Traveling to Costa Rica and Jordan; studying art alongside professors; practicing Spanish with women immigrants in New Mexico: physics and math teacher Anna Moss's years as a Commonwealth student (Class of 2006) were filled with uncommon independent study. Today, she draws on her education as the faculty coordinator for Project Week, a time for students to pursue one of their interests through an activity of their own design.
"The goal of having students self-direct something—come up with something on their own, imagine something on their own, have a mentor, and follow through with something—is pretty fundamental to Commonwealth," Anna asserts.
As the deadline for 2023 project proposals approaches (Friday, December 2, for students in ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade!), we bring you six tips for approaching the week—or any other kind of self-directed study—based on Anna's experiential-learning expertise.
1. Lean into Your Excitement
Above all, a compelling project should be rooted in something that matters to you—and that will shine through when you share it with others. "We have, twice a year, an assembly where students who are passionate about their project present. The ones that stick out in my mind are often those," Anna says. The presentations she remembers most cover every endeavor imaginable: writing a computer program to track the paths of balls in juggling tricks, staffing the dessert line of a restaurant, walking Revolutionary War battlegrounds. If you have a passion, you can find a project, no matter how esoteric or complex your interest is.
2. Practice Lateral Thinking
You've got an interest, but how will you follow it? When narrowing down the focus of your project, be sure to consider paths outside the most obvious one that could reveal something new about an area you care about. For example, Anna says, the aspiring art scholar might progress from admiring works at home to "painting in an actual museum from a masterpiece" as a model. Or the student interested in architecture and design might ask Anna herself for help finding a professor who does structural tests on 3D-printed concrete. "A good project," she believes, "has a new facet of a topic you've always been interested in."
3. Be Ready to Adapt
When COVID-19 disrupted the routines of daily life (to say the least), Project Week had to pivot, too. "We had to have a really flexible approach," Anna says, remembering the January 2021 Project Week, "because most students weren't comfortable going anywhere, and most places were not comfortable taking anyone."
Collaborating with Commonwealth's alumni/ae relations team, Anna coordinated a week's worth of interactive, hour-long talks—almost seventy-five in total—with past students across six different topic areas. Students gathered in small groups, connected with alumni/ae virtually, and afterwards, developed presentations and reflections of their own. Even as the pandemic recedes, that kind of ingenuity is a reminder that there's nearly always another way to pursue a project, even if your original plans fall through.
Knowing how to introduce an idea from scratch to a stranger is a really good skill, [and] having your first choice say 'I can't take you' is actually good for someone. Getting in the habit of thinking, 'Oh, okay, that won't work out, maybe next year,' is such a good life strategy."
4. Remember: You'll Learn Even More Than You Think
During Project Week, Commonwealth students draw up plans to deepen their knowledge about areas like animation, biogenetics, and linguistics. But underlying that exploration, Anna reminds students, are skills they'll use long after the end of the week--like writing (and following up with) a pitch email to a prospective mentor.
"Knowing how to introduce an idea from scratch to a stranger is a really good skill," she says—and there's even a benefit to that stranger saying "no." "Having your first choice say 'I can't take you' is actually good for someone. Getting in the habit of thinking, 'Oh, okay, that won't work out, maybe next year,' is such a good life strategy."
Experiential learning also teaches you more about what work you do and don't enjoy. Some students, Anna says, will realize that they loathe statistics while working at a research firm or that they'd rather study economics from an academic standpoint than work at a stock exchange. "When you're just testing it out for a week, it's okay if it's boring. And it's actually okay if it's bad! I think it's good to find out what you do and do not like in low-stakes ways."
5. Take a Leap of Faith
Project Week—a time with no classes—is an ideal period to take a risk on something you'd never do otherwise. A chance connection through a Jordanian neighbor launched Anna's favorite Commonwealth project: her trip to Jordan during Senior Projects in March.
"I had genuinely no idea what I was going to do," Anna recalls. "I knew the name of the person who was picking me up. And I arrived, worked in a refugee camp teaching English, and decorated a preschool. On my weekends, I visited national historic sites. And I would never have gotten that opportunity without three weeks off of school where I could travel somewhere and work every day." If you have an opening for a wild leap, why not take it?
6. Don't Fear Failure
For students worried that the best-laid plans in their project proposals will go awry or that they'll make mistakes on the job, Anna offers this mantra: "You can't fail Project Week—other than not doing Project Week." The point is not to be perfect but to grow in learning, even if you finish an internship with more questions than answers, or an experiment has a disappointing finish.
"The most important thing about Project Week to me right now," Anna says, "is that it is not seen as another step to a college admission. If it becomes part of 'how I got into college,' you lose the ability to throw yourself into something and utterly fail. And it matters a lot to me that students get to spend a week doing something and they find out they hated it—or it turns out that they love it, but they know that they never want to do it again. That's great! We've all had those experiences."