Monday, May 14, 2018

Passion Projects: Design Your Own Version (Part 2)

In the first part of this blog series, I discussed general information about starting your own individualized learning project for your students. I included a rationale, suggested some first steps, and shared a presentation you could adapt to your needs and share with colleagues or parents. It included everything from what Genius Hour is, to a suggested timeline, research and design frameworks, to inspirational videos and more.

In this second part of the series, I will share the details, or the “behind the scenes” of designing your own Genius hour experience for your students.

Finding the Time:

At my school, we dedicate one hour four times a week to something we call "I/E" (Intervention/ Extension). This is a time when students with heavy learning needs are pulled out of the classroom and are given additional instruction in the areas they need ("Intervention"), while those who stay behind get challenged in different areas at a higher level ("Extension"). The only rule we had to follow was that we were not to teach them any new curriculum-related material (so that struggling students don't miss it). After spending months differentiating instruction to small groups based on student needs, I felt like it was not a satisfying experience- neither for me nor for my students. I/E time was a perfect place to experiment with my Passion Project idea.

Finding the time is an important first step because the way you structure your project time will depend on how often and how long you can, or are willing to, allow your students to work on their projects. For me, about one hour, 4 days a week has been perfect.

45 minutes a day, four times per week, is one way to organize the schedule 

Creating a Timeline:

Depending on the time you have each day/week for this work, as well as the number of weeks you can afford running it, your project timeline would look differently. I recommend allotting one week on both ends for introduction and presentations/reflections, sufficient time for research, and ample time for product ideation, creation, feedback, and improvement:

  • Week 1: Introduction: The process/product/presentation, and the supporting documents.
  • Week 2: Choose a project and get it approved
  • Weeks 3-4: Intense research time
  • Week 5: Finish research and start prototyping (product)
  • Week 6-8: Work on products (including giving and receiving feedback) and the Process Presentation
  • Week 9: Work on presentations, present and reflect

The Project:

Depending on students' ages, abilities, and experience with self-directed learning, as well as your experience, and material- and human- resources, you will need to make a decision about what to expect of students, and which types of projects would be “acceptable”. This is important because expecting students (at any age) who have never learned how to take notes on their own to be engaged in research for extended periods of time might be a recipe for failure; expecting students to learn how to compose music on the trombone without actually having one is impossible; and creating a stop-motion animation without having cameras simply cannot happen. Think carefully about all these elements before you approve any project idea!

Another important aspect of the types of inquiries and projects students engage in and create, has to do with the idea of Empathy, and with training students to think beyond themselves. I found Don Wettrick's 'Rule of Thirds' to be an excellent way to explain to students which types of projects are acceptable. According to Don, in order for a project to be approved, there are three basic questions students must consider and answer positively to. If any of the questions are answered negatively, the project is not approved. As simple as that.
Don Wettrick's 'Rule of Thirds' 
I initially tailored this to my own needs because I felt that since it was my students' first time doing a Passion Project. I kept the first two questions as-is, and modified the third. I asked them to simply be conscious about who would benefit from their project (including themselves) and to try to expand it so that others could benefit from it as well. I was happy to realize that emphasizing this point resulted in several students choosing projects that benefitted more than just themselves. As a general rule of thumb, for a second project, I make the third point a requirement.


If you are doing this project for the first time (for you or for a particular group), I would recommend you start with individual projects. Once students have gone through the process, and had the chance to explore their own passions and to research and create, and you gathered sufficient information about what they can and cannot do on their own, you may want to consider letting students work in pairs or trios, according to shared passions and interests.

The Platform:

It is important to make it easy for students to find the information they need quickly. This saves valuable time. You can choose to host the information and handouts you will be sharing with students in different places and ways. I chose to go digital and to create one central location for students to find all the information they'll need- guidelines, inspirational videos, research notes documents, presentation examples, etc. The platform I chose was the new Google Sites, as it now allows for page/site template creation, which makes it easy to keep all documents in one place.

