(Photos by Nathalie Austin ’18 and Jessica Rice)
“Why do we need to know this?” — the cursed query that any educator worth their salt has heard and had to answer. However, not every teacher gets to hear, “I want to learn this!” That phrase, in essence, is the driving force behind the Capstone program at BASIS Chandler.
Five years ago I had the unique opportunity to take the reins of a BASIS Chandler class of my own. Teaching Honors Language and Literature to a bunch of freshman who aspire to be the next wave of research scientists, engineers, and doctors was a trial by fire—they pushed me, and I pushed back.
They questioned the use for rhetorical analysis, the importance of poetry in modern life, the need to write beyond a simple text message, the relevance of social commentary in fictional prose. Over the course of that year I pushed back with David Foster Wallace, Hunter S. Thompson, Billy Collins, Jack Kerouac, moments when the emoji failed. What started as a shoving match of ideas, ideals, and passion soon precipitated into a partnered ballet of reasoned inquiry and abstract thought.
Whether I thrived that first year or simply survived is still a solid question. But when the dust settled, what became clear to me was that I was ready and raring for another round the following year, this time as one of the AP Language and Composition teachers with the freshmen-turned-sophomores in my care once more. Then in year three I taught a creative writing elective and, surprise-surprise, some familiar juniors showed up on my roster. It didn’t take long for those students to ask if I’d teach a capstone course to them when they were seniors.
The only impression I had of capstones at the time was that to teach one was as flattering as it was challenging. The research-based curriculum is written by the instructor and only given a green light if students choose to enroll.
Try as I did to come up with a class idea on my own, each one fell like a dart against a glass board. So I met with a handful of my juniors and asked them in an effort to find a catalyst for my capstone, “What do you want to learn?”
What transpired the following year was a journey into the more nuanced elements of rhetoric in pop culture where we explored a variety of traditional and not so traditional subjects and texts such as, Gonzo journalism, stand-up comedy, and rock music. My students learned about the cultural impacts of each element we examined while deciphering the value hidden in the plethora of artifacts we found. Every unit culminated in students researching, creating, and presenting artifacts of their own creation.
Some of the wildest work included an epic mockumentary featuring student opinions of a mobile safe space, a self-reflective stand-up comedy routine focused on the misconceptions of culture and race, and an in-depth look at the impacts of anime culture in modern teen and adult society. The class was a righteous success! As word spread about what was happening in Rhetoric in Our Time (RIOT), the more I was asked by students from 9th to 11th grade if I would be teaching RIOT in 2017 and subsequent years. I was flattered and equally stumped; how would I ever recreate a class of such epic proportions?
I’m fortunate to work with some of the most creative individuals whose capacity for thinking beyond convention is inspiring. I was able to speak with some of them about the capstone program at BASIS Chandler.
“A capstone is a course where the teacher has the opportunity to steer one of the BASIS Curriculum core content areas towards his or her own passions,” fellow English teacher and department head Andrew Sterbenz told me when I asked about what ‘capstone’ means to him. He is making waves with his art and cinema capstone this year. “Because students get to pick their capstones there exists a level of engagement and discourse that is remarkable.”
Veteran capstone teacher and fellow varsity basketball coach Matt Smith shared his insight and what brings him back to capstones year after year. “I love working with our seniors. Having taught them all in 11th grade, I relish the chance to be the final stopgap between them and college. Professionally, the opportunity to share my passion for sports and pop culture in an academic setting is a true reward. Few schools entrust teachers to design their own additions to the established curriculum, and I am grateful for the freedom.” Mr. Smith believes all capstone students should leave with “two words: thinking and writing. No matter the discipline a BASIS Chandler senior will study in college, the ability to think and write will distinguish them from the herd.”
The benefits of the capstone program transcend the two trimesters of classroom instruction. “A capstone should be preparing our kids for the actual college experience—not just content, but classroom responsibilities, commitment, independent work, and in-class mentality,” college counselor Shawn Gathas told me. “Capstones should be part of the evidence we offer colleges that our seniors are doing big things — and not coasting or slacking off for the last year.”
