Personal progress

IB-MYP Personal Project course for sophomores debuted this year for the first time as an elective. 
Each summer before a new academic year starts in the fall, the curriculum at all three Notre Dame schools is evaluated to determine if the courses offered to students in pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade are accomplishing their stated goals. This is especially important for Notre Dame's International Baccalaureate classes since IB is the school's signature academic program.

According to Melissa Archer, an English teacher at ND Prep, the Personal Project course, a key component of the IB-Middle Years Program, was overdue for a change.

"The Exhibition, which is the culmination of a student's work during the Personal Project class, always receives positive responses from those who attend," she said. "But for these students, who are required to complete their projects on a designated and aggressive schedule, preparing for Exhibition tends to add undue stress to their already busy schedules. Therefore, we revised our approach to this IB component and now offer it as an elective to sophomores, and a small evening celebration on January 30 will replace the massive exhibition at the end of the semester."

Elective vs. required

Archer said that like any required task, the Personal Project course is something one is told to do instead of something one chooses to do, which can lead to a sometimes negative viewpoint from students enrolled in the course. Archer and a few of her colleagues, including Katrina Sagert, then-MYP coordinator for grades 9 and 10, and a committee of MYP teachers assembled to review the good and bad of the Personal Project at the school. They also worked to help identify other issues students might be having with the class. 

"The kids told us they literally have no extra time during the school day to plan their projects," said Archer, who has been the PP coordinator for eight years. "Also, there seemed to be a lack of preparation and familiarity of MYP, especially for students from non-MYP middle schools. Plus, the IB requirements, such as journals and reports, can be less intrinsically motivating than the final outcome itself." 

She said the writing was on the wall that changes needed to be made sooner than later especially since reducing student stress overall has been a big focus for Notre Dame this year and beyond.

"The kids may present a wonderful project at the exhibition but gain little from the process since it requires so much of a grind," she said. "Likewise, even the students who truly gained skills sometimes presented the project poorly in the report. And when the assessment does not match a student's personal emotional attachment, time and engagement, they quickly view the whole process negatively."

While Notre Dame Prep cannot change the basic requirements of the Personal Project course, the new approach to more fully support students reflects the school's commitment to helping students better manage stress, Archer noted. 

Personal engagement and accomplishment

"I always encourage students to follow their own inquiry and to problem-solve as challenges arise," she said. "Though I still set a timeline, due dates now are more flexible and I encourage students to communicate with me about their project's needs as well as their personal needs. I am also devoting more time to working more closely with the students. Overall, the emphasis has shifted from achieving a high level on the report and the drudgery of the process journal to an emphasis on personal engagement and accomplishment. Plus, the fact that we now more broadly encourage reflection on skills acquisition versus the outcome helps support this shift in emphasis."

The personal project is each student’s turn to show principled action as a result of sustained inquiry and critical reflection over an extended period, according to Archer. In short, each sophomore acts upon his or her own natural curiosity in a topic of interest.

Archer said she expects the same "wow" factor from the course's current sophomores when the personal projects are finished, despite the emphasis on reducing the sense of urgency that may have existed for some students in the past. She noted that on the positive side, the Personal Project provides a nudge for some to finally put time toward a hobby, which could range from remodeling a car, building a skateboarding ramp, designing a computer, learning to fly a drone, or exploring a family's ethnic recipes.

"The projects that a student finds more interesting do vary from person to person," she said. "I recall the very impressive five-foot tall stack of cardboard with the man emerging from it; the student who made a dress from pictures and who later won an award from Grand Rapids ArtPrize for a dress made from book pages, and the student last year who made homemade kombucha."

'Failing up'

Archer said it's also impressive when students have to adjust their goals when obstacles arise. Last year a student was planning to train her horse for her Personal Project, but the horse suffered an injury. So she changed the topic to helping the horse recover from that injury, which, Archer said, is exactly the learning curve the course promotes: critically and creatively handling challenges instead of giving up and switching to a new topic. Archer said this 'failing up' lesson is very valuable for students.

"Every year I am blown away by the creativity of our students and their projects," Archer said. "I believe that with course now being an elective and the fact that we are more flexible with certain requirements, the kids will come up with projects that still reflect IB's inherent focus on time management; independence and responsibility; critical and creative thinking; communication, research, and reflection."

She said probably most important is that students get valuable experience in the soft skills needed for success in higher education and beyond.

"These skills in the short term also build the competency necessary for other courses at Notre Dame such as the new Engineering and Empathy course offered in grades 11 and 12."

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About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy
Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. Notre Dame Preparatory School enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower schools enroll students in pre-kindergarten through grade eight. All three school are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." NDPMA is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers and is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school's home page at