Ryman Yang spreads a bolt of fabric out neatly on his basement floor. Pattern pieces are pinned neatly on top, ready to guide his scissors as he prepares to make a new pair of snow pants. Like many students, the sophomore at Oregon’s South Eugene High School found himself with lots of extra time during the COVID-19 pandemic. He also wanted new clothes. So, he taught himself to sew.
Yang’s creations are one of a kind. He posted a few pictures on social media and quickly began getting orders. He even made snow pants for all the participants in a snowboarding camp.
Now that Yang is back in school full time and busy with homework and sports, what happens to his business?
“I’m a lot busier and struggling to manage my time well so far,” he says. “There’s also social media, the actual sewing and ordering different fabrics.”
Is there any opportunity to pursue his business through a school class? “No, but I’d definitely be interested in that,” he says. “And so would a lot of my peers.”
While life without in-person school was difficult for many kids, some used it as a kind of retreat. With time away from friends, sports and much of the busy work that comes with school, many students discovered interests they wouldn’t have found otherwise.
Like Yang, some pursued businesses or developed other life skills.
Value student interests
Unfortunately, most schools don’t have a system to honor or recognize the learning that Yang and so many other kids achieved during that time.
Heather M. Lister, instructional media specialist at Pennsylvania’s Camp Hill Middle and High School, offers her own children’s informal pandemic learning as an example. She and her two grade-school children adopted some baby chicks. Raising chickens was something her family had wanted to do for a long time, but that interest had taken a back seat to the demands of school and sports.
"At the most foundational level, we can’t assume that because kids weren’t in school they weren’t learning,” she says. “That’s hard for teachers to wrap our heads around because the narrative is all about the learning loss. They may not have acquired all the content knowledge we typically would have provided, but it doesn’t mean they stopped learning”
Passion projects develop marketable skills
Much of the experience students picked up during the pandemic translated into valuable job skills. Beyond learning to sew, Yang taught himself social media marketing.
Lister thinks of one student whom she got to know because he spent a lot of time in the library. She thought she knew him well but recently learned that he’s a budding You Tube star.
“His YouTube world isn’t valued in school,” she says. “But that's weird because isn’t school supposed to be preparing them for work? We have to realize kids are learning all the time. They aren’t just empty vessels waiting for us to fill them up with knowledge. Just as the trauma caused by the pandemic should inform our instruction, so should the informal learning that happened.”
Educators can take the first step to validate these passion projects by asking students about them. To get kids talking about what they did during the pandemic, Lister suggests that educators share their own experiences, including those projects that didn’t quite work out as planned.
“Put yourself out there as vulnerable,” she suggested. “I don’t know anything about chickens. We built a crappy chicken coop and had to tear it down and build another. At the most basic level, it’s about sharing what you’re learning.”
To encourage kids to open up, teachers can start by asking in an anonymous survey what they did during the pandemic. If you ask what they learned, students may only think to mention what they consider “real” learning, such as reading about WWII or studying advanced geometry.
By giving examples of less academic pursuits that count as learning – such as figuring out how to cook something, fixing a hole in your socks or repairing an old cell phone – you can help students see the value of their pursuits, even if these things have nothing to do with the course content.
“It’s about valuing that process. If you have a problem, how do you find the tools to solve it?” Lister says. “During the pandemic, we had students doing this without the facilitation or guidance of a teacher, and that should be valued.”
The benefits of project-based learning
Turns out, when students have agency over what they’re doing, their intrinsic motivation is much higher. Students often do an assignment because they are afraid of the negative impact on their grades. They jump through the hoops because they’ve been trained they’ll be rewarded, say, by getting into a good college.
Nicholas Provenzano, makerspace director at University Liggett School in Michigan, has been a project-based learning enthusiast since he was a child. Provenzano’s high school English teacher allowed him to create his own project related to any book he wanted to read. He chose Jurassic World, dressed up in costume as a character, and talked about the major themes. It was so meaningful to have the chance to pursue something that interested him that he replicates that experience with his students.
Nicole Sceglio, a student in Provenzano’s class at Gross Point South, says his approach worked for her. Sceglio came up with a photography project to illustrate the elements of gothic literature. She made up her younger sister, spent three hours waiting for the clouds to cast just the right shadows over her backyard, and ultimately ended up with some very spooky pictures. By senior year, she was winning statewide photography awards.
Sceglio says she learned a lot more than just the elements of gothic literature from that project. She discovered her own vision, a skill she still puts to use. As a pre-med major at Michigan State University, she was assigned an essay on medical disinformation. She wrote a paper on GMOs and the dangers of confirmation bias.
