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PBL spotlight: Passion project serendipity

4 min read

Voice of the Educator

One thing I have learned in over 20 years of teaching middle school is to expect the unexpected. When the unexpected surpasses the original plan: serendipity.

This fall, I had high hopes that implementing Passion Projects would accomplish several lofty academic goals. My classroom is student-centered, meaning I believe in choice and inquiry-based learning. I do not spoon-feed information to my pupils but rather encourage them to seek answers on their own.

Their learning experiences should be purposeful and authentic to the extent that this is feasible. For better or worse, a world full of information is at their fingertips. This, coupled with adults who often don’t allow children to grapple with challenges, means that many of our students don’t have practice with critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

I want to spark their curiosity as well as inspire them to work beyond what comes easily. As an English teacher, I also want students to practice their verbal communication skills. I thought a presentation on a subject about which they arepassionate would be the best avenue. The end result was full of happy accidents and completely exceeded my expectations.

To introduce Passion Projects, I asked my students to contemplate three questions: 1) What do you want to learn how to do? 2) What would you like to create? or 3) Who would you like to help? I allowed them to combine two of the three. When they submitted their project proposals, I was a bit concerned by the results because I wasn’t sure if they were overreaching their abilities or how they would be received at home. But things worked out surprisingly well in the end.

The first unexpected result was that many of my students chose Passion Projects that involved little or no technology. Their plans involved old-fashioned “domestic” pursuits such as knitting, sewing, needlepoint, crocheting or cooking. Others selected technical projects such as building architectural models, crafting organizational products for school lockers or constructing an LED-lit umbrella. A few elected to explore the arts through photography, creative writing, painting and paper sculpture.

What’s more, almost all of these involved learning the skill from a parent or grandparent or actively involving them in the execution. I had anticipated neither the desire for traditional, hands-on experiences, nor the wish for family involvement. The adults thanked me for the opportunity for bonding time at a time when it is the child’s natural instinct to pull away. The students themselves stated that they enjoyed getting to spend the extra time with their parents or grandparents to create what became keepsakes or new family traditions.

The second fortunate happenstance was that I had forgotten about the natural altruism of middle-school students. I was completely surprised that so many chose to complete projects to benefit others through causes close to their heart. Many designed fundraising opportunities for charities such as animal shelters, medical research, domestic violence shelters or the homeless — to a great degree of success. Some even received public recognition for their contributions.

One final, completely serendipitous result of the Passion Project experience was that it naturally promoted a growth mindset. On their written reflections, students unknowingly expressed growth mindset tenets such as: “It was really challenging and we had to work past our limits.”  “It taught me a work ethic — I didn’t want to quit.” “It pulled something out of me that I might not have discovered otherwise.” “We didn’t need a teacher to hold our hands — just to stand beside us.” The parents provided similar feedback, marveling at the maturity and inspiration they saw in their children.

Even though Passion Projects began as a way to provide real-world research and fun public-speaking opportunities, they evolved into so much more. Now that I’ve seen the power of their passion, I look forward to repeating these projects. Who knows what surprises lay in store?

Cheryl Mizerny is a recent Editor’s Choice Content Award winner. She is a veteran educator with over 20 years experience. She began her career in special education, became a teacher consultant and adjunct professor of educational psychology, and she currently teaches sixth-grade English in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She writes a blog about student motivation and engagement at The Accidental English Teacher.

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