Injecting passion into class

Eleven weeks of school left. We’re on the downhill slide, and from the vantage point I have as of Thursday, I think it will be a scenic view. I feel good about the rest of the year.

It is so tough to keep kids engaged, but I believe, as I’ve said over and over, that if you give them voice and choice, you’re ahead of the game. You’ll never get 100 percent participation, and there will always be units to be covered that don’t excite many of them, but the drill of reading, taking notes, taking tests doesn’t enthuse anyone. The compliant may be comfortable in this arena, but it doesn’t challenge them.

Introduction to Journalism

Last week I prepped a Google slide presentation to go along with my History of Journalism unit, I usually use the textbook, Inside Reporting, and an outline for the students to take notes on. I usually lose a few of them, and I realized they like visuals, but seem to be allergic to text books, even good ones. On the presentation I was able to load photos of some of the journalists and the documents from history, and it made a huge improvement in class engagement. Actually, the part I was most surprised by was simply presenting the first slide: “The History of Journalism,” and several kids got excited. Seems they’ve been looking forward to this part for several weeks. Do they get this excited for their history classes?

With each slide, each segment of history, I was able to supplement with some additional info, sometimes tying the content to something relevant to today, to me or to them. They were shocked that television used to go off the air at 10 p.m. after the National Anthem. The discussion was good. Next, they’ll each choose one of 30 journalists from history up to the present to research. They’ll choose their favorite digital presentation tool (Google Slides, Prezi, Dipity) and show us what they learned. I always look forward to these presentations. Some of the kids get a little nervous, but I tell them it’s good for them, like spinach. We encourage each other with questions and applause. One day, I want to video these.

Digital Communications and Passion Projects

A little later than planned, I’ve introduced Passion Projects. I showed a couple brief videos to get their minds headed in the right direction. I started with an inspiring talk by Sean Aiken about passion. Then we went right into Genius Hour and how Google’s take on letting employees spend 20 percent of their work week working on projects has worked its way into the classroom in the form of projects. With some guidelines such as the need for a guiding or essential question, the requirement of research beyond “Googling it” and a final presentation somewhat like the TED talks we’ve watched throughout the semester, students get to choose a project to learn something they are interested in. Some know right away what they want to explore and are able to make it fit within the guidelines. Some struggle, after years of being told what to do and how to do it (color within the lines, dear), (mark a, b, c or d, and if you’re not sure, mark c), that they have real trouble generating ideas. They simply haven’t been allowed to choose something for themselves. Now, faced with the opportunity, they are stumped.

Giving them the “homework” assignment to come up with some ideas, we met the next day in class to share. Drawing on my own experience, I set it up like my newspaper staff’s meetings. We gathered around the center of the room, and one by one, each shared the idea he or she had. The rest of us (mainly me, but after a while others pitched in) put in ideas or helped the person narrow it down or figure out what, exactly the project should be or what research element might help or what steps they might include. Collaboration rocks.

It was beautiful. I have one wanting to experiment with fashion merchandising. No, she doesn’t own a store and can’t really buy anything, but she can look into shadowing a store manager, and she can research designers and brands and what styles and designs are upcoming, and she can simulate what she might choose for a summer or fall collection. Great ideas going on there.

Another is planning to write a short story or novella. He loves to write, so he knows his steps include coming up with a plot and characters. We suggested a few ideas for research – like finding someone who might offer critique services or even some competitions he might enter his piece in.

One young lady dreams of restoring old homes. As fortune would have it, our city has plenty and she has a connection with a realtor. So she plans to visit one or more of these homes, take pictures and do some sketching to reflect what she might do if she owned it. Her research involves all kinds of design ideas. At the end of class she told me how excited she was about this project.

What skills will they develop from this? Research, communication, technology, trouble shooting, presentation, and failing and learning from failure.

I have the luxury (many luxuries, actually) of being able to implement this in my one semester elective class. I’m the only one who teaches this so I do not have to align with anyone else. It’s a digital communications class and they are using skills in the standards I use for the class. I also have a Mac lab in my room because I teach journalism and advise newspaper and yearbook. I’ll go on teaching an app at the beginning of each week and requiring an assignment regarding that app, but these will be with passion projects in mind.

There is no reason teachers of any subject couldn’t take this idea, size it for the time they have to put toward it (20% of the time remaining in the latter half of the year? Latter half of the semester?) and put energy and excitement into their classes. Write a grant for some iPads or Chromebooks, and let kids use their own devices. It makes a world of difference when the kids look forward to coming to your class, when they ask if they can come in during lunch, when they share with you what they’ve learned, the obstacles they’ve hit and gotten around. Does it inspire absolutely everyone? No. But engagement increases in a very obvious way.

Do you already do some form of Passion Projects in your classes? What would it take for you to consider implementing Genius Hour/Passion Projects?

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About teachjournalism
I am a high school teacher of journalism, technology and reading. I advise the school's newspaper and yearbook, both student-led publications. Documenting and sharing my experiences is a way of reflecting to improve my own work and and inviting commentary so that we might all benefit. I believe, as I tell my students each year, that we all learn from each other.

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