Relighting the Spark for Learning Through Passion Projects

Have you heard of Sub Hack? It was an idea designed by Charlie Shryock to create building-wide sub plans where students work on a passion project when their teacher is absent. You can read more about it on The Teachers Guild here. I absolutely love the idea. This is one of those ideas that, as an edtech coach, make you want to go back to the classroom or wish you had your own school to implement it with! Thanks for the inspiration, Charlie!

So, I took it to one of my go-to teachers to try it out with a modified version- basically just the passion project piece. Her name is Brooke Franklin, and she teaches 7th-grade social studies at Glen Este Middle School. I shared the initial Sub Hack idea with Brooke and she ran with it… everything that follows was all her and her kiddos. I’m just so impressed with what the students came up with, I wanted to share.

The whole purpose behind the project was to focus on research skills, making sense of that research and doing something with the information. Students were able to team up with one other person if they wanted. Together they selected a topic that inspired them. Brooke said this was one of the toughest parts of the project… helping students focus their research on something that wasn’t too broad and wasn’t too narrow. Finding that essential/ guiding question Goldilocks. Once they had selected a topic, students learned and practiced research skills along the way without even realizing it. They were so interested in their topics that they wanted to know as much as they could and continued their research without hesitation.

Part of the research requirements included that students reach out to two field experts. Leading up to this part of the project, all students learned how to write a professional email and have a professional conversation before they reached out to the industry experts. Once again, students were learning without even realizing it because they had a real reason to learn and apply the information they learned. When is the last time you taught email etiquette and kids were actually pumped about it?!

The last part of the passion project unit was the “project” piece. They each had to come up with a product to fit their project; I’ll explain what some of them chose to do below. Students presented their initial research and product idea to a class panel of their peers. The class then gave each group ideas and suggestions for improvement. Students went back to the drawing board and incorporated their classmates’ ideas… hello, iteration and design thinking concepts!

Throughout the whole project, students used technology as their research and project required. Some of the technology used along the way included:

  • Some students developed infographics to help compile and visualize their research.
  • Others designed posters to hang around the school- some were designed on a computer, some were drawn by hand.
  • Many groups created Google Forms to collect survey information from peers if the project required it. Then, used spreadsheets to analyze the data.
  • Email and the old fashioned telephone
  • Social media to share information with peers

So, what were these amazing projects that I was so impressed with? I’ve included updates from Brooke below my descriptions in blue.

  • Two girls wanted to find out what the most nutritious, delicious & cost effective dog treats are. They did a lot of research on dog health and nutrition, foods dogs like to eat and the cost of the foods. The girls interviewed a local dog treat shop owner and crafted up a recipe. When I was talking to Brooke about this, the girls were in the process of making the recipe they came up with and they were going to take it to a dog shelter to test it with their four-legged target consumers.
    Update from Brooke: “These two narrowed down their recipe options to two contenders, both nutritious and gluten free. They taste-tested their dog treats with dogs in their neighborhood and dogs at the local animal shelter. Their peanut butter treats were the decided favorite. In their video interview they said that they were inspired to do this project after visiting the animal shelter and seeing signage on many cages detailing the specific dietary restrictions of each dog. They were surprised at how many dogs had complications processing gluten. They also noticed that those dogs did not get treats like the other dogs did. They wanted to create a dog treat that met their nutritional needs without breaking the bank so that those dogs could also receive treats while at the shelter.” 
  • Another girl had some very personal reasons for selecting her passion project surrounding music. She wanted to know why music can affect your mood so dramatically, and which songs were best to listen to for different moods. She decided to get input from the entire school for the project portion, so she set up a song box in the counselor’s office. She had pre-made sheets of paper that read, ” When I am ___________ (emotion), I listen to___________ (song/band).” She put up posters around the school encouraging students and staff to submit as many songs as they wanted. She will then create different mood playlists based on this feedback that she can make public and share with the whole school. See pictures from her project below.

    Update from Brooke: “This student had great success with her song box and built some awesome playlists. She made lists and put them in the counselor’s office in hopes that she could help students cope with similar problems as she was going through. She also said that through the project she realized that there were actual careers out there where people generate playlists for music streaming companies and thinks that she might be interested in doing something similar down the road. One expert that she contacted was a practicing therapist in the Cincinnati area who specialized in music therapy. She also emailed an individual who is contracted through Spotify to design playlists. While the latter did not respond to our emails, she was able to learn a lot about his job through his website.”

