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April 27, 2023

Senior Status

When I used to read the Little House on the Prairie series to my three children, I found that, in Wilder’s day, students were obligated to demonstrate to the entire town community mastery of their subjects: history, geography, math, literature. This demonstration took place in public and was a great civic celebration and cause for pride. The stakes, consequently, were elevated for both the student and the teacher. The students were evaluated in front of friend and family, neighbor and mentor; implicit in the success of the student’s demonstration was the student’s commitment to and passion for the subjects and the effectiveness of the teacher’s own passion and commitment. And the public nature of the event, raised the stakes—and elevated the commitment of the student to succeed because of the bonds of connection with the members of the audience.

A special graduation requirement of Asheville School holds its students accountable to a similar culminating experience: the Senior Demonstration. The Senior Demonstration, or Demo, is a rigorous rite of passage that allows students the opportunity to demonstrate their mastery of written, oral, analytical, and research skills—skills essential for college (and work or life) success. Students explore a topic of particular interest, whether chosen from a provided list of some 300 topics, or a self-designed project. To fulfill the requirements of the Demo, students write two analytical papers, the second of which requires the use of secondary sources. The project culminates with an oral defense of the work before a panel of faculty members.

The Demo began forty years ago, initiated in the early 1980s by then Writer-in-Residence Vance Wilson and English colleague Mel MacKay, inspired by the reading of Ted Sizer’s Horace’s Complaint and a visit that Sizer made as a guest of Asheville School. The Demo was intended, inspired by Sizer’s educational reasoning, to have students demonstrate their reading, writing, and analytical skills before heading to college. The Demo became the final exam and a graduation requirement for English in 1995, approved by the English Department and then the Curriculum Committee. When Asheville School’s English and History Departments combined into a Humanities Department in 1999, the Demo remained as the final exam grade in the student’s literature course (generally, since 2008, American Studies). In order to graduate, students must pass the Demo. (If students fail the Demo, there remains an opportunity to redo the Demo in June and thereby earn an Asheville School diploma.)

Topics in recent years have ranged from study of such traditional writers as Shakespeare, Austen, Tolstoy, Camus, and Hemingway to more contemporary authors such as Walker Percy, Toni Morrison, Ann Patchett, Kevin Wilson, Jesmyn Ward, and Weike Wang. Topics on war literature or World War II, evolution or the history of zero expand the experience beyond purely literary study. Several students have designed interdisciplinary projects combining interests in, for example, literature and medicine or illness and death, business and philosophy, human evolution and morality.

Given the range of possible topics, the self-directed aspect of this program (mirroring their forthcoming college experience), and the rigorous, collaborative work with the faculty sponsor, students generally enjoy the Demo process, even as they sweat the academic game. Although the Demo challenges all of the School’s college prep students to meet a high standard of achievement, those students with the strongest passions and academic interests working in conjunction with curious and engaging faculty members often enjoy the greatest degree of intellectual growth and exchange. The interpersonal relationship between student and adult inspires almost all of our students to work a little harder, to engage the process as intended. Watching so many of our students close the Demo process with polished, comfortable Oral performances is a special moment for my colleagues and me as these students complete a crucial academic chapter in their Asheville School experience.

The expansiveness of the topics allows a student an opportunity to become something of an authority or “expert” in an area. Students have interviewed writers for their papers incorporating secondary materials and have been able to send their papers to current writers for feedback and constructive criticism. For example, recent students of mine have been able to interview via email writers such as Ann Patchett and Kevin Wilson in writing their second papers. I once worked with a student with an interest in both literature and science, so we developed a topic that explored literary connections to disease in such pieces as, for examples, Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and Sontag’s work on illness and metaphor. I had also suggested that the student include Allan Gurganus’s novel, Plays Well With Others, an artistic coming-of-age novel set in New York City in the midst of the AIDS crisis in the 80s, knowing that she might have an opportunity to interview Gurganus as a source. We sent Gurganus a copy of the student’s analysis of Plays Well’s use of metaphor in the context of her other readings, and, after reading the student’s paper and after her interview with him at his Hillsborough home, Gurganus gave her in appreciation an as yet unpublished story he had written about a doctor treating a midwestern town during a 19th century cholera epidemic. (That story, published in The New Yorker in 2020 as COVID shut down the country, leads his recently published The Uncollected Stories.) Thus, Asheville School students are provided an opportunity to develop unique, interdisciplinary, and personal approaches to topics.

