My 5-Step Plan for Student Passion Projects

by | 11.4.21

Dawn harris is a teacher in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter @DHarrisEdS.

This year I’m excited to be back in my classroom for so many reasons – and one big reason is that I can’t wait for my new students to start their passion projects! I design these projects to promote all the core ELA skills they need: from researching and outlining to writing and revising; to refining grammar and syntax; to designing presentations. As a high school teacher, I know it’s not always easy to get students invested in skill-building – but passion projects make my students feel like their skills matter on so many levels.

By connecting their passions to research and advocacy, I can get students excited about using their skills to make an impact in our classroom, our school and our community. That’s why I’m sharing my 5-step approach to planning passion projects with my students:

1. Creating connections & assessing skills

When school starts, I prioritize building relationships with my new students – but I also want to start learning about their skills and their needs on Day One so I can support their learning. One of my favorite activities is Lindsay Portnoy’s “Hearts Before Heads,” from her book Designed to Learn. It invites students to share things like educational topics they’ve enjoyed, transformative life experiences and attributes they’re proud of. I’ve added asking my students to write down what they’re passionate about and why. This helps me assess skills, create connections – and build excitement about exploring their passions.

2. Building a shared sense of purpose

In the next day or two, my students and I discuss what passion projects are– and why they matter. I outline the steps ahead: gathering evidence, discussing discoveries, drafting essays, sharing class presentations and curating our end-of-year showcase. Then we talk about the purpose that will drive those steps: This is their chance to turn their passion into action. For some students, that means building an immersive, persuasive experience; for others, it means building awareness about a community issue and making a case for change. Recently, one student wanted to convince everyone to fall in love with the Ramones, while another wanted to promote gender equality.

3. Researching & writing

Then we jump into our projects: First, each student sets up a Wakelet, students then research three to five articles on their passion. (You can check out screenshots of student Wakelets below!) It’s exciting for them to create a space where all their future discoveries will go all year! I love using Wakelet for this because it supports all aspects of their work: They can compile multimedia files, annotate text, draft essays – and I can keep an eye on their progress.

From then on, I set aside weekly class time for passion projects. And when students finish something early, they pull up their Wakelets and dive back in. This gives them a sense of ownership, which really promotes skill-building. And it gives me plenty of chances to stop by and support that independent growth: “I love how thoroughly you summarized this article! When you revise that essay, take another look at your sentence structure and punctuation.

4. Collaborating, dialoguing & growing

Next, I create a “passion poster” listing each class’s topics and use those posters to promote shared learning. If students in different classes are exploring Black Lives Matter, they use Wakelet to research, write and revise essays together, and those cross-classroom collaborations strengthen our whole school community. I love how this teaches students to lead a project on their own and in a group – both of those skills really promote educational and career success.

As they share their progress in class presentations, my students learn to advocate for their passions using critical thinking, respectful dialogue and reliable evidence. The topics that matter to us can be polarizing, and I believe we need to equip our students to navigate that – so we talk about how an advocacy mindset is an informed, respectful mindset. It’s empowering for students not just to know they’re allowed to discuss an important social issue, but to know they’re equipped to discuss it.

These are examples from one of my class’s Wakelet collection of passion projects:5. Showcasing the year’s journey

Toward the end of the year, my students curate final project presentations for a community open house. (Last year, during distance learning, I hosted our showcase online.) We invite students, teachers, staff, family and friends, and I schedule it for when there is an opportunity to boost attendance, such as on a board meeting night. My students take so much pride in showcasing their skills and advocating for their passions in front of our whole community! And I know that as they progress to the next grade level and beyond, they’ll know how to leverage their abilities and their passions to achieve their goals – and to make a difference in their communities. 

All through the school year, , these passion projects are my students’ North Star. And they’re mine, too: These projects help me base each day of teaching on my students’ needs, skills and identities. This fall, I can’t wait to sit down with my new students and say, “Tell me what you’re passionate about” – and start our journey together. 

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