9 Fine Ways to Do Better 20% Time

A global search in education blog post

From the Cool Cat Teacher Blog by Vicki Davis

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Twenty percent time from Google. Or a genius hour. Or passion projects. Or compassion based engineering. I’ve written about these before. First, I’ll define the terminology. Second, I’ll give you an example from my classroom happening right now. Finally, I’ll take you through nine of the components that help teachers have a successful 20% time in their school.  I hope this gives you an overview of how students can make choices and pursue their passions in school.

9 fine ways to do 20% time (1)

Some definitions:

20% Time

Based on the Google 20% time, students take 20% of their time in a class to pursue a personal interest project. This can be done in consecutive days or one day a week.

Genius Hour

Often schools who have arts, STEM or other enrichment choose to take one enrichment period and have a “genius hour” where students explore their talents to make and create.

Passion Projects

A student is allowed to select a project in a course of study that is of personal interest. Some people might call it a personal interest project.

For our beginning of the year passion projects, some students chose to teach others about our robotic filming Swivl.

For our beginning of the year passion projects, some students chose to teach others about our robotic filming Swivl tool and app.

Compassion-based engineering

Students design and make things to meet a social need or good. I find myself doing far more compassion-based engineering than other topics. I first heard this term from Angla Maiers, creator of Choose2Matter.

Innovation Week

Some schools will host an innovation week with an altered schedule. The purpose of the week becomes making, inventing, and creating. Often students will have a competition or showcase at the end of the week where people are invited to see or judge their works.

Maker Movement

Many schools are creating maker spaces or “Fab Labs” so students have a space and place to invent. Some libraries are putting these in a Learning Commons. (See Micki Uppena or Chad Lehman as examples.) Communities and nonprofits are emerging to share in the cost of 3d printers, laser cutters and more.

We started the school year with passion projects. Here, students are assembling Google cardboard and picking apps to use with it.

We started the school year with passion projects. Here, students are assembling Google cardboard and picking apps to use with it.

MAD About Mattering: Compassion-Based Engineering in My Classroom

This year my ninth and 10th graders are working with students from other schools in MAD about Mattering 2017.

In this project, students from around the world are collaboratively building apps. Students 13 and older are in MAD-Senior, and 12 and under are in MAD-Junior. I have over 50 students participating on ten apps on MAD-Senior.

What kinds of apps are students building?

To give you some examples of the types of apps they are creating, let me give you three.

These apps aren’t available yet and are just a few of many incredible apps we’re developing here
The Brave App
the brave app

The Brave app is being designed to help promote bravery. These kids found that not much research is being done into bravery. They think that kids need to learn to be brave to live a good life, but also that there is a difference between bravery and foolishness. Wow. Looking good!

In the Brave group, students are talking about what makes someone brave. We had some interesting conversations on the difference between when you’re brave and when you’re just foolish.

Stop Pollution App

Another app called Stop Pollution is trying to help kids know how to stop pollution and how they can all help. The kids are curating videos that appeal to teenagers and other things.


But perhaps the HELP app which stands for help everyone live peacefully. This app is quite intriguing because the students are putting things in the app to try to help people to get along.

Giving Choices

All of these are examples of where students are given a choice. Now we didn’t call it 20% time or genius time or our passion project. We just call it compassion-based engineering.

Students choose their social issue, their teams, and make apps together.

Can Students Bring Passions to Play?

But the big issue is in our schools, is there ever something during the day were students are allowed to choose. Is there ever a time when they can bring their passions to play?

9 Fine Ways to Do Better 20% Time

As I thought about it, I have found that there are nine ways to unleash student creativity when you’re doing something like 20% time or genius or passion projects.

1 – Give students the freedom to choose

Here, one of my students is working with his custom built Arduino robot. We have to make time to tinker for these sorts of projects to emerge.

You know it’s interesting when kids get out of high school, and we say,

“Okay what you want to do in your life?”

a lot of them don’t know. I believe it’s because they’ve never been asked

“What do you want to do?”

in an open-ended way. They’ve always been told what to do.

Students need an opportunity to be able to choose. But letting them choose is not always easy. Fifth-grade teacher Rayna Freedman has her students blogging and says,

“I think for student, one of the hardest things is for them to be comfortable and confident with choosing their own topic. I do give them a direction packet and, like, a list of 30 things that they could blog about if they were stuck for ideas. And I think one of the things I’ve heard is “starting my blog” which I think is a common thing for kids at this age is “how do I start my piece?” And so that’s a great time for me to be able to give feedback and kind of have this idea exchange with students right online. “

Choosing the topic and the form of expression are both important

But we can’t stop at just giving students a choice of topic; students also need to choose their form of expression sometimes.

