For many years now, one of my favorite movies has been the 1993 classic, “Groundhog Day.” For those of you unfamiliar, the premise of the film is based on an arrogant, self-centered newscaster named Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, who gets stuck having to relive the same day over . . . and over . . .and over again. Although he certainly does not realize it initially, Phil eventually learns that he has been granted the gift of time. Since every day is now the same, Phil begins to use his time to pursue new skills, such as learning to play the piano, ice carve, and become a better dancer. This notion of having all the time in the world has fascinated me from the time I first watched this movie: What would I want to learn about? Become better at doing? What passions would I want to pursue? The possibilities seem endless!
During the Teachers College Virtual Teaching Institute a few weeks ago, a professional development experience designed to support teachers during this time of COVID-19, staff developer Natalie Friday introduced an idea for learning during the current global pandemic: Passion Projects. With schools now closed, several of them for the remainder of the academic year, some students (and teachers!) may feel like they are actually living the movie, “Groundhog Day.” So with this gift of time (if we can see our way to interpreting it that way), why not encourage students to pursue a passion they have or would like to grow?
Why Passion Projects?
Throughout a normal school year, as writing teachers we are guided by standards, curricular guides, units of study and the like. Although I am sure some teachers love their writing curriculum, most of us are faced with following external prescriptions intended to prepare students for standardized testing and/or other data-producing measures. With states moving away from those measures this year due to the pandemic, teachers seem to have been gifted some leeway in how to facilitate writing instruction online. So how about a Passion Project? Staff Developer Natalie Friday offered a few reasons why we might consider organizing some time for Passion Projects:
- Authentic Learning Opportunities- Learning tends to become easier (and sometimes imperceptible- in a good way!) when we actually want to do something we are interested in doing. And when students are able to pursue an interest or passion, rather than feeling like all their learning paths are prescribed, the work can often take on…well, a different feel. Research supports this idea. In a 2013 MindShift article, acclaimed author and science journalist Annie Paul Murphy writes about the “Science of Interest.” She writes, “[Researchers] are finding that interest can help us think more clearly, understand more deeply, and remember more accurately.” Elucidating the findings of University of North Carolina professor, Paul Silvia, Murphy enumerates some of the benefits of interest:
The feelings that characterize interest are overwhelmingly positive: a sense of being energized and invigorated, captivated and enthralled. As for its effects on cognition: interest effectively turbocharges our thinking. When we’re interested in what we’re learning, we pay closer attention; we process the information more efficiently; we employ more effective learning strategies, such as engaging in critical thinking, making connections between old and new knowledge, and attending to deep structure instead of surface features. When we’re interested in a task, we work harder and persist longer, bringing more of our self-regulatory skills into play.
Passion Projects have the potential to capture student interest and thereby harness the positive powers of genuine interest. My oldest daughter right now, for example, is attempting to teach herself Japanese. For some reason (unbeknownst to me), she is interested in this language. To support her project, she has created a special notebook for recording basic vocabulary and trying out written sentences. She practices speaking on her own and with her sister, experimenting with different translation software. At the dinner table, she talks with her family about what she is learning. This weekend we are planning a zoom call between her and my friend’s daughter, who attends a Japanese immersion school in Portland, Oregon. I think it is safe to term her learning “authentic”!
- Support Transfer & Independence – Educator Grant Wiggins once wrote that the goal of school is transfer. Think of the potential for transfer if students are afforded the opportunity to transfer what they have learned over their years of schooling into a project for which they hold genuine interest and/or passion. Kids will likely seek, find, read, and view multiple “texts”; they might take notes; they might write about their reading; they might talk with others; they might think in new ways; and in all of these manners, they will be independently transferring all the skills they have honed over the years as they work on their Passion Projects. Some equate this to “scrimmaging,” a way athletes orchestrate and practice the many skills within their sport in a game-like situation.
- Student Choice – Even the authors of the acclaimed Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s Writing Units of Study acknowledge that, although choice is essential in any and all effective writing instruction, choice within the units is not really free choice: It is mitigated choice. And this is for a sound reason (about which I will not expound on here). But Passion Projects have the potential to reduce the confines traditional writing instruction can impose, and, as Natalie Friday put it, “open doors based on passion.” And with choice, engagement usually follows.
