I’ve been intrigued by the idea of running a passion project in my classroom for several years, but I wasn’t ready to give it a try until recently. After completing my first round with junior high students, I’m ready to reflect. In this post, you’ll find ideas for what to do, what not to do, and how to get started with passion projects in a manageable way. Sound interesting? Let’s get started.
WHAT TO DO
Ask students to keep a record…
Because the concept of genius hour is somewhat new, many parents are unfamiliar with it. Obtaining their buy-in is imperative. Clearly communicate your expectations with parents. They’ll want to know what the learning objectives are, what they should help with at home, how their child will be graded, and what steps need to be completed.
Due to the differentiated nature of a passion project, this information might be different from student to student. For this reason, I recommend that students create a Google Doc where they will journal about everything they plan to do, have completed, and have learned. Have students share their document with both you and their parents. Also, tell students how frequently you expect it to be updated. Providing a model is important.
Help students understand the concept of a passion…
Many students need guidance with the term “passion.” They might also need help identifying what they love, and even what they’re good at. Students will ask, “Why are we doing this?” Be prepared with a solid answer. They need to see the relevance.
Document your conversations with students…
Keep a record of the times you meet with each student to talk about their goals and progress. Be transparent about what you’d like them to do to increase learning. Ask students to send you an email if they have questions or need to update you about their project outside of the school day.
Allow time to work in class…
It’s easy to ask students to complete the work outside of class, but they really need time in class to pursue their passion. That’s why it’s often called 20 percent time. Dedicate one day each week to the project.
Let students share their work…
Many students are afraid to speak in public, but if they have worked hard to research a topic important to them, boost their confidence by explaining they should be proud to present their work. Organize an evening for parents and community members to attend a symposium or walk through students’ booths. Presentations can be formal, informal, or Q and A.
WHAT NOT DO
Don’t have too many things going on at once…
Depending on the age of your student, the passion project can be overwhelming. Let students focus solely on their learning as it relates to that unit. It becomes muddy when we ask them to complete grammar homework or an unrelated novel study simultaneously. Pairing makes sense if the grammar homework or novel directly relate to the passion project.
Don’t get too caught up in the little details…
Be open with students and parents that this is your first time experimenting with a passion project. Explain why the research says it’s effective, but don’t claim that you will know exactly how it will turn out.
Don’t forget about the standards…
Passion projects are “feel good” units. Sometimes, we forget the learning objectives. What do you want students to be able to do at the end of the project? Make sure conversations always come back to that learning objective.
Incorporate the passion project with a multi-genre research project.
Ask students to research their passion and write about it in different genres. Tie the project to the learning standards by focusing on writing and research skills.
Incorporate the passion project with a speaking and listening unit.
Ask students to research their passion. Then, they could complete an extension piece (volunteering for a cause they value, organizing an event, creating a business model, conducting action research). Make it meaningful by allowing them to present their findings to the class. Add a multimedia element to focus on digital literacy skills.
Incorporate the passion project with a choice reading unit.
Ask students to identify a social issue about which they care deeply. Have them select a novel or two related to that social issue. Following, let them research to find nonfiction sources that pair well with the novel counterpart. Students can present their findings in a creative format, in a research paper, or by presenting the information to the class.
Incorporate the passion project with a research writing unit.
Ask students to identify a problem in society, their local community, or their school. Have them research the issue on a wider scale, even globally, and then ask them to write a formal piece that might bring about change. A speech, a persuasive letter to the school board, or an editorial are a few examples.
I can’t possibly cover the vastness of how a passion project could be assessed in this one post. However, here are a few options teachers could consider.
Assess students’ mastery of the skill.
What course standard or learning objective are you trying to accomplish through this project? Create a final assessment that measures their mastery of it or a pre-test and post-test to measure growth.
Using weekly checkpoints can be an easy way to keep students on track. Perhaps you have one assignment due each week. Create a rubric that reflects what you want students to demonstrate that week. Are they creating a poster advertising an event they are organizing? If so, they should be researching marketing and advertisement strategies and utilizing them in their work. A rubric for differentiated short-term projects can be something as simple as:
- Research: Student found and recorded three credible sources for this week’s assignment.
- MLA: Student uses correct MLA formatting to create a Works Cited page.
- Conventions: The weekly assignment is well proofread. Student shows grade level command of grammar and mechanics.
And so on…
If you teach older students who are capable of designing their own learning, it is meaningful to ask them to design their own rubric. Ultimately, we want students to create as much of the structure for their project as possible.
Maybe you want a way to keep students on task during work days. It’s okay to build in participation points. Require that students bring all of the supplies they will need to work, evidence that they have completed something that week, and then make clear your expectations for what they should be doing in class. Keep it simple:
- 3 points: Used class time wisely. Did not have to be reminded to stay on task.
- 2 points: Worked well for the majority of the period. Was asked to stay on task once.
- 1 point: Needs to work on utilizing work time provided, or needs to bring necessary materials to class.
The passion project is do-able. If it’s your first time experimenting with one, what you do this time will provide you with the real-time feedback you need to improve for next year. Don’t be afraid to fail. My first round with genius hour gave me so many valuable opportunities for reflection and growth. Passion projects don’t have to be large in scale. Make it manageable for you and your students.
One thing is clear: Student choice and voice in learning is extremely important. Passion projects are one way we can provide that avenue for our kids.