The Demo creates an intellectually charged environment until year’s end, allowing students the freedom and latitude to explore a topic of interest throughout the spring semester. The Demo also fosters close intellectual partnerships between students and faculty members. Most students enjoy the process of discussing the readings with their faculty sponsors. Almost every faculty member at Asheville School works with a student (spouses frequently end up as sponsors as well!), creating a genuine community of learners across the campus. This connection with the adult as a fellow “investigator” creates a collaborative approach to education and to learning that will serve students well in college—and in life.

Finally, students engage in a public discussion of their topics in a year-end colloquy. Interested Sixth Formers join faculty members to share with other classmates and with faculty members their work from their final months at Asheville School. Students question peers who have studied C. S. Lewis and Christopher Hitchens, Camus and John Hawkes, Morrison and Ralph Ellison and Colson Whitehead. This give and take session is often one of the most exciting aspects of the semester’s work, a chance for the pure intellectual excitement to play out without the need for assessment or evaluation.

Our students frequently reflect back on their Asheville School experiences and claim that the Demo helped them more than any other academic experience for the demands of college, especially with writing. When we survey our college students, the writing preparation our students receive at Asheville School always ranks as their best college-level skill, and the Demo plays a key role in this college preparation and accomplishment.

The Demo has engaged students even beyond their time at Asheville School. One recent advisee read three books by Jesmyn Ward for her Demo and then studied in Ward’s fiction writing class as a Tulane senior. A former student’s examination of disease served her at a personal level when she suffered Hodgkin’s disease later in college. After successful treatment, she returned to college and undertook an independent, interdisciplinary course of study following the same topic explored in her Senior Demo. Her work on the Demo provided a stable framework for dealing with her own personal health, served as a course of academic inquiry in her undergraduate major, and led her to her current medical career—high stakes, indeed. No stronger public statement or example is possible. She is one exemplary demonstration of what such a program may entail for curious and committed students. Even the citizens of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s famous town would be proud.

Published in a different version in Second Home: Life in a Boarding School (Avocus Publishing, 2003)

Read Like a Senior

Collectively, the 77 seniors in the class of 2022 read more than 230 books of their choosing for their Senior Demonstrations.

Here are just a few of the books they read:
The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

Where the Line Bleeds, by Jesmyn Ward

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini

Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin

Circe, by Madeline Miller

Deliverance, by James Dickey

On Certainty, by Ludwig Wittgenstein

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

Wise Blood, by Flannery O’Connor

The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy

This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Standout Scholars
Students highlight some of their favorite books.

“In All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren gives the reader a brilliant example of how one leader can capture America’s heart. Warren’s Willie Stark represents the fictional pinnacle of a ‘man of the people’ who powers his entire political agenda with the spirit of the hoe and the plow. As the readers, we get to sit back and watch power change him, his goals, his relationships with the people he loves, and his morality.”—Jake Bernstein ’23

“I enjoy the themes of ambition, betrayal, and human nature in general. I would recommend King Lear because it has multiple story lines happening at the same time and deals with pretty relatable issues.”—Coco He ’23

“My main takeaway from reading my books was that war, on the whole, is usually a drawn-out affair that causes soldiers to suffer and sacrifice at the hands of their countries, who do not really care about them. Catch-22 is a perfect book to discuss themes of greed, superiority, and morality through the lens of satire.”—Julian Kotara ’23

“I chose to read Ulysses as it was my late grandfather’s favorite book, and I have been wanting to read it since his passing on Bloomsday.”—Emma Kate McCann ’23