20% Time — Igniting Passion — Week 1

You know how everyone seems to think working for Google would be career nirvana? (If you don’t, watch The Internship starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. Or not. It’s pretty silly.) Free food, free haircuts, on-site health care, and the list goes on.

But the most relevant Google perk to my classroom is 20% time, which has exploded into a revolutionary educational movement, even as Google itself seems to be backing away. At Google, employees are (were) encouraged to spend one day a week working on projects of their own choosing, a policy which resulted in Gmail and Adsense. It’s based on the premise that knowledge workers are most valuable when granted protected space in which to tinker.

In education this has morphed into the notion that students learn best when granted protected space in which to explore. First, this is NOT “let students run wild in the classroom one day a week.” Rather, it is choice-driven learning in “protected space” that includes guidance, resources, collaboration, and authentic accountability. For more details, see the myriad of resources from thoughtful and experienced educators such as Joy Kirr, Kevin Brookhouser, Kate Petty, here and in your own Google search.

Two weeks ago I alerted my students and their parents (at Back-to-School Night) about our 20% Time plans; this week three sections of my juniors and seniors began the process with brainstorming and freewriting. I elected NOT to show them samples of completed projects because I didn’t want to stack the deck in favor of videos or websites or other forms of products. I want each student’s product to emerge organically from the research and learning. My choice resulted in awesome “pros” and predictable “cons.” Some students remain befuddled about the purpose and endgame. The notion of CHOOSING what to learn as opposing to BEING TAUGHT was utterly foreign. I have yet to ignite the passion that will drive their exploration. But for those who were already obsessed with anime or photography or cars or “I’ve always wanted to. ….”, well, they were positively giddy.

So far my students plan, for example, to build a car (in process, will document his learning from this point forward); to create an art book of original poetry, drawing, photos and songs; to learn how to and to knit a collection of scarves, probably Harry Potter-themed; to develop a yoga web site with information tailored for individual body type and goals; to make a YouTube channel and graphic novel in the style of an admired artist; to write a song and have Beyonce perform it; and to cure cancer.

Admittedly, the last two are ambitious for one semester or even one school year. But the assessment of success is not in the actual PRODUCT (cure for cancer), but in the authentic learning PROCESS (as documented in blog posts, weekly check-ins, productive use of class time, interaction with mentors and with other project participants). So, if my aspiring songwriter publishes his work on Soundcloud and receives some authentic positive feedback from musicians other than Beyonce, that’s wonderful. If my ambitious cancer cure seeker learns from organizations she believes are on the most effective track for a cure and helps with fundraising, she’s on the right path.

My DonorsChoose.org project for a greenscreen kit funded and we just received it. Instead of setting it up in my crowded classroom, I took advantage of our librarian’s offer to keep it in a collaboration conference room in the library that has IdeaPaint on the walls. I brought my students there to inspire them to incorporate videos with creative backgrounds into their products and just to play with writing on the walls. One girl wrote out a poem she’d written last week which inspired a group to join her in creating a book of original poetry, art and music. I just got out of the way….

Next year, I will probably introduce the process of creating a blog and collecting research BEFORE brainstorming ideas. My blog lesson is next week, but some students have already collected websites and images and writing about their learning process that they will need to transfer to their blogs. I dislike wasting time and energy this way.

Please let me know if you have any thoughts or ideas as we move forward with our 20% Time Projects.

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