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Passion Projects – Letting Students’ Interests Flourish!

BLOGOften our best thinking happens in dialogue and sometimes it’s amplified in stunning outdoor settings. This summer, as I hiked the Cascades sharing successes, challenges, research, ideas and student driven inquiry with a friend, I realized that figuring out how to help students become independent, self directed learners had in fact become my own Passion Project.  That I had been doing exactly what I have been asking my students to do, most notably:

  • Participating in inquiry around a driving question – How can I structure our Flow Lab’s Passion Projects so that they are more rewarding experiences for our students?
  • Conducting sustained inquiry – reading texts, participating in Professional Learning Networks, attending conferences, discussing with colleagues and experts, etc.

Having students engage in learning about something they are passionate about has always been a goal at Paulo Freire Freedom School (PFFS).  “Life long learner” is a term that is often bandied about by educators, but if by this we mean coaching students to become people who customarily take on projects of personal interest, define personal learning goals, and then develop a plan for learning, then there is very little in traditional schools that gives students the opportunity to practice this process.  

Our students do have substantial experience participating in project based learning so they aren’t starting from scratch.  All PFFS teachers have been trained to use the Buck Institute for Education’s framework for PBL including the 8 essential project elements.

This year I had a major aha moment when I realized that those elements we design for so carefully in our regular classes, can be incorporated into our students’ Passion Projects to make them more rigorous and successful.  With that in mind, these are are the three elements that we have have been working to ‘beef up’ this year:

Sustained Inquiry – We told students that their work would be a semester long project so we wanted to make sure that they took the time up front to find something they really were interested in and could commit to.  Many of our kids jumped on an idea after only a few minutes – which could be indicative of a true, previously identified passion, but also could be impulsive behavior not uncommon with young adolescents.  By bringing our students to the library and having them peruse a collection of high interest nonfiction resources, we hoped to expose them to a myriad of options before they committed to their final choice.  Spending two hours “wandering and wondering” at the beginning of the semester, seemed like a good use of time.  

Once a student did settle on a topic and write their proposal, we continued to encourage them to find a rhythm of research-practice.  A back and forth of reaching out for information/materials and then time to internalize that learning.  A common passion project is around art.  A student will set a goal for wanting to learn how to draw manga characters so they look online for exemplars or tutorials and then practice that skill.   Some kids get this intuitively, others need a little more guidance and nudging from the teacher.  Middle school students sometimes need to be reminded that they don’t yet know it all!

Critique and Revision – This year all of our Passion Project students will be participating in a protocol where they share their work-in-progress to peers for feedback and then are instructed to revise their work based on some of that information.  Again, the use of PBL instruction in their core content class is helpful since they are well acquainted with this process and have learned the benefit of getting feedback and having opportunity for revision.

Public Product – In the past students have had the opportunity to celebrate the results of their learning in a variety of ways ranging from sharing in front of the whole school in Morning Meeting to having a private showing with their teacher.  This year, however, we will be having our first ever Flow Lab Forum in which all students will be required to present in a science fair format to their peers and parents alike.  Additionally, students can audition to be one of a few presenters who will be given the stage to showcase their project in a Ted Talk like fashion.

Finally, one last new development we will be piloting this year is the use of micro-credentially, or “badging” for students who truly demonstrate that they have gained mastery over a topic or skill in the course of their project.  Students’ badges will become part of their school transcripts in recognition of significant independent learning.

As is true of most good projects, this continues to be a work in progress.  It is an iterative process where we try a prototype, gather data, assess and redesign and then try it again – continuously striving to make it better.  Has this year been perfect?  No.  Is it better than never letting students the autonomy to design and drive their learning.  Absolutely!

I started by sharing my passion project journal, so I’ll end with a student’s story.  One of our students is interested in home design.  For her project she is using a website called Homestyler both to learn from other people’s models, as well as, the platform for designing her own floor plans.  In her own words she feels that she has improved in her “floor plans’ aesthetics as well as the flow between spaces.”  In addition to exploring a passion and possible future career, she is also learning design principals and how to use fairly advanced software. She also shared that her skills are transferable to projects in her other classes, where for example, she used Homestyler to design a metaphor for her leaf project. But more than all the above, our students are working on becoming independent, passionate students and true life long learners.


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