizational skills are vital in the student’s success as is the development of a strong personal voice.
At Stevens, students are prepared for this type of highly sophisticated and independent work in the intermediate school (third and fourth grades) when they are consistently analyzing research, honing analytical skills, practicing non-fiction writing and arguing their opinions in front of others.
By middle school, fifth grade students conduct a portfolio defense to support a claim or thesis from the curriculum, supported with three pieces of curricular-based work and that reflect their academic growth. sixth grade students research in-depth curricular concepts that prepare them for their seventh grade independent research project.
“The authentic demonstrations of applying and evaluating knowledge and learning are key in a Stevens education and one of the reasons why our students are so successful in high school,” says Hoboken Campus Principal Josh Marks. “They demonstrate the higher order thinking skills of synthesis and evaluation that tests simply cannot assess. Of course, tests and quizzes are essential ingredients that students experience, but these assessments are used as a means to build students cumulative baseline knowledge, which they then turn around and apply this foundational knowledge to their more in depth projects.”
Topics for some of this year’s exhibition projects include child labor, chemical weapons, gay rights and the humanitarian crisis in Syria.