I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has had to overcome while trying to succeed.
Booker T. Washington
Before I get too far into it, read this article if you need any convincing that students need a sanctioned time during the day to nurture their talents and explore their thoughts. We can help, and should help, but fostering those ideas and helping them grow into something like the next million dollar idea made out of sponge and plastic (with glitter and lights, of course).
To do or not to do:
First, the one thing that won't change is the implementation of the 20% project. Watching students actively engage in content that they are interested in was something that all of us as adults should have an opportunity to witness. You know what it's like? It's like having a front row seat to a little kid exploring new ideas and using his/her imagination to create something or learn about something that they've never seen before. There is the awe and mystique behind what is actually happening, the excitement of the new learning, and the sense of pride when the project is finished.
KIDS ACTUALLY ENJOY BEING KIDS AND LEARNING!!!
Another piece that won't change is the option to work in (small) groups. Having another student to bounce ideas off of was beneficial for so many groups that I couldn't possibly remove that opportunity to collaborate and learn from each other. Wandering around the room was the best use of my time, eavesdropping on student conversations about the history of technology, what it takes to become a NICU nurse, and so many other thought-provoking questions.
Giving students a choice in what they are doing during their 20% time is imperative to the success of the project. If they aren't researching something they enjoy, the integrity of the entire concept has been compromised. If a student wants to look into the different positions for football, I want to encourage that project to take on a life of its own. All that I ask, and will continue to ask, is that students keep it legal, safe, and clean. This is tough because some students are passionate about guns or even alcohol abuse prevention, so there many be a blurring of the lines at some point. Regardless, students should be able to research anything remotely reasonable.
Justification of time:
If an administrator had walked into my room during my 20% days, I wouldn't have hesitated to get excited and show them all of the products that students are working to create. Maybe it's just me being comfortable at my site or trusting the particular group of students too much, but we had that time because of the success the students were having during our math days. Using multiple formative assessments during the week, almost every student was proving that they were on pace to master the standards. Why not give them some of that time back as a reward for working hard? Either way, the project was never questioned by admin and we flew under the radar throughout the 20% time.
If we could narrow this down to a nasty, naughty 4-letter word for me, that would be great. For some reason, I'm the guy that doesn't wait for everyone else to jump off the cliff and then follow. Instead, I see a sweet jump and go for it. This works well in some cases, adequate in others, and terribly miserable for a few occasions. In the realm of the 20% project, my organization was, at times, left far behind my ambition to give kids what they needed- time.
After all, a 51 minute period really isn't 51 minutes when you think about it. Getting devices out, addressing the class, and cleaning up bite into the true 20% time that I'm promising my class. Should I have students reflect after every single day of the project? If so, I'm chewing off another 6-8 minutes. With that being said, it needed to be better.
When we got down to the last 4 days of the project, clumped together thanks to the conclusion of state testing, it was time to put the projects into high gear and place that bow of greatness with a little bit of time remaining. What ended up happening was what always ends up happening. The advanced students who are great with pacing and following instructions (mainly following instructions) were able to finish their project a day in advance and use the last day to tidy up their rough edges. Groups who were comprised of the slackers (dose of truth) were behind schedule and either didn't finish their project or limped into the presentations.
Next year, I may build in a reflection component for homework. My 20% days were on Fridays, so having students keep a reflection log over the weekends (something short, maybe 2-3 sentences) would allow me to stay on top of their project and provide the important forum for students to think about what they are learning.
I couldn't be happier with the way that presentations have gone. I prefaced the 2 (now 4 because of assemblies, books being turned in, and other shenanigans) days of presentations by saying that "each group has researched something that they are passionate about. You may find their topic to be boring, which is perfectly acceptable. To be honest, it's somewhat expected, otherwise you would've been researching that. However, you owe each group the respect of your attention during the presentations."
NOT. ONE. PROBLEM.
This isn't to say that there hasn't been whispering amongst the groups during presentations, but who doesn't want to chat to the side when the group at the board is talking about how white chocolate isn't actually chocolate? I quieted the class, but mildly with the understanding that I wanted to share my thoughts as well. I've been lied to all these years. This is not OK.
The other reason for such great behavior was that I kept the audience accountable for being an active audience. Their job was to write down at least one thing that they have learned after listening to each presentation. Even my reluctant students were willing to buy in and jot down new ideas that were being shared.
Grades, grades, grades. If you want to know how my grading fiasco has gone this year, read here. Either way, this project was destined to be different. Students weren't going to worry about their grade and focus primarily on the learning that they were doing. Any time a student asked about a grade, I deflected. "You'll figure it out later."
This doesn't sit well with advanced students. The majority of them have been chasing carrots of the almighty A their entire educational career. If it isn't the A, it's misery. I can relate- I was one of those students. However, it doesn't mean that everyone who comes through my room needs to be of the same mindset. We stopped worrying about the grade and the learning started happening.
Students weren't worried about matching up with some rubric, meeting certain objectives, or passing quizzes that I had compiled. On the contrary, they were the ones who created their own agendas to tell me what the path of their learning would be and what their final product (published) would look like. For the most part, students stuck to their guidelines and had a great show to present on their final day.
For the grade, I kept it simple. We created the rubric after the project had ended and each student had a say in what should be graded. I asked students what they thought they should get credit for and the final form was fairly impressive. Now they have a few days to reflect and grade themselves. If you think this is a bad idea, try it some time. Almost every single student will grade themselves harder than you ever will. For the outliers, which are rare, you can have individual conversations about the reality behind their productivity. Maybe I trust my kids too much, but that's why I'm here today, giving kids the chance to steer their own learning and assessment.
Below is the culmination of everything. Aside from a few link errors, you have 2 classes of projects that make me so proud to share. Feel free to show anyone you'd like. The groups all knew that their work would get published to the internet, so they're expecting some feedback.
The bottom line:
Try it. What's the worst that could happen? You spend 1 day setting it up, 1 day getting topics, another day researching, and you realize it doesn't work with your kids. That's a total of 3 days, 4 at the most if it isn't clicking. But I'd be shocked it that happened.