Our students are learning without us + how passion projects can fix that

Jan 14, 2019

If you're not learning with intention, then why are you learning at all?

I remember sitting in our high school’s auditorium waiting for--what I expected to be--the usual, run-of-the-mill assembly to start.  (You know, the well-meaning kind that still manages to derail entirely my neatly-timed lesson plans. Sigh...)

But this assembly was different.  Way different.

In lieu of the usual, hackneyed modicum of topics scaring-or-shaming high schoolers away from (or toward) a given behavior, the audience was being offered something entirely unique this time around.

There before us was the AP Language teacher, Mrs. Garofalo, holding in her hand a DVD.  In her small but mighty voice, she told us we’d be taking part in a school-wide documentary viewing.  

Now, you would think that such an event might give some 3,000+ teenagers a shot at the Guinness Book of World Records for ‘most young adults napping in the same room’, but instead, it produced something quite different: a sea of youthful eyes positively glued to the screen.  Not the glow of a single, ambient phone light could be spotted in the room.

A captivated audience watched as three young college students shared their story on film.  Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole traveled to Africa in 2003 to document war-related dealings in Darfur, but instead, found themselves embroiled in the plight of children in northern Uganda being recruited as child soldiers.  

Invisible Children founders: Jason Russel, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole.

The film, Invisible Children (2006), featured their journey and experiences during this time in Africa, and it became an explosive platform for sharing what they learned while there.

For teens who are pretty desensitized to the many posters and commercials of children suffering somewhere off in the remoter regions of the world, this message somehow didn’t get filtered into that white noise.  Instead, the spark it lit was palpable.

It’s almost as if the audience became child soldiers at that moment, ready to take up arms in the names of those innocent young.  Ready to raise the battle flag against the child-thieving warlord himself, Joseph Kony. (This enthusiasm would rise to an epic, fever-pitch years later, when the organization released Koney2012, arguably the most viral video of all time.)

Now don’t get me wrong, I felt that same ping of passion during this event, too.  But there was something about the documentary that reached me on a whole, other level.  A meta-teacher level, if that’s even a thing.  

I saw myself hovering over my profession, pondering the students I teach.  Here they were, so passionate about someone else’s passion.

What were they passionate about, though?

Amidst all the hype, I found myself *asking* myself:

Did I ever even stop to ask my students what they were passionate about?!

Like, if they could haul off to some distant location, for example, and document the goings-on there--if they could ‘jump first, fear later’ as the Invisible Children motto went...would they?  And if so, where would they go, and what would those goings-on be?

Admittedly, in three years of teaching at the time, I had never thought to ask.

My teacher-brain told me this was because there’s just so much work to be done in the classroom already.  And there are so many disruptions in a given year trying to thwart that work (*cough*, the ‘assembly’). There are so many units to cover, exams to prepare for, obligations, and expectations to meet.  

Who the hell has time for passion?!

But all my human brain could say was, 'Look!'  at all 3,000 of them. The entire room was cheering these boys on in their relentless pursuit to make a difference. These guys were making something big out of something they cared deeply about.  

Now, I get it that these college boys were a little naive.  And I get it that they made some poor decisions which got their organization into quite the pickle in the end.  (Invisible Children dissolved in 2015 following accusations that they had misrepresented the conflict and their role in ending it, among other things, Kony2012 being the height of both their fame and notoriety.)   

I get that.

But it was the bold foot these three young men were collectively putting forward that sang to me (and still does).   That drive, that desire--hell, that reckless abandon--made a profound impact on the way I saw the raw capability of youth today.  

These guys didn’t just sit in their college lecture halls and consume information, or file away findings in a 30-page paper to be read by an audience of one.  

Nope. Instead, they went out and straight-up made the content themselves, on their own terms.  And they didn’t hold back in sharing it with an audience of many.

 Want help getting your students to write because they WANT to, not just because they HAVE to? Get our Kickstart Kit today!

So, here I was...taking it all in!

I didn’t know it at the time, but what I was witnessing was a pivotal moment in shaping an entire, millennial generation in-the-making.  

Invisible Children was not only incubating a whole new demographic for charitable giving--teenagers--but it was also flinging doors wide-open for unprecedented grass-roots mobilization.  

It was handing over the ‘you, too’ responsibility to youth to get up and do something.  

Because you’re living in a digital era where, for the first time, you c a n.

A non-profit organization operating as a for-profit business, IC became the vanguard for models like this to emerge, including the TOMS shoe brand.

