In my first year of teaching, I was actively looking for new ways to renew my students' excitement for learning. My search led me to Google's 20% Time initiative, where employees are given 20% of their working time to work on personal projects. This initiative is how Gmail and Google News started.
To bring this concept into middle school, during 20% Time (or Genius Hour) students determine their areas of passion and create a project based on it. Unlike traditional curriculum, students learn to problem solve, conduct research, overcome obstacles, and organize a project independently from start to finish. While common in elementary classrooms, this project is even more beneficial for middle schoolers, as it allows them to explore potential future careers, equips them with skills needed for a job, or, at the very least, allows them to develop their interests. Here are steps I took to start 20% Time.
Step 1: Set the Tone for the Project
Introducing the project to the class requires enthusiasm so students understand that the project is special, unlike anything they have ever done in class. Since excitement is contagious, the more positive you can be, the more it will reflect in the students' attitudes.
I introduce the project by providing a timeline and giving them my project rules.
- You are only limited by your imagination
- You must create something to show the class
- You must be working on something during class sessions
Step 2: Brainstorming Ideas
Since middle schoolers are accustomed to being told what to do in classroom assignments, brainstorming ideas for a project can be intimidating at first. Most likely, they will not be used to having complete control. To help guide them, here are questions they can consider:
- What is something you've always wanted to do in school?
- If you could spend your time doing anything, what would it be?
- What is a problem that needs solving?
- What is something that makes you really annoyed (or happy)?
For students who do not immediately know where to turn for a project, these questions can serve as discussion-starters between the student and the teacher. I confer with my unsure students to help them talk through ideas, drawing on inspiration from their responses.
Step 3: The Official Pitch
Once an idea is selected, it must be pitched to the class. Prior to this date, students should have conducted research about their project and be knowledgeable enough about the topic to present it effectively to the class. This 60-second commercial must sell the class on the necessity and potential benefit of the project for the student's life or the lives of others. The class votes to approve or deny the project and either offers recommendations for revision or advice and support.
Step 4: Working Sessions
Class sessions may seem chaotic at first as students are working on different projects simultaneously, but the key is that all students are focused on their work. They can collaborate with others or work independently to achieve their goals.
During these sessions, I circulate the room and confer with each student, checking their progress and working through difficulties. I try not to give direct answers, but rather point them in the direction of resources. I also require students to document during their working sessions what they have accomplished, learned, or struggled with during the session. Students can document their progress in any way they like, such as audio or video recordings, blog posts, or bullet points in a notebook.
Step 5: The Grand Finale
After the working sessions have ended, the students share their work in a culminating presentation. While the go-to suggestion is a TED talk variation, I typically have my students choose a presentation method that represents their project. I've had students take classes outside for demonstrations, test out inventions, screen films, dance, lead book discussion groups for a self-written series, and test a self-coded video game. Students are more open to this strategy, appreciating the open-ended opportunity and the process of finding the best way to share their work.
The students participate in a Q&A with the class after the project is shared and positive comments are provided by peers to celebrate the successes. Some popular projects from previous years include a weekly podcast, a World War II documentary, fundraisers for anti-bullying awareness and wildlife conservation, and the creation of a music album.
20% Time is a staple of my classroom. Each year, I'm amazed by the passion, resilience, ambition, and dedication of my students. Middle school is a time of self-discovery and this project provides students with the perfect opportunity to do just that.
Kathryn Nieves is a special education ELA teacher at Sparta Middle School in Sparta, New Jersey.
Published December 2018.