Class of 2017 Eighth Grade Projects: Developing Talent and Finding Voice

The final presentation of eighth grade projects is one of the unique rites of passage for eighth graders at the Waldorf School at Moraine Farm. After a year of independent study, this year’s projects ranged from body building and singing to electronic music and acting. Each student stands up before an audience in a culminating display of their work and of an aspect of themselves. To a roomful of adults, the event is often a lesson in defying preconceptions, in realizing that students are multi-layered individuals who do not fit simply into hastily formed categories.

The Completion of a Capstone Project

The independent projects are very special, in that each student has the chance to study and experience something of his/her own choosing over an extended period of time. This stretches the students to plan ahead, follow individual due dates, and sharpen their executive functioning—all skills that are only just beginning to bloom in eighth graders. In fact, many aspects of the project are challenging and call upon the students’ developing faculties. The result of this work is growth and achievement in many areas.

Throughout the projects, students spend several hours working with a mentor who guides them through the process of learning something new, or building on a skill that the student would like to develop. The mentor requirement provides a wonderful opportunity for students to begin reaching out to other adults in the world as they prepare for their transition to high school.

While much of the learning takes place throughout the year, after school, weekends and during school breaks, the culmination of the students’ accomplishments are shared with the wider community during a celebratory event, at which each student displays his or her work and does a short formal presentation for a large audience. Therefore, students learn about presentation skills and how to create a display board to showcase the highlights of their project experience. Students are asked to present the project as a learning experience for the audience; this is challenging, because students must see their projects objectively from the audience’s point of view.

While the eighth grade projects are challenging in many ways, the experience allows students to draw upon and further develop many skills and talents, such as aesthetic sense, creativity, organizational skills, interpersonal skills, and public speaking, to name only a few.

By Dianne McGaunn

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Class of 2017 Eighth Grade Projects

On the evening of the presentations, Elowyn set the tone immediately. Elowyn, who had volunteered to go first, just about stunned the audience with a direct and uninhibited presence on the stage. Speaking without notes, she took the audience by the hand and led us through an interactive experience of exercises from her study of acting.

“I would like everyone to close their eyes,” she said, “Picture that you are walking in a forest. There is a soft, warm wind blowing; it is a perfect spring day…. Where are you going?” Later, she asked the audience to be in a house by the sea. The house is familiar, but there is a strange knock at the door…

Her performance of two monologues was also poignant. Elowyn emboded Nora of A Doll’s House and Laura from The Glass Menagerie—one awakening to anger, the other shy and self-conscious. Between the two monologues, she turned from the audience to pull on a gray sweater and stand quietly for a moment, giving herself the opportunity to get into character.

Elowyn said that practicing the exercises and studying characters put her more directly in touch with her emotional life. She “definitely came out a different person because of acting.”

Elaine, known for artistic talent when it comes to paper, pencils and paints, studied ceramics for her eighth-grade project, because, she said, she “wanted to try something that was completely new.”  

Like her classmate, Elaine’s presentation was projected in a confident, clear voice, and with a willingness to share part of herself that we don’t often see. She spoke while demonstrating with hand gestures—for example, walking us through the process of “wedging” or kneading the clay, throwing it on the wheel bat, shaping it up and down until it is centered, and then using her fingers and hands to begin forming the final piece. She held up beautifully finished functional ware, including vases, a sugar bowl and creamer, a mug, platters, dishes and bowls, illustrating examples of hand-building and other construction methods. “For this mug, I had to pull a handle,” she said. “For this lid, I had to throw the knob on the lid once it had dried.”

Elaine’s pottery is supremely beautiful, glazed in naturalistic greens, blues, and reds. Her favorite piece is the fish platter, she told the audience, with scales and fins and colored with the greens and blues of the ocean. My pesonal favorite is an oval platter with hand-cut leaves and handles that remind me of her freehand artistic abilities.

Sam had been tinkering with an electronic music program online, but he took it to another level for his project in trap music, working with a Salem music producer to create advanced beats and melodies. The music editing computer program he worked with was extensive, with “almost infinite possibilities to edit, remix and use sounds,” not to mention “multicolored knobs and sliders everywhere.” Sam shared both his more vulnerable moments – his first simple melody and scratch, which he “wasn’t really keen on,” for example – as well as his more accomplished music, including mysterious sounding clips that integrated a moderately paced, tension building arpeggio with heartbeat and dance beat underpinnings.

From afar, you may see only Sam’s confidence. But I was struck by the way he was completely willing to share his vulnerabilities as well. He gave us all a laugh at one point when, fourty-five seconds into a one-minute piece of music, he said, “It seems a lot longer when you’re standing up here.” Later, he told us how this kind of music making “can be incredibly frustrating,” and he shared that his project had made him more conscious of struggles with perfectionism. “Going with the flow is sometimes difficult.” But his music flowed beautifully.

Rumi took up black-and-white portrait photography and her portraits were beautiful to see, several of them blown up and set on easels on the stage. Her ability to speak about the photos like an art critic enhanced the images and wowed the audience.

“It’s not [a close up] face shot, but it’s still a portrait because the photo is all about her and her expression,” Rumi said of one photo. “It’s kind of mysterious, you almost don’t know if she’s laughing or upset,” she said of another.

