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Innovation, Passion, Engagement

by Alfonso Gonzalez on January 30th, 2012

It all started when I read on Twitter about Dan Pink’s Fedex Day post for fostering innovation. This sparked something in many educators. Josh Stumpenhorst initiated an innovation day at his school after another teacher, Matt Langes, tried it. Josh’s innovation day even hit the news and Dan Pink himself contacted Josh!

The idea of a Fedex Day or an Innovation Day appealed to me for several reasons. Some of the things classroom teachers struggle with is providing their students with a well-rounded education, exposing them to new things, while dealing with dis-engaged, bored students who hate school. I’ve pondered such problems on this blog such as student boredom, comparing a totally traditional education to a totally free education, thinking through what is on-task, and tried to see how much socializing teachers can put up with.

I’ve been toying with how I could do such a thing with my students to help them enjoy their public school education and get something out of it. For some reason unbeknownst to me, not all my students enjoy or are fully engaged in the wonderful Science topics that we are studying! And I’m not kidding, the Science topics we study, really any Science topics, are fun to learn about so why not give it a shot and learn something?? So unless I can convince all the other teachers in my grade levels (6th and 8th) to do an innovation day (well, I could try that but usually try things on my own first), I needed something different. As if to offer me just that I start reading on Twitter about 20%. Instead of having just one day for innovation some teachers, following the lead of places like Google, will give students 20% of their time to work on whatever they want!

I read Paul Bogush’s blog on 20% and began to think of what I’ve been brewing. What follows here are my comments to Paul’s blog:

I have been struggling with doing this exact same thing with my five Science classes. I am close, this week or next, to actually introducing this idea to my students. I like your idea because I was going to go so far as to let them work on anything they want even if it’s not Science. Maybe that’s why I’ve been so hesitant. How can I defend giving up 20% of Science instruction when my 8th graders have a state Science test this year? One reason I’ve even considered doing this has been that I still have disengaged kids in my classes. And others that I have to encourage daily to work and learn. And this after I have gone gradeless AND offer them choice in being able to go off on tangents and in how they demonstrate learning. Having iPads and iMacs can be more of a distraction from Science learning than a tool! I’m still unsure which way to go but I an willing to try something.

Here’s Mark Barnes’s response to that:

Although I don’t use the term 20% time, my class is completely project-based. We are working on something similar to this, off and on, all year. I call it the Make a Difference (MAD) project. Students are picking something to do that will improve their world, at the local or global level. All they have to do is include ELA skills — writing, reading and some sort of public speaking. I have constant access and will be supplying feedback all year. Obviously, we have one-day activities that help us grasp all of our course objectives, but for the most part, we’re working on the projects.

My students are not all great at getting on computers and self-directing. You have to do a lot of coaching. I’m constantly walking around, looking in, making quick, harmless suggestions. Sometimes the suggestions are simple and really meant only to re-engage the students. It’s not easy, but in the end, it’s always worthwhile.

Then I thought more on this and came up with:

Okay, Mark, so you too tie their MAD project time to your ELA skills so that they are still learning what you are supposed to be teaching.

See therein is my biggest obstacle. I already offer choice and flexibility but students don’t take me up on it. I either have very few students who are interested in Science or they just aren’t used to having this type of freedom. So the choice I now have is to stay with my program the way it and do pretty much exactly what you described in the last paragraph of your comment or go with my gut, scary as it is, and offer them a truly free passion day every week where they get to explore their passions and use the technology in my room to explore and create whatever they want.

I think I will run this idea by my principal. On the one hand we will lose 20% of Science instruction time if one takes it at face value. But I can easily argue if I free up 20% of their time for them to explore their passions I will have happier students who might just be more on task and learn more during the other 80% of their time.

But then I had to rewrite the response because it went to Paul’s spam and it became the following (btw, Paul did find both my replies in his Spam folder so they are both showing on his blog now):

I like your idea, Mark, of tying your MAD projects to ELA skills. So you and Paul are still having this 20% or MAD time tie into your curricular aims.

I’ve been trying to do just that but it’s been mainly me coming up with the topics of study. Whenever students ask about something related to what we’re studying I offer them the choice to go off in that direction but they don’t take me up on it. So I’m offering them the freedom and choice option but few if any take me up on it. That is why I was considering making that one day a week a true passion day where kids can study anything they are passionate about.

That raises the question/concern of how we could afford to give up 20% of Science learning time to learning of anything. Even though I am not in favor of high stakes, standardized testing my 8th graders are taking the Science state test this year and people will be looking at those scores. If they don’t do well then this 20% passion time will be a great place to lay blame.

I have put things in place to make my classroom a learning environment. I don’t reward or punish my students with grades, offering them feedback instead. I provide iPads, Netbooks, and iMacs for research and for the creation of different products to show their learning instead of giving tests. With all that in place I still end up doing exactly all the things you mentioned in your last paragraph! It takes time to untrain students from traditional classroom “learning.”

So now I’m not so sure. Maybe I just keep plugging away at what I’m doing. I can easily argue that by offering students some time, 20%, to explore their passions during Science class with the high tech tools we have that they will be more motivated to engage in the work we’re doing in Science during the 80% of their time. But I don’t know that for sure. I’d be testing out that theory on this year’s students. And even if they score well or poorly on the Science state exam how can I say 20% of passion time had anything to do with it one way or the other???

I guess if my goal is to have happy, engaged, learning students, regardless of content or standards, then I should go for it. Otherwise, I should stay the course. If I had a group of students for more than one year at a time, maybe a multiage model, then they would have the time to get used to having the freedom to learn and explore WHILE learning Science!

So now I’m less sure than I was. lol

So now what do I do?

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