Natalie defined a Passion Project as simply “acting on passions we have.” Examples of passions she shared included:
- health and fitness
- camping and nature
- travel and culture
Some students may even want to write that fantasy or realistic fiction story they have been dying to write!
So as teachers-from-a-distance, how can we prepare to support students in working on Passion Projects? We can think about three possibilities:
- Topic Resources: Our wonderful library media specialist at the school where I work in Connecticut created a website where students can go to access accurate and credible sources of information to support nearly any research pursuit a kid could dream up (okay, maybe not any, but many!). Perhaps you or your librarian also know where to direct students to learn about a topic online? While of course teachers can provide links to our students, it is likely best to direct them to places with which they are already familiar. “Resources” can also be defined in ways other than online links: Consider, for example, the student who might want to pursue a passion for nature? She could perhaps go outside and collect/observe? It is likely kids can find ways to source knowledge about their passion in some creative ways.
- Platform Options: Although technology today offers a dizzying myriad of possibilities when it comes to sharing information, we know that not all kids will bring the same skill set or home technology infrastructure during this period of crisis learning. Knowing this, we can encourage them to consider a platform that feels the most comfortable along a continuum of options (see here):
This continuum is meant to illustrate the breadth of options kids might consider for sharing/publishing Passion Projects. Encourage kids to select something low-stress, and remember teachers do not have to “know” all the platforms!
- Partners and Clubs- One of the most difficult parts of this pandemic is the social isolation it has caused. When facilitating a Passion Project, one way to mitigate isolation is to work to set kids up in partnerships or clubs. A couple of ways to do this might be: (1) Collect passions on a Google form and group kids with similar passions together; (2) Offer low to medium to high-tech platform preferences (like the ones illustrated above) and use these preferences to group students, perhaps by using a survey. Once kids are in clubs or with a partner, they can begin brainstorming ways to support each other from a distance.
How Do We Support This Work?
In her presentation, Natalie Friday recommended teachers consider a five-day work cycle for Passion Projects, a work cycle that includes: (1) Watching/studying/researching; (2) Thinking & Deciding (how to share); and (3) Trying it out (writing, recording, creating). In terms of support, we can think about the following:
- Teacher support- Differentiation is key to the success of Passion Projects. Simply telling our kids, “Go do a Passion Project!” while well-meaning, will not be enough to sustain a kid across something like this. Thus, working to confer with groups (either by Zoom, Google Meet, conference calls, etc.), finding and/or directing writers to mentor texts, writing alongside kids, and keeping the focus on transfer of skills will be essential.
- Peer support – Framing a Passion Project as an opportunity to build ideas together can set kids up to embody a collaborative spirit. As discussed above, partnerships and clubs will be important. Kids can:
- share resource ideas
- teach each other
- communicate electronically
- hold each other accountable
- Caregiver support – Consider communicating with caregivers about what you envision for passion projects, i.e. low-stress, something meant to be enjoyable and fun. Perhaps the whole family can get involved? Nature walks, cooking together…possibilities abound. Recognizing, of course, that caregivers are likely inundated with work at home right now, we want to be sensitive to what levels of support might be realistic when it comes to Passion Projects.
In “Groundhog Day,” the fictional main character Phil broadened his perspective enormously after working to learn all the different skills. In becoming a better piano player, ice carving artist, and dancer, Phil became a different person. Perhaps that is a gift passion can give to all of us?
If you have facilitated Passion Projects before, please feel free to share your successes and/or challenges in the comments section below. We would love to hear from you!
* A special thank you to Natalie Friday for her beautiful presentation on Passion Projects!
For more than 27 years, Lanny has taught, coached, presented, staff developed, and consulted within the exciting and enigmatic world of literacy. With unyielding passion and belief in the possibility of workshop teaching, Lanny has worked to support students, teachers, and school administrators around the country in outgrowing themselves as both writers and readers. Working first as a classroom teacher, then as a coach and TCRWP Staff Developer, Lanny is now a literacy specialist, working and living in the great state of Connecticut. Outside of literacy, he enjoys raising his three ambitious young daughters with his wife, and playing the piano. Find him on this blog, as well as on Twitter @LannyBall. Lanny is also a co-author of a blog dedicated to supporting teachers and coaches that maintain classroom writing workshops, twowritingteachers.org.