Independent-Study Projects Can Boost High School Learning
November 5, 2019

Though she loved choreographing, the high school student showcase wasn’t quite enough for Julie Deleger, a recent graduate of The College Preparatory School in Oakland, California. The answer for her was an independent-study project during her last semester there. “Choreography is so personal that sometimes you need to take more or less time with it,” she says. “Doing it on my own was really helpful. I let the project guide me rather than having to adhere to a specific set of rules.”

Independent studies teach valuable life skills, inspire passion about specific interests and give students the opportunity to earn high school credit in a nontraditional way, while catering to their individual learning styles. “I think that when students aren’t being dictated what and how they have to learn, they make really personal discoveries they can take ownership of,” says Deleger’s mentor, College Prep teacher Erica Hartono.

Curriculum Choices

Essentially, independent studies let students develop their own curriculum. Driven by a research question, students plan and implement their own projects and present their findings. There are two main models: an independent-study course in which students earn class credit, or a research project housed within an established class, such as dance history, production or choreography.

At College Prep in Oakland, seniors have the option to take independent study for one semester and work with a mentor to design a project on a topic of their choosing. In contrast, at Berkeley High School, dance students can do what’s called a capstone project through the honors option in Linda Carr’s dance production class. This past year, Carr gave them from September until June to complete it.

Choosing a Topic

Students should choose a project that sustains their interest for the semester or year. “Get passionate and read up before you get started,” Deleger says. “Pick something you’re not going to get bored with.”

Deleger chose to focus on choreography, creating three dances. College Prep students have to submit their ideas to the dean of academics for approval. Hartono helped Deleger realize that an exploration of three different choreographic methodologies would encapsulate her interests.

At Berkeley High, Carr made a requirement that, as part of their research, students needed to interview one industry professional. “It got them beyond books. In the best cases, they got to meet people,” she says. Project topics included college dance programs, dance history, body image in dance and dance in disenfranchised communities.

A Teacher’s Role

One of the vital elements of independent study is working with a mentor. The feedback, guidance and insight a student gleans from them is invaluable. From helping students decide what to study to helping them create a workable timeline with benchmarks, mentorship is key.

Hartono helped Deleger create benchmarks in the form of works-in-progress showings for her dances. This helped her stay on track and allowed her to receive feedback. “She made sure I didn’t get too stuck on one way of choreographing,” says Deleger. “She told me what was working and what wasn’t.”

To connect all 18 of her students with a person to interview, Carr actually took on the task of finding professionals for them. It was more work for her, but well worth it. Students were able to see how their interests were applicable to jobs in dance. “I think so many of the jobs in the dance field are a little mysterious to high school students,” she says. “They feel like the only thing that they’re grooming themselves for is a job in a professional dance company.”

Independent Challenges

Developing the discipline and organization to see a project of this magnitude through is the greatest challenge of independent study. Deleger found it took her a while to establish a functional schedule for developing material—choreographing for half an hour a day instead of, say, eight hours on a Sunday. “The discipline I learned is really valuable, since I’m going into my first year of college,” she says.

Hartono notes that it can be challenging for students to find the balance between having the autonomy to problem-solve and knowing when to ask for help. “The amount of leadership skills that they garner from being given ownership of the process teaches them about accountability, facilitation, and how to talk about dance and the creative process,” she says.

Creating Community

Carr had her students present their projects to one another in class. Though she anticipated positive results from the research phase of the projects, the presentations were an added bonus for all. “It was a happy surprise how compelling it was for the class to listen to each other,” she says. Students felt validated by presenting something they were truly interested in and enjoyed learning from their peers.

Independent study can foster a strong sense of community among students. When Deleger put out a call for dancers to dance in her three pieces, she had really positive responses. “The adults are out of the way, so it’s a very special, student-driven community that is built,” says Hartono. “That is really exciting to watch.”

Personal and Global Discoveries

For Deleger, independent study gave her an opportunity to learn more about dance, and learn more about her own tendencies. “It turns out the way I had been choreographing for so long was actually not the easiest,” she says. Taking risks and making mistakes enabled her to discover new tools.

The capstone projects let Carr’s students gain a broader perspective on dance in general, which they can take with them. “The kids are beginning to see dance within a greater context, where it’s not just about their own creativity and athleticism,” she says. “They are starting to see how dance fits into the larger world and how they can continue to envision dance as part of their lives even after they leave their high school community.”

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