The Passion Project Website is hosted on (the new) Google Sites 

What to Include:

I chose to have all the information in one central location and share it with students. Deciding to share all the information at once was a conscious decision, as I wanted this to be my students' "central command"- a place where they know they must visit in order to find out what to do, how to do it, what comes up next, what they already did, etc. Here are some of the pages I decided to include in order to guide and scaffold student learning:

  • Understanding what Passion Project is: Before students start thinking about and working on their projects, they must show an understanding of what this project time is. They should be able to answer basic questions after a teacher's introduction, watching videos, and class discussions.
  • Getting inspired and guided to find their passions and interests: To inspire students, I used different videos about where ideas come from, what is creativity, what projects other students have done, etc. I also created worksheets for them to brainstorm what they are passionate about, what they do in their free time, etc. 
  • Deciding on topics to inquire into and products to create: After brainstorming and sharing project ideas (it's very important to share!), students begin narrowing their topics to find what they would like to learn about and what they would like to create. Learning (research), creating (product), and sharing (presentations) were three requirements.
  • Narrowing their topic to something quantitative and achievable: Once students have a pretty good idea of what they would like to learn and create, I make them take it home and work with their parents to focus their topics into one specific statement, such as "I would like to design my own t-shirt", "I want to learn more about Norse Myths", etc. Sharing with their parents is important because I want their parents to understand what this project is and to be a part of the support team, and because I want the students to take this step very seriously.
  • Submitting a Proposal: Once I had discussions with each student about what they would like to learn about and what they would like to create, they are ready to submit a proposal. In their proposals, I ask them to tell me why they are passionate about the topic, what they already know, what questions they have, do a bit of research ("pre-search"), and propose what their product is going to be. Assuming students have a good project idea, when it is the first time they are doing it, I almost always make them revise their proposals, re-think different aspects of it, and come back with more passion and determination. 
  • Researching: This is an extremely important aspect of the project, and it needs to be taught very carefully based on students age, reading levels, prior experience with reading/note taking/synthesizing, and stamina (See "Choosing a Research Framework" below). (anything from asking questions about their topic to taking notes, synthesizing, etc.)
  • Creating a product: 
    • Choosing a Design-Thinking process: An important ingredient of this project is students' creation of a product. In order for students to create a quality product, choose a Design-Thinking process. A DT process allows designers to create a high-quality product through a repeated process of ideation, creation, and iteration. If your students have never worked with a DT process before, make sure you spend some time explaining each step and emphasizing its value. Here are a few of the design-thinking processes I found schools to be using. Feel free to choose one that fits your needs, and play around with it!
    • Remember and Consider: In students' Passion Project Proposals, they indicated what product they will create as a result of their learning. There are two important things you need to do here:
      • Make sure you have the materials before they begin working on their products.
      • Consider early prototyping (see above). What often happens is that students spend a lot of time on their research, give themselves very little time to work on a product. With little time to spare, they realize they don't have enough time to complete it. Creating their product early, getting feedback and revising it (sometimes again and again) to ensure it is high quality is very important, and sometimes results in an adjustment of the overall project. For example, I had a student who wanted to write a book about Norse Myths. She did a lot of research. At some point, I asked her to create a prototype chapter, so we see how it goes. She started writing the chapter, needed to do additional research, and two weeks have passed. We realized she won't be able to finish an entire book, so we adjusted her project to be a "published story about a Norse Myth". She finished and edited it, and met with her mentor, and received her illustrations from an older student I matched her with, just in time before presentations. Had she waited until she completely finished researching, she would have had no product at all...
  • Creating a Process Presentation: An important requirement for this project is sharing it with the rest of the world. In order to do that, I ask students to choose their medium of presentation, but give them guidelines as to what they must include in their presentation: 
    • the project they chose; 
    • the reason they chose it; 
    • the questions they had; 
    • important things they found out; and, 
    • their product.

I hope this post provided you with more ideas to think about and tools to plan your own personalized learning project. In the third (and final) part of this blog series, I will be getting into the details of designing a passion project. Elements such as which research framework and design-thinking process to use, how to guide, support and monitor students’ work and progress, and more!

Thank you for taking the time to read through this long and detailed post. I hope you found is useful. As usual, if you have any further questions or would like to share ideas that work (or didn’t work…) for you, please reach out by commenting here or on twitter (@EduRonen). This is a learning community, and the idea of a “destination” is only an illusion!

Reflections on "The Best PD Ever!" Part 2- ISB's Futures Academy

This is the second part of my school visits blog post series. If you would like to read about the trip's purpose, objectives, and other background information, as well as about what I learned about Design at the International School of Beijing, please visit this blog post.

*** Disclaimer: These five days of school visits have been extremely busy, interesting and intense few days, and I have no doubt I did not get the full picture of the history, present, and plans for the future of each of the programs I observed and conversed about. If you notice and inaccuracy, I apologize and would appreciate if you could contact me so that I can represent these hard-working educators and their work more accurately.