Fast-forward to the present tense, and you’ll find evidence of this impact in both the force and identity behind hashtags like #blacklivesmatter, #metoo, and #neveragain.


Trouble is, the pressure on schools and teachers to meet standardized requirements is more intense than ever;  deep learning experiences where we might allow students to pursue those topics they’re passionate about are being cashed out and replaced with test prep.

We place a great deal of emphasis on cognitive skills because this is what raises test scores, and this is what will get students into college.  Plenty of parents hop on board for this reason.

But what about our oath to prepare students to be college AND career-ready?

If there is one skill students in highly standardized academic environments are missing most, it’s the tangible application of those skills. Ask any living, breathing, hustle-happy millennial on LinkedIn for evidence of that.

(And if you’re into it, check out this student perspective, featured in edSurge Independent, a forum where students--as opposed to the rest of us with an opinion--share their *own* views on improving student learning.)

When it comes to career prep, the struggle is real...more than half the jobs our students’ll go on to occupy don’t even exist yet. So the future might be foggy, but one thing is clear. This generation, just like any generation before them (us, including!), wants to feel genuine purpose behind what they’re doing (so...no, that’s not *just* a millennial thing).

What’s unique to this generation (well, actually, both GenZ and the Millennial crowd) is that thanks to exponential growth in technology and innovation, our leaders-in-training can spread that purpose and their impact much further than ever before.

But yet again, this butts heads with the other trouble we face in school systems today:  digital literacy is more a course in forbidding (i.e. ‘don’t do this,’ and ‘don’t do that’) than it is effective use; students are literally left to their own devices to figure it out on their own.

No matter what, there’s no doubt they’ll be using technology in the future to leverage their personal and professional careers (organizing meetings, scheduling video calls, syncing calendars, building their network).  

But when will we take ownership of that as part of our curriculum?

I find myself thinking very differently about my students’ potential these days, impressed by how much more capable they are despite the lack of credit we give them (and it all kinda started with those crazy kids at IC).  

Consider Marley Dias, one of Time magazine's 25 Most Influential Teens of 2018. Now a high school freshman, Dias campaigned at the tender age of 11 to increase the pipeline of diversity in children's books. 

After being frustrated at school by the lack of reading selections containing black female characters, Dias began her campaign #1000blackgirlbooks, where she sought out 1,000 books featuring black girls as the protagonist to share with her peers and change the landscape of reading for them. She worked with educators and legislators alike, making an unbelievable impact as a result of something she cares deeply about.

“Kids [should] know that changing the world should not be something that feels imaginary, but something that you have the power to do today and always.”  

Marley Dias, founder of #1000blackgirlbooks

I carry Marley Dias' story with me as proof of what our students are capable of if we put something they care about in front of them.

Yet too often we think they need ‘directed’, or that they ‘can’t handle’ X, Y, and Z.

And I h e a r that.  There’s a reason they’re teenagers after all, and their brains (and hormones...) dooperate in strange (and impulsive!) ways.  But you know what else I gather from all this?

They’re doing this shit without us…

Or, ahem...as it’s been pointed out at Microsoft’s annual innovation forum:

‘Our students are learning without us...’

We need to re-align ourselves with the needs of those we serve, but it’s going to take a little shifting of our own narrative to do it.  

How can we step back into the frame and make our efforts in the classroom more relevant, more real?  

We aren’t their ‘sage on the stage’ anymore, folks. That’s what Google is for. But just like we’ve always been, we are their ‘guide,’ their ‘Obe Wan,’ their mentor, and their support system.  

Today’s classroom is one where we’re learning with them (through them, even).  We don’t need to know all the answers, but we do need to help them ask the right questions.

They have the energy.  They have enthusiasm.  

But they do need guidance. They do need steady-hand support.

They have the digital reach (which we didn’t).  And they *have* the passion, if only we let them chase it more often.

So go ahead, ask 'em: what are you passionate about?

[Intrigued? I've got 4 steps you can take today to get started with passion projects, which I outline in this blog post!]

You’ll want to brace yourselves here, though, yo: if you ask any given group of high schoolers right now what they care about, you’ll get some legit, blank stares.  They’ll shrug their shoulders. They’ll ask you to just give them their assignment already so they can get on with it.

They don’t know what they’re passionate about because we don’t require them to be passionate.   

So now let me ask you:

Are we--teachers--willing to put a bold foot forward of our own?

Do we have it in us to let our students lead?

Can we, too, be better agents of change by letting learners choose their own academic adventure whereby they pursue their passions as the compass for our lesson planning?

Can we, too, be better agents of change by letting learners choose their own academic adventure whereby they pursue their passions as the compass for our lesson planning?

