Passion Project Serendipity

My SmartBlog on Education article from 01.09.05

Passion Project Serendipity

One thing I have learned in over 20 years of teaching middle school is to expect the unexpected. When the unexpected surpasses the original plan: serendipity.

This fall, I had high hopes that implementing Passion Projects would accomplish several lofty academic goals. My classroom is student-centered, meaning I believe in choice and inquiry-based learning. I do not spoon-feed information to my pupils, but rather encourage them to seek answers on their own. Their learning experiences should be purposeful and authentic to the extent that this is feasible. For better or worse, a world full of information is at their fingertips. This, coupled with adults who often don’t allow children to grapple with challenges, means that many of our students don’t have practice with critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. I wanted to spark their curiosity as well as inspire them to work beyond what comes easily. As an English teacher, I also wanted students to practice their verbal communication skills and thought that a presentation on a subject about which they were passionate would be the best avenue. The end result was full of happy accidents and completely exceeded my expectations.

To introduce Passion Projects, I asked my students to contemplate the following three questions: 1) What do you want to learn how to do? 2) What would you like to create? or 3) Who would you like to help? (I allowed them to combine two of the three.) When they submitted their project proposals, I was a bit concerned by the results because I wasn’t sure if they were overreaching their abilities or how they would be received at home. Fortunately, I worried needlessly, because things worked out surprisingly well in the end.

The first unexpected result was that many of my students chose Passion Projects that involved little or no technology. Their plans involved old-fashioned “domestic” pursuits such as knitting, sewing, needlepoint, crocheting, or cooking. Others selected technical projects such as building architectural models, crafting organizational products for school lockers, or constructing an LED lit umbrella. A few elected to explore the arts through photography, creative writing, painting, and paper sculpture. What’s more, almost all of these involved learning the skill from a parent or grandparent or actively involving them in the execution. I had anticipated neither the desire for traditional, hands-on experiences, nor the wish for family involvement. The feedback I received from the adults thanked me for the opportunity for bonding time at a time when it is the child’s natural instinct to pull away. The students themselves stated that they enjoyed getting to spend the extra time with their parents or grandparents to create what became keepsakes or new family traditions. Many marveled at the level of skill involved. I was touched hearing their stories during their presentations and was even inspired to replicate a couple of the projects with my own family.

The second fortunate happenstance was that I had forgotten about the natural altruism of middle school students. I was completely surprised that so many chose to complete projects to benefit others through causes close to their heart. Many designed fundraising opportunities for charities such as animal shelters, medical research, domestic violence shelters, or the homeless—to a great degree of success. Some even received public recognition for their contributions. During the Passion Project presentations, their pride in their accomplishments brought me great joy.

One final, completely serendipitous, result of the Passion Project experience was that it naturally promoted a growth mindset. On their written reflections, students unknowingly expressed growth mindset tenets such as “it was really challenging and we had to work past our limits,” “it taught me a work ethic—I didn’t want to quit,” “it pulled something out of me that I might not have discovered otherwise,” and, “we didn’t need a teacher to hold our hands—just to stand beside us.” The parents provided similar feedback marveling at the maturity and inspiration they saw in their children.

Even though Passion Projects began as a way to provide real-world research and fun public-speaking opportunities, they evolved into so much more. Now that I’ve seen the power of their passion, I look forward to repeating these projects. Who knows what surprises lay in store?

http://smartblogs.com/education/2015/01/09/pbl-spotlight-passion-project-serendipity/

Advertisements

Genius Hour for the Greater Good

ID-100254843It is a wonderful thing to be in the position of being in awe of my students. Last year, I dipped my toe into the Genius Hour concept by having my sixth graders complete a mini-research project on the topic of their choice. They truly enjoyed this process and presenting their findings, so I knew I could push it further this year. After learning everything I could from Joy Kirr, Paul Solarz, and Angela Maiers, I took the plunge on Genius Hour this year—with a twist.

I threw out three questions to my students: What do you want to learn how to do? What do you want to create? or Who do you want to help? and told them they could combine any two. Because of the personal nature of the projects, I chose an alternative name for Genius Hour and they became Passion Projects.

I had greatly underestimated my students’ capacity for wanting to make a difference. Many chose to combine learning a skill with helping others or society. The variety of the projects and their causes was impressive.

Among their many projects are:

  • learning to crochet to make hats to donate to premature babies in hospitals
  • making and selling cupcakes to raise funds for scoliosis research
  • designing and building a vertical planter for urban gardeners
  • learning to crochet to make blankets to donate to a women’s shelter
  • research recipes and making organic dog treats to sell to raise funds for the Humane Society
  • writing and directing a video on how to prevent bullying
  • learning how to knit to make baby booties to donate to churches
  • researching and building a model of a “green” home with a living roof
  • holding a spaghetti dinner to raise funds to make hygiene kits for the homeless
  • designing and building locker items to help peers be more organized
  • making bracelets to sell to raise funds for a local animal shelter

NOTE: Although I didn’t allow for any monetary transactions at school, I was a bit concerned that several students would need to raise funds from friends and family for an organization close to their hearts. I generally don’t promote the idea of asking families for money, but I hadn’t anticipated that so many would choose to want to do so. I will be soliciting feedback from parents at the end of this project in December and may make adjustments next year that don’t involve money, but for now the parents and I are extremely impressed with their initiative. Many come from privilege and it is touching to see them realize this and want to give back.

My students are beaming with pride when they share their success with me. For example, Ella held a spaghetti dinner that had over 100 attendees and raised almost $2,000! She had estimated she would raise $800 to make the hygiene kits for the homeless and ended up being able to also purchase socks and laundry soap. She was recognized publicly at her church and her peers clapped for her when I shared this at school. She was most excited when she and her fellow congregants were able to distribute the kits. Madison, who has scoliosis and is raising awareness and fund with her project, make $120 with her first batch of cupcakes and is looking forward to her next batch. She is taking what was a life-altering diagnosis and making it into a positive.

The generosity and huge hearts of my eleven-year-old students has blown me away. They are setting a great example, exploring their passions, and feeling a real sense of accomplishment. What more can a teacher ask?

image courtesy of: freedigitalphotos.net