From passion to purpose: getting started with student-led projects

Jan 21, 2019

In a recent post, I talked about why our students are learning without us these days, and how it has a lot to do with an imbalanced emphasis of cognitive work over building those tangible (AKA, 'soft') skills which are just as necessary in doing the real work of the world.

Now don't get it twisted here...cognitive work is important.

But even if the emphasis of our instruction is on higher-order thinking skills (HOTS), a lot of the cognitive work students are doing is exclusively carried out in the name of test preparation.

Case in point: consider why we teach students to write an argumentative essay.

First of all, it runs the gamut of HOTS, doesn't it? Among the highlights, they're learning to:

  • apply information, by including evidence and examples to back their claims
  • analyze information, when they consider the weight and relevance of the evidence they find
  • evaluate information, when they draw conclusions and drive home their point or perspective
  • express themselves clearly and coherently


But WHY do we teach them to write an argumentative essay in our class?

I'll be the one to say it, I suppose...

We teach students to write arguments so they pass state-wide and/or college-credit exams.

Now I know that you know there's more to it than that.

*We* know that those argumentative writing skills will eventually help our students' future selves:

  • write well in college
  • dispute a charge to their credit card company
  • vie for a position at work
  • heck, run for city council


But it will also help them:

  • respond to lively debates taking place in the comment thread of one of their social media posts
  • crowdfund resources for a cause, or in the name of a family member or friend recovering from an unfortunate event
  • secure funding or capital for a potential start-up idea


*We* know how these skills will one day transfer. But do they? I'm not sure that relying on their higher-order thinking skills to make the connection is worth the risk...

So why do we risk relying on one medium or format, 'the formal essay', to teach the true value of argumentative skills, as opposed to, say, letting them choose the mediums that are most relevant to their lives while we choose the skills to practice?

I'll be the one to say it...
Because we're stuck in the mindset that this is the way it has to be or:

  • our school scores will go down
  • my scores will go down
  • I'll lose my position/job/clout


A lot of I, and me, and my...

And I know by the insane amount of work you put in every darn day that you're never one to make it about you. You're all about making it about 'them', the students you serve.

So if that gets you all fired up inside (which I hope it does), what can we do to turn this standardized ship around?

Well for starters, it'll require teachers to build outwards from the Core of where we're currently teaching.

So if the instruction were, er, an apple, then the cognitive skills lie at the core. As in the (Common) Core of 'what I want you to know and/or be able to do'.

And this is us, at present, if we're only teaching argumentative skills as a formal essay.

If we want to stretch beyond this approach, we'll need to build out another layer. So the meat of the apple gets added around that core. This would be 'how' you're more creatively accomplishing those skills the Core has set forth.

At present, this is likely us running a debate unit to teach argumentative skills...which will then translate into a formal essay.

But what if we went beyond those basics?

Debate is an absolutely great start, but in terms of creative lesson planning, it often ends there, doesn't it?

What other projects could we do to teach argument without it ultimately culminating in a formal essay? What other mediums might we turn toward that genuinely speak to the real-world application of argumentative skills?

Last but not least, your apple needs that shiny, red skin. It needs the thing that makes an apple an apple. The thing that makes it enticing and appealing. So that last layer you're building out is the reason behind the project, or 'why' your students are working on these Core skills in this way. What is the interest or passion driving it all?

At present, this is letting our students select the debate topic they're interested in, for example, so they can engage in the debate that ends in the formal essay.

So my challenge is, how can we set the core of our lessons (the skills), then allow students to let their interests and passions determine how they'll get there?

And that's where passion-driven learning steps in.

The reason it works lies in how we motivate our students to learn. If the cognitive work we do right now in the classroom is, in fact, tied to test prep, we're motivating our students to learn by dangling the 'GPA carrot' and the college admissions ticket in front of them. In this case, we're relying on extrinsic factors and only focusing on what's measurable.

But according to Daniel Pink, the only way to get *anyone* to learn is to appeal to their intrinsic needs, interests, and desires. Or in other words, to focus on what matters.


So enter the 'passion project,' or what I'm actually calling the 'passion-to-purpose' project, in this case.

Disclaimer: I don't even really love that name, and there's a whole bunch of malarkey out there about what the 'proper' name is to call this concept...'Genius Hour', '20% Time', 'Innovation Project'...

Whatever, long as it intrinsically motivates tomorrow's leaders, you can paint it red and call it Rosey, for all I care...

But I digress...

The mainframe I want to position around this idea--and the reason I stick with the word 'passion', I guess-- is that whatever the passion is that a student identifies, he or she needs to translate it into real-world purpose.

If you have a student who likes to cook, who will he/she cook for? And how will that benefit society (other than putting money in his/her own pocket)?