“My professor said I was the only one to go in that direction, so I stood out,” she says. “Mr. P’s class made me realize you don’t always need instructions for an assignment.” Without strict parameters, allowed her to tap into her thinking and creativity.
Building project-based learning into schools
Everyone seems to know project-based learning is good for kids, but it’s often difficult to implement in classrooms already stretched to capacity. The lockdown gave some teachers a peek at what it would be like to give students the opportunity to work on projects independently at home.
Design-thinking classes, Genius Hours and makerspaces are the typical ways project-based learning is built into the school day.
Lister had already been developing a project-based learning mindset in her students when the pandemic shut down in-person learning.
“We had the advantage because we had already given our kids some skills to help them create learning opportunities beyond the four walls of their school,” Lister said. “This whole idea of the maker mindset, learning from failure and knowing there is more than one way to address a problem, is an advantage. The kids who had that mindset, through STEM or makerspaces in school, probably fared better than their counterparts.”
It takes time to build up that level of independence in learners. It needs to be developed gradually, by age level. It’s difficult for kids who are focused on grades to be thrown into a class where the grade is not the objective.
Provenzano teaches at a school that scaffolds project-based learning starting in kindergarten. The kids who struggle the most, in Provozano’s experience, are those who transfer from a more traditional school. He finds he needs to deconstruct the entire process with them.
"If it’s not a district view, you will have more hiccups as kids get older because you’re asking them to all of the sudden change the process they understood as learning,” he says. “It’s almost like learning a foreign language.”
Making that effort can bring big rewards for a variety of students. Provenzano works hand in hand with his school’s special education department because project-based learning allows for a tremendous amount of differentiation.
For example, a kid may be struggling to write four sentences, but by allowing him to create a drawing instead of writing provides that opportunity for expression. Once the student creates the pictures, then you can ask the student to write a description and, chances are, it will be easier for him. In this way, students can learn at a pace that is suited to them.
"It’s about taking the handcuffs off teachers and students,” Provenzano says. “You have to trust teachers to manage the class where kids have 30 different projects going to demonstrate their understanding.”
Embrace nontraditional assessments
Many passion projects are not valued because educators don’t know how to evaluate them using the traditional grading system. Provenzano says that shouldn’t be an obstacle.
He doesn’t grade passion projects. Instead, he talks with his students throughout the process, sees the projects, and asks students to reflect on the experience in a journal.
He grades students on their final presentation of the project — not on the project itself. He does this because he doesn’t want students to temper what they’re going to try. Grade-conscious students may be torn between going too big and risking the grade or doing an easier project to play it safe.
Of course not all kids were able to pursue their interests during the pandemic. Some were expected to help siblings while parents worked. Many experienced devastating loss, stress and emotional turmoil.
Lister recalls one of her students joining the classroom Zoom call from the grocery store where his mom worked.
Those inequities have caused Lister to tread lightly when discussing students’ independent projects even though she realizes that even students who struggled also managed to find a learning pursuit.
Projects from scratch
There was a lot of talk at the beginning of the pandemic about how the experience might transform schools. But as students went back to school in the fall, most schools were back to business as usual, only with masks. On top of that, the stresses on educators didn’t decrease, they skyrocketed. Teachers felt the pressure to make up for what was missed last year as they contended with absences and quarantines.
In such circumstances is it even worth it to try to work in some passion projects? Provenzano says yes!
“As teachers, our job is to create the spaces where kids are comfortable sharing those passion projects,” Provenzano says. “It’s our job to find ways to validate what they do.”
After-school clubs may be the easiest way to allow more projects without interfering with the daily schedule. Teachers can support one another with book groups or bi-weekly coffee discussions to share how they bring projects into the classroom.
Steve Dembo, who teaches science and artificial intelligence at Illinois’ Quest Academy, says that the good old standby, the science fair, is the original project-based learning. Dembo takes it up a notch by having his students enter invention contests. He advises students to keep a notepad nearby and whenever something irritates them, jot it down – even if they have no idea how to solve it.
“When something is annoying, you look at that as an opportunity to do things differently,” Dembo says.
His students have created a kitchen counter knife warmer that makes the knife warm enough to spread butter easily but not melt it. Another student found a way to use less soap to clean dishes by developing a system based on cavitation, a form of sandblasting. Another developed a way to connect Ziploc bags together, like a daisy chain, to make them big enough to fit a baguette.
“There are a lot of teachers who stress out about taking this much time out of their curriculum for something that looks relatively unstructured, but benefits are immense,” Dembo says. “Your role shifts, that’s all.”
Jennifer Snelling is an education blogger based in Eugene, Oregon, who explores how technology enriches and enhances learning.