Passion Projects: Authentic Research with Tangible Outcomes

As educators, we all know the difficulties involved in engaging students in enthusiastic research. There’s moaning and groaning and the dragging of feet, and once you finally move beyond the tantrum stage, you’re left digging through the scraps at the bottom of your bag of tricks, hoping to find the magic key that will make students love your research project. But what if I told you I knew a secret that would revolutionize your classroom and make passionate and eager researchers out of reluctant students?

Let me introduce you to Passion Projects.

Without delving too much into a history lesson, at the core, Passion Projects (or Genius Hour or 20% Time) give back 20% of students’ class time to work on projects they are passionate about. The entire project is of their own design–from conception to drafting a plan to guide their learning and their work to completion and publication. Passion Projects are uniquely student-centered and require the teacher to put his/her hands up and take a backseat. You become more consultant than driver. And some problems they bring you, you can’t fix, and they have to navigate those roadblocks more or less on their own (because chances are you won’t know anything about some of the topics they take on!).

Passion Projects truly shook my curriculum and my beliefs about education to the core. I was always attracted to similar projects in college as a student, drawn to project-based learning and the authentic opportunities it provided to do real work for real people. When I came across this idea of Genius Hour while reading a leadership text last Spring, I immediately set it aside and dove into further research. The first time I launched Passion Projects in my sophomore English classes, I designed it as a 9 week unit plan, leaning heavily on Andi McNair’s Genius Hour guidebook.

Even in that short span of time, I had kids do some incredible things. Two students worked together and set up an adoption fair at a local PetCo with the county animal shelter. They received hundreds of dollars in donations (both supplies and monetary donations) and successfully adopted two pets out to families. I had another group of three students who worked to create partnerships between local food businesses and a food bank to donate food they would otherwise have to throw out. I had one student design a DIY water filtration system out of household items as he looked into access to clean water. It was incredible and awe-inspiring. And the most amazing thing was this: it was all them. All I did was let go.

This is only the second time I have launched Passion Projects in my classroom, and I’ve made a great deal of changes between launches (and will likely make even more changes before the next attempt). This time around, I have extended the project over the course of the semester, true to form of 20% time. In addition, I have pushed the idea of social justice issues. I ask them to look into problems that upset them and break their heart–problems they want to work toward changing. There are multiple parts of this project that students work on throughout a semester, including a more traditional informative research essay, a website and blog they must design and develop throughout the semester, and a culminating product that informs/educates, helps, or impacts others in some way. The core of the project in my classroom is putting passion into action, resulting in tangible outcomes that are relevant beyond the walls of the classroom. In order to make research engaging, we have to make it relevant. 

This semester, I have a variety of projects in the works that would fill any teacher with pride in their students: a benefit concert to raise both awareness and funding for a local domestic violence shelter, video tutorials to encourage a healthy and fun exercise, a food drive for local food banks, a pet fashion show at a local veterinarian’s office to raise awareness and funds for a local organization that combats animal abuse, video tutorials to teach younger children computer programming, designing a pre-k program initiative that engages (and ideally merges) with a nursing home, composing a business plan to launch a wellness retreat, and so much more. I cannot tell you how excited I am to see the results of these projects.

My students approach research now with gusto and enthusiasm, and their ideas always surprise and excite me. Passion Projects have made an astounding difference not only in my curriculum and methods, but in how I build relationships with my students. I have learned so much about these kids, watching them engage in their passions and discussing their projects with them. For those reasons and many more, I will never pass another semester without launching Passion Projects. Working with these projects has caused me to look toward other parts of my curriculum and seek more authentic avenues and to challenge myself both in the content I present and how I present it. In the next academic year, I plan to write a series of blogs that follow the process and development of projects throughout the semester, archive the changes I make to the curriculum and materials involved, and to chronicle the effects this project has on my classroom environment.

For a detailed Overview of the Project components, head to the Resources page on my website. In addition, you can visit the Passion Project website I developed that my students utilize in building their own project websites. 

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