If you have a student who loves writing poetry, what on this good earth can he/she do with that poetry to make a difference (other than publishing for his/her own gain)?

So that leaves us with this:

How can we turn personal passions into student projects in our classrooms, and how can we convert these efforts into real-world purpose and impact?  

But:'s important to know your audience as you lead into these kinds of deep-dive projects. We know our students' potential, which is why we're doing this, but we have to know who they are at present within this present system of education, too.

So, based on the 'existing system'...grades, GPAs, and test scores are the 'Golden Ticket' to so many students because the end-game involves getting into their dream college.

If anything, students will be intimidated by—maybe even hostile toward—the thought of a passion project simply because there’s no definitive measure of their success in the form of data, per se.

Nor is it a one-and-done task, which they're used to. Instead, this will involve trial, failure, and troubleshooting through the work of iteration.  

In sum, this is more about the process, or the skills and application gained than it is the end product or grade.

Just be aware that a lil’ convincing may be in your cards. But once they see their capabilities in action, that the things they create have the potential to make them stand out amongst a sea of college applicants clawing at University doors, and that these tangible skills they're acquiring have the potential to land them a job or a foot in the door at an internship just as well...yeah, they'll start diggin' on it.

So if that sounds all good-in-the-hood but you’re not sure where to start, I want to give you a blueprint you can use to turn this stubborn, old barge around...

Step 1 | the battle cry

First, you'll need to start with 'why' yourselves, as in being able to confidently answer, 'Miss um... miss? Why are we doin' this?'

And sure, your battle cry could come in the form of Apple’s ‘Here’s to the Crazy Ones’ (which I seriously can’t watch without getting that burning-nose, alligator tears sensation)...

But perhaps an even more tangible way to frame this concept and project the possibilities for your students is to share with them the tales of those trailblazers who are making a living for themselves while simultaneously creating a better life for someone else. In that way, your learners can use that good work as a source of inspiration to produce their own innovations.

Who better to eavesdrop on than Blake Mycoskie?  Right around the time, Invisible Children (read more about it here) was setting the world on fire, in 2006, Mycoskie was traveling across Argentina.  While there, he let himself get lost in the country’s customs.  He drank the famed Argentinian wine; danced the traditional tangos; and found himself wearing their alpargata, the casual shoe of choice in this region of the world.  

During his travels, he also bore witness to the crippling effects of poverty.  He saw what it was like to go alpargata-less in the streets of the capital and the disease it breeds--quite literally-- in the footsteps of youth.  

From these life-altering experiences, the shoe company TOMS was born.  Per its one-for-one model: for every shoe sold, a pair of shoes is given to someone in need.  At present, TOMS has successfully provided shoes (and a lil’ bit o' that thang called Hope) for 86 million people in places all over the world, in addition to other services they provide through the sale of products like eyewear and coffee.

Fast-forward to today, TOMS is transforming their social passion into a political stump of sorts as they take a stand on something else that matters to them:  gun violence.

In an interview he did with Jimmy Fallon, Mycoskie announced that his company is donating 5 million dollars, the largest charitable donation in the history of its kind, to those organizations who are most dedicated to ending gun violence in America.

(And even more important than the money, guys, he’s on a mission to get the 90% of Americans who reportedly believe in universal background checks to contact their representatives to demand it).

So if there’s a book I recommend reading with your teenagers to kick off this project, it’s Blake Mycoskie’s, Start Something That Matters, which will remind your students to take a look around, that opportunities are everywhere, and that they have the means to ‘be the change’ so long as they believe in what they stand for.

Common Core standards in reading? Check.

In collaborating with others via discussion? Check.

So far so good.

This is one of the core texts I recommend inside my digital courses, not because I rock the TOMS shoes but because I believe *so much* in Mycoskie's passion-to-purpose mindset.

(Though I may or may not be the poster-child for the TOMS sunglasses, that’s beside the point.)

STEP 2 | aim for the moon

I mentioned earlier that you might experience some push-back, initially, from students. But you might experience some intense enthusiasm, too!

Even if the thought of a passion project opportunity lights your kids up like the 4th of July, they’re still going to struggle when it comes to actually pinning down their passions.

Recall from my other post that when we ask students what they're interested in or passionate about, it's a question often met with a lot of blinking and blank stares.

Less because they're all rocks up top, and more because we never actually take the time to ask them...

So a brainstorming sesh is most definitely in order for this next step, and don’t be afraid to let your students aim for the moon when it comes to generating ideas for their project!   

Just the same, if looking toward the likes of Silicon Valley-sized ideas feels like it’ll positively dwarf your students’ sense of capability, I hear you.