The student-to-teacher ratio at BASIS Chandler is conducive to classes like capstones. Like many of my fellow capstone teachers I’ve had the opportunity and pleasure of teaching the seniors in my capstones for multiple years. I’ve had students graduate having taken six classes with me over four years. This level of familiarity with seniors, not just as students but also as individuals, makes the environment in class electric. All of us who work with seniors want the capstones to give our students going into life outside of BASIS Chandler a unique academic experience as well as a sense of accomplishment as a scholar and the feeling of validation at the conclusion of a demanding high school career.
Many of my juniors last year discovered that I am a musician, and a music producer, outside of BASIS Chandler. In turn, I knew some of them were musicians themselves, and many had an interest in music beyond the conventional music theory and performance class. In my early twenties I went to school for sound engineering in hopes that when I left the stage I could continue to play a part in the creation of killer music. I went back to some of my old textbooks and saw a bigger opportunity than just giving the students something fun and challenging in a capstone.
I saw the interdisciplinary aspect of a capstone in sound engineering research and application. I made some notes and brainstormed ideas with my juniors and this year Sound Engineering Research and Application (SERA) was born.
SERA incorporates the physics and acoustics involved in music with the more humanities-based scholarship of advanced topic research and class presentations. Right out of the gate students were required to write a letter of intent, explicitly stating their expectations of the class and personal method for success in a college level classroom environment. In order to advance in the program each student was required to have a humanities teacher and a STEM teacher sign off on the letter.
The motivation of each of my students was clear. “I joined this class to learn how to operate audio recording software so I can gain a better understanding of sound manipulation before I start my own YouTube channel,” said Tyler Gathas ’18. I have a student who wants to run a studio of their own someday. Others want to know how what they hear online or over the radio works, and still others want to become music producing hobbyists. All of my SERA students want be challenged and learn. Each of them wants a highly engaging environment.
When we were halfway through our first trimester, it was clear that my students were working tirelessly. We spent a month breaking down the anatomy of signal flow and waves, learning digital audio workstation software, working with our own analogue and digital hardware, and building a level of comfort with the conventions of live track recording.
After a succession of theory quizzes and tests, my SERA students were ready to apply what they had been researching, and record and mix their first song. We had all of the instruments we needed to record including acoustic and electric guitars, bass guitars, and vocals. Each day the class would track a new part of the song under the direction of a different student engineer who operated the hardware and software needed to record.
Live in the classroom my students have successfully recorded and mixed two songs. They not only engineered their own sessions, but also had to present their work in class. Each recording session required students to follow an intensely detailed rubric, and in the post-production stage reflect and write about their success and shortcomings.
In mid-October students propose their capstone research, where they will take an in-depth look at an aspect of sound and music of their own choosing, with the goal of testing their idea and analyzing the results, and arriving at a satisfying conclusion. Whether or not my students continue on their journey in music is up to them. But it’s the process that is driving what we’re doing: the methodology and work they put into the class every day will give them a sense of success and satisfaction that I have no doubt will help them in their future endeavors, in college, and in life.
Between SERA and the other amazing capstones at BASIS Chandler, the Class of 2018 will be one of the best graduating cohorts in the community. And it’s not just great for the students who will move on to college life and professional careers. One of the greatest benefits of an amazing group like this one is what is passed on to the proceeding classes. The younger students, rising as they do, will see the culminating benefits of the BASIS Curriculum and rather than ask, “Why must I learn this?” will declare, “I can’t wait to learn that!”
Ian Hunthausen has been teaching at BASIS Chandler since 2013. He is the Honors and AP Language teacher, varsity girls basketball coach, and still works as a musician and music producer.
Jessica Rice has been at BASIS Chandler since 2015. She teaches 5th grade Introduction to Science, 6th grade Biology, coaches junior high and varsity track and field. She runs an amateur photography business on the side.
Nathalie Austin is a member of the BASIS Chandler Class of 2018. She’s a busy honor student, community volunteer, and is editor-in-chief of the yearbook.