The power of PIPs in a pandemic

Middle school is not a Zoom room.

When the quick switch to a remote environment was required, Charlotte Central School decided to go with what they know. And these folks know their students. Specifically, they know “Personal Interest Projects” (PIPs, aka passion projects, aka Brainado, aka curiosity projects) work for their students. Charlotte Central students in grades 7 and 8 had both worked through a few rounds of PIPs, providing educators with rave reviews. And as the distance (learning) lengthened, honoring students’ individual joys and passions seemed the best way forward.

It generally always is.

But for these PIPs, remote learning environment removed a lot constraints in terms of time and place. This middle school truly wasn’t a building, but instead a networked community, working remotely to support, engage and more deeply know their students.

Keep it simple:

Educators Marley Evans, Lisa Bresler, and Allan Miller started to wonder how to make this work in the wild new environment of emergency distance learning. First, they started with some guiding statements for students:

  • Pick something that’s engaging
  • Fun and not overwhelming
  • Something you’ll stick with

They were hoping for something that created a meaningful back and forth dialog. Something that could be synchronous or asynchronous. A dialog that supported a growth mindset and a little self-direction.

Plus, they really, really missed their students. And this would be an opportunity to reach out and connect. But however would they cope with the virtual reality of the situation?

Roll Call:

An email went out to staff and other interested educators, requesting a little help.

The response? Overwhelming. 17 adults in the school community stepped up to the plate and volunteered to be a PIPs resource. That represented a 240% increase over the last round, and created a 1:5 ratio for adults supporting students. Take a moment and think about what a 1:5 ratio could look like for student learning year-round…

And onwards!


Marley, Lisa, and Allan let students know that spring PIPs were on their way and there would be a virtual rollout.

They framed this round of PIPs with Head (thinking), Hand, (doing), Heart (feeling). Not a new idea for the students but new to tie it explicitly to the PIPs. Students then joined their advisors in small groups. They talked possibilities and posed questions, until each student had the tools to create a single slide, capturing the basis of their PIP.


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The support

Each Monday the team sent out a reminder through Google Classroom, then each Friday small groups would meet to answer questions, share progress, or problem-solve. It’s the little nudge that keep momentum going. The planning group shared a list of prompts, for people who were new to this type of project.

Student Progress Tracking


And the results were GLORIOUS.

Charlotte Central has always tried to say yes to a PIPs proposal. But, sometimes the gym wasn’t available or the art room booked up, so the answer had to be no. Well, this round of PIPs produced work that wasn’t possible in the traditional school structure.

Some students worked at 6am, others at 8pm. Students worked with their family’s needs and their own biorhythms, based on the sheer joy of going for it.

One student launched a lawn-mowing business. Another student learned a backflip. And still another planned out his garden *and* built bike jumps for his backyard. And one engaged his dad in a conversation about chickens. If you build the coop, dad said, we’ll get chickens. Blueprints appeared almost immediately.


“How was this assessed?”

It wasn’t.

…thank you for coming to our TED Talk.

No, but in all seriousness, assessment was pretty much the furthest thing from anyone’s minds. The idea was really: let’s engage students with what they want to study, and give them a venue for showing us who they are, then sort assessment out for next year. Because the rest of this year has just been a whole DEAL.

Lessons learned?

Now, while many students embraced the opportunity to follow their joy, student participation was not 100%. Some students did their projects but skipped the check-in meetings. Not every student felt comfortable meeting virtually, especially with the 1:5 adult-student ratio (small groups can be awkward). Before the school closure, not every student had a strong relationship with an adult in the school community, and that… didn’t improve by going remote.

Friday afternoons were the perfect time to meet when school was in session, but during distance learning? Not so much.

Plus, let’s name it: equity remained a problem. Access to resources was an issue in school and it became a greater issue away from school.

Let’s go back, Jack, and do it again:

The only certain thing about school next fall is its uncertainty. No one knows for sure what it’s going to look like. But the Charlotte Central team do know they want more PIPs. Here’s their quick list of takeaways for the next round, if school stays remote.

How could this be a part of your learning?

Remoteness does not meant devoid of rigor, relevance, or relationships. This is one way to honor student passions and create a venue for them to show you how they learn. It’s a way to open flexible pathways to student’s goals. And for Charlotte Central, it was a way to connect with the students they missed so very much.

What do you think?