When I first started teaching high school English, this is what my classroom looked like. I was even one of those teachers that during the first week of class would hand out that ubiquitous “Directions Test.” You know, the one that had a list of 30 to 50 questions, but in the directions it states that students should do nothing, and then you sit and wait for students to yell out, “shark!” or go sharpen their pencil 12 times, and the class has a good chuckle at the students who didn't read the directions. My class was organized around directions and instructions and not centered on learning. And for my first couple of years, as I taught primarily honors students, this worked. My honors students were good at following directions. They were good at playing school. However a couple years in, I was given both mixed ability courses and a group of struggling ninth graders, students who did not chuckle when we played the directions test. And it was in that moment that I was called to reassess what I was really teaching and why?
In May 2013, I attended my first EdCamp conference, EdCamp Philly, and it was here that I met Angela Maiers and learned of her Choose2Matter initiative, a project largely based on the work of teachers using Genius Hour and 20% Time projects in their classrooms. Learning more about these passion-based learning experiences in the context of the EdCamp unconference format helped me rethink how I was teaching writing. I had heard of Google’s 20% time in the past and had been using a writing workshop approach in my 10th grade classroom as a way to teach research skills, but when I heard other area teachers talking about their experiences with Project-Based Learning (PBL) and 20% Time Projects, it clicked how crucial choice, voice, and purpose was to the composing process.
Following EdCamp Philly, I started to learn more about passion-based learning experiences so that in the Fall of 2013 I could engage in 20% time research writing with my 10th grade English students. So what’s the 20% Project all about? The basic premise of the 20% Time Project is that it is student-driven, passion-based learning. Student writers are empowered when choice goes hand-in-hand with autonomy over their learning, opportunities to connect and learn from mentors, and safe spaces to reflect on the failures and successes that come as part of their research process. What my students and I learned as we engaged in our 20% research projects was our most memorable learning experiences came when we were sharing our reflections. This is a component that is often times missing from the more ubiquitous research writing assignments that students complete in school. And as a writing teacher, I wanted to know more about this? What impact does choice, autonomy, purpose, and reflection have on the writing skills that students develop as they engage in research? So, following the completion of their 20% projects, I spent some time researching what other writing teachers have had to say about these elements but have also surveyed and interviewed my 10th grade English students.
Over the last few months I have been both surveying and interviewing former students about their experiences with our research endeavors. I asked students to review our Pennsylvania Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for expository writing and reflect on what skills we addressed as we engaged in our research and writing processes. Additionally, I asked students to think about how they decided on their research topics, how they found their mentor texts and experts, and their thoughts what worked and didn't as we engaged in both our traditional research writing and our more inquiry driven 20% research writing project. In reviewing my students’ responses, what I discovered was that the strengths they reflected on most were those that fell into seven themes. EMPOWER is an acronym for the seven elements of our research writing that students identified as being crucial elements in their success.
And these elements are not only key for developing student writing skills but connect with learning in all content areas. Empowering students through choice, voice, authentic purposes is not something that is unique to teaching writers. We know this. Yet even though we know that in combination these elements grow creative, collaborative, and critical thinkers in all content areas, we don't always see these sorts of learning opportunities in our secondary schools. Passion-based learning sounds too "fluffy" or too messy or too risky. However, what my research has shown me is that this "messy" learning does more to grow both academic skills as well as those intangible skills of grit, resiliency, and perseverance.
As I reviewed my student survey results, as I spoke with my students about what they had learned and how they had learned it, so many of their responses echoed the research done by other educators and psychologists interested in passion-based learning. Students learned more from the process of being able to not just decide on a topic to research, but on the multitude of choices they needed to make in order to find a mentor, craft both traditional writing and digital writing pieces for real audiences outside of the classroom, and decide upon how, when, and where to present their work to a larger audience. My students discussed the tone of their writing as they crafted emails to contact potential people to interview. They had to analyze their intended audience as they prepare their pitch videos and final TED-style talks. Students reflected not just on the steps of their process but on their pitfalls, revisions, and how they learned in their weekly blog posts. And these are the higher order thinking skills that we want our students working toward. Their writing was audience and context-driven. It was purposeful. It was meaningful. It was empowering.
I shared some of this research in my recent EdTech Teacher Summit presentation. Feel free to take a peek at my slides and notes below. I would love to hear from you! Are you completing passion-based learning projects with your students? What questions or suggestions do you have?