While reading the Little House on the Prairie series to my children, I have learned that in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s day students were obliged to demonstrate to the entire community their mastery of their subjects: history, geography, math, and literature. This demonstration took place in public and was a great civic celebration and matter of pride. The students were evaluated in front of friends and family, neighbor and mentor; key to the success of the demonstration was the students’ commitment to and passion for their subjects and the effectiveness of the teacher’s own passion and commitment.
The Asheville School, in Asheville, North Carolina, holds its students similarly accountable. The Senior Demonstration, or Demo, is a rite of passage that gives them the opportunity to demonstrate their mastery of written, oral, analytic, and research skills—skills essential for college, work, and life success. Students explore a topic of interest, whether chosen from a list of over 150 topics or self-selected. To meet the requirements of the Demo, they write two analytic papers, the second of which requires the use of secondary sources, and keep a reading journal. The project culminates in an oral defense of the work before a faculty panel.
Projects in recent years have ranged from studies of such traditional writers as Dante, Shakespeare, Austen, and Lawrence to investigations of more contemporary authors, such as Anne Tyler, Eudora Welty, Allan Gurganus, and Gabriel García Márquez. Students have also designed interdisciplinary projects combining interests in, for example, literature and medicine or illness and death. Other topics have included the Manhattan Project, relativity, medieval music, the blues, even punk music.
Given the range of possible topics, the self-directed aspect of the program, and the rigor of working collaboratively with a faculty sponsor, the school’s gifted students generally enjoy the Demo process the most. Although the Demo challenges all of the school’s college prep students to meet a high standard of achievement, those with the strongest passions and academic interests often experience the greatest intellectual growth and forge the closest intellectual partnerships with the faculty members. The expansiveness of the process, moreover, allows a student to become something of an expert in his or her area.
At year’s end the students engage in a public discussion of their topics. They question peers who have studied the psychology of Freud and Jung or the poetry of Pablo Neruda. This give-and-take colloquy is one of the most exciting aspects of the spring semester, a chance for pure intellectual fascination to play out without assessments or evaluations.
The Demo has engaged students even beyond their time at the school. One student’s examination of illness served her at a personal level when she developed Hodgkin’s disease in college. After her recovery, she returned to college and undertook an independent, interdisciplinary course of study in the same topic as her senior Demo. Her work on the Demo gave her a stable framework for dealing with her own health, served as the basis of a course of inquiry in her undergraduate major, and led to her interest in pediatric oncology as she finishes medical school. She exemplifies what such a program may entail for curious, committed gifted students. The citizens of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s famous town would be proud.
Jay Bonner has served in various capacities at the Asheville School, including English teacher, dean of faculty, coach of the soccer and basketball teams, and now associate head of the school.