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Jan 29, 2020 |

A letter from Chris Schuck—From Thesis to Capstone: “No Retreat, Baby, No Surrender”

In the opening lines of one of my all-time favorite songs, Bruce Springsteen sings, 


Well, we bursted out of class

Had to get away from those fools

We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, 

Than we ever learned in school


Now, this is a song that was released the very year I began teaching, and as much as I could still feel in my bones the recollected power of adolescent disillusionment and frustration, as a newly-minted teacher I also experienced the lyrics as something of a challenge (and something of a rebuke I had not even yet had occasion to earn!). They still rather sting, even as I embrace the wholeness of the singer’s attempt to reconcile hopes and dreams and disappointments and romance and resignation and reality.

From the outset, I was determined to contribute to making schools a place where students could at least hope to learn more than they could from a 3-minute record (ah, yes, but how much more? more than they could learn from the 8-minute dance track EP? more than they could learn from a 5-CD greatest hits compilation?).

And then, four years ago, I found Northwest Academy. And suddenly, Springsteen’s “No Surrender” reads not as reproval, but instead as a thumping, jangly, rock-and-roll affirmation of how we do things here. Because I realized that, of course, this was Bruce Springsteen: he didn’t only listen to 3-minute records; he wrote, arranged, rehearsed, played and sang, recorded and performed 3-minute records…and that is exactly how you learn what you need to learn at school.

The special genius of NWA’s Artistic Response assignments—woven throughout the program, across disciplines, beyond all borders—is that taking inventory and reckoning new information and perspectives and skills, and then giving them personal expression, is exactly how we translate new experiences into new learning.

This dynamic reaches its Northwest Academy apotheosis during senior year, when our almost-graduates spend the fall researching and writing a thesis before pivoting for the springtime development and production of their capstone projects. Indeed, the Capstone is our students’ Artistic Response to the whole of their K-12 education…and it is a treat to watch our entire senior class undertake the process.

Last Friday, many of the seniors presented their theses to the school community; I thoroughly enjoyed my chance to sit in on Claire’s presentation of “Simulacra: A Narrative Exploration of the Entwined Development of Religion, Witchcraft, and False Gods.” She was brilliant and engaging, thoughtfully open and optimistic.

The only thing that kept the experience from being perfect was the awareness that at that very minute I was also missing Max’s “The Worst Game of Solitaire: Examining Racism in the Oregon Prison System,” and Octavo’s “Beauty in the Unknowable Void,” and Liv’s “That’s Not All, Folks: An Analysis of Queer Representation in American Cartoon Animation,” and Daniel’s “Eden’s Snake Eating Its Own Tail: An Infrastructure Soon to Crumble, and the Devastation of American Liberty.”

I also had to pass on Z’s “I’m Glad You’re Here: A Look into the Evolution of Video Games as a Storytelling Medium,” and Ryan’s “The Elephant in the Room—Why We Love Dogs and Eat Pigs,” and Ezra’s “The Evolutionary Progression of Extreme Sports.” The range of the students’ interests, the depth of their thinking, and their intellectual earnestness are all incredibly striking.

And now, having completed and presented their theses (no retreat, no surrender), the seniors embark on a collective journey (accompanied by their faculty and professional mentors and their intrepid guide, Julie Ellington) which will lead to such moments as: a memoir composed of paper-cut dioramas, a line of clothing, a trio of documentary films (behind the scenes on the production of Chicago, an exploration of Oregon’s hidden natural wonders, an in-depth look at Portland’s Trailblazers), a trio of movie shorts (one animated, one horror film, one noir), paintings, theatrical productions, the design and fabrication of a pair of high-heeled shoes…and more, more, more. 

Later this spring and on into Arts Week, the seniors will be presenting their Capstones before various audiences. I recommend that you watch the eNews for your opportunity to see how very much can be learned from a 3-minute record (or its equivalent!).


All the best,


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