Create a List

List Name

Rename this List
Save to
Back to the Top Teaching Blog
May 18, 2017

Pursuing Passions: Unlocking Student Potential

By Julie Ballew
Grades 3–5, 6–8

    If I have learned anything as teacher, it’s that student engagement is directly and positively correlated to student choice. When students have choice in their work, they have an increased level of ownership, and they perform at higher rates. I have seen this again and again through the power of reading and writing workshops. Want kids to become lifelong readers? Let them choose what to read. Want them to reach for higher heights in writing? Let them decide what they’ll write about. Want them to be intentional about their working environment? Let them choose their seat! (For more on flexible seating, check out my last post here.)

    This year, I embarked on a journey of increasing student choice in my classroom in more ways than I ever had before. I dabbled in the concept of passion projects at the tail end of last year, but I really wanted to see what my students could do if I loosened the reins a bit. Let me just say, I have not been disappointed!

    “Passion project” is a term for a creative side project fueled by one’s own interests that serves as a source of inspiration and joy. I first heard the term applied to adults, urging them to learn to play violin or take a calligraphy class. For reasons I can’t fully explain (but that probably have much to do with an ever-increasing demand on every instructional minute) many months passed between the first time I heard about passion projects to the first time I considered trying them in my classroom. I am so glad I have devoted some time to passion projects this year, and I have been truly amazed by how my instructional time has benefitted from this work.

    Each week, students in my class are given one hour to devote to passion projects. At the beginning of the year, they needed a lot of support in brainstorming ideas. Their surprise at a chance to study anything their hearts desired left them unsure. They seemed to be waiting for me to share a list of parameters or show them the rubric of expectations. Certainly, I have trained many classes of students to expect this. This was unlike any assignment they had been given, and they weren’t sure how to respond.

    My only expectations for passion projects are that they spend time researching something — anything — that they love, and that they decide on a way to share their research with their peers. I gave them time to brainstorm with a partner and a group, and I asked each student to make a list of possible future topics. I also combined their lists into a spreadsheet for my own reference and in case theirs went missing. The lists were as unique as the kids and included topics like Olympic athletes, the history of unicorns, World War II, advanced origami techniques, and guinea pigs.

    Once each student was equipped with a list of possible topics, we reviewed some basic strategies for responsible research and digital citizenship, and I turned them loose. We have revisited research strategies often and our school librarian has been very supportive in helping all of us teach our students about verifying sources and information found on the Internet. After several sessions devoted to research, I could tell that several students had gathered enough information and were ready to share their learning with their classmates. I wasn’t sure how I would manage the presentations, since I was sure that they would be ready at various times.

    Ultimately, I set aside one session each month as a “presentation hour” so that the kids could learn to set time-based goals for their research. Their excitement was tangible, which I was thrilled to see. I told them that they could present in whatever way made sense to them. Oral presentations, posters, and digital slide shows were all on the table. I also chose a few programs, apps, and websites to introduce (or review) with my students and added them as options for presentations.

    Before I knew it, my fourth graders were creating slide shows, game-show-style quizzes, skits, and more to share their research. Their classmates were more engaged during their presentations than I had ever seen them. The presenter’s passion was contagious, and many students added to their future project lists after learning from their classmates. Unsurprisingly, they quickly learned to use the presentation tools better than I can, and I found multiple opportunities to make students ambassadors for different presentation methods. Need help with a poster? Talk to these people. Don’t know how to make a quiz? Here are some experts.

    It took almost no time at all for this work to bleed into our more structured classwork. I began to think differently about how students could share other kinds of learning. After completing a text in a book club, for example, I might ask students to write a notebook entry about it. This wasn’t enough for them. They had learned the value of sharing their learning, and they began to ask if they could work together to share the book with their classmates. They just thought they were begging to use their fun new presentation tools, but I was hearing requests to collaborate, grow their learning, and share it with others. How could I turn that down?

    My students are currently working on cumulative social studies projects in the style of passion projects. We have been studying Texas History this year, and they have each chosen a Texas History topic that they want to know more about. They are building on their knowledge of key battles, native Texans, industries like oil and railroads, and prominent leaders in Texas. At any free moment, I hear, “Can I work on my social studies project?” and it is music to my ears. No more are they saying, “I’m done, what can I do?” They are purposeful with their time, and they have developed a constant desire for more.

    What began as an experiment in pursuing passions has enabled my students to unlock their potential for growing ideas and sharing them with each other.  I am thrilled with their work and with all that I have learned on this journey. I can’t wait to be blown away by their social studies presentations!

    If I have learned anything as teacher, it’s that student engagement is directly and positively correlated to student choice. When students have choice in their work, they have an increased level of ownership, and they perform at higher rates. I have seen this again and again through the power of reading and writing workshops. Want kids to become lifelong readers? Let them choose what to read. Want them to reach for higher heights in writing? Let them decide what they’ll write about. Want them to be intentional about their working environment? Let them choose their seat! (For more on flexible seating, check out my last post here.)

