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The graduation project: research in action.

The need to guide students in gathering and using information to develop crucial skills for life and to gain a broader, more expansive view of society has taken on new meaning in the 21st century.

Librarians and teachers across the nation are examining curricular and educational format changes in order to serve the needs of their students and stakeholders in better ways.

Educators are encouraged to raise the bar in schools and employ new technology to assist 21st century students become independent learners. The National Commission on the High School Senior Year addressed this issue as early as 2001, in the report Raising Our Sights. This report brought specific attention to the need to help students become independent learners, understanding it is necessary to take personal responsibility for one's own education and one's effect within the broader social community.

The American Associations of School Librarians' Standards for 21st Century Learning (2007) provide the structure to meet this need and ultimately educators, families, and communities in an increasingly global community are called upon to unite to guide students in becoming independent learners and taking responsibility for their own education.

Consequently, particular attention has been focused upon students' high school years and the cumulative results of their secondary work. North Carolina proposed, in response to the National Commission's report, the implementation of the NC Graduation Project as a means to initiate curricular change and help students develop the skills needed for lifelong learning. The North Carolina Graduation project was officially approved and adopted as a component of the North Carolina High School Exit Standards in 2010. This component was scheduled to be implemented with the freshmen class who entered in the 2006-07 school year and are now the class of 2010.


The project provides a vehicle for students to demonstrate their capacity for research, creative thinking, rigorous analysis, and clear written and oral communication skills. Students will select a topic, project, or field of interest to concentrate on in order to fulfill the four components of the project as they showcase a portfolio of the skills gained throughout high school. Components of the project include:

Paper: topic approved by school-based committee

Product: related to a research paper




Jamesville High School (JHS), a small rural high school in North Carolina, incorporated the High School Graduation project in the curriculum in advance of the official state mandated date in order to gain a working knowledge of and comfort with the pending requirement. A review of the literature revealed a few studies of graduation project implementation within the state (Lowder, 2008). Egelson, Robertson, and Smith (2002) in a survey of North Carolina Graduation Projects, examined findings related to the components of the projects. Bond, Egelson, Harman & Harman (2002) also analyzed skill development as a result of students going through the process. However, little information is available in the literature regarding the roles of faculty and collaborative professional partners in developing and implementing High School Graduation Projects.

In an effort to address this gap in the literature, the authors of this article, a high school English teacher and a teacher-librarian, developed an action research project exploring the collaborative roles of teachers, librarians, and community members in the implementation of High School Graduation Projects. In addition to seeking information on the various roles, the authors identified and analyzed responses from students, providing significant insight into the students' perspectives. The authors also identified the challenges that face small schools in meeting the demands of the graduation project requirements.

The specified focus of this action research should prove helpful to other educators, especially those in rural settings, as they begin implementation.


Research has shown that assignments collaboratively planned produce a higher degree of meaning, significance, and authenticity (Gross & Kientz, 1999) for students. Gall, Gall, and Borg (2003) define action research as a form of applied research whose primary purpose is the improvement of an educational professional's own practice. An action research project approach was used in this rural high school.

The purpose of this research was to enhance and improve collaborative partnerships and to improve instructional techniques. Criteria were collaboratively designated by school faculty members for use as guidelines in the approval of project topics. Collaborating teachers developed a rubric based upon the foundational questions of the study. Exit surveys and interviews were conducted with participants to provide both qualitative and quantitative data.


Initially, the faculty of JHS met to discuss the Graduation Project and formed a committee to review and approve students' suggested topics and ask foundational questions based upon AASL's 21st Century Standards:

1. Does the student have the right proficiencies to explore the selected topic further?

2. Is the student disposed to higher-level thinking and engaged in the critical thinking process sufficiently to gather and share knowledge?

3. Is the student aware of self-accountability?

4. Will the student recognize personal strengths/weaknesses in the process of the project?

Criteria were predetermined by the committee to aid in critiquing topics and to ensure fairness in approving or disapproving topics (see text box 1).

If, for any reason, topics were not acceptable, the committee worked with the student to suggest alternatives or revisions that could make the topic acceptable for that student. After the topics were approved and parental permission forms signed, mentors or experts in the students' chosen field were considered. The teacher-librarian and school counselor were excellent resources to help in the identification of mentors. From that point on, students began the research component of the process.


