Does your community know you as a learner?
Flood Brook School buzzed with excitement. Students brought in their projects on tables or on carts, the weight sometimes shared with friends. As they set up their displays, parents, teachers, younger students and community members milled about, waiting for the opportunity to learn more about student projects and process. One student fired his trebuchet in the center of the room to great fanfare.
And over the course of the hour, these students described their learning to an eager and curious community.
What are Passion Projects?
These projects originated three years ago as an opportunity for middle schoolers to explore their interests and learn to scaffold and organize learning experiences for themselves. Over the years, teachers at Flood Brook had also worked with students to create Personal Learning Plans (PLPs), but were finding that students weren’t invested in the process or product.
Fast forward to 2018.
The Flood Brook team began to wonder, “What if Passion Projects were the PLP?”
They started to speculate whether middle school students could explore interests, design learning experiences, set goals, and reflect on their learning all through the experience of a personal interest project — a project where students explored what they are passionate about. These core functions of middle school PLPs could be accomplished through student-centered and highly engaging work.
This year, all students in Flood Brook’s middle grades will conduct two independent passion projects. In late January, students finished their projects. Teachers organized the exhibition to take place on a Friday afternoon, and they invited everyone to hear from students themselves about their learning — the entire school, parents, community members. Everyone.
We were blown away by the way that students could speak about their learning.
Not surprisingly, the range of topics was diverse. Audience members learned from student experts in dress code activism, trebuchet engineering, coding with Scratch, and much more. Despite the range of topics, some common themes emerged from the stories of student learning.
The power of choice
One lesson learned from these Flood Brook students is that choice and passion truly matters.
We met seventh-grade student, Knight, who described the most significant role that the teacher plays as they guide student interest projects. Knight said, “My teacher is really a Passion Finder”. The students at Flood Brook also shared advice for other students just starting out on their own Passion Projects.
The power of iteration
Another common theme was iteration: the need to revise, sometimes again and again.
Training a smarter guinea pig
Vivian studied guinea pig behavior. For one study she designed a guinea pig maze. Her first maze seemed too easy for the guineas, her second was too hard. All in all, it took Vivian six attempts to create a maze that was just right.
Iterating through material failure
Mason had a similar experience. He designed a cart that you power using plungers, but the first one he built fell apart when he sat on it because the wood was too thin. After that, he had to build it again using stronger wood, and this time it held his weight. Mason plans to continue to iterate, working on a plunger system that is easier for the driver to use.
Tre went through four or five design cycles in the creation of his human powered vehicle which he calls the Tornado. Inspired by both scooters and skateboards, he tried various configurations until he created one that was both easy to ride and stylish.
The power of an authentic audience
Many students found having an authentic audience rewarding and motivating.
Evan was excited to share his newfound expertise. He had to learn a great deal to create his modular shelving units as he demonstrated in a slideshow: design, safety, accuracy in measuring and calculating, power tool usage, assembly, and finishing. His finished unit was designed to be stacked or hung on the wall in multiple configurations. While presenting he was asked if he was selling his units and for what price. He was already proud of his work and his skill, but this question brought a huge smile to his face.
Carter may not have finished his project if he hadn’t known about the exhibition at the end. He coded a little and found it to be “really fun” so he decided to make it the focus of his project. He coded multiple projects, his biggest required him to draw and code over 640 panels.
What kept him going? Carter says: “The fact that I was going to be presenting this.”
Ever the reflective learners, Flood Brook’s students shared some feedback for their teachers on how to improve the next round of Passion Projects.