  Image result for future's academy beijing

The Futures Academy at the International School of Beijing

On both school visit days, we met with Kelsey Giroux (@Kels_Giroux), who graciously and skillfully took us through the past, present, and future of ISB’s Futures Academy. The Future’s Academy first started as a Middle School program for students in grades 7 and 8, and later on was expanded, yet in a somewhat different direction, to the High School (grades 9 and 10). One of the things I appreciated most about ISB educators has been their openness about the processes and the products of the innovative programs- their successes, but also their struggles. I am proud to b
e a part of a global community of innovative and forward-thinking educators!

Middle School Future’s Academy (“FA”)


  • 2013-2014- Startup year. Documentation and preparation. No students were admitted to the program. 
  • 2014-2015- Program begins with grade 7 students.
  • 2015-2016- Program expands to grade 8, and includes about 70 students (40 in grade 7, and 30 in grade 8) 
  • 2016-2017- 80 students in MS FA (A HS FA program is offered for grade 9 students) 
  • 2017-2018- 85 students in MS FA (HS program rolls up to grade 10). 
  • 2018-2019- Enrollment projected to be approximately 80 students (HS program will shift into three interdisciplinary courses) 

Program Overview:

  • Purpose: the MS FA was designed to address the school’s strategic initiatives 
  • Pedagogical Focus: Initially, Project Based Learning. It then morphed into broader approaches (inquiry, design-thinking, etc.) 
  • Service: Offered to grades 7 and 8. Capacity is at 88 (44 students in each grade level). 
  • Funding: Comes out of school or FA budget.
  • Subject integration: Humanities (ELA & SS), science, math, and Mandarin. Later on, integration with Mandarin was dropped, and there was a more flexible integration that varied in each project. 
  • Curriculum Writing: Projects were designed by the facilitators in the first year, and continued as the program evolved.
  • Standards: Similar to the entire school, Common Core Math, Common Core ELA, NGSS for Science, C3 for Social Studies. The FA program addressed the same standards as non-FA students did. 
  • 21st Century Skills: Each project includes at least two “L21” skills. These are included in assessment and reporting as well. 
  • Design-Thinking: All projects are anchored around ISB’s design-thinking process 
  • Project Based Learning: 
  • Facilitators: Six full-time facilitators total (2 Humanities, 2 Math/Science, 1 Math Specialist, 1 Learning Support/ EAL) 
  • Documentation: Students’ Process Journals: 
    • Online 
    • Sheets to work on specific skills/ areas 

    Special Projects: “Ignite” Weeks

    Throughout the year, MS FA students are working on special projects aimed to “ignite a spark in each student and inspire their passions within and beyond Futures Academy”. This is done outside of the FA curriculum in three different one-week projects (I call them "sessions" here). These projects are chunked as follows:

    Session #1: MAKE IT 

    • The focus is on building and creating). 
    • Example student-initiated projects would be upcycling, designing fidgeters, fashion, and cooking.
    Session #2: EXPRESS IT 

    • The focus on communication/arts. 
    • Example projects: Custome design, designing and sewing one's own flag
    Session #3: PERSONALIZE IT 

    • More free choice- students get to design their own projects.

    The Ignite Project facilitators created a short but comprehensive project planner to ensure project facilitator think about all the necessary elements: 
    • Guiding question 
    • Focus area (L21) 
    • Skill focus 
    • Voice and choice 
    • Planning- how to incorporate the ISB design process 
    • Logistics- supplies or space 
    • Max number of students 
    FA's Sample Project Planner

    Important Takeaways- MS Futures Academy:

    • The Futures Academy is a parallel program to the “regular” MS path. It is important to plan and articulate well how the programs are similar and different, and to ensure communication is ongoing and open, and that there are proper understanding and support for the creation of the program from all stakeholders 
    • Not all students are passionate in the same way. It is difficult for some students to come up with passions. Some kids benefit from more guided choices while others work very well with less guidance. 
    • Student-driven learning is not something kids know innately. They need to be prepared from an early age. 

