By Katy Cooper, Grade 8 English Teacher, and Ben Simmons, Grade 8 History Teacher
Each year, eighth graders finish their final year at Graland with a culminating Capstone project. The assignment allows them to not only pursue their individual interests but also employ key academic skills acquired throughout their time as a student. Capstone was started several years ago with the intent of imbuing in eighth graders a sense of purpose and social consciousness. Students start the year by choosing a topic for their project that centers around the 17 United Nations (U.N.) Sustainable Goals.
Each year, eighth graders finish their final year at Graland with a culminating Capstone project. The assignment allows them to not only pursue their individual interests but also employ key academic skills acquired throughout their time as a student. Capstone was started several years ago with the intent of imbuing in eighth graders a sense of purpose and social consciousness. Students start the year by choosing a topic for their project that centers around the 17 United Nations (U.N.) Sustainable Goals. According to the U.N.’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the Goals are meant to serve as a “call for action by all countries–poor, rich and middle-income–to promote prosperity while protecting the planet.” In 2015, all U.N. Member States approved the Goals with the primary objective of achieving them by 2030. Indeed, the U.N. Goals are broad enough so that our students can hone in on one specific aspect of a goal that interests them most. This year, Graland students have used the U.N. Goals as a jumping-off point to pursue topics such as the water crisis in Kenya, affordable housing in the Denver metro area, deforestation in the Amazon, food insecurity in Colorado, the creation of sustainable cities, and gender equality in the workplace.
During the summer of 2022, eighth-grade MESH teachers used a summer grant to hone certain aspects of the Capstone, such as project timing and length. We did this by having students work on Capstone throughout the year instead of at the very end. Students now spend the first semester researching a global problem related to one of the U.N. goals and then write an in-depth analysis of the root causes of that problem coupled with viable solutions. Then, throughout the second semester, students design and execute a specific action plan related to their topic. As a MESH team, we agreed that the project’s action piece during the second semester is just as essential as the research and writing portion that takes place at the beginning of the year. In weighing both equally, we wanted students to not only intellectually grasp their chosen problem, but also emotionally grasp it via fieldwork. Indeed, eighth-grade MESH teachers wanted students to feel a sense of optimistic empowerment that can only be created by leaving the classroom and doing something that actually chips away at a problem.
To facilitate this new-found focus on the Capstone action piece as it relates to the U.N. Goals, we implemented two new initiatives. Working with Christi James, Graland’s service learning coordinator, the eighth grade MESH teachers created a service learning plan that is now directly linked to Capstone. The program allows students to cycle through various off-campus service-learning opportunities to get a sense of what their action piece can and should look like. Eighth graders visit, volunteer, and ask questions at Denver Urban Gardens, Volunteers of America, St. Francis Day Shelter, Safe Outdoor Spaces, and Bluff Lake. In addition, they tour the Posner Center for International Development and interact with representatives from various non-profit organizations within the center. Inspired students then work closely with their advisors to design their own Capstone action piece that is directly aligned with their chosen topic. Eighth graders aim to both volunteer or tour a chosen organization and conduct an interview with a representative of that organization. A flex day in the spring was even set aside for students to complete their action pieces off-campus as needed.
Similar to years past, students, at the very end of the year, will deliver a TED Talk-style presentation speech to an audience of peers, faculty, and guests from the community at large. In their speech, students will establish the problem they have researched, potential solutions, their actual pursuit of those solutions, and what they ultimately learned along the way. By June, while students will have completed their work on the Capstone project along with their tenure at Graland, they will know that their work toward making the world a better and more sustainable place must continue.
Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1924, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.