Students Talk About Talking Leaves

4 min read

This year, Sequoyah High School has begun a new and distinctive co-curricular program called “Talking Leaves.” At the end of each term in the year, students participate in Talking Leaves as a culminating task. Starting next school year, passing the year-end Talking Leaves work will be a requirement for students to advance to the next grade, or for seniors to graduate.

Guided by their advisors, students are expected to complete both a presentation and an essay or set of essays reflecting on their work in one or more classes taken during the year. This work will then be presented to the school community, including peers, parents, and staff.

Student Talking Leaves essays are to be filed in the library so future Sequoyah students could reflect on those essays, and so you could look back and see how far you’ve gotten. Plans for how this archive will be maintained are still being discussed.

Ian Chang, Humanities teacher and member of the Talking Leaves committee (which also includes High School Director Marc Alongi, Head of School Josh Brody, High School math teacher Ronnie Bryan, and High School science teacher Laura Haney), explained that Talking Leaves was based on practices also used at other schools. “A number of us went last year to a school called Wildwood School,” Chang said. “We went to visit their presentations where students reflected in a very specific form on what they have done during the year, and they have to do it to graduate. The initial impulse was to set up something like that, but improve it, make it more consistent with Sequoyah’s ideas.”

Haney agreed, stating that her hopes for the evolution of Talking Leaves include “finding our own spin on the project and making it unique to Sequoyah, more specifically, to Sequoyah’s habits of mind.”

Chang also mentioned other inspirations of the Talking Leaves program, such as a college dissertation or thesis defense and the International Baccalaureate program, which “ends with high school students answering really big questions.”

From these inspirations, teachers and administrators worked to build the skeleton of Talking Leaves into what it is today. “The central idea was for students to use what they’ve learned from all their classes to present to an academic community, but also reflect on their social and emotional development as people,” Chang said.

After one round of Talking Leaves, last January, Jude Davidge, ninth-grader, had internalized that idea. “The purpose of Talking Leaves,” Davidge said, “is to help you reflect on your achievements and how much you’ve grown as a student.”

However, ninth-grader Jay Martin believes that not only is Talking Leaves about academic development, but “finding something that you have a special connection to, and going deeper.” Martin stated that the bigger purpose of Talking Leaves is to try and make your presentation “mean something to other people too, try to affect others with the personal parts of your presentation and share your thoughts and interests with them.”

Tenth-grader Caelum Alanis said the motivation for the project is to “compare what you have learned before, earlier in the year, to what you have learned now. When you look back on your past experiences with new understanding, it changes the way you view the world.”

Not all students share the same conception of Talking Leaves. For example, a ninth-grader who asked to remain anonymous for fear of censure from his peers believes that the process of Talking Leaves is all about the constructive criticism that prepares you for the real world. “People at this school are stubborn,” he stated, “I think sometimes they need to fail in order to realize they are wrong. At the end of Talking Leaves, I want to have created a presentation that no one can poke holes in. I want to have strong, solid ideas backed up with proof.”

Advisors led their advisees through the process of their first Talking Leaves in January. Reflecting on that experience, Haney said that Talking Leaves is meant to “help students realize the academic revelations they have had throughout the year, and synthesize multiple ideas into one overall hypothesis they have developed about how they interact with the world.” However, Chang noticed that students “haven’t had practice reflecting personally about what matters to them in their education. It’s kind of an unfamiliar territory, and it seemed simultaneously valuable and challenging to approach that.”

It seems that students are beginning to learn from their Talking Leaves experiences, and as Alanis said, “it’s taught me that you can’t do work last minute. For this program, you have to go deeper and make it meaningful for you, and I know from now on I won’t procrastinate and will really take it seriously.”

Martin also said, “I’ve learned it is hard to do a Talking Leaves presentation on something you don’t connect to, so it’s important that you are passionate about the subject.”

Chang said, “The idea was to demonstrate that academic inquiry is not a matter of taking classes, but integrating your studies into a theory of the world and knowledge itself. To me, academically, it is the most beautiful thing that the Sequoyah High School is doing. It’s the academic equivalent of SIP [the school’s Social Innovation Program], connecting to the idea that there is a wider world that we are participating in.”

While Talking Leaves continues to evolve, faculty and students alike have visions for its development. Alanis hopes that the program will “become something that students don’t see as a hassle, but will look forward to, and be excited to present to their friends and teachers.”

Haney believes we are already improving. “Last year [last semester] was painful,” she said, “but this term, both the students and the teachers have a better idea of what they are doing.” To that end, Haney, Chang, and math teacher Ronnie Bryan all gave Talking Leaves of their own during morning meetings earlier this year. Haney said, “we have given more time to work, more support, more examples, and have shown students what exactly they are supposed to be doing. They are learning more than they think they are, and sometimes the most frustrating experiences are the most meaningful.”

Chang also noted that frustration might be a part of the goal, rather than a pitfall to be avoided. He said that he wants Talking Leaves to be “the hardest thing students do here, not for some grade, but because this shows that you did something here, or you didn’t.”