Give students time, space, technology to create Passion Projects

Leading students toward their passions will point them toward their purpose and get them college- and career-ready, according to Tamara Letter, instructional technology resource teacher at the Title I Mechanicsville Elementary School in Hanover County (Va.) Public Schools.

“Now is the time for us to capitalize on curiosity, showing our students how to embrace their natural inclination for asking questions and seeking answers,” said Letter, who provides professional development in technology integration for teachers, students, and administrators.

One way to lead students toward this goal is through what she calls Passion Projects, which are anything a student decides to research just because he is excited about and interested in it. And all students, including those with disabilities or who are English learners, are able to create Passion Projects in almost any grade.

“I have seen first-hand the intrinsic motivation that shines through students who struggle when they participate in Passion Projects,” Letter said.

For instance, teachers could easily use the concept to help students link to other learning in the classroom, while also providing students an opportunity to share a little of themselves with their classmates, thus promoting a culture of kindness and understanding, she said.

“Perhaps an [EL] student might choose a Passion Project about making horchata, or a student with a disability might hone in on other successful people who share the same disability,” said Letter. “Passion Projects have the potential to empower students with knowledge as well as [promote] empathy and understanding for others.”

Steps to implement projects

Passion Projects are built into the regular school schedule and students get one hour a week during a marking period to “hatch an idea” and move forward with it, said Letter, who serves as digital content chairwoman for the Virginia Society for Technology in Education conference committee.

The idea is adapted from the Genius Hour model, which has the flexibility to align with project-based learning, she said. “I prefer ‘Passion Projects’ over ‘Genius Hour’ because passions drive the learning and you’re a genius for longer than one hour a week.”

Here are Letter’s five steps for implementing Passion Projects:

1. Brainstorm: “We created a Wonder Wall where students wrote their questions and ideas on Post-it notes. Older students could use [collaborative online tools] as a digital option for brainstorming,” she said.

2. Question: Step 1: Students may get ideas from Twitter by searching #GeniusHour. In the classroom, create a culture in which all ideas are valued. Step 2: Students should create a motivating question to answer. Some of the ideas Letter’s elementary school students chose were: Why do cats hate getting wet? How do dolphins talk to each other? How do you build a Lego Ninjago Dragon? How long is the Rebel Yell rollercoaster?

3. Research: She suggested teachers use Google Sheets to organize which project each student is working on. This spreadsheet may include active links to resources and notes on what needs to be done. Available resources for students to consider include books and magazines, online research, and interviews.

“Interviews are great to learn more about a person or to gain insight from an expert,” Letter said. “Students get fully engaged in the research stage. Yes, even 6-year-olds can research and write!”

4. Create: She said to create ideas for students to present their final projects, such as through posters, movies, games, slideshows, brochures, songs, dances, or books.

“There’s no limit to what a child can create, but you may choose to limit the options for your own sanity,” said Letter. “We chose to have students use the same tool and create the same presentation format, but showcase their creativity with digital graphics and writing.”

5. Share: Her students held a Share Fair during the school day. Flyers were sent home to advertise the event, and school staff received emails inviting them to visit or take a tour of the projects in the laptop lab. They also created a website to showcase the projects and posted the link on Twitter.

“Students were excited to open their projects and answer questions,” said Letter. “When students know that others will see and hear their work, they put a greater effort into creating a top-notch project.”

When students work on Passion Projects, “there is an endless amount of JOY,” said Letter, explaining that the acronym stands for “Jubilant Outcries of Yes!”

Looking ahead, she said the Passion Projects idea will be used beyond her school building.

In addition to the several classrooms throughout her district that are delving into Passion Projects this year and next, later this month Letter will share her school’s experiences at the local MathScience Innovation Center and also will present a poster session at the International Society for Technology in Education conference in Denver.

“I’ve even taken this concept of passion learning and extended it to my teacher trainings, providing opportunities for personalized learning versus three-hour mandated trainings on topics I choose,” she said. “Everyone has a passion — it brings us joy to learn more about our passions and share with others.”

Insider resource: Reach Letter at or on Twitter @HCPSTinyTech.

Kim Riley covers special education and other Title I issues for LRP Publications.

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