Monday, May 02, 2016

Thinking About What to Think About: Summer Passion Projects

by Amber Chandler
You’ve probably heard of Genius Hour, an idea born at Google, where employees are given 20% of their work time to explore pet projects and essentially dabble in their interests. I take this similar approach with my own kids.  During the school year, I am an ELA teacher in a Project Based Learning classroom to 8th graders; for better or worse, I’m kinda addicted to that type of learning, so my own kiddos--Zoey, 11 and Oliver, 8 spend their summers doing a Passion Project. In my view, it is their job to just “be” in the summer and relax, play outside, hang out, sleep in, play Mario Brothers (with the volume off--I just can’t deal with that frenetic music), go to Regal’s dollar movies, Karate lessons, and birthday parties. However, as an educator, I’m acutely aware that disruptions to the normal schedule for holidays and summer vacation can be overwhelming to all parties.  Summer reading loss is real. September and October are a review. Sadly, that is inevitable as a public school teacher; however, for the homeschool crowd, I suggest a Passion Project to avoid the summer slide.

            I assign Passion Projects to my middle school students in the spring. Feel free to use the one on my website as a guide, which is exactly what I plan to do with my own kids this summer for their 20% time. I’m going to help them come up with what I call the “burning question” that they are just dying to know the answer to and are willing to spend their summer exploring. Once we’ve arrived at that question, they will each need to read 100 pages (either one book or several totally 100 pages) about their topic. The goal is to chase down the answer to their question and then create a website sharing their learning. If this sounds too teacherly, I assure you, this is one teacher who wants to place the responsibility squarely on their shoulders since A) I just finished helping 134 students create a website and B) my own kids are used to me. I may or may not have “made” Zoey do a PowerPoint for her project the summer before 2nd grade.

            While they’re at it, it’s a good time for you to join in the fun and lead by example. Last summer my daughter’s burning question was “Why do animals become extinct?” She chose this because she’s what I’ll affectionately call a “people pleaser,” and she thought this would be scholarly and impressive to the 5th grade teacher who she’d show it to later. We went to the local science museum, read articles, and she was bored pretty quickly. She switched her topic to “What makes a good play?” since she loves acting. Additionally, my husband freelances as an arts and entertainment reviewer, so she was able to attend several plays with him and mimic his style, essentially using his writing as a mentor text. This was a cool experience for him to show her the ropes and spend some quality time together.

            Oliver, my then 7 year old, had no problem deciding what he wanted to do all summer. He wanted to know why so many people love Lego. (Incidentally, there is no such thing as Legos, no “s” as the plural is simply Lego--one of the many facts he taught us). His project was perfect because it was already his passion. He spent time at the library Lego club, “interviewing” the librarian about why they had the club, and reading every book he could on the topic. I bet he read more than Zoey and I combined. To his delight, “A Lego Brickumentary” came out in July and we actually bought it on demand the night it was released. He had the unique experience of being the most informed person in the room, which is hard to do when you have an older sister, a teacher mom, and a writer dad. It was actually fascinating, and I highly recommend it.

            I mentioned “Passion Projects” and the idea to add a website this summer and both of my kiddos were excited. My favorite part though is that they weren’t so ready to commit to a topic. They recognized the value of the 20% time, and, as Oliver said, “You’ve got to be careful what you have to think about all summer.” Yep, you sure do.

Amber Chandler is a mama, teacher, and education writer. She believes in student-centered, Project Based Learning, as well as integrating technology at every turn. Her book, The Flexible ELA Classroom: Differentiation for Grades 4-8 will be available this fall. She’s launching, a website companion to the book, but also a space for teachers of all kinds to share their resources. Please submit your best ideas to her to appear on the website, as she’d like to highlight the work of the homeschool crowd. Follow her on Twitter at @MsAmberChandler and visit her website for lots of resources that you are welcome to use.

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