But hold up, I hear you in the back row… isn’t that what clubs are for? Wouldn't kids 'rather' do this stuff on their own time?

Maybe. But let’s go ahead and unpack that just the same.  Right now, when students want to pursue something they enjoy or support something they care about, they start a club.

One look at We Dine Together, and we need to go no further.  

Passion meets project meets impact. Boom.

This club, started at Boca Raton Community High School in Boca Raton, Florida (yep, my old stomping grounds!), organizes around the principle that no kid should sit alone at lunchtime.  This club concept was such a hit, it found its way to national news, receiving some impressive coverage for the founder's heartfelt focus.

Seriously, this is the kind of stuff that makes me ugly cry because my heart is so. freakin'. full. with happiness and pride in what teens can do.

And God bless, these are the clubs that grow and thrive, and it’s awesome.  (And knowing you, you’re probably advisor to half of these groups!)

But the problem, as I see it, is this:  here are our students, doing *important* work that they care so much about, yet these efforts are relegated to that time left over after classroom learning takes place, during the sloppy-second time frames of lunch hour, weekends, or after school.  

Not only does this potentially minimize the impact they could have, but it also kind of downplays the value of what they care about (and to a degree, it leaves them to figure it out on their own).

Isn’t it our job to shape the future? To make 'productive citizens' out of these guys? ‘We are the World,’ and all of that?

So isn't it saying something when they are making the world a brighter place without us?!  Again, I'm not saying we have all the answers for them, but we do have years of experience, resources, and genuine insights to contribute. To help them carve out a path that could yield a potential career (or at least the tangible skills required for landing one).

So how can we team back up with our students in a way that can help them--as opposed to holding them back?

And not to mention, if you’ve ever advised a group, traditional club meet-ups go something like this:

They start off strong, with a hundred members deep in the first meeting of the year.  But eventually, club leaders get bogged down with tests to make up at lunchtime or exams to cram for after school; meetings get canceled, momentum sputters, attendance drops.  Said club fizzles out.

All because the visionaries of these clubs are forced to place academic priority over the socio-personal.

And I take issue with that, bro.

So what if I dare to dream here... what if we could do both?

What if we could use our instruction to bind students’ interests to curriculum standards?  

What if the kind of magic we see in efforts like We Dine Together happened during our lessons, as an instrumental part of them, all without sacrificing our duty to the almighty learning target?  

Say it with me Obama-style: YES. We. Can.  

But again, this will require you to flip the script on your current narrative of what it means to be a teacher in today's classrooms.

This might require you to recognize (and I don't mean this in rudeness): that Common Core is a set of skills to be covered.  In no way is it to dictate the type of content you teach (can I get a gradebook ‘A’-men?!).

So let’s get weird for a minute and see what happens when passion-based learning projects meet Common Core standards:

  • Certainly, your students will have to read up on their passions (CCSS in ‘reading information’, check).
  • Certainly, they’ll have to engage in dialogue with others about their ideas and get feedback in order to improve (CCSS in ‘speaking and listening’, check).
  • Certainly, they’ll have to write about what they’re passionate about, most likely to persuade others to adopt their way of thinking or simply to share their story (CCSS in ‘writing’, check).
  • And I’d have to imagine they’ll need a clear and coherent command of language to communicate these ideas with their audience, am I right?  (CCSS in ‘language’, check)


It’s all there, I promise you this.  But there’s so much more beyond these cognitive targets.  I’m not suggesting we get rid of our education system as we know it, but I am calling for a little forward-thinking and a little fair-is-fair clean-up.

This can level the playing field. This can open doors for more students, not just the college-bound ones.  

And while I agree with Jack Schneider, author of Beyond Test Scores: a better way to measure school quality, who mentions in an article he wrote for The Atlantic: “the struggle to create great schools for all young people demands...steady effort, not melodrama and magical thinking,” I also believe:

that the time to hesitate is through...

that many classrooms in America are screamin' for a silver lining.

There is no greater gift or form of preparation we can give our students than helping them figure out what sets their soul on fire, and how to fearlessly pursue that passion with a clear sense of purpose, with the ‘Soul’ intention of making an impact in this world.  

When I wield that mug, ‘I Make a Difference,’ this is what that means. When I wear that shirt, ‘I’m a Teacher…what’s your Superpower?’ this is what that means.

It is possible to do both. But it starts with the heart.


[If you're interested in learning more about starting a passion project in your classroom, check out this blog post, which outlines 4 steps you can take to get going today!]

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