    This year, I embarked on a journey of increasing student choice in my classroom in more ways than I ever had before. I dabbled in the concept of passion projects at the tail end of last year, but I really wanted to see what my students could do if I loosened the reins a bit. Let me just say, I have not been disappointed!

    “Passion project” is a term for a creative side project fueled by one’s own interests that serves as a source of inspiration and joy. I first heard the term applied to adults, urging them to learn to play violin or take a calligraphy class. For reasons I can’t fully explain (but that probably have much to do with an ever-increasing demand on every instructional minute) many months passed between the first time I heard about passion projects to the first time I considered trying them in my classroom. I am so glad I have devoted some time to passion projects this year, and I have been truly amazed by how my instructional time has benefitted from this work.

    Each week, students in my class are given one hour to devote to passion projects. At the beginning of the year, they needed a lot of support in brainstorming ideas. Their surprise at a chance to study anything their hearts desired left them unsure. They seemed to be waiting for me to share a list of parameters or show them the rubric of expectations. Certainly, I have trained many classes of students to expect this. This was unlike any assignment they had been given, and they weren’t sure how to respond.

    My only expectations for passion projects are that they spend time researching something — anything — that they love, and that they decide on a way to share their research with their peers. I gave them time to brainstorm with a partner and a group, and I asked each student to make a list of possible future topics. I also combined their lists into a spreadsheet for my own reference and in case theirs went missing. The lists were as unique as the kids and included topics like Olympic athletes, the history of unicorns, World War II, advanced origami techniques, and guinea pigs.

    Once each student was equipped with a list of possible topics, we reviewed some basic strategies for responsible research and digital citizenship, and I turned them loose. We have revisited research strategies often and our school librarian has been very supportive in helping all of us teach our students about verifying sources and information found on the Internet. After several sessions devoted to research, I could tell that several students had gathered enough information and were ready to share their learning with their classmates. I wasn’t sure how I would manage the presentations, since I was sure that they would be ready at various times.

    Ultimately, I set aside one session each month as a “presentation hour” so that the kids could learn to set time-based goals for their research. Their excitement was tangible, which I was thrilled to see. I told them that they could present in whatever way made sense to them. Oral presentations, posters, and digital slide shows were all on the table. I also chose a few programs, apps, and websites to introduce (or review) with my students and added them as options for presentations.

    Before I knew it, my fourth graders were creating slide shows, game-show-style quizzes, skits, and more to share their research. Their classmates were more engaged during their presentations than I had ever seen them. The presenter’s passion was contagious, and many students added to their future project lists after learning from their classmates. Unsurprisingly, they quickly learned to use the presentation tools better than I can, and I found multiple opportunities to make students ambassadors for different presentation methods. Need help with a poster? Talk to these people. Don’t know how to make a quiz? Here are some experts.

    It took almost no time at all for this work to bleed into our more structured classwork. I began to think differently about how students could share other kinds of learning. After completing a text in a book club, for example, I might ask students to write a notebook entry about it. This wasn’t enough for them. They had learned the value of sharing their learning, and they began to ask if they could work together to share the book with their classmates. They just thought they were begging to use their fun new presentation tools, but I was hearing requests to collaborate, grow their learning, and share it with others. How could I turn that down?

    My students are currently working on cumulative social studies projects in the style of passion projects. We have been studying Texas History this year, and they have each chosen a Texas History topic that they want to know more about. They are building on their knowledge of key battles, native Texans, industries like oil and railroads, and prominent leaders in Texas. At any free moment, I hear, “Can I work on my social studies project?” and it is music to my ears. No more are they saying, “I’m done, what can I do?” They are purposeful with their time, and they have developed a constant desire for more.

    What began as an experiment in pursuing passions has enabled my students to unlock their potential for growing ideas and sharing them with each other.  I am thrilled with their work and with all that I have learned on this journey. I can’t wait to be blown away by their social studies presentations!

Comments

Share your ideas about this article

Julie's Most Recent Posts
Blog Post
5 Tips for Building a Set of Anchor Texts

Anchor texts are books that you use as teaching tools over and over again, throughout the year. By reading them early and often, you are setting yourself up for success all year long.

By Julie Ballew
September 7, 2016
Blog Post
How Do You Measure a Year?
Whenever I begin to feel overwhelmed with all there is to do in the short time left, it always helps me to step back, take a deep breath, and spend some time reflecting on the year I’ve had. This year, I asked students and teachers to do the same.
By Julie Ballew
May 28, 2013
Blog Post
Real-Life Learning: A Primary Study of Life Cycles
If you were to walk into my school this week, you’d be greeted with two sounds: a chorus of chirping chicks, and at least a hundred first-grade voices excitedly talking about their newly-hatched class pets.
By Julie Ballew
May 13, 2013
Blog Post
Poems for Mom: A Perfect Gift
Last week, I visited Kathy Howie’s kindergarten class as they shared poems. This kind of work can be adapted for any grade, so if you’re looking for a heartfelt Mother’s Day gift, maybe you could encourage your students to write poems like these.
By Julie Ballew
May 6, 2013
My Scholastic

Susan Cheyney

GRADES: 1-2
About Us