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AP Capstone: Teaching Glenn Students How to Think for Themselves

AP Capstone: Teaching Glenn Students How to Think for Themselves thumbnail208208

Now in its fifth year, the AP Capstone program at John Glenn High School was successfully implemented to provide students with the best opportunity for achievement. Capstone equips students with the independent research, collaborative teamwork and communication skills that are increasingly valued by colleges and employers. Teachers and administration were provided with meaningful professional development to make the initial investment in this program a successful one.

AP Capstone is built on the foundation of two AP courses: AP Seminar, which debuted in the 2017-18 school year, followed by AP Research. Students can complete one or both courses (Seminar is a prerequisite to enroll in Research), with the possibility to obtain an AP Capstone Certificate (earned with a score of 3 or higher on both Seminar and Research) or AP Capstone Diploma (earned with a score of 3 or higher on Seminar and Research plus a score of 3 or higher on four other AP exams).

AP Seminar, taught by Garrett Chesnoff, is a foundational course that engages students in cross-curricular conversations that explore the complexities of academic and real-world topics and issues by analyzing and synthesizing divergent perspectives, with an emphasis on collaboration and team learning. Students are given access to peer-reviewed research articles through advanced-level databases such as JStor. They develop their own perspectives in research-based written essays, and design and deliver oral and visual presentations, both individually and as part of a team. The course fosters 21st-century skill development in the areas of oral presentation, critical thinking and collaboration. It can be taken in sophomore year in lieu of English 10 Honors, or as an elective in a student’s junior or senior year.

AP Research, taught by Richard Greening, can be taken in junior or senior year. It allows students to deeply explore an academic topic, problem, issue or idea of individual interest. Students design, plan and implement a yearlong investigation to address a research question. Through this inquiry, they further the skills they acquired in Seminar by learning research methodology; employing ethical research practices; and accessing, analyzing, and synthesizing information. Students reflect on their skill development, document their processes and curate the artifacts of their scholarly work through a process and reflection portfolio. The course culminates in a 4,000-5,000 word academic paper and a presentation with an oral defense.

“The whole idea was that our students were in need of developing research skills for college,” Greening said. “A lot of them were leaving without that basis. Mr. Chesnoff and I were tasked with guiding the students into understanding a little more about how to perform background research, within Seminar, and then go on and start developing their own inquiry projects where they could actually study a topic of their own choosing for the entirety of their senior year. Ms. Burzynski and the administration team made that a focal point. One of the district’s areas of focus was to help students maximize their ability to succeed in college. Mr. Chesnoff has done an awesome job in Seminar setting up a base for them and getting them to understand how to do the basic background work, and there’s a lot of support from the building’s other teachers, helping the students in different aspects like statistics and experimental design.” 

“We’ve grown together with the students because we’ve learned how to navigate the course,” Chesnoff said. “The students are taught to learn how to ask their own questions about significant issues happening in the world or theoretical and philosophical issues. They learn how to independently create their own questions, and then find credible information on those topics and form their own perspective. The idea is to learn how to think for yourself, come to your own conclusions based on evidence that is valid and strong. It’s not opinion-based, per se. It’s evidence-based, where you are drawing conclusions and forming perspectives that are hard to dispute. It also teaches them to think broadly in terms of the different ways they can look at an issue, including social, environmental, psychological and health perspectives.

“Another thing that I like about the course is the fact that it’s not only identifying an issue and arguing the most logical perspective on that issue, but they’re also taught how to find and develop solutions for those issues,” Chesnoff continued. “So, if there’s a real-world problem, they learn how to mediate it or fix it to the best of their ability. When we discuss solutions, the cool part is when the kids recognize that there are limitations to solutions. There isn’t a solution that will solve the problem completely. Even though the solution may be a viable solution, there also may be some negative consequences, too, and they need to recognize those and even form rebuttals explaining why the overall solution should be accepted in order to address the research problem. To put it simply, Capstone is a course that teaches kids how to think independently and draw their own conclusions responsibly – not hastily, but doing thorough research – using academic journals, and being able to stand up in front of their peers and present their argument and defend it.”

The more than a dozen Capstone proposals from the last year included such research topics as the effectiveness of online and hybrid learning models, the impact of the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, religious interference on the forensic autopsy process, the effects of texting slang on formal writing and the efficacy of immersive virtual reality in earth science classes.

“We take complex topics and the kids have to stand up there and debate for a period,” Chesnoff said. “They’re judged by their peers on who had the stronger debate. It really does teach argumentative thinking and reasoning in a way that is authentic and demanding, and the kids rise to the occasion.”

“I think Seminar was definitely one of the first classes in our school career that was something really different than anything we’ve ever done before,” senior Braden Gastaldi said. “We were examining our own course of study and choosing what we wanted to focus on. My group focused on genetic modification, which was something we were all interested in. I think it was really cool how we individually did all the different perspectives on the research paper, then came together and formed an overarching research method to address a problem out there, a gap in the research. That’s really fueling what we do in Research here, so it’s very much connected. And I think it’s a good start, especially in your sophomore year, to really get into that heavy research and deep writing.”

“It was genuinely one of my favorite classes,” senior Jose Gomez said. “The final presentation project was super beneficial for public speaking and speaking more fluently overall.”

“My favorite part was the Socratic seminars,” senior Kevin Kelly said. “Getting to engage in that conversation with my peers and doing the research beforehand was a lot of fun.”

Instructors are allowed some leeway with the Capstone program, bringing their own personal strengths and approaches to the two courses.

“I’ve never been one for a ton of structure in my classroom and have always focused on questioning techniques, and that goes well with this particular course because you’re not really allowed to guide the students too much,” Greening said. “So, one of the things that we have to do then is find creative ways to ask questions, to help them recognize the flaws in their designs and address them accordingly.”

“I take my responsibility seriously to not present my perspective on issues,” Chesnoff said. “I allow them to pave their own path in terms of what it is that they are arguing. My job, the way I view it, is to give them a broad perspective on a topic. It’s more about how to do something then what to think.”

Chesnoff and Greening have seen firsthand how the Capstone program at Glenn has successfully evolved over time.

“Getting to work with some of the best students we have in the school, and seeing their diverse interests, has helped to showcase not only the various talents that they have, but also has showed us that the students can do research at a higher level,” Greening said. “We’ve seen the growth from the first year, where we had mediocre success, to last year, when we had six kids graduating with 5 grades on their AP Research projects and another four with 4 grades.”

Many of the students feel that the Capstone program has helped immensely in preparing them for their college studies and career plans.

“I think it gives you a voice, and the kind of tools to come prepared to make an argument, because you have the research and the means to argue your point and have that on hand,” Kelly said.

“Writing skills are important in any discipline,” Gastaldi said. “I’m going to major in business, so being able to draw conclusions accurately from a given piece of text and express myself on paper are very important.”

“One of the best things about the course itself is the ability of students to pursue something that they love,” Greening said. “So many times, students go through classes with no real control over their own education. By pursuing Capstone, they actually get to truly pursue something they’re interested in.”