10 Revisions to 20 Percent Time

If you’re unfamiliar with 20% time projects in education, you may want to read this brief overview before continuing with this post.


CC image by flickr user Norehearsal

1) Beware of scheduling obstacles
Before you launch a 20% time project for your students, double check your calendars and consider the havoc certain activities can wreak on the projects. With my English classes last semester we ran headlong into AP testing. Obviously, I knew they were lurking in the future; we’d been preparing for them! But during those two weeks, everything comes to a screeching halt. Projects included. Understandably, many of the projects suffered as they took a back seat to AP testing and studying.

If I had a nickel for every time a student said, “But then AP testing hit and I couldn’t work on my project” during the final presentations I’d, well, I’d have a lot of nickels. It was painful. I don’t like excuses. They’re like armpits… Not a complaint, a lesson learned. So beginning next year, I’ll be launching the projects during the first semester.

2) Make it memorable, make it matter
As we brainstorm for the next round of projects, my battle cry will be MIMM! Make it memorable/matter. Either create a project that has that certain je ne sais quoi like a Beatles-themed garden and blog, or a jog/bike-a-thon called Going the Extra Mile One Penny at a Time, or create something that matters like a book-length collection of essays about life in high school, or overhaul the swim and dive team room. Better yet, do both like a choir concert called Songs for Sisters to raise money for ankylosing spondilitis.

These were the memorable projects, probably because they mattered to more than just the students themselves. But there were a few that mattered less. I won’t name names or pinpoint projects, but let me just say this, the project can mean a lot to a student, but if means a lot to more people, or if there’s a community built around the type of project a student decides on, the project seems to take on a life of its own and the student will be more inspired to work hard on their project.

For great insight on this topic, read “The Golden Ticket” by my friend and colleague David Theriault.

3) Don’t focus on failure
One of the biggest benefits of a 20% time project is giving students the space to learn from their failures. Too often students are taught and shown that failure is bad, but such attitudes and environments stunt their learning. The option to fail is critical. However, based on student feedback it seems my reiteration of failure as an option backfired.

One student reported, “I understand that not everyone will succeed on their projects, but constantly reiterating that failure is an option may discourage students from working hard.” Another said,”Mr. Z gets us to think more thoroughly but he’s openly said he’s ok with our DIY projects being failures, which can’t be good for morale.”

I will continue to allow for failure, but I will focus my expectations on the attempts and the exhausting of possible solutions to problems.

4) Revise Project Pitches
For our pitches, students introduced their projects in TED style presentations. They were great. Parents showed up, people from the district showed up, other teachers showed up. The pitches really encouraged students to think through their ideas and the scope of their projects, shaping them into concrete creations.

The problem with the pitches? It was hard to squeeze them all into one class period and once we had finished with our final presentations, I realized the pitches and finals were too similar. A couple of solutions I’m considering include pitching projects to small peer groups and focus on giving and receiving helpful feedback and a poster session (as Kate Petty, a 20% Time guru, does). I would love to have the poster session coincide w/ another school activity: possibly Back-to-School night?


CC image by flikr user marmset451

5) Rethink blogging requirements
In a project evaluation survey I conducted, 45% of students reported that the required weekly blog posts on the process and progress of their 20% time projects were not important in helping them formulate, reflect on, and complete their projects. That’s an ugly number. And frankly, I don’t know if I can trust that number. My gut feeling is that students just don’t like the blogging portion of the project. It’s more work. But I think the blogging component is the best way to hold students accountable to their projects. An E.M. Forester quotation is apropos here:

How do I know what I think until I see what I say?

If, like Forester says, he learns from his speaking or writing, students will learn from their blog posts. And it’s the best way I can keep track of what the students are learning and experiencing throughout the duration of their projects. Not only does their blogging hold them accountable to me, it helps students connect to an audience that’s bigger than me. And ultimately, this is a writing class, so we’re gonna write!

So how do I improve student perception of blogging? Here are the ideas I’m considering: back off weekly requirements. Maybe cut the blogging assignments in half, to twice a month. Or perhaps I can ease back on other assignments or blend the blogging requirements into other writing assignments by using specific prompts for students to address. Another thing I want to do is to tie the project grade to student blogs and perhaps have two grading periods during the project to encourage students to keep up on their blogging. Because getting behind on their blogs is a sure-fire way to kill student enthusiasm for their projects.

6) Just say no to subs
In a year-end student evaluation of our 20% Time projects only 26% of my students said that I kept them excited about their projects, 53% kind of agreed I kept them excited about their projects, and 21% disagreed. I don’t like those numbers.

I know exactly what I did wrong—I missed too many project days. A big reason for my absences was beyond my control: my family had quite a health adventure a month into the projects. But I also found myself planning or attending meetings on our project day just because it was the easiest day to plan for a sub.