  • Another student wanted to revise the school schedule. He researched the number of required days in school by state law, other effective schedules, school policy and more. He emailed a school board member, who forwarded it to the Superintendent, who responded to this student with information about the school schedule. He was SO excited to be professionally communicating with the Superintendent. This particular student struggled with research bias- latching on to research that supported his claim to shorten the school year. Brooke has to consistently play devil’s advocate and remind him to search for research on both sides of the issue to be better informed.
    Update from Brooke: “This student dug DEEP to try to alter the school schedule. (He did struggle to remain impartial, as you said.) After communicating to a REAL expert in the field, Dr. Kieth Kline, he opened his mind to the opposing side. He said that Dr. Kline’s response made him feel like he had a voice and that his questions and ideas were important. He said that it was really cool to be recognized like that as a student. (sidebar- I think it was cool to see him, and other students, embrace these issues and questions with an ACTIVE voice. So often students are boxed into a passive role in their education and communities. It’s so important that students experience empowerment at a young age, so that they do not develop into passive members of society later on. I think that’s my favorite outcome of passion projects.)”
    Could not agree with you on this more, Brooke!
  • One student wanted to break down stereotypes and help homeless veterans. His research was focused on homelessness and veteran care. When I talked to Brooke, his parents were planning on taking him to a veteran shelter that following weekend. He was hoping to do video interviews with homeless veterans and create a video montage out of it. I choked up when Brooke was telling me about this one… it was pretty incredible to me that this 7th grader was thinking so big! Also, I cry any time the National Anthem in played, so I’m surprised I wasn’t full on water works.
    Update from Brooke: “This student was unable to carryout his video montage plan to break down stereotypes circulating the homeless community. As the quarter ended, and grades in other core classes took priority, he needed to focus his energy elsewhere. If we had had a little more time, I know that he would have put together an awesome video project. Instead, he chose to put together an advisory lesson about his findings in hopes to spark a change of perspective in his peers. As goes the law that all of us dreamers believe, “It only takes a spark to start a fire.” I hope that this little idea follows him and continues to grow into something great as he continues through school.”
    Ironically, I had already made my cover image with the “spark” on it before Brooke sent me this… there really must be something to that idea if we’re both thinking it! Students also switch classes at the end of the quarter, so there wasn’t an opportunity to extend this project into fourth quarter.
  • And last, but certainly not least… the #5HourChallenge. Two girls decided to research the effects of social media on school work. They created a Google Form to collect survey information from everyone at school about the amount of time spent on social media at home; if they do their homework first or check social media first when at home; how many times they interrupt homework and family time for social media; etc. They took this data and created posters to hang around school with “Did you know?” facts. From the student feedback panel, other students suggested they create an online challenge to go with their research. So, the girls came up with the #5HourChallenge, where they are challenging their classmates to commit to staying off their phone for 5 hours per week (one hour per school day) to focus on homework and face to face time with family. Students are supposed to write “#5HourChallenge… going offline” on the top of their homework and take a picture of it to post on Snapchat or Instagram to document their participation, then turn off or put away their phones for one hour. They made really intriguing signs to hang around the school, are using social media to spread the word (since they know everyone is on it from their survey), and are finding peer “influencers” that they can get to support the idea and spread the word. They’ve got their own little grassroots movement going on! See pictures below.
    Update from Brooke: “The #5HourChallenge was so cool! The girls were extremely nervous about launching it, as all teenage girls tend to be super sensitive about rejection. In addition to their “influencers” we rallied both Inquiries and Ideas classes to get behind the movement. (I might have offered a little extra credit if they showed me their posts from the previous night.) To combat their nervousness, I gave a somewhat cheesy ‘life-lesson’ speech about confidence, and that night they braved social media. The movement did very well, many kids from our team and some from the other 7th grade teams participated and the girls received positive feedback from participants. This was another cool project where they were able to find their ‘voice’. Although nervous, by the end of the week they gained a new confidence that I hope will guide them to act on other social issues.”

Brooke wrapped up the project by having students talk through their guiding question, their research process and findings, what they did with the research and what they’d like to see happen moving forward in a video. She said they struggled a little bit with the video because they got camera shy. It was still fun to hear them talk about their projects! You can watch the video below. She said moving forward with the next round of Passion Projects she, “might have them do a video reflection journal using their chrome books this quarter to help curb the camera fright. It would be interesting to see how their thoughts and ideas change as their projects progress via film.”  Brooke said, “now that I’ve gotten one round of passion projects under my belt, I can’t wait to start this quarter’s round of projects.” I can’t wait to see what her students come up with!

Aren’t these amazing?! I’m so inspired by what students will come up with when we let them! I will leave you with a quote I love by Principal Chris Lehmann,

“If you assign a project and get back 30 of the exact same thing, that’s not a project, that’s a recipe.”

Thanks to my colleague, Michael Roush, for sharing that quote with me. And a special thank you to Brooke for sharing all these projects with me!

So what passion projects have you done with your students, and what have they come up with? What advice do you have for a teacher embarking on a passion project with their students?

Tech To You Later!

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