I have long built my professional writing and graduate classes around passion and my first year writing classes have always included choice, but the pandemic led me to lean even more into passion as a foundation of my teaching and it is the best decision I’ve ever made.
Passion is one of the hallmarks of National Writing Project work. Some teachers come to us because of that passion and some teachers discover that passion through one of our programs. That is also true of my students. I teach first year college writers and no one takes that required course because they expect to uncover a passion for writing, but one of my great joys is the number of students who discover or recover that passion while others at least find they do not fear and loathe writing as much as they did before. I hold in my heart the hope that breakthrough will eventually lead those writers to discover a passion for writing. I also teach professional writing which is a required class for English majors and for our dual-credit residential high school, but every time I teach this class students discover how much fun can be had when writing a deliverable on a topic that interests you for an audience you care about. My third group of students is the most challenging as those are the professionals who approach the Morehead Writing Project’s Online Summer Institute with all the baggage you expect veteran graduate students and teachers to bring to a professional development experience. At first they are overwhelmed and baffled by the choice, the emphasis on joy and community, and the focus on making their journey and needs the priority, but eventually, after a week or two, they (re)discover that joy and passion can result from writing and learning in a supportive community — and that is when a National Writing Project teacher is born. My journey from project-based to passion-based learning has taken many twists and turns but throughout it all I have understood the power of this work that offers authentic engagement. If you remain unconvinced about this work I invite you to reconsider with the following argument.
The Power of Creation
Passion projects or genius hour are nothing new to education. But a mistake I once made and see in far too many educators is to view passion projects as the reward for hard work and accomplishment, the frosting on the cake. I have learned (and hope you will learn from my mistake) that passion projects are the cake. Actually, passion projects are the main course if I may extend the metaphor. I have discovered that it is easy to slip in just-in-time lessons to support the production of passion projects so students do not grumble about the drudgery but instead welcome the solution to a challenge that worried them. I have found that supporting student creators offers lots of opportunity to teach all the essential skills — and if you cannot find a way to work in those skills then one must ask: are they really essential? As I wrote eight years ago:
If we want students to succeed in life then we must give them the freedom to create. It is creation that develops and demonstrates the higher order communication and thinking skills that are so desirable.Do you want your students to consume, curate, or create?
It does not matter if you call this work project-based learning, genius hour, workshop, or simply making as long as you allow room for passion. I suspect that once you invite passion into your classroom that you will become addicted to its power to engage and inspire your students so that you will become like me and build all your classes around that passion.
The Passion is the Point
My #ungrading journey has played an important role in my development as a #PBL educator. As I wrote eight years ago:
In project-based learning (PBL) the project is the learning – and the teaching and learning take place through the project. Projects are a fine way to demonstrate learning but project-based learning is a tremendous way to engage and educate.Why Project-Based Learning?
PBL is an inquiry process and is not about the perfect completion of the project. In my experience, if you have allowed enough passion into the process then most students will be driven on their own to complete the project – often to a higher standard than I would require. However, when my #ungrading mentors taught me how to use self-assessment and reflection to shift my focus from product to process the entire focus of my classes in turn shifted in magical ways. Focusing on the student’s journey allowed me to become the coach/teacher/mentor that each student needed to grow as a writer and freed students from the need to focus on me. We cannot underestimate how much that needs hobbles writers more confident and experienced than the writers we see in our classrooms. When the “P” stands for passion-based learning everything changes for the better.
Make It Real
One of the best benefits of passion-based learning is that the work is authentic for the learner, as I wrote years ago about why I embrace #PBL and writing:
what makes PBL writing so great is that it is all writing for a reason – there are no weird, made-up, school-based genres — and that writing is created for a specific audience and intended for a specific rhetorical purposeProject-Based Learning and Teaching Writing
Authentic writing is the most important tool in my toolbox as a writing teacher. In #PBL every piece of writing is authentic because it has purpose and meaning. There are no disposable assignments if you are truly doing #PBL and not simply assigning projects. To the surprise of no one who knows me, the most important aspect of passion-based learning may be the way it brings learners together in authentic ways. In my classes student projects overlap and intersect in multiple ways that enhances the learning that all of us experience and allows us to support each other in the process of our own creation.
One of the most important aspects of passion-based learning is that it is not one thing. Different schools and different teachers create very different passion-based learning experiences from genius hour to makerspaces to PBL. In turn, the students in those classrooms create a wide range of products inspired by diverse projects and even more varying passions. Not only is this work more engaging for both student and teacher, it also inspires the development of the essential skills that our world needs to solve the very real challenges facing us — both known and unknown.
As long as you honor student choice, real-world problems, and authentic audience then you are heading in the right directionDeeper Learning: Genius Hour, Makerspaces, and PBL
Deeper learning, passion-based learning, has to be the future of education. Not only does it offer powerful learning and engagement, but it can transform the individuals and communities that engage in it. When the “P” in #PBL stands for passion then you and your students can have your cake and eat it too. Long after the project deliverable has been lost to the ether in the sands of time, you and your students will still retain the lessons learned from the journey and the joy of exploring a passion. That is why passion matters in the classroom. What are you doing to support passion in your classroom?