    Tuesday, May 1, 2018

    Reflections On “The Best PD Ever!” Part 1- Design at ISB

    In the course of this school year, I was fortunate to be introduced to the idea of Innovation in education (yes, I’m pretty late to join the wagon…). I initially was not sure what exactly it meant or looked like, but the more I looked into it by reading great literature, participating in Twitter conversations, and discussing with anyone I could find to engage with me about these topics, I realized that without it, schools and teachers are likely to lose their value and not actualize what their initial purpose has been- to prepare their student population to the challenges of the present and future, and to create responsible and contributing citizens, so that hopefully they’ll be able to fix all the problems our generation has left them with.

    When the opportunity to explore other interesting teaching roles at the school arose, I was the first to apply for a new ES Design position as well as to a new Research and Development ("R&D") project my school chose to embark on. So, long story short, in the next two years I will be spending my days as a 50% ES Design teacher and 50% member of our new R&D team.

    ES Design- Taking our grade 3-5 Visual Arts course one step further, and including more STEM opportunities to address both Visual and Media Arts elements as well as Science (Engineering and Technology) standards, all through integrated project-based learning that emphasizes the iterative design-thinking process. 
    R&D Team- Composed of several tiers, with the one at the center including two educators from each division (ES, MS, and HS) and the Head of School, and reporting to our division’s Vice Principals, we were tasked with creating a 5-week personalized learning experience for our students (Kindergarten to grade 11). Everything involved in the reasoning, planning, preparing and executing this goal (all the WHYs and HOWs) is what we will be focusing on in the 2018-2019 academic school year.
    When I was asked for what kind of Professional Learning opportunity I would like to do to support my understanding and growth in these distinct areas, and the idea of a school visit was suggested, I was ready to start planning my trip to China to visit some of the most dynamic and innovative schools who have been grappling with the same questions we are starting to for quite a while, and have taken steps to address these needs in creative and unique ways.

    The three schools I chose to go and visit were the International School of Beijing (ISB), Western Academy of Beijing (WAB) and farther to the south, Nanjing International School (NIS)

    The objectives of my trip were threefold:

    1. Learn what established ES Design and personalized learning programs look like 
    2. Get ideas for implementation in my school 
    3. Connect/ network with like-minded leaders in the industry
    Together with two colleagues (teaching HS Social Studies and HS Science), we ventured to Beijing to start our incredibly rewarding learning journey…

    In this blog entry series, I will re-capture my learning and reflect on the different programs we observed at each school, and add some of the important takeaways I got from each school and program. Here are the programs I looked at within each school:

    ISB (International School of Beijing)
    • ES Design Course (K-5) 
    • MS Future’s Academy (grades 7-8) 
    • HS Future’s Academy (grades 9-10) 

    WAB (Western Academy of Beijing)
    • Design and the PYP Exhibition 
    • FLoW (“Future Learning of WAB”) 

    NIS (Nanjing International School)
    • ES Design 
    • MS Design 
    • MS “X-Block” 

    *** Disclaimer: These five days of school visits have been extremely busy, interesting and intense few days, and I have no doubt I did not get the full picture of the history, present, and plans for the future of each of the programs I observed and conversed about. If you notice and inaccuracy, I apologize and would appreciate if you could contact me so that I can represent these hard-working educators and their work more accurately.

    Days one and two: ISB- Design

    The Design-Thinking Process at ISB:

    As soon as you get into ISB it is clear that the school is taking their newly created Design-Thinking process quite seriously. Aside for the fact that posters of the process and other Design-related propaganda are spread around the school’s walls (in both classrooms and hallways), the conversations we had in the past two days included numerous mentions of the Design process and the importance of integrating it into different aspects of the curriculum- both vertically (ES, MS, and HS) and horizontally (across different subjects).

    The ISB Design-Thinking process is quite basic. It was put together by a small committee with all three divisions in mind. This way, they believed, each division can, on the one hand, share the general process and vocabulary, and on the other hand, get into as much detail as they needed. I really liked that idea. Julie Lemley, one of the Design facilitators, shared that using this process has marked a powerful shift in their work to embed Design in teaching and learning.

    ES Design at ISB:

    While Design seems to flourish and is visible all around the Middle and High Schools, the idea of using a process in the Elementary School had only started in April 2017 when ES homeroom teachers were officially included in the final stages of the ideation and implementation of the ISB’s Design-Thinking process. Since then, the ES has adopted the ISB Design-Thinking process, but no requirements accompanied it. A few teachers chose to voluntarily use the ISB Design-Thinking cycle in part of some units of study.

