Friday, October 19, 2018

Helping Students Realize their Potential with Passion Projects

We began passion projects a little more than a month ago. Our first project focused around the student-selected topic of homelessness. I quickly realized that I had underestimated my students- and they just continue to blow me away!

To begin our next LAUNCH Cycle for another passion project, we returned to our wall of wonders- a collection of student and teacher questions about topics we are interested in. Students shared the ideas they found the most interesting, and we settled on four topics of study for students to choose between:
  • How do you make a house?
  • How are families affected by deployment?
  • How do you make a video game?
  • Why do bulls not like the color red?

Developing Topics

I was initially concerned with the topic of why bulls don’t like red. It seems like a pretty simple question to answer after a bit of reading. As my students found the answer to their question, they realized that bulls don’t dislike the color, they just dislike being teased and aggravated. Our discussion touched on animal mistreatment, abuse, captivity, and animal entertainment such as the circus and zoo. Rather than simply telling my students that their topic wouldn’t work, I encouraged them to learn what they could and then develop more questions to guide further research.

Student Projects

I’m thrilled with the projects my students created. Are they perfect? No. Are they amazing? YES! These projects are a great reflection of student learning. You wouldn’t believe how excited they were to share their projects during parent-teacher conferences.

How to Build a House

These students decided they would make a model to demonstrate their learning. They used their model to explain the process to the class. Their model included framing, drywall, electrical wiring, and roofing.


These young ladies were very concerned when learning about the stress that families, service men, and service women face during and after deployment. After learning about PTSD, they decided to create a presentation and share their new understanding with the class. They also wrote letters to veterans and their families. See their presentations here.

Video Games

A large number of my students chose this topic. Almost every student wanted to use what they learned about world building, conflict, and character development to write their own video game stories. Student teams used Scratch to create their games. Our class spent time asking questions about the game making process and exploring the games.

One student decided he wanted to write a blog about making video games. He spotlighted a particular group of students and outlined what made their game special.

Animal Cruelty

This group of students decided they wanted to develop a website to inform their peers about the conditions under which animals in captivity live. The class was challenged to consider how they spend money at the circus and zoo.

Standards-Based Instruction

Are you wondering how I “fit in” standards? I purposefully timed our passion projects to fall during our nonfiction reading unit. As we completed our first passion project together, I introduced a simple T-Chart. The left side said, “Text Says” and the right side said, “I Think.” This super simple organizer served to guide our reading. Students were summarizing, making connections, synthesizing, determining problems and solutions, and reading with real purpose. We practiced these skills together during our first passion project, and they worked more independently on the second. I also reinforced these reading skills during guided reading groups.

Student Empowerment

One of the reasons I love passions projects is because my students love them. There is real purpose behind reading, freedom for creativity, and students have the opportunity to publish their work for a large audience. I continue to remind myself to stop underestimating my students...but do you see why they amaze me? They have so much to offer the world, not just later as adults but right now. Passion projects show students what they are capable of. I love empowering my students!

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Developing a Passion for Learning with Passion Projects

One of my major goals for this year is increasing personalized learning in my classroom. At the beginning of the year, I set a few goals for implementation. One of these goals is using a design thinking process called the LAUNCH cycle, for student-driven passion projects. Our nonfiction reading unit seemed to be a perfect fit for our first project.

We began by reading the book, Giant Steps to Change the World. My students found inspiration from famous world-changers. We researched these heroes and realized that they are just people like us. If they changed the world, so can we!

Learning Process

I was concerned about managing all 27 of my students studying a different topic, so we agreed to vote and choose one topic for our first passion project. My students took some time to brainstorm wonder statements, explore Wonderopolis, and discuss ideas together. Many students found interest in the topic of homelessness. We decided on this essential question: how does a person become homeless?

We generated as many questions about the topic as we could so that we could determine the direction for our research. Next, we spent days researching. Google Earth Voyager helped us explore what homes look like around the world, documentaries revealed the disadvantages homeless children face, and articles shed light on the relationship between poverty and homelessness. Our Parent Liaison also joined us and led a student activity to help my students understand the challenge of managing resources on a budget.

Learning Outcomes

Through all of our learning, I saw my students practicing the nonfiction reading skills outlined in our current reading unit. They summarized, determined the main idea, synthesized information across texts, drew conclusions, and identified cause and effect relationships. More importantly though, my students had a genuine interest in our topic, they were invested in their own learning, and they made comments like, “Do we get to read more for our project today?” Toward the end of our project more than a few students came to school with huge smiles because, “I can’t wait to do our project today!”

The best part of this project was having the opportunity to help my students grow in understanding and compassion. We learned about extremely difficult situations and we experienced empathy. From that place, my students were inspired to take action and do something about the present problem. They were inspired to encourage others with kindness, and they were empowered to make a difference. I am so proud of them!


As our final project, we assembled care bags for members of our community with materials provided by a grant written by my co-teacher. The care bags were distributed during a food pantry held at our school. My students felt so proud that they could make a difference for so many families at our school. 

We also created separate care bags so that each of my students could keep one in their car to share with someone in our city. We discussed the physical and emotional challenges of homelessness and decided to include toiletry items, snacks, and an encouraging note. Several of my students have already shared their care bag and were eager to encourage their peers to share theirs as well.


Through this whole process, I realized a few important things. Logistically, I made the right choice in having my students agree on one topic to begin with. Working together with my students allowed me to really focus on reinforcing comprehension strategies for my students to apply as they read. For our next passion project, I plan to have my students study three or four different topics. I’ll continue to learn the best way to manage different groups, topics, and projects as the year goes on.

I also learned the importance of pacing with my students. On days that my students seemed to lose steam part way through our reading time, we would participate in guided discussion, revisit our questions, and read to find out how others are already working to help the homeless. These activities provided variety so that my students weren’t expected to read and research for our entire reading block.

Finally, I learned to stop underestimating my students. They are only nine years old, but they have amazing ideas, caring hearts, and eternal optimism! I’m so glad they chose such a serious topic because they showed me what they are truly capable of. One of the best parts of the LAUNCH Cycle is the idea that students create something and share it with the world. My goal was to empower my students to realize that they can have an impact on their world, and by the end of our project we did just that.