By Cheryl Mizerny
It is a wonderful thing to be in awe of your students.
Last year, I dipped my toe into the Genius Hour concept by having my sixth graders complete a mini-research project on the topic of their choice. They truly enjoyed this process and presenting their findings, so I knew I could push it further with my next group of middle schoolers.
This year, I took the plunge—but with my own twist. I threw out three questions to my students:
• What do you want to learn how to do?
• What do you want to create?
• Who do you want to help?
I told them they could combine any two. To better illustrate the skills I was hoping to address, I chose an alternative name for Genius Hour. These activities became “Passion Projects.”
They DID want to help
I had greatly underestimated my students’ capacity for wanting to make a difference. Their choices and their willingness to pursue service learning surprised me. Many chose to combine learning a skill with helping other people or society. The variety of projects and causes was impressive.
Right before the holiday break, my students presented their projects and the results to their peers. They were positively beaming with pride when they shared their success.
► For example, Ella held a spaghetti dinner for members of her church. The event had over 100 attendees and raised almost $2,000! She had estimated she would raise $800 to make hygiene kits for the homeless and ended up being able to also purchase socks, laundry soap, and other miscellaneous items. She was recognized publicly at her church and her peers gave her a spontaneous ovation. She was most excited when she and her fellow congregants were able to distribute the kits.
► Madison, who has scoliosis and wanted to raise funds for scoliosis research, walked her neighborhood selling handmade cupcakes and explaining her cause. She was thrilled to raise over $200 and received a letter from the head of the organization designating her an “angel” donor. She took what was a life-altering diagnosis and made it into a positive.
► Justine learned how to make organic dog treats and then sold them to make money for the humane society. And there were many more compassionate project ideas, with similar results. I was completely blown away.
Students’ reflections revealed the passion
What impressed me most about the Passion Projects was how they affected the students involved. The comments on their written reflections ranged from, “I feel so accomplished – I exceeded my own expectations” to “I was inspired to stick with something, even when it got difficult” to “I want to spend the entire year working on this project. Can we do it again after break?”
Their parents marveled at the fact that their children were so motivated by their Passion Projects that they were choosing to work on them during their free time. They also commented on seeing sides of their students that they had never seen before. The overall feedback was incredibly positive.
It was good for the teacher too!
This was by far one of the most moving and rewarding experiences I have had in over 20 years of teaching. I saw such growth, determination, and learning. I am definitely doing Passion Projects again.
Next year (or even this spring), I am going to challenge students to complete another Passion Project, with yet another twist. I want to see what they can do when I eliminate the option to raise funds.
Should they choose to help others, I am sure they will rise to the challenge and discover creative ways of making a difference that don’t involve money.
The generosity and huge hearts of my eleven-year-old students have simply amazed me. They are setting a great example, exploring their passions, learning self-direction, and feeling a real sense of accomplishment.
What more can a teacher ask?
Cheryl Mizerny is a veteran educator with 20+ years experience–most at the middle school level. She began her career in special education, became a teacher consultant and adjunct professor of Educational Psychology, and currently teaches 6th grade English in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Cheryl writes about student motivation and engagement at The Accidental English Teacher and is a regular contributor to the SmartBrief SmartBlog on Education. Read more of her MiddleWeb articles here.