For several years I have built every class I teach around the idea of passion projects. I believe strongly in project-based learning because it emphasizes the process and the journey as well as fosters connections both among students and the content they are exploring. My students learn in a PBL classroom and I learn from them. Yet another reason I have the best job in the world. However, encouraging students to embark on passion projects is often messy and difficult for all of us. It can be very time consuming to coach each student to the sweet spot where their interests and the focus of the class intersect and challenging to help them frame a project that is substantial enough for our purpose yet still possible to complete within the semester. Perhaps the saddest part of this process is how so many of my students struggle with the idea that they are the captains of this ship. Over and over again students plead with me to give them a topic because they are frightened by the freedom and/or they don’t trust it. I blame the prevalent factory model of education and our current obsession with testing to destruction. Over the years, I have developed three key solutions to help us manage the process and retain our sanity.
We begin with inspiration. I ask students to dream and to remember. For example, my general education classes (Writing I and II as well as First Year Seminar) always pursue projects about the life lessons we can find in popular culture (what messages about humanity can we take from The Walking Dead, for example). Long before they choose the universe they wish to explore and the lesson they want to focus on, I have students spend weeks thinking, writing, and exploring the layers of meaning we can find in these universes. I like to begin by sharing a selection of quotes from a variety of popular culture sources and asking students to pick one quote to think and write about to jumpstart our conversations. We do a lot of writing at this point and use a variety of texts to inspire our writing then we talk about the ideas. Some students are inspired by the texts and others are inspired by the ideas shared by their classmates.
In addition to the tangible inspiration of quotes, texts, videos, and images I choose to share, I also challenge students by asking a lot of questions. For example, in professional writing and the graduate class I teach each summer for teachers, the passion projects must be tied to their professional goals. I like to use Taylor Mali’s slam poem “What Teachers Make” as a starting point – and not just because I teach a lot of pre-service and practicing teachers. I want my students to think about that end goal now. What footprints do they want to leave behind? Who do they want to serve? What do those people need and what challenges do they face? Once we start working through these questions so many ideas are sparked it is exciting to behold.
Of course, now things are really loud and messy – and, yet, somehow there are always at least a few students still struggling with their ideas. Either they don’t have an idea (or one they are willing to speak out loud) or they can’t narrow down their ideas to pick just one or their idea still needs shaping and refining to work for the class. I do a lot of individual coaching during this phase, but I really like to harness the power of crowdsourcing because I am just one person and one brain. I do a lot of think-pair-share and small group discussions then come together as a class so our ideas can inspire everyone.
Taking time to allow students to work through the process is key. Teaching them to embrace the unknown and harness the power of uncertainty is important to the pursuit of a passion project. We can guide and support students through the process of choosing their passion project, but, ultimately, this is something they have to do on their own. How do you help your students find their passion projects?