At the end of each semester at Sequoyah’s high school, students participate in the Talking Leaves program, where they research a topic of their choosing that emerges out of one or more of their classes; students then write an essay and give a presentation to an audience of their peers and a faculty panel. In previous years, this program has given a credit/no-credit grade with time to revise the project after the presentations have concluded. However, during this fall 2020 Talking Leaves round, there have been some changes.
Physics teacher Laura Haney, who organizes the Talking Leaves program, explained some of these changes: “We introduced a new checkpoint this round – asking students to find three texts before choosing a thesis, whereas in the past students [chose] a thesis, then [found] evidence to support it. We think that reversing the order will help students realize that their central claim has to arise naturally from the evidence they discussed in their class.” Secondly, students will not receive a grade of “No Credit” this fall. Haney explained that this change has been instituted so that “Students are encouraged to do their best, take risks, be creative, and get feedback they will be able to use in the future. They will still have the chance to earn an Exemplary but will not be penalized if they fail to earn credit. In return, to save the faculty time, and to keep Talking Leaves from extending over the winter break, we are getting rid of the post-presentation revision process for this round.”
Haney recognizes that because this year has been more stressful than usual and full of new changes, it makes sense to think about changes in regards to the Talking Leaves program. “Therefore, we want to relieve the pressure wherever we can without jeopardizing the integrity of the program or keeping students from being ambitious,” Haney said.
Of course, these changes come with a new kind of responsibility. Haney acknowledged that because of the guaranteed pass, some students may choose to not try as hard or to not participate at all. Haney added, however, that such an approach “would be a wasted opportunity for a low-stakes creative shot at Talking Leaves with a chance to get feedback that will be useful in the future.” She also noted that “every Talking Leaves season is a chance to set yourself up for a great recommendation letter from a teacher — you’re giving them something to write about that highlights your passions and sets you apart from others. But if students choose to reprioritize Talking Leaves this season, we’re saying that it’s okay – we understand.”
Sequoyah high school students have shared positive responses to these changes. “I like [it] that you can only pass or get an Exemplary. I think it takes a lot of the pressure off,” 10th grader Leah Haveson noted. “I think that students will still work hard because they wouldn’t want to do really badly in front of their teachers and peers.” Likewise, 10th grader Anna Bluestone noted, “I believe that these changes have helped to relieve some of the most stressful parts of Talking Leaves, and it has also allowed students to really find something that they are passionate about that might have been too risky to do in a ‘normal’ Talking Leaf.” Bluestone also added that this change is positive, saying that: “This change has made it so that if you want to reach for the exemplary you have that option yet if you can’t reach for that right now or other parts of your life are not allowing you to devote as much energy into Ttalking Lleaves you won’t get punished. Some students definitely won’t try as hard but I believe there still is a bar of respect and expectation that comes with presenting a Talking Leaf. So I don’t believe any students are not trying, they are just not trying for an exemplary because they don’t have that time or energy right now (not because they don’t want to).” She also added, “These changes have personally affected me. They have allowed me to really focus my energy (the little I do have) on my main classwork that is very demanding. I have also chosen a topic that I probably wouldn’t have chosen if these were not the circumstances.”