Schools that rely on the isolated teacher/ classroom model find it challenging to meet the needs of 21st century learners (Kuhlthau, Maniotes, & Caspari, 2007) and may not adequately connect inquiring students to the resources and information they need. Students who have depended upon a teacher to give them facts and information to memorize and recite back as needed, may find it difficult to begin an independent process such as the Graduation Project. The process may seem ambiguous and confusing to students making anxiety inevitable (Kuhlthau, 2004). In response, a collaborative team approach, bringing specialization and multiple instructional perspectives together, provides a plan to facilitate the process for students (Kuhlthau, Maniotes, & Caspari, 2007).

Prior use of research techniques is essential. The role of the teacher-librarian is integral in this component of the process. JHS students had previously utilized I-Search for independent research on past projects under the guidance of the teacher-librarian and English teacher. I-Search provided a solid framework for many, from which to begin work on the graduation project. Big Six, I-Search and other research strategies taught through a history of collaborative work among teachers and teacher-librarians assure that students have the skills needed to begin a project of this magnitude. Ethical copyright practices, taught and modeled by teacher-librarian and teachers, must also be firmly engrained by this point in the students' education. And as always, continuity calls for a specified writing style to be adhered to by all students. In this case, Modern Language Association (MLA) was the designated style students used.

Having a solid foundation in research techniques, seniors began the task of gathering information on their selected topic. Steps toward research demand a collaborative effort with both teacher and teacher-librarian as strong participants (see Textbox 2).

Primarily, writing the research paper component came under the auspices of the English teacher, who included this in her curriculum. She was able to guide, advise, and critique papers throughout the process, helping the student while teaching from the Standard Course of Study. Significant concerns such as copyright issues, writing styles, and citation formats were addressed both in the classroom and in the media center. Final drafts of the research paper were approved and distributed among the faculty graduation project committee, which was designated as reviewers.

Identification of mentors was largely facilitated by research findings in many cases, as students identified someone through their research who could further guide them in the project. Students' was clearly evident at this point in the project.


Selected examples from the Case Study

Students' project choices often reveal much about them and their lives. For instance, one student, Bobby, who grew up near the Roanoke River, decided to research the different types of boats that have traveled the Roanoke over the years. For his project, he decided to build a one-man jon boat. Although midway through the semester some members of the project committee were worried he might have taken on a Herculean task, but by "Jamesville High School Senior Presentation Night," Bobby truly impressed the judges with his work. He was clearly committed to his project and refused to give up during times of difficulty--when the damp wood on his boat burst in sections because of the cold, he adjusted his plan and went back to work. His mother allowed him to rebuild and paint the boat in their living room! On senior presentation night, Bobby's father helped him bring his boat into the library and stood outside the door so he could hear his son's speech. When the judges asked Bobby how he propelled the small boat, Bobby commented, "You never want to be up the creek without a paddle, so I made one, but I left it in the truck." When his father heard this comment, he ran back to the truck and asked a teacher to discreetly carry the paddle in to Bobby. This example shows parent support and the positive teacher/parent/community interaction the graduation project can generate. Though Bobby was initially worried when he learned he would have to complete a graduation project, he seemed to be the most proud of what he had accomplished when it was over.

Another interesting example reflects the support businesses and community members willingly give. Regina's father is a veteran, so for her research, she studied the psychological effects of war on soldiers. She organized a dinner theater to raise money to buy phone cards for soldiers who would be deployed from a nearby Armory. Before the event, Regina spent many hours calling to request contributions from local businesses. Two flags donated by a local service organization were used as table decorations. A community restaurant donated utensils and a local deejay loaned her sound equipment, and she got permission to use the cafeteria free of charge. Regina organized performances by adults and young people in her community and asked members of her church, school, and family to help prepare food. She showed honor to the veterans in attendance and raised $750. On the exit survey, in expressing her feelings about her project, Regina said, "I'm glad I had the chance to give back to my community before I leave [for college].... The experiences will go with me beyond college, and I'm appreciative to have had this opportunity."

Graduation projects also help students realize what they are NOT interested in before spending time and money on an expensive hobby or a career that might not appeal to them later. For example, Alice, who made a memory quilt out of special tee shirts, was quite proud of her project. However, she revealed, "If I had to make another quilt, I'd know how to, but quilting will definitely not become a new hobby of mine." In addition, Charlotte, a student who plans to major in nursing, wrote, "I really enjoyed my experience and was able to see the different environments of health care facilities." She shadowed in two different hospitals and volunteered at a nursing home. She further states, "From this experience I was able to see that the nursing home is not somewhere that I want to work. From my experiences at the hospitals and the nursing home I was able to understand why there is a nursing shortage."


This project sought to promote and strengthen collaborative partnerships among students, faculty and the community. In order to do this, feedback from all of these stakeholders was collected and inferences were made from this data. The findings of this action research revealed some strengths and challenges in developing collaborative relationships in a small rural high school.

