I vividly remember being a wide-eyed ninth grader at Grace. The nerve-wracking prospect of making new friends, crossing my fingers that I got my teachers’ names right as I waved to them in the hallways, and waiting in long lines for lunch were all very daunting. But one project I would have to face as part of the high school curriculum loomed over me. A right of passage that all Grace students must complete. A project that refuses to be defined by a grade and one that teaches skills that surpass anything that could be learned in a classroom. This project is March Madness.
March Madness is a year-long independent project completed as a sophomore where students are encouraged to pursue a topic that excites them, most often in a field that they plan to explore in the future. Other than their first period classes, students are essentially given the first two weeks off from regular school in March to work on their personal projects.
“To be honest, the last two weeks of school before spring break are the least effective teaching weeks of the year, so taking that and doing something different is not something only Grace has taken advantage of” explains Mr. Davison, Head of School.
The Grace High School is renowned as the “new old school” as the Middle School opened in 1894 as a boys choir school. Mr. Davison spearheaded the construction of the High School which opened in 2012. March Madness was always integral to his vision of what the High School would be. The inspiration behind March Madness came from the Dwight School, an International Baccalaureate school which his son attended. The idea immediately appealed to him because of the many benefits a project of this nature can provide.
“If you as a student are engaged in a process of independent study, you carry that over to other subjects. Too often in school students are asking ‘tell me what to do so I can get the grade I want.’ They fall into a habit of passive learning versus becoming creators of their own learning.” Mr. Davison aims to interrupt this habit by introducing March Madness.
He put his own spin on the project by calling it March Madness and altering the experience for students dramatically in order to make it more manageable.
“They [the Dwight school] didn’t give enough extra time for the final execution of the project, parents were jumping in and helping them complete the project towards the end. This completely undermined their sense of self and the purpose of the project,” recalls Mr. Davison.
For this reason, Mr. Davison made sure he supported the students throughout their process as much as he could. He gathered teachers to act as advisors for students during Wednesday classes, allowed each student a $300 budget if needed, and provided resources such as a 3D printer and woodshop. He also plans to install a recording studio in the basement next year.
“It’s amazing what the students are able to accomplish when you give them the time and resources,” Mr. Davison stated proudly.
Despite these efforts, many students don’t feel the support of the small army that is the Grace community that will encourage and support most topics that the students are excited to explore. For this reason, March Madness is often a source of dread. Mr. Davison sees no reason for this to be the case.
“I haven’t had any student say that they didn’t enjoy it. You can’t fail as long as you try your best,” he assured. “There have only ever been three people who have had to re-do their March Madness projects so far. It’s graded in a thumbs-up/down manner. Your project does not have to succeed.” Mr. Davison smiles as he reminisces about past projects that he is especially fond of. One student thought that it would be fun to train her dog to be a therapy dog as well as go through her own training to become a therapy dog handler. Through her project she learned about her love for animals, and is now a freshman in college in a pre-vet program. Another project that Mr. Davison described was when two students tried to formulate an equation to predict stock prices. Though they did not succeed (“or we’d all be rich” chuckled Mr. Davison), they both went on to pursue engineering and math programs in their respective colleges.
When I asked Mr. Davison what makes an exceptional March Madness project, he didn’t need to ponder the question for a second. He answered clearly, speaking directly and unwaveringly into the mic and said, “The best March Madness projects touch on who you are as a person, and who you aspire to be.”
While the fate of the March Madness Symposium (where students present their final projects to their family and other members of the Grace community) is unknown, the administration has moved the presentation date from April 15th to June 3rd in hopes that the event where 10th graders are recognized for their year-long endeavors will still go on despite the virus.