These students decided to create a car powered by the kinetic energy of a tape measure contracting. Some students will choose hands on activities while others will embrace technology. But they choose!

Jennifer Cronk, a special ed teacher and mom of a young man with special needs, recently talked with me about his PTO application for outstanding teacher. The PTO had always required an essay, but in this case, they allowed her son to submit his nomination via video.

The story is really moving. It was a transformative experience in this young man’s life when someone finally allowed him to express himself in the medium that best suited him. Jennifer says,

“He made himself redo that video seven times. And in that last video he was the most articulate I have heard him in that entire year. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, this one exercise of adapting this not only met his need but it also had him work on his clarity of thought, his clear articulate speech. If I had scribed that for him he would have never had that moment.”

Give choices. Don’t say “make a PowerPoint” or “do a poster.” We really need to give students freedom of topic and freedom of medium if we want to unleash real creativity. 

2 -Give students time to play and tinker

Exploring virtual reality with Google Cardboard is one thing we’ve done this year. So much fun (and inexpensive.)

Students need time to play and tinker. Sometimes they need to “just mess around.” And when I say this, I’m not talking about unstructured — hanging out — throwing spitballs at the ceiling — “messing around.” Perhaps looking into Micku Uppena’s library can help us understand. In a recent show, Micki says about her library,

“Well, it is not a quiet place and that has mixed reactions, but it is definitely not quiet. There’s books all over that represents all different kinds of kids. We have activities like we have the Legos  and the cardboard and K’NEX . And then we have a creation station that has this treasure box in it. And it’s a place where teachers and parents and kids can just dump their treasures from their classroom and kids create something new with it.

We have kids using technology but that really isn’t the focus. Technology tends to be a tool that they gravitate to after they’ve built with something else. So they use the books and the technology for tools but kids are all over and they collaborating with other kids that they normally might not collaborate with in the classroom. So, it’s pretty exciting to see them choose what they want to focus on each day.”

Tinkering is exciting. Once you learn how to engage students with making and tinkering it is a better adrenaline rush than catching that big bass who has been playing with your hook all day. (And coming from me, that’s saying a lot.) 

That brings us to our third example.

3 –  Provide a variety of tools to spur creativity

Keva plank challenges are a popular happening n Chad Lehman's library maker space.

Keva plank challenges are a popular happening n Chad Lehman’s library maker space.

And this is where we get into having that variety of tools which does spur creativity. A while back, librarian Chad Lehman talked about how to equip a maker space. He told me,

“Well, it’s been pretty fun, we’ve just kind of got things rolling about a month and a half ago, we have four Makey Makey kits  for the kids, we have four of the Ollie robots, we have a number of different LittleBits kits and Arduino coding kits. Kids have been making a lot of music with those and kind of using the electronic modules for that. Three of the Bloxels videogame making kit. We’ve got five of the little Ozobot robots that kids are programming.”

Have a variety. Things you can program. Things you can touch. Things you can press. Build. Make. Things you can Extrude. Recycle. These are all parts of having a variety of tools. And when you see it happening, it’s pretty incredible.

4 – Keep an eye out for student strengths

Micki says green screen is one of the most important things for a modern library to have.

Micki Uppena says the green screen is one of the most important things for a modern library to have.

But sometimes when the students are playing with those tools they need a teacher who can spot your strengths. I like to tell my students at the beginning of the school year that I am mining for diamonds. And sometimes I’ll show them this big ugly rock before I say it and asked them what it is. Only one student had ever guessed that it is a diamond because it looks like a big old ugly rock.

And that’s how our students look. Sometimes when we first spot them they aren’t a beautiful diamond; they are kind of rough. So I’m always on the lookout. It is my personal goal for every school year: to find at least one thing every student does better than every other student.

Notice strengths. And this is an important part of a genius hour or passion projects. Find teachers who notice what their students are good at doing and not just their student’s mistakes.

5 – Give some guidance

Choices extend to classroom decorations where I gave students an option to pain the ceiling tiles. I love this one. Every time I look up, I remember that I’m letting students live this motto.

Sylvia Martinez, co-author of Invent to Learnsaid it well on a recent show,

“I think that you want to combine thing that are skill-builders with more openended projects. You don’t want everything to be open ended. I think the idea that kids are just going to magically discover things by themselves is mistaken but the other side of the coin isn’t to tell them exactly what to do all the time.”

Where I made horrible mistakes with genius hour is when I just gave them all materials and said just play. And that’s what happened. Some kids just don’t do anything at all.

Play with guidance. You do have to give some advice. You do have to have some expectations — whether it’s having students reflect or share a picture or demonstrate what they’ve done. If you don’t, you may feel like the first time I did genius hour — like you wasted your time. Of course, those few students will excite you. But your goal is to have 100% participation with all of your students and not just a few who are self-starters and motivated. 

