January 2016

Project Week 2016
Project Week 2016
“Which geometric shapes have the greatest load-bearing efficiency?

How did technological advancements contribute to a
reimagining of battle tactics in World War I?

How does the desert kingsnake make itself immune to venomous bites?

Why is the Affordable Care Act such a polarizing piece of legislation?

What role did the Viking longship play in medieval European trade?

How does Hezbollah influence Lebanon’s foreign policy? 

These are the kinds of questions that MacLaren students ask and answer each year during Project Week. While their peers across the city return to the classroom after winter break, MacLaren students spent an entire week hunkered down at home with books and websites and notecards, independently pursuing substantive primary-source research. (Presumably some of this research is conducted in pajamas, a mug of hot cocoa in hand.)

It’s an essential part of the MacLaren endeavor: learning for its own sake. Students are not graded on their projects; instead, the fruits of their labors (a research paper in the upper grades; a physical construction plus a shorter research paper in middle school) are carefully reviewed and commented on by the teachers. The point is for students to choose something compelling and immerse themselves in it—deeply, creatively, and with meticulous MLA-style citations.

The results, we find, are stunning. A cunningly made piece of medieval armor. An intricate map of Cote D’Ivoire replete with oil palms and iron ore deposits. An investigation into the Manhattan Project, or the Pullman Strike, or the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or the annexation of Hawaii. Every year we are fairly well awestruck by our students’ capacity to pursue genuine scholarship when given the opportunity.

We rejoined one another on an icy January morning for a boisterous day of learning. Student visited one another’s classes, asking about the materials that went into building an authentic model of an eleventh-century peasant’s hut, or expertly holding forth on the dietary habits of the lesser kudu. At ten o’clock, the student center was filled with loud cracking sounds and cheers as, one by one, the seniors’ balsa-wood bridges, hung with buckets of sand, came to their load-bearing limits and burst into splinters. (This year’s record: 48 pounds.) The students’ pride in one another was visible on their faces.

Aristotle's famous assertion, that “all men by nature desire to know,” is sometimes refuted by well-meaning educators who believe we can only motivate our students by means of some reward, some carrot—A-plus!—we must dangle before their noses if we want to them to learn. All morning long, our students gave the lie to that notion. By their delight in their own work and their admiration of one another’s, by their erudition and their energy, by their satisfaction at having drunk so deeply from the well, they showed us all what it looks like when students are free to fall in love with learning for its own sake: a lovely sight.

View our Project Day photo gallery here.
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