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Passion projects: Engaging students in their own learning

One of the greatest challenges for classroom teachers is providing organic opportunities for student agency. When agency is provided, it also happens to be the most rewarding experience for both teachers and students alike. Student agency is not simply curating an entire list of options for students to choose from and saying “follow these steps.” Rather, it is turning the responsibility of choice over to the student and allowing them to fully guide their own process of learning. This follows a similar guiding philosophy of decision-making in consumer preferences studied in fields of economicsThe beauty of passion projects is that they are a flexible process that fit any curricula for any length of time.

Passion projects are built as an endeavor to engage students more directly with their own process of learning. Through these projects, students engage in two primary facets of learning: ownership and creativity. Both facets provide a framework for a more holistic approach to pedagogy that Williams, et al. claim as a way to address “young adolescents’ developmental needs and fostering student motivation,” moving from extrinsic learning artifices and into more intrinsically valued productions. On a secondary level, passion projects can naturally include and address specific community needs, through the use of studies like community garden spaces.

As a part of the “greater intrinsic motivation” students exhibit from these passion projects, they are also able to better contextualize the content they are accessing. Consider for a moment: a student chooses to do a passion project on ratio proportions. As a part of a model to display final learning, they design a scale model of a local community garden. From here, a student can contextualize how much new soil is needed to fill the beds in the garden, providing an opportunity for quality plant growth, all based on their deeper study of ratio proportioning. Not only has the student now gained a better understanding of ratio proportions, along with effects on science concepts, but they have contextualized the why and answered: “Why did I have to learn this?”

Passion projects in action

The specifics of this project can be adapted to fit classroom needs, but the basic structure remains the same. Begin by asking students to review topics they’ve covered. This could be at the end of a unit or semester, or even as a capstone project at the end of the year. The teacher simply provides the parameters and lets students do the rest. It is critical that students be allowed to choose any topic within the umbrella provided to give them authentic choice, rather than just pretense.

Next, allow students to choose and expand on two topics (click here for an example template), coming up with basic information and generating open-ended research questions. Research questions are often provided by teachers in school settings, but when students create their own questions, they begin to think more critically and engage with material in a new way. Finally, conference with individual students to discuss and help them decide on the best topic to pursue.

Once a topic has been chosen, ask students to answer their research questions, going into greater depth than what was originally covered in class. As they gather information, they also begin to shape what their final product will be. Frequent check-ins with students are vital to ensure that they are staying on topic. Teachers need to allow students to take ownership of their work, but there is no room for resting on one’s laurels; direct and frequent supervision is needed.

Finally, have students choose a product that will allow them to clearly and effectively present their research and conference with them to make sure ideas are both feasible and content-rich. Options can range from scale models to children’s’ books to interactive maps to websites. Depending on how much time you have, you can also have students create a presentation (anything from two to five minutes works well in middle school) that showcases the topic itself, as well as the process they followed in choosing and creating their project. Oral presentations help students synthesize their learning and are great practice for the real world.

Tomorrow, look for another piece from our students on their thoughts about passion projects.

Douglas Price

Douglas Price is the Director of Programs for WakeEd Partnership, an independent nonprofit organization composed of business and community leaders committed to improving public education in Wake County. Douglas was the 2019 North Carolina Burroughs Wellcome Fund Charter School Teacher of the Year and is an educator of 12 years. Previously he served as a Hope Street Group Fellow: Teacher Advisory Council, EdAmbassador with EdNC, and participated in several key fellowships throughout NC, including Hope Street Group: Teacher Voice Network, the Kenan Fellows Program for Teacher Leadership, the Education Policy Fellowship Program (NC Public Forum), and the NC Collaborative (Duke Research Clinical Institute). He is a current Doctoral candidate at UNC-Greensboro in Educational Leadership.

Dino Mangano

Dino Mangano is a seventh-year teacher at Voyager Academy in Durham. A North Carolina native with a B.A. from the University of North Carolina, Mangano earned her master’s in education from Wake Forest University in 2012. Since then, she has taught seventh grade, twice earning the title of Outstanding Young Educator for her school. She passionate about teaching writing and loves encouraging student voice and choice in assignments big and small.