Ellie and the Georgics
Yearlong, in-depth, interdisciplinary studies like this make regular appearances in college course catalogs; they’re less likely to pop up at the high school level. When students like Ellie come along, however, the Deerfield faculty steps up to help meet the challenge. “We feel an obligation to extend ourselves for any student who exhausts an area of study,” says Academic Dean Peter Warsaw. “Tutorials aren’t new—they’re the Oxford model.” But it was synergistic that Ellie’s project happened along when it did. As part of Imagine Deerfield, the strategic plan that the Academy has been drafting and implementing for the past several years, a recommendation had been put forward to implement senior capstone courses: self-designed, independent projects that would give students the chance to synthesize the separate elements of their Deerfield career. To that end, Ellie is blazing a trail. “It’s something that’s been in the air,” Warsaw says. “But it’s been tricky to get it on the ground without a tangible example. We’ve been waiting for the right moment, and that moment came with a really extraordinary student who was ready for something more.”
"The Georgics are complex and philosophical," Ellie says. With the help of Savage and Burke, she analyzes the poem, word by word.
Just as Ellie was ready for a greater challenge, Warsaw points out that Deerfield is gearing up for the greater challenges that face all of its students. “The senior capstone project is a work in progress,” he explains. It’s still in the theoretical stage, but Warsaw and his colleagues see the potential—a student could write a piece of musical composition, or put together a series of paintings. Whatever form a project takes, Warsaw says the unifying element will be in the exposition—a student’s written analysis of the work he or she puts forth. It’s this analysis that gets to the heart of the matter. “What should we be teaching in the twenty-first century, after all?” Warsaw asks. Facts are vital, but given the technology available to most people today—in some cases literally at one’s fingertips, via smart phone—Warsaw thinks the Academy needs to go a step farther. “The premium is now on the ability to think flexibly, creatively, and metaphorically,” he emphasizes, “and to draw connections between disparate topics.” And this is what happens when a student takes pen to paper and writes a detailed, thoughtful, scrupulously researched analysis. “Writing a substantial paper is a great ally in learning to take a meta approach to a project. It forces students to explicate—to others, but also to themselves.”
So far, though, the capstone course is still just an idea—partly for pragmatic reasons. The work Savage and Burke are undertaking with Ellie cannot be replicated for every other student in the school: There are only so many hours in the week. “The labor involved in shepherding students through this kind of project . . . ” Warsaw sighs. “We don’t have the manpower. We will have to find creative ways to fund people to oversee these projects. I’m excited, though, because a student like Ellie forces the conversation.”
There’s something mildly ironic, Warsaw admits, about Ellie’s project being grounded in the classics, given that the capstone course model is geared toward twenty-first century learning. “All this, in the context of reading Virgil!” he laughs. But the fundamentals remain, well, fundamental. Relevance hides within the oldest, more obscure texts, waiting to be revealed in the scope of students’ everyday lives. Ellie happened upon this truth by accident. “I chose it almost by random,” Ellie laughs in retrospect. She was attracted to the bucolic subject matter, she explains—line after line devoted to trees, planting, the cycle of the seasons. But, she now realizes, “The Georgics are complex and philosophical. They question the nature of work and the political climate. There’s a lot of resonance with current events, actually.” Savage agrees. “There are a lot of convergences,” he says. “The themes intersect with farming, agriculture, ethical practices, environmental stewardship—the Georgics overlaps with what could be called a Michael Pollan sensibility.”