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Sentinel's Maddie Notti works during class recently. Sentinel is the first high school in Montana to offer the AP Capstone program launched by the College Board in 2014 as part of a new effort to equip “students with the independent research, collaborative teamwork, and communication skills that are increasingly valued by colleges.”

The first question of the day in Sentinel High School’s Advanced Placement Seminar class summed up what makes the new Capstone program unique.

It’s about developing lifelong learning and organizational skills rather than mastering a subject area.

“Do we need to take notes on Chapter 3?” one student asked.

“I can’t compel you to do these things other than putting them in the gradebook and I don’t like to do that because I want you to be intrinsically motivated to do things well,” teacher Ezra Shearer said. He reminded them of the strategies that research shows improves memory retention: close reading paired with reinforcement like annotation or note taking.

“If you don’t do the reading and we continue to work on those skills in class and you don’t know what the rest of the people in your group are talking about, you’re letting yourself down and you’re letting them down.”

Sentinel is the first high school in Montana to offer the AP Capstone program launched by the College Board in 2014 as part of a new effort to equip “students with the independent research, collaborative teamwork, and communication skills that are increasingly valued by colleges.”

It is anchored by two core courses: AP Seminar and AP Research. The first, offered to sophomores and juniors, develops critical thinking and research skills. The second, for juniors or seniors, challenges students to complete independent research projects that, in some states, ultimately are presented alongside undergraduate college students. Teens who complete both classes with a passing test score earn a certificate and those who also take four subject-area AP tests earn a diploma, both designed to help colleges identify top students.

The University of Montana-Western and Carroll College award credits to incoming students who have completed the program. Negotiations are ongoing with the University of Montana and Montana State University.

Peyton Shermer, 15, registered for the class to strengthen her college applications because she aims to attend an Ivy League school or similar top-tier university.

“It will set me apart,” she said.

The opportunity to become a better student attracted Nash Sauter, 15.

“We learn all these useful skills,” he said. “Like effective researching and source credibility.”

“And how to know when you’re research topic is a good one,” Shermer chimed in.

“And also how to properly annotate,” added Maddie Notti, 15.

Principal Ted Fuller noted that a broader array of students has signed up for AP Seminar than who typically sign up for one of the school’s 18 other AP classes or its Project Lead The Way courses to prepare students for health science careers. The kinds of teens who know they want to take AP Biology or AP Calculus often have clear career goals and therefore narrower academic interests. The capstone program “offers more points of entry” and skills that are “highly transferable,” he said.

“It’s interdisciplinary, which is potent. It just ramps up the relevancy and that opportunity to distinguish themselves,” Fuller said, highlighting the courses’ emphasis on “personal ownership of the learning process” rather than education “as a transactional enterprise” between an adult and child.

In AP Seminar last week, students were expected to read segments from James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” a 1955 collection of essays about the formation of black identity in America and how it differed from freed slaves in other nations.

To show “the same conversation is occurring across time,” Shearer also assigned a 2016 New York Times essay by philosophy professor George Yancy and played a roughly six-minute YouTube video in class titled, “Every Single Word Spoken by a Person of Color in the Entire 'Harry Potter' Film Series" whose eight films run a total of 19.7 hours. In small groups, students swapped observations.

“It’s all focused on how these people are going to make life better for the protagonist and for Harry Potter,” Sabina Farr, 16, said. “They’re all supporting them. They don’t have their own role.”

“All of the girls that were involved weren’t independent. They were just following the guy,” Aisley Allen, 15, said.

“They were not the main focus. They were in the background, not like Harry or Hermione,” Sophie Larsen, 15, agreed. “They easily could have put a person of color as a main role. There’s been, like, one girl, that girl up there, that showed up in a few more scenes. … She’s just making (Harry) seem all great,” serving only as a foil to develop his character.

“Harry Potter had such a big influence and was so popular that they should’ve taken that into consideration and used the power to help (diversify representation),” Olivia Suter, 16, said.

“I never thought about it,” Larsen said, reflecting on watching the movies when she was younger.

“Me, either,” Suter said.

The class later shifted to group research to define identity as a concept as well as its influence on themselves and broader culture. Everything in the class must be documented, so students have a reference for how their ideas developed but also so they can later analyze their performance. The project management strategy is known as “Plus Delta,” shorthand for what worked and what could be changed.

“What did we do well yesterday?” Braeden Hunt, 16 asked. “We identified what graphic organizers we wanted to use.”

“Good organization. Good brainstorming,” Aiden Watson, 16, said.

“We need to improve on what?” Hunt asked.

“Efficiency,” Thomas Huntsinger, 15, said.

“Work more efficiently,” Hunt repeated as he wrote it down. “Talk less and focus more.”

After a few minor computer hiccups, they got to work.

“What would ideology be? What you believe in?” Hunt asked.

“Yeah, ideology is pretty much just a system of ideas and policies,” Watson said.

“I want to put, ‘what you believe in,’” Hunt said.

“I would say more of what society pushes you to believe in,” Watson said.

“We’re talking about identity, not social constructs,” Hunt said.

“Identity is part of social constructs,” Watson said.

“That doesn’t mean society pushes it on you,” Huntsinger said.

“But it forms the basis of what our society stands on,” Watson said. “It means what the norm is for certain things.”

“I think ideology instructs society,” Huntsinger said.

“How about we say, ‘What you believe in that is the basis of society?” Hunt offered as compromise.

As class wrapped up, Shearer reminded students that each group is responsible for organizing its own members — even when one is absent.

“That group has to reach out to make sure he’s ready,” he said, referencing an upcoming presentation. Just as they had done at the beginning of class, Shearer reminded them to talk about “what worked” and “what was frustrating.”

“Specifically address at least one concrete thing you can do between now and the start of class Friday that will allow your team to accomplish this goal,” he said. “Alright, we work until the bell. Capstone on break. 1, 2, 3.”

The teens clapped in unison then said, “Capstone.”

They turned back to their groups and planned what they needed to do next.

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