Passion Projects Enhance Student Choice and Unleash Creativity

Maria Alverdi is a 3rd grade teacher at Overton Elementary. She is passionate about helping her students find and capture their voices, creating authentic learning opportunities, and engaging them in unique maker activities. This is her fourth year serving as CIC, and is a graduate of the Transformative Technology and PBL leadership pathways. In her free time, she loves spending time with her dog, Echo, doing yoga, traveling with a rowdy group of friends, along with traveling wherever her heart takes her.

Throughout my time participating in Leadership Pathways, I struggled in allowing my scholars full choice on their work. I consistently felt the need to guide their work and nudge them along the way. I usually do two PBL’s during the year, but I direct the choice of the main topic. For example, last year, in our Monarch Caterpillar PBL, scholars guided our learning by choosing if we wanted to keep them alive and release monarch butterflies ready to migrate to México in the Fall. However, when I was planning during the summer, I found about Genius Hour or a Passion Project and decided to give it a try in my very own version this year.

The passion projects were all created by scholars. The year started (Fall semester) with all my scholars researching their own passion projects. This was a slow process with mixed results. I decided to make five team managers that took over the final projects. However, elements from everyone’s original passion ideas were incorporated, as much as possible, under the larger topics run by the managers. These five managers had the skills and maturity to keep the projects on track and had a clear vision on what they wanted the final product to be. The five main projects that were presented at the end were a combination of the original research and new skills learned with the Writing Wranglers residency at our school. They worked in groups of 2 to 3 scholars, I was a guide that provided technical support, advice and small guided groups became mini-lessons that were personalized according to what they needed to complete their projects. It was important for me that scholars had autonomy in their work from the beginning; their interest was guiding what they read and wrote. Academic work was hard for them and making it interesting was important if I was going to increase their fluency, comprehension, learning about text features, graphic organizers, etc. it had to be something that hooked them from the start.

We tried to devote a small chunk of time throughout the week to the passion projects. During that time, I would meet with team managers for 5 minutes to check on their progress and set expectations for the day. After that, I would meet up with individual groups and help with technical or organization. Since it was very busy, many times we would have impromptu Glow and Grow protocols that would provide feedback and the necessary guidance to make adjustments and move on with the projects’ completion.One thing that was key to this success and growth was the use of a clear roadmap even when the project was seemingly very open ended. We used a BLEND course for scholars to track their progress in the project. The main page has an embedded slide with all their names and the 8 steps that they needed to complete. As they completed the steps, I would move their name and they would move to the next step. Below, you can see an image from my BLEND passion projects main page. Each step had its own guidelines to follow and check ins.

In terms of leveraging technology to support this project, it varied by group depending on what their project entailed. Some students created animations, some created questioning games to quiz their peers, and others learned to code to create an anti-bullying robot. However, all scholars used BLEND (Canvas) to track progress of their project and Padlet to leave feedback reflection on each of the different sections. For their work, they used Google Docs and Jamboard to collaborate and keep track of their work and next steps. They used Book Creator to complete informational books which included videos and diagrams. They also used Canva for the final presentation slides. They wrote a small introduction to their project and the three basic steps they followed to complete their work.

Passion projects are all about my scholar’s identities and interests. They had the opportunity to choose what they felt passionate about and combining projects gave them also a chance to work with a team. This was important to them because they like working with each other. The first team was the Bugatti team, they researched all about Bugattis, with their finding they created an informational book with text features and videos in Book Creator. For the final presentation they presented their book, created Pokemon type cards with basic Bugatti data and made a game-show with Kahoot – Bugatti or NOT Bugatti. Three other teams created stories with the Wrangling Writers formula, two of them turned them into stop-photography movies recording the voices and the action of the characters. The third team created scenery using puppets and props to tell their story during a live presentation of their play during the final presentation. Three scholars combined their interest in LEGOS, SEL and coding to create a Bilingual Anti-bully Lego Robot that with their recorded voices would say “I don’t like that” or “Do you want to play with me”.  

When you start the year, you are just beginning to know your scholars. Looking back, their ability and attitude to work independently or even in a small group has completely changed. Having high expectations and learning how to adapt technology like text to speech to meet their needs was essential for them to be successful. It was a slow start just picking a subject for them to focus on or have the ability to independently do the research and make the necessary notes.

As I reflect on this project, I evolved in how I gave my scholar’s choice in their learning. I let go of the reins more than I ever had in terms of the content and outcomes of student learning. Over the past few years, I have given my scholars a version of a voice and choice – I pick the topic and would have a vision or an idea of what the final product would look like. This time I let all that go and became a guide to their work, providing resources and general knowledge. I provided my scholars with experts on their field of study to provide support. I made sure that we had mini lessons to provide academic support when needed. 

Passion projects are all about my scholar’s identities and interests. The clearest example of that was the Bugatti Team, a pair of struggling scholars who embraced their project and were probably the most prepared of the teams. They were certainly the first to finish with all their project components (Bugatti Kahoot and Pokemosn type cards). One of the scholars did not enjoy reading and figuring out what would motivate him was very easy when it turned out that he liked high performance luxury cars. His teammate, a scholar who received speech therapy, would come to life when he had to meet at my table and explain the work they have been doing. It turns out that they loved Kahoot and what better way to make their project interactive with the audience. The next project element they worked on were the Pokemon type cards. One of them has a book with plastic sleeves that he takes to recess. He spends a lot of his free time organizing the cards and rearranging them over and over again. So we decided to make the cards with the basic data from a Bugatti. This was a take-away prize for the audience – everyone got a Bugatti! They also completed a book in Book Creator about what else but Bugatti’s and that had captions and a diagram.

Scholars collaborated and provided each other with feedback. I would often hear them discuss their projects and the changes they wanted to make to improve their work. They each had different challenges and, either by design or just luck, they complemented each other with their strengths and needs in each of the

projects. In the robot team, the person interested in technology worked on the Scratch programming of the Makey Makey, while the scholar who is more of an artist was in charge of the physical design and Lego work. The scholar who tended to be most sensitive, a bit immature, and who at times had to spend time with the counselor, was incharge of asking the counselor for ideas on what the robot could say. Together they chose the robot dialogue and translated them in a guided reading group, eventually they all recorded the dialogue that the robot said. Putting the robot together was true teamwork, since the Makey Makey had to be wired and inside the robot. Each team worked on very different projects so everyone needed to specialize in different subjects and learn different skills. We had small mini-lessons with the two teams that did stop-motion photography movies. They also collaborated on recording voices since it was the hardest thing for them to master.

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