Unleashing Student Passion

Roughly two years ago, while doing some light reading, I stumbled upon the idea of Genius Hour in a text. Mentioned more or less in passing, it was enough to intrigue me, and I began looking into this idea of giving students class time to explore areas of interest. It was a moment of circumstance that has truly revolutionized my classroom—from my pedagogy and management strategies, to the classroom atmosphere and community, to the manner and quality of work my students do throughout a semester, and how they complete that work.

To be relatively brief, the concept of of Genius Hour, or 20% Time Projects, is that educators give back twenty percent of class time (one day a week) for students to pursue self-selected and self-driven projects in areas of interest, giving students voice and power regarding the course of their own education. It requires the teacher to let go of the reins, to hand them over, transitioning to the role of facilitator.

The first semester I launched the Passion Project (what Genius Hour is called in my room), I clung pretty heavily to Andi McNair’s Genius Hour, an excellent guidebook for a first-timer. McNair breaks the process down in the six steps and provides a great deal of materials teachers can use in their own classrooms. I would highly recommend starting there if this sounds like something for you. Since that first semester, I have done a significant amount of research on the Genius Hour approach, project-based learning and writing, and inquiry and discovery in the classroom. The Passion Project has evolved each semester, and even now I’m elbow-deep in literature that will alter the project even further before I launch again next semester.

I place a heavy emphasis on service projects in my course, encouraging students to pursue their passions in ways that impact others—putting their passions into action in a way that is helpful, useful, valuable, educational/informational, addresses a real problem and offers a real solution, and/or makes their community and the world a better place.  As part of this, Passion Projects have TANGIBLE outcomes; students create a product that they share with the class/school/community/world.

An element that I have added this semester is the Active Research portion of the semester-long project. Students have two options in completing this portion of the Passion Project: the interview or the experience. Students can locate an “expert” on their topic to interview; an expert can be someone who has a related degree, works in a field pertinent to their project, or someone who has experience with or is impacted by the topic of focus. If they choose the experience option, students are charged with seeking out an opportunity to get involved in whatever way is appropriate for their topic. The idea is they create an opportunity to immerse/engage/involve themselves in the world of their research. This semester, I have had many students volunteer at shelters, organize and carry out donation drives and fundraisers, and even create opportunities to teach in other classrooms.

The Passion Project has breathed new life into my teaching and has brought me closer to my students, and created a creative and powerfully supportive community among my students. I am blown away by what these young minds have brought to the table, and all I did was decide to give them a seat. All I did was let go and gave them time and space to DO. Take a look at their works in progress—I’ll let them speak for themselves.

Maddison: wvfullstory.weebly.com/product.html

Inspired by reading The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, Robert Gipe’s Trampoline, and our many discussions about the national perception of Appalachia and West Virgina’s single story (thank you, Jessica Salfia!), Maddison wanted to document and publicize more positive truths of her home state. Her website, still a work in progress, already houses a series of videos that highlight the work of some remarkable West Virginians. WVPB better watch out!

Kally: thepanicroomproject.weebly.com/kallys-blog

An exceptionally talented artist, Kally is developing an animated film about bullying and social  anxiety. Her film is not yet finished, but her blog chronicles her ongoing journey, including snippets of artwork that will be included in the completed film. It is a powerful and awe-inspiring experience to witness this work and engage with her about this project.

Brendan: overthehillband.weebly.com

Brendan’s project explores the struggles and triumphs of managing a progressive rock band. Over the course of this project, he has developed an official website for their band, Over The Hill (OTH), a YouTube channel, and an Instagram account where they live stream practices and performances, all of which are linked to his project website.

Kylie and Jaymee: kbcollins.weebly.com

Curious to explore effective methods of teaching young children, these two teamed up and created lesson plans that approached the same topic using two different methods: visual and kinesthetic. They worked with a local elementary school teacher, who allowed them to teach her class of kindergarteners about solids and liquids.

These are just a few of the projects my students are working on this semester, and I could not be more excited to see their completion at the close of the semester. Check out The Passion Project classroom website, which houses a fully-developed description of the requirements I have, the tools and resources I post for students, as well as more examples of student work.

You can also find more information (and even some handouts!) on my professional website. As I mentioned above, I am in the middle of research and will further develop the Passion Project before relaunching next semester; I am planning to add new /updated materials, handouts, and blogs to my professional site as we move through the project in the spring, so keep an eye out! And please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions (or ideas)!

Check out my new blog on the WVCTE site where I talk about the passion project and share some of the incredible work my students are doing!

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