She continued, “This one looks like he was just interrupted or caught off guard; even though he’s not moving, you can feel the motion of an interrupted action.” And, “This portrait I love because it shows a very real moment. I took this when she was goofing around between shots, so she wasn’t really posing or caring what she looked like; she was just kind of having fun.”  

Rumi took us through more than a dozen photos, and afterward showed us a book of portraits that she had produced to round out her project.  Her project presentation brought a lifelong outward confidence together with a thoughtful, introspective side that not all of us had seen before.

Matthias project could be easily measured in objective numbers, and yet it was one of the most personal journeys undertaken this year. He declared right up front something that no one had heard before: “I always thought of myself as skinny and weak,” Matthias told us. “I wanted to change the way I thought about myself.” Matthias’ project was body building, and two photos of his bare torso, “before and after,” put it all out there for everyone to see. The transformation was clear.

Here are the numbers, before and after:

  • Daily calorie intake: 1,500 up to 2,500.
  • Lifting: squat, 60 lb. to 150 lb.
    • bench press, 45 lb. to 110 lb.
    • trap bar deadlift, 80 lb. to 200 lb.
  • Overall body weight: 116 lb. to 132 lb.

The numbers are impressive, but as Matthias himself said, getting stronger and putting on weight were only one part of the goal. “My real goal was to feel better about myself in my own skin.” Spontaneously dropping down to the stage for some extreme push ups following a prod by the audience, it was clear that Matthias was comfortable in his own skin.

Nicholas is well known as a highly intelligent, thoroughly accomplished student, so when he walked onto the stage, I was guessing that his eighth-grade project would be in the realm of physics, Latin or Greek. What a surprise when he stood up his tri-fold to reveal a picture of he and his 95-year-old great-grandmother cooking a meal together in Romania.

Nico had studied advanced cooking for his eighth-grade project, and this included a visit to his great grandmother over winter break. She taught him “a lot of what she knows” about traditional Romanian recipes, including fourty-five recipes that he took home and turned into a homemade cookbook. Pursuing his topic assiduously, Nico read widely and cooked through the year with his local mentor, studying many aspects of cooking and cuisine — ingredients, seasonings, techniques such as sautéing, simmering, and roasting, as well as history and culture.

Nico invented some dishes, and challenged his palate with others (African stew he liked, parmesan stuffed dates wrapped in bacon…he did not). And he learned that cleaning as you go “is very useful.” In fact, Nico highlighted the clean-as-you-go proposition; he learned that it is the best way to avoid “a sink piled high with dishes that no one wants to clean up afterwards.”

When he is not in class, Samuel often can be found playing hard outside on the blacktop. But on this night he was on stage singing an aria from Handel’s 1743 oratorio, Samele. Samuel studied voice and singing for his eighth-grade project, and this was the first time he had ever sung by himself in front of an audience. “I didn’t know that my mouth was going to be so dry,” he said after the experience. “And that made it a lot more difficult.”

Originally, Samuel had envisioned a project in which he took up the ukulele, with singing to accompany. But circumstances changed, he found a strong voice mentor, and quickly learned “that singing is a lot more complicated than I thought.”  In each lesson, Samuel exercised his breathing, discussed the technical side of vocal production, and sang a formal song for bass voice, Handel’s “Leave Me, Loathsome Light.”

Standing on stage comfortably with his hands at his side, Samuel sang this pleading song for us. In an operatic style – few words but lots of notes! —  the singer begs not to be woken up. “Leave me, loathsome light! Receive me, silent night,” he sang.

Like his classmates, Samuel didn’t just study something new, he also presented to an audience in a way he never had before, taking his growing individuality out of the classroom and into the wider world.

Jack, a regular on the talent show stage, is already known for his ability to stand up in front of an audience unafraid, to speak honestly and to make people laugh. For his presentation this time he alternated between the stage and video clips to demonstrate much of what he learned about outdoor survival skills. In one clip, for example, he laid out all of the contents of a survival-worthy, lightweight backpack – rope, a lightweight hammock, a multi-use tarp, etc. – and, in another, he successfully strung up a sleeping hammock with a rain-proof cover.  An audience favorite was the tourniquet applied to Dad’s arm—”fake blood, he said in response to a nine-year-old’s question later that night.

Back on stage, Jack brought some of his gear to life, explaining a magnesium or a ferrocerium fire-starting rod, for example — even striking a few big sparks — and then took us back to the video to illustrate the successful igniting and kindling of a small fire. “I’d expected it to be super frustrating,”  Jack said, but “I was able to start the fire …  after only three tries.” Following his presentation, children from the audience crowded around to look at his gear; holding up his spark-maker to a thrilled third-grader, he said, “You want to give it a try?”

From our very first parent-and-child classes here at our Waldorf school, we are encouraged to take time to observe our children from some distance, to see what they present to the world rather than assume who they are or who they should be. During this year’s eighth-grade project presentations, the students stepped into the vulnerable experience of public speaking with a willingness to reflect on what they had accomplished, including what they had struggled with and what their own learning experience was like. To echo the sentiments Rebecca Rugo relayed at the end of the evening, I wish to say thank you to all of the eighth graders, particularly for their willingness to reflect on themselves and to share that with all of us.

By James Kennedy, eighth-grade parent and nursery assistant at Waldorf School at Moraine

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