Student Responses

Though 73% of our students answered that they felt worried, stressed, or intimidated by the project in the beginning, upon completion of the projects, students' comments were mostly positive. In fact, one student who assisted handicapped children in therapeutic horseback riding at a local stable continues to volunteer her time there weekly.
Textbox 1: Criteria for Topic Choice

Project ...

* Will be student-chosen and student-designed

* Can be either tangible or intangible

* Should be a "learning stretch"

* Must be based on research presented
in a paper

* Requires a minimum of 15 hours of
active service

* May be career, hobby, or

* Will allow documentation of work

Many of the students agreed or strongly agreed that their writing, research, presentation, goal-setting, and self esteem improved as a result of graduation project participation:

* 48% reported improved determination

* 35% reported more confidence in public speaking

However, 9% admitted time management was the most challenging aspect of the project. (This is not surprising since in our small school many of these students are either heavily involved in sports or have after-school jobs.)

On the survey, 82% of students reported that their mentors were their greatest resource during this process. Fifty percent of students already knew their mentors; another 25% had help from a teacher in identifying a mentor. In other cases, students found mentors through coworkers or church members or by calling local hospitals. Eighty-six percent of students said the mentor provided the greatest assistance in sharing knowledge; 36% reported that mentors even shared tools or other items necessary to complete the project.
Textbox 2: Steps to Begin Research

* Identification of Topic

* Framing of Questions

* Location of Resources

* Evaluation of Resources

* Primary Source Identification as

* Familiarity with MLA

* Plagiarism Awareness and Prevention

Jack, a student who propagated coral explained, "My mentors were able to help me when I needed them but they also let me learn from my mistakes." The mentors were also important in providing advice and answering questions during the completion of the project. Twenty-three percent of the mentors came to offer support and to hear their students' presentations.

Regarding parent perception, 91% of the students surveyed reported a positive reaction from their parents about the project from the very beginning; 36% of the students said that their parents offered them no help on the project. Others commented that their parents helped by taking pictures or video at various stages of the project to provide pictorial evidence for the portfolios. Still others said parents helped with transportation and encouragement and by watching them practice their presentations.

Faculty and Staff Responses

Many staff members have become involved in the process; at a small school, it is best to have as many of the staff involved as are willing to participate. Through our experiences, staff members observed the following:

* Enhanced interaction between student and parent

* Increased school staff involvement

* Increased community support of staff and students

* Increased respect and appreciation among school departments

* Increased student pride in their work.

Teachers and staff have been pleased by the challenge the project presents the students and most cite the many skills necessary to complete the project as its strength. One of our business teachers and committee members observed that "the graduation project is an excellent opportunity for the students to showcase their talents and abilities. They get to show their organizational skills, research skills, communication skills, and the ability to work with others. They have to plan what they want to do which involved setting goals and considering options. They must determine the feasibility of the proposal and determine the time and costs involved before making their final project selections. They must work with a mentor, which involves time management and communication skills. The seniors must present their project to a panel of judges which measures their ability to communicate effectively and to stand and share information with a group. They are asked questions which measures their ability to 'think on their feet,' These are excellent employment skills, which will be very useful to the students as they further their education and begin their careers." Our guidance counselor added that "after completion of the project, students have broad base knowledge, can communicate effectively, make wise and informed decisions, understand and appreciate diversity, and learn to be responsible citizens.... These skills are essential in post-secondary institutions and in the business world. Students listen to constructive criticism and respond in a mature and appropriate manner."

Community Responses

Our community judges were supportive of the students. They asked pertinent questions and were very fair in their scoring. There was very little disparity between teacher judges' scores and those of community members. They took a genuine interest in what the students learned. One judge asked to be called back for the next semester projects. Furthermore, upon viewing the portfolio of the student who created the quilt, one judge, a member of a quilting group, wanted a copy of the student's research paper on Amish quilting. Some judges even offered tips on ways to improve for next time. We had scheduled students in separate rooms and left their portfolios in each accordingly, and so one judge stated, "I enjoyed the refreshments that were available as the judges arrived, l think it would have been nice to have all the portfolios available for the judges to look at as they were enjoying the refreshments." A built-in break time was also suggested to allow catch up time in case the projects begin to run behind schedule.


Small school settings offer particular benefits for the graduation project. Though funding may be limited in small schools, the family-like atmosphere often produces a strong community of support. Administrators should make every effort to encourage each member of the staff to participate. Full support and investment of the administration and faculty is essential. It is also critical that the administration recognizes and supports flexibility in organizing planning meetings to encourage involvement of stakeholders with multiple responsibilities.