So if that be the case, table the moon (for now) and seek out, instead, the stars (and I don’t mean celebrities, y’all).  Have your students look at other students who are accomplishing lift-off status on the Good Ship ‘Make an Impact.’

As we saw with the students at Boca High, these could be the kids sitting next to them in Physics.

But if I can impart a few ‘ideas worth spreading, I'll point you toward exploring TEDxTeen Talks with your students. We’re talkin’ tons of teens with all kinds of ideas, accomplishments, stories, and inspirations that’ll get those wheels turning + positively prove that they, too, can keep this world spinning on its axis with their intentional work.

Better yet, have your students locate their own examples of teens out there crushing it (those who are maybe nowhere near a round, red carpet).  A simple search like this could be just the spark your students need to grind out a new idea for their project.

STEP 3| start something that matters

If your students are going to take the high road of turning their personal passions into worldly purposes, the best place to start is with ‘why’ they’re doing it in the first place. (You notice I'm big on that, right?)

Being able to articulate this becomes the compass, the due North, for every move they make, and it's what they measure their goals and progress against.  Then from here, they can get down to exactly what it is that they’re creating:

  • Here’s why I’m doing what I’m doing
  • Here’s how I think I can accomplish that
  • Here’s what it’s going to look like/the form it will take once it’s all said and done


Yeah, Simon Sinek, I’m lookin’ at you, buddy.  This method is the genius of the Golden Circle.  And it’s a chapter in his book, Start with Why.

It can be applied to pretty much any of the (intentional) behaviors we carry out as humans, period.  In fact, it's the same structure I used in my apple analogy earlier in this post!

But for our classroom purposes, it's a great framework for outlining ideas, so definitely consider using it as your next step in the project planning process.

STEP 4 | go to work

At this point, your students have observed others doing worthy work.  And they’ve thought long and hard about the ways they can make an impact on the world around them as well. Be it on campus, in their community, online, or elsewhere.

In other words, they’ve accepted this mission to put down their obsession with the destination (AKA, college) and pick up the journey (AKA, the tangible skills they’re acquiring as they make their way there and beyond).

So now it’s time to go to work.  Dedicate a nonnegotiable time block where students can focus on moving the needle forward on their project.  This might be once per quarter or month, or it might be a full week you carve out each set of nine weeks. Totes up to you, and I would base it on their pulse.

So what kind of good work are they doing during this time?

Hint, we're not just letting them hang from the light fixtures, and we're not hands-off whatsoever.

Once your students know what they want to do, they need to break that big goal down into manageable tasks, using class time to tackle each piece of the project.

If Marley Dias was in your class, the gal who started the #1000blackgirlbooks movement to break down diversity barriers in literature, some of the things she might be doing during project time might include:

  • using this time to research titles and curate her list of 1,000 black girl books
  • writing emails to schools, libraries, politicians, authors
  • planning an event, such as a black girl book read, to share her message and inspire others to take action
  • developing a website and networking with potential contributors for a blog
  • drafting press releases
  • writing her first publication to spread her message to others


You get the gist, yeah? And think about all the skills she's acquiring--in addition to the Core--as she pursues her passion with purpose and intention. Oh wait, she already did that...and NAILED IT! (I talk about her in a previous can read it HERE).

No matter how your students choose to spend their time, it's important you have an accountability system in place, so they don’t lose sight of the proverbial forest. Organizing project time so that it's productive and meaningful is key to the lifeblood of this concept.

Speaking of's a fine line, but you don’t want this creative time to be forced labor. That defeats the whole purpose and makes tons of students hate the idea of 'genius hour,' as it's often called.

The key to this time is that students get to make magic on their own terms, at their own pace, and at the will of their own intrinsic motivation. Yet at the same time, a structure is in place to maintain the overall ebb and flow of their work.  

So to make a long blog post short...

Finding a balance between core-academic and soft-skill acquisition will balance the scales for our students.  And we owe them that.

So let your students DREAM.  Give them space to dream BIG. Cultivate what matters by connecting your plans to their passions, and you won’t just see a difference, you’ll be making one, too.



Guide your students into passionate writing and get your own FREE Kickstart Kit today! Help your students UNCOVER their strengths, EXPLORE their passions, and PIVOT their interests towards impact!




PS...Lots of book links in my blog post today, *some* of which I’m affiliated with and can make a small commission from.  Consider it my ‘tip jar’ for spittin’ all this free wisdom at you ;-) But in all realness, just know that I only share and affiliate myself with resources I believe in; I’ve either tried them for myself, or they’re simply in line with my values as an educator.  So rest easy on that laurel, ma’ friends ;-) I hope you enjoy the cache of recommendations, and if you’re so inclined to leave a ‘tip,’ simply use my links to make your purchases.

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