Don’t give in to that temptation. Your students need you there for your encouragement, guidance, inspiration, coaching, support. They’ll hit roadblocks and you need to be there to help clear the rubble. One common roadblock is up next:

7) More scaffolding needed
While some students thrive on managing their own time, other students flounder hard. This is to be expected. For far too long students have been trained to act, think, and do only after their teachers have given instructions. When offered the opportunity to direct their own work and learning some students feel adrift at sea.

Consider the variety of student responses regarding our project days:

I felt like our class was an ordered chaos; it was chaotic at times, but we got things done. // For the DIY project, class time may be wasted by some, but utilized efficiently by others. It ultimately depends on the project. // DIY days are the least productive days out of the week. DIY projects usually take place outside the classroom! // I like how even when we have free time people are still being productive.

The students who felt our project days were the least productive days of the week, probably just didn’t know how to be productive. Kate Petty uses an implementation guide to help students schedule out their projects, but some students will need more scaffolding than this guide provides. I’ll be designing a 20% time menu, a guide to help students choose from a variety of activities they can do to help them push their project forward in ways they may not have considered. As Petty says we have to train students to constantly ask themselves what next?

Some of the menu items can include: check out library books on your subject, or ones similar, as reference guides (students automatically use youtube.com and the web as reference, but these often just scratch the surface of complex projects or topics), search Twitter and blogs in order to build and connect with an online learning community of people involved in similar projects, research and practice photo and design skills to help students create more professional looking blogs, promote your blog/project through social media.

As you can see, use of the internet is often required for these activities, so I’m especially interested in coming up with offline activities. Please leave your ideas in the comments!

8) Get everyone online
Stop! Drop! and Roll. Stop writing this post, drop whatever else I’m doing, and roll out a Donors Choose campaign to finance a classroom set of Chromebooks. If each student had consistent access to the web during our project days the quality of the learning environment and student projects would improve exponentially.

9) Spend 15 minutes prepping for 20% time the day before
If you want students to be prepared for their project days, don’t wait until the day of to inspire and prepare them for their 20% time. I often found myself taking too much of their time to share ideas, examples, models, and stories of success. Next year I’ll plan out a good 15 minutes at the end of the period the day before to get everyone ready. That way on project days I won’t need to even begin the class: when the bell rings students will know exactly what they’re doing.

My goal is to begin a majority of class periods this way on regular days. EVERY project day should begin automatically.

10) Passion may be too strong a word
One of the many benefits of genius hours or 20% time projects is the deeper, sustained learning students experience as they explore something they’re passionate about. But there’s one minor drawback for some students: they don’t know what their passions are. Some students even report that they don’t have passions. Instead of brainstorming possible projects some students sat around fretting that they didn’t have a passion.

So when I introduce my 20% time project next time I’ll temper passion with other words like interest, inspires and curious. After projects are completed, students will have had the space to explore their possible passions, getting close to what they’re truly passionate about by process of elimination. Maybe they thought they were passionate about photography, but after five months of practicing composition, lighting, Photoshop, etc. they’ll realize, nope, they just like to Instagram.

Bonus Read: Since you’ve made it all the way through this post, go ahead and have a peak at my students’ responses to the project evaluation survey.

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7 thoughts on “10 Revisions to 20 Percent Time

  1. Sean, I love how you attacked all these points in one post! I’ve already tackled # 1, 3, 6, 7, & 8 in my classes last year, but this year I KNOW I have to tackle # 2, 5, & 9. As for project pitches, my 7th graders and I were not organized enough to pitch our projects to each other all at the same time. Ideas came gradually… I hope that the way I set them up next year will help them have a better idea of what they’ll be working on this time around! Then I’d like to pitch the projects to small groups, as well. Maybe have my class and my co-workers classes mix up the groups for this. The ideas on Katy’s site are great for this!

    Anyway, thank you for these details – they will be helpful for MANY teachers looking to implement their 20% time next year and for years to come!!

  2. Thanks for this great post! #4, 7 and 9 were great insights for me. In regards to the scaffolding, I really support the idea of students learning to give formal critique and also to have other professionals give advice throughout a project. This can be used as part of the blogging prompts. Professionals can also leave their advice in the comments of a student blog. This makes the blog really matter.

  3. Wow, that was awesome. I have been looking at introducing a 20% concept in my courses and this provided me with a ton of great ideas. There were many things that I was planning on doing (such as weekly blogs), but this forced me to rethink the decisions I am making. No doubt this is going to help my first attempt be better than I had hoped. Thank you.

  4. Thank you. This is awesome. I wish I would have read it before I started my own 20Time project with seniors this year. You articulated pretty much exactly the same problems I had. This will help me going forward.

  5. Thank you. This really helps me out a lot. This is the first time I’m implementing 20Time with my students. I am a math teacher. I am nervous about my smart kids who say they don’t have a passion. I’ll talk to them tomorrow to see if they are curious about something or interested in something that they want to investigate on Mondays in my class. 🙂

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