Teacher-librarians prepare the foundation to help seniors with the learning stretch by ensuring that:

* Information literacy skills have been firmly integrated in the school curriculum.

* Twenty first century skills are the focus of the cumulative school-wide education process.

* Research strategies are taught through a sequence of collaborative work among teachers and teacher-librarians. (This ensures students have the skills needed for the project).

* School-wide adherence to ethical copyright practices, taught and modeled by teacher-librarian/teachers.

* Students' anxiety is relieved by making clear what citation and writing styles are required for the project and that they are familiar with them.

Faculty members can be academic advisors, help students find mentors, be lead judges or teacher judges at presentations, or help with organizing rooms with the appropriate audiovisual equipment. Teachers and staff can provide constructive criticism before senior presentations occur.

Obstacles faced in implementation

One obstacle smaller communities might encounter is lack of adequate mentors. Not surprisingly, as this was a small rural school, resources and resource people were limited. Students faced fewer opportunities to partner with an expert in the field. Small schools are usually in small communities with fewer available adult mentors necessitating that school staff assist students in looking beyond the local community.

Despite a limited number of civic organizations and/or mentors, we overcame the hurdle through technology and thoughtful planning. For example, students took advantage of email and the telephone stay in contact and communicate with mentors.


Staff development is essential for a successful implementation of the graduation project. It is important to enlighten faculty about the origin of the project and the rationale for the project. Prepare for key areas of responsibility by seeking guidelines and training for respective roles. The success of the project calls for clear guidelines and expectations for mentors and reviewers/judges and a designated project coordinator is also key to success.

Online conferencing can support students with the mentoring component by making people, even in other countries, available to serve as mentors. This would be especially helpful in rural or deprived areas.


The process and outcomes of the action research project focused on exploring collaborative relationships among faculty, students, and community members in implementing the High School Graduation Project. In analyzing the feedback from all stakeholders revealed that in this small, rural high school, the sense of community and cohesive network of support promoted a strong sense of investment in the success of the students' projects. The mentors and the ensuing relationships were highly valued by students and contributed to positive perceptions of students, faculty, and community members. As a result, students were encouraged to participate and their success has the potential to translate into increased self-esteem and positive views of learning.

Further exploration into the effect of the collaborative involvement of all stakeholders is needed for continued improvement of the Project's implementation process and for improving academic and social outcomes for students.

Therefore, the authors plan to replicate their research after statewide implementation takes effect. An expanded study looking at individual schools within the district may provide further data to help improve and enhance this new graduation requirement for high school seniors.


American Association of School Librarians. (2007). Standards for 21st century learning. Retrieved from http://www.ala. org/ala/mgrps/divs/aasl/aaslproflools/ learningstandards/AASL_Learning_Standards_2007.pdf

Bond, S., Egelson, P., Harman, P., & Harman, S. (2002). A Preliminary study of senior project programs in selected North Carolina high schools. Greensboro, NC: South Eastern Regional Vision for Education.

Egelson, P., Robertson, C., & Smith, S. (2002). NC senior project survey results. Greensboro, NC: South Eastern Regional Vision for Education.

Gall, M., Gall, J., & Borg, W. (2003). Educational research: An introduction, 7th. Ed. MA: Pearson Education.

Gross, J. & Kientz, S. (1999). Developing information literacy: Collaborating for authentic learning. Teacher Librarian, 27(1), 21-25.

Kuhlthau, C. (2004). Seeking meaning: A process approach to library and information services. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Kuhlthau, C., Maniotes, L., & Caspari, A. (2007). Guided inquiry: Leaning in the 21st century. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Lowder, C. M. (2008). Top 10 ways for a smooth graduation project implementation. The High School Journal, 92(1), 41-45.

Raising our sights: No high school senior left behind. Final report, National Commission on the High School Senior Year Senior Year Report. (2001). The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation: Princeton, NJ.

Dr. Kaye B. Dotson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Library Science at East Carolina University. She has served over 20 years in public school libraries. She is the author of Developing Library Leaders: The Impact of the Library Science Internship (2009). She may be contacted at

Cynthia Grimes has taught secondary English at Jamesville High School for eighteen years and became a National Board Certified Teacher in 2000. She may be contacted at

Articles in TL are blind refereed by members of the advisory board. This article was submitted in August, 2009 and accepted in February, 2010.
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Author:Dotson, Kaye; Grimes, Cynthia
Publication:Teacher Librarian
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1U5NC
Date:Apr 1, 2010
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