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Passion Projects – an Opportunity to do Something Amazing

When the pandemic hit in April, many schools across the world closed their physical doors. After a short time frame to move from known to unknown, from in-person teaching to remote learning, teachers poured their hearts and souls into supporting families who were also thrown into unfamiliar territory of learning at home for the first time. At times, it was difficult to see the sun through the clouds because the darkness filled the sky but as time wore on, the clouds dissipated with greater routine and familiarity.

“Change can be hard and sometimes seemingly insurmountable, but remember change is an opportunity to do something amazing.” – George Couros, The Innovator’s Mindset

At the beginning of the pandemic, I frequently went back to this quote for inspiration. There were so many changes in various aspects of our daily lives – work, play, home, social life, etc. It was all different. What we understood as normal was altered. I am someone who sees challenges as opportunities. George pushed my thinking further to see that opportunities can be more than just an opportunity. It can be something amazing! How do we do it? We start with our mindset and then take action, one step at a time, and mold the experience to make it amazing! How can this be done for our students?

I love to offer opportunities where tasks have a low floor, high ceiling for differentiation where all students can access but also extend to higher levels to gain success. Planning in this way allows for different pacing and different depths of learning. When an element of high interest and self-motivation are included, all of these combined leads to our ability to meet students where they are.

So in April when we went to remote learning, I wanted something where my grade 3 and 4 students would be fully engaged and motivated to learn at home. I wanted something where parents would not become frustrated by their child’s lack of interest. It needed to be something meaningful, worthy of their time and effort, and something with a low floor, high ceiling where student’s learning can thrive.

Passion Projects were the solution! Why? The overabundance of time at home made for just the right conditions for personalized learning! Students can get started quickly and dive as deep and as wide as their passion drives them.

I have long wanted to offer Passion Projects (great link to a podcast episode with Jennifer Gonzalez and A.J. Juliani who presented Your Top 10 Genius Hour Questions Answered) but a few things felt like barriers like limited in-class time, not knowing how to start or structure projects, and I taught primary students! This change, however, seemed like the perfect time and perfect way for my students to be excited about learning at home, and to wake up every morning passionate about learning. So I simply introduced it with this basic question first: Now that you have all this time while you are at home, what is it that you have always wanted to learn more about or learn how to do? It had to be something of high interest so they would be self-motivated and it would not feel like “work” or something they had to do but rather, something they get to do.

Students were offered a list of suggestions first before brainstorming possibilities of interest and intrigue. They had to be able to explain why they were so interested in their topic and receive “approval” from their parents, since parents would be the ones supporting learning at home as the pandemic might limit some possibilities. For example, they could explore a new language, how to do something, learn about something or someone, or a new skill. They watched this video, “You Get to Have Your Own Genius Hour” to help them understand the concept of Passion Projects.

Next, we shared our ideas during one of our Zoom meetings. They explained their project, their why, and what they were hoping to accomplish in the next few weeks. Then they had to document by recording details so I could access and keep track. I needed to be able to support their learning throughout the process.

Students so loved working on their projects! Check-ins and looking at their documentation showed me they were making great progress. It always put a smile on my face to see how far they had come. During Zoom meeting updates, students expressed their excitement and love for learning. They inspired me every time we talked about it. Find me a teacher who isn’t thrilled when students love to learn, are fully engaged, and so passionate!

What was the end result? Student choice and voice = student empowerment. Best math equation out there! When they presented over multiple Zoom meetings, their pride in sharing about their Passion Projects oozed out of the screen and spilled into our homes. They were now the experts! We celebrated each other’s learning accomplishments with two stars and a wish. I was so proud and felt like I had a beaming permasmile as I watched the presentations.

So I go back to George Couros’ quote. This pandemic offered change which provided us with an opportunity to do something amazing. We had students learn about various animals, how to skateboard, and two who became published authors on Amazon! After students presented, they excitedly asked to do another Passion Project! And when students ask for more of anything, that must mean they loved it! My greatest hope is that the passion they felt inspires them to naturally seek out new topics to explore, to dive in further, and that these sparks drive them to always be curious so that natural life-long learning never ever stops.

Kiana published her first children’s book, Ellie and Lou.
Kiana published her first children’s book, Ellie and Lou.

One particular student, Kiana, aged 10, turned a story she wrote when we were still in school into a family Passion Project that ended up including her mom and brother and now throughout the summer, is still going strong! Now if that isn’t a true Passion Project, what is? With support from her family and me, Kiana published her first children’s book, Ellie and Lou, bought her own domain name, added her own Pinterest page with various art activities, and developed free printables like lesson ideas, work pages, and bookmarks! She transformed from a quiet person who didn’t quite see herself yet as an author to being a published author, marketer and entrepreneur connecting with educators on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook! Learn more about her story here.

For the past few months, Kiana’s storybook has inspired many teachers and young aspiring writers around the world! She has received many messages of encouragement and congratulations. A teacher in the USA (and now a friend of mine in my PLN!) taught a summer course and reached out to Kiana because she wanted her students to write to an author and have that author write back! Our local city library recently agreed to purchase her book to put on their shelves. Kiana received reviews on Amazon from many parts of the world! Additionally, Kiana’s book has been a bestseller for a number of days. A good Twitter friend of mine wanted to support both Kiana and 50 fellow novice teachers so he purchased each one a book on Amazon to #clearthelist! Kiana was recently asked to be a guest on a podcast too! As a result of all this success, her confidence has grown immensely, and she is now working on her second book.

Wow, do you see what can happen when you offer an opportunity to your students to feed their passion especially when they follow nudges from supporters who can help mold the experience? It can definitely turn into something truly amazing even for a 10 year old! Her life has been changed forever!

I, too, have a similar story of pandemic change leading to something amazing and life-altering! You can read about it on my blog.

So, when the pandemic sparked change all around us with many uncertainties and unknowns, we still have the power to make the best of our situation when we have a positive outlook and see change as an opportunity to do something amazing. No matter what clouds are in the sky, there is always a silver lining if you are looking for one, so keep searching! When you find it, nurture and mold the experience until it turns into something amazing! Find supporters who can help guide you and nudge you in the right direction too!

Parent testimonial.
Parent testimonial.

In September when we return to school face to face in B.C., with the possible threat of moving to remote learning at an instant, what do I assign that will fully engage and motivate students? Passion Projects will be on the top of my list! What used to feel like obstacles, mentioned above, are no more. My concern about limited class time has been replaced with the great value I witnessed through inquiry-based learning. The self-motivated, self-confident, and self-inspired work on their passion of choice had me feeling so proud! The growth in not only knowledge but more importantly skills like work ethic, perseverance, organization, time management, and creativity to name a few, make it all worth it! And observable feedback based on their pure joy and excitement by being in control of their own learning told the whole story! Passion projects? SOLD!

There are many resources to learn more about Passion Projects or Genius Hour but here’s a resource that my good friend, Katelynn Giordano (@kngiordano) from the Teach Better Team, shared with me from her blog.

This article is available and can be accessed in Spanish here.

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Livia Chan
I am a passionate elementary teacher in Vancouver, B.C., Canada who previously served on our Staff Development Team in Learning Technologies for six years but returned to the classroom for the last two. I am a Head Teacher, teaching grade 5, in a community school. I am an active and enthusiastic Ambassador for the Teach Better Team.

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