    Setting the Stage:

    • All ES teachers went through a “What is Design-Thinking?” hands-on training session. 
    • Two teachers were hired for full-time “STEAM Integration” positions (the K-2 facilitator moved from a third-grade homeroom, and the 3-5 facilitator was hired as tech-integration coach), while the ES Librarian has taken on EdTech, library, and Design for Pre-Kindergarten students. 
    • Beginning next year, the facilitators will be collaborating with homeroom teachers to integrate design-thinking into units rather than teach their own Specialist classes. They believe that Design Thinking (as well as technology) should be embedded in the curriculum, providing students (and teachers) opportunities to explore what it is, what it means, and what it looks like when working on projects. 
    • A basic Design Lab was allotted. It will be available to about 36 classes. Currently, teachers are aware of the need to expand and will be using other spaces (such as homerooms) for the theoretical stages and the lab for the “Making” parts. They are also aware that it may send the wrong message to students, as this space is not just a “place to build things”, which is only one part of the design process. 
    • Not having requirements allows the design team to focus on quality planning. They feel like they have the freedom to go slowly, plan and put systems in place.

    The Curriculum:
    • ISB has created their own design standards for MS and HS. They are currently working on specific skills and are simplifying it for ES. 
    • Each element of the generic Design Process is divided further and explained in separate documents. 
    • Planning to break required skills by grade level: “By the end of… all students know how to use… (box cutters, glue guns, etc.)”

    • Students do research in the classroom so that they work on skill-building in the lab.
    • Breakdown of lessons: 
    • Introduce the Design Challenge 
    • Review expectations 
    • Give challenge 
    • Planning: Students write things down before they start creating 
    • Emphasis on understanding the importance of the process 
    *** Time for feedback and critique (very important!)

    Student Agency:
    • A big goal is to build capacity in the students so they are ready for MS Design. “We would like to start pushing up rather than trickling down” (Angela) 
    • Some students don’t know what they don’t know. Once they realize, there’s the desire to learn more. 
    • Students are happy to solve challenges and demonstrate their understanding and knowledge 
    • Agency in terms of “I know what I need and what tool I need to use”- is there. In terms of planning for a specific audience or independently following the Design Process- not yet 
    • Students are not used to being asked questions about their work, but they are getting used to being asked lots of questions about each part of their processes and products.
    Sharing and Assessments:
    • Getting parents to understand how much fun it is to Make
    • Involving the parents by holding events and allowing parents participate in design challenges (for example, “Design a lunchbox”). Reflecting with parents about what they did, what they learned (skills as well), how is it useful in life, etc.
    • Great buy-in!

    Still need to figure out:

    • Sometimes feeling like getting forced into projects 
    • Difficulties getting teachers to use design-thinking process and to take risks 
    • More documentation is needed (for example, for design-challenges) 
    • Collaborate with classroom teachers to articulate and include the Design Process in their units

    Suggestions for Starting a New ES Design Course:

    • Start with less (both materials and space) 
    • Do a few things very well 
    • Pick one skill you can say “Every kid can”, then move on to another skill, and so on 
    • Build a good team around you 
    • Conduct a teacher Design-Thinking PD (at the beginning of the year?!) to make sure everyone understands what it is and speak the same language. It

    Valuable Resources:

    • David Lee (DT in ES) 
    • Pinterest 
    • Destination Imagination’s Instant Challenges (adapted) 
    • Use badges for successfully participating in voluntary classes for teachers/students? 
    • Create teacher Expert groups? (with badges)


    • Anchoring Design in the Visual Arts and enriching it with technology and the idea of Play is a unique way to introduce Design 
    • Grades 3-5 is an excellent age to start thinking deeply about Design Thinking 
    • We need to start talking about Design-Thinking more seriously as an Elementary School 
    • I need to collect Design Challenge ideas 
    • I need to find and create documents specifically for Design-Thinking 
    • Favorite quote: “We would like to start pushing up rather than trickling down” (Angela) 
    • I am still not convinced it was a good idea to get rid of the tech coaches and to not use design as another coach (STEAM?) 

    Design-thinking at ISB is well underway, and as science, technology, and learning continue to change- so will these programs. I have no doubt it will continue to grow and evolve to create the best learning experiences for the learners it serves.

    In the next blog post, I will be sharing what I found in the other innovative programs ISB offers its students in the Middle and High School levels, namely, their Future’s Academy program for grades 7 and 8, as well as the one for grades 9 and 10. Stay tuned!