Alabama ASCD

Igniting Student Passions

What if you were given time each week in your busy schedule to research and work on a topic or project that was of great interest to you — something you were passionate about? Would you be excited for that time to come each week? Would you eagerly dive into your research?  Imagine if we gave that time to our students to pursue their passions. You may have already heard of 20% Time, Genius Hour, or Passion Projects. The intent of each is essentially the same: to provide time for students to drive their own learning. The idea of 20% Time arose from Google. This forward thinking company allows their employees 20% paid working time to pursue a project of their interest.  From this provided time, Googlers have developed Gmail, Google Sky, and other Google products we use daily. Providing 20% Time in education translates to a dedicated time for students to explore their passions. Students who are passionate about their learning are engaged, excited to learn more, and eager to help one another.  

I first began hearing about 20% Time/Genius Hour at the 2013 ISTE conference.  I returned excited to implement this model.  As an instructional technology specialist I had the opportunity to work closely with classroom teachers to develop the overall feel for how this unique time would look.  I was able to see the benefits as an educator and a parent as my own daughter had the opportunity to participate.  More recently, I have been able to help support these projects as a new administrator.  Passion projects lend themselves perfectly to individualized instruction.  Students are learning on their level about something they are interested in exploring further.  During 20% Time, students research a topic they are passionate about, then apply research and findings into a finished product/presentation.  For example, if a student is passionate about fashion design, he/she will need to research the industry, learn how to sew, talk with experts, with their final project being a garment they either designed, sewed or both!  If a student is interested in cooking, they would research various techniques, foods, and tools needed; their finished product could be a cookbook or a cooking demonstration.  The teacher can help connect the student to a professional chef to help mentor the student.  A project can be as simple as a posterboard with shared information.   

There are many benefits to incorporating these types of projects with your students.  Covering the standards becomes integrated, and learning is purposeful.  Students take pride in their work and have complete ownership of their learning.  My favorite aspect of these projects is the opportunity to connect to our community.  Inviting our stakeholders into the classroom as volunteers and experts connects our school in a whole new way.  Students are learning first hand from experts in their own backyard!  

Creating teacher interest with passion projects is the first step.  I began this year by providing a professional development session and asked the teachers what were their passions.  I had several say, “I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it before.”  After I completed the interactive training, I closed by asking, “Ask your 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 year old self if your teacher had provided you time to learn more about your passion, what would you think?”  Not surprisingly, 100% of my teachers emphatically said they would have eagerly wanted to learn and explore more about their passion. My next step is to help support teachers who are interested in implementing this concept into their classroom by being in their rooms when they decide to begin.  By being present and interacting with students, I am able to provide additional hands while providing moral support and encouragement.  Incorporating 20% Time into the already hectic school week can be a challenge.  A suggested time allotment is one day a week for forty-five minutes to an hour.  Our teachers found it fit perfectly on their “long” days where there was no additional special activity.  The duration of 20%Time varies based on the depth of the project.  Typically, I would suggest allowing 8-10 weeks for a complete cycle.

Steps to Starting 20% Time in the Classroom

  • Set the tone with guidelines you can all live by (chart the responses and frequently refer back to them).
  • Have students prepare a proposal about their passion that includes the materials they will need to learn (computer/books/other people), and the materials they will need for their completed project.  Here is a document I created to help organize this process (Just remember to make a copy first).
  • Provide dedicated time each week; students will look forward to this time!
  • Communicate to parents about this exciting learning opportunity.
  • Ask community members to help various students as needed (pair a chef to the student who wants to learn about cooking).
  • Share the projects with the community!  Invite parents in for the presentations, encourage a pen pal class to visit, etc.

I encourage each of you to expose your teachers to the idea of 20% Time/Genius Hour/Passion Projects and watch as their students’ passion to learn is ignited!  

Wendy Story

Shades Cahaba Elementary School


Author: Alabama ASCD

Alabama affiliate of ASCD and CLAS

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