Students Make a Difference Through Passion Projects

cheryl-m-08-15By 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.

hygiene-kit► 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

passion-project-posterWhat 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.

compassionate-projectsShould 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.


MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

9 Responses

  1. Amy C says:

    My 8 graders are also doing this and ironically I called it “Passion Projects” too! They have selected a nonprofit/charity- will present it to class in a short speech persuading them to choose their charity/service learning idea and the class will vote for the one they want to tackle. I hope to incorporate blogging as they work through it all.
    Amy C in KY

  2. Rhonda Howard says:

    This is a wonderful idea. If you would care to share more information… parent letters, information you provided to students, ideas for Passion Projects, please write me. I’d LOVE to try this.

  3. dashthebook says:

    What a wonderful reflection! So cool to see not only what your kids accomplished through their passion, but even more so, what they learned about themselves! Passion projects/ Genius Hour is an amazing opportunity for us all!

  4. Fran Chadwick says:

    What a wonderful lesson in civics – community engagement is critical to our democracy and civic learning, which is so much more than simply a few classes in government. Thank you for what you do, and for sharing.

  5. Thank you so much! I was so impressed with these students!

  6. Wendy Rice says:

    Thank you for the inspiration! It’s so rewarding to witness kids exceed our expectations. I look forward to learning what your students come up with when you remove the fundraising option.

  7. Gavin says:

    This could probably inspire a kindergarten class.

  8. Tara Rhoades says:

    I absolutely love this idea and am very interested in trying something similar with my TAG students. If you are willing to share more information and documents used during this project please email me at

  9. Melanie says:


    I am very interested in doing Passion Projects with my students for an end of the year project. I would love to receive more information from you about how you set it up, what materials/handouts you gave the students, etc. to get the ball rolling. I would appreciate any information or support for this. Thank you!

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