6. Let them struggle

Chad Lehman’s maker space includes challenges and lots of options for students. Chad presents those choices to students, so they aren’t overwhelmed.

Sometimes the secret of great teaching is not jumping into soon. Sometimes kids need to struggle just a little bit so they can learn to solve problems.

I think that why so many students in this generation do struggle with getting the answers is that us adults always give them the answers without letting them have that struggle. Sylvia Martinez says,

“And it’s hard to not answer questions, it’s hard to not give kids information while we know the most efficient way to do things. But classrooms aren’t there for teachers to show off how efficient they are, they are for kids to learn. And maybe it’s a little inefficient and it might be a little painful to watch when you know there’s a better way but not helping. You know, not being mean. I’m not saying be mean to kids or hide information, but letting them be a little frustrated, letting them try something and say, “How did that go for you? What are you going to try next?” And letting them come up with the answer instead of constantly telling them what to do next.”

I saw this again when talking to Adam Bellow, BreakoutEdu co-founder. Kids struggle with a challenge to “open a box” using clues, content knowledge, and cooperation. When I asked Adam about the biggest mistake teachers make, he says,

And this is the hardest thing for teachers. It’s facilitation. I mean, we always talk the old “Oh, you want to be the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage.” In this, you are challenged to literally do that. In many cases, it means sit on the sides and watch your kids learn. You are not to get involved, you are not to tell them what the answer is even if they’re begging you unless, of course, they give you a hint card.

It is hard to not give answers to students on their first request. I know when I was growing up and playing with the computer, we didn’t have the Internet. All we had was a book. It didn’t have much about as the computers had just been invented. So, I had to struggle a lot, and I learned a lot. But a lot of students want the answer NOW.

Perhaps the hardest criticism I (or any teacher) might endure is when a parent says,

“my child says you won’t help me.”

I do help, but there’s a difference between helping a child learn and becoming their external brain. Kids can’t put me in their backpack and take me to college. (Thank goodness!) They’ll only have the software we’ve taught them to use – THEIR BRAIN.

7 – Be open-minded to unintended products and adapt

My former student, Andrew Stargel, (one of the students on the original Flat Classroom project), comes back to share his filmmaking skills with my students as they make their Christian movie, Unspeakable.

My former student, Andrew Stargel, (one of the students on the original Flat Classroom project), comes back to share his filmmaking skills with my students as they make their Christian movie, Unspeakable. We won’t finish it this school year, but we’ve still learned so much.

Sometimes when you’re making and creating, your product goes a totally different direction. For example, in the film project that I’ve been doing, we just don’t have enough time to finish it. So, instead of giving up, I’m having students create scenes. We’ll release just one or two scenes on YouTube in hopes of maybe garnering some attention for that.

Adapt. When you do passion projects sometimes things go in a different direction, and you just can’t finish it the way you envisioned it, and you have to adapt and still be happy and realize that you did learn a lot. 

8 – Publish for a wider audience

We know that an audience improves student performance, so we want to have an audience. Plus an audience is just fun! When the MAD about Mattering project finishes in the students are done, they’re going to compete in an online presentation “shark tank.” (Stay tuned.) This presentation will be part of sharing their work with the world, and it’s a lot of fun.

Teacher Rayna Freedman’s fifth graders publish a blog post a week for a larger audience.

Plus, you don’t want to do wastebasket work because that just doesn’t make a difference.

Publish. Students can safely publish for the real world. It is being done hundreds of thousands of times a day. Most fears are unfounded. There’s a way to publish safely. 

9 – Celebrate and Innovate

So much making and building is going on in Chad Lehman’s library, that they are converting an adjacent computer lab into the maker space. All this activity has created some challenges, but Chad sees these as great challenges. The library is popular again!

As a teacher, we have always to be learning. Our students do too. No project ever goes as I expect. Some have great things happen, and some have disappointments. But, we celebrate our learning no matter what we do. We innovate and make those projects better the next time we do them.

Celebrate learning. Level up. A project doesn’t have to be perfect or even be finished to be a successful learning experience. 

Where can we tinker and create?

But I think in the end, every school should ask themselves is there one class where students can create and can invent? I truly think this makes a more creative student.

And, we found in the United States that are creativity scores are declining for the first time in measured history.

We have to do something to help our students get more creative.

Maybe we just need to give them time with a little teaching savvy on the side.

Other Articles I’ve written on 20% Time, Genius Hour, and the Maker Movement

The post 9 Fine Ways to Do Better 20% Time appeared first on Cool Cat Teacher Blog by Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher helping educators be excellent every day. Meow!

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