Spring semester has begun, and it is shaping up to be a good one. This semester, students in my class will spend time reading a novel about techy teens who are mistaken for terrorists, researching technology, security, and surveillance in the 21st century, and debating the balance between freedom and security that is required for a civil society. They will be writing argumentative and analytical essays, as well as blogs and journals. And they will be preparing a range of presentations, both formal and informal.
And, after a great deal of hesitation, I have taken the plunge: I have spent this first week back formally introducing my students to their semester-long #20Time Project.
What is 20% Time?
The idea (and the name) for #20Time comes from an initiative that Google has made famous (though they were not the first to do it). Google (like my classroom) is home to some of the best minds in the world, and at some point, Larry and Sergey began to wonder (as I have) what sorts of creativity and innovation they were missing out on because their geniuses were all working on their company-assigned projects. So Google created 20% Time. They told their employees, “we will give 20% of the time you are ‘on the clock’ to work on whatever ideas/projects/interests you may have.” As it turned out, Google’s hunch was correct: 20% Time often produces over half of the products/innovations that Google implements each year. It gave us Gmail and Google Talk and Google News, and it gave Google Adsense, which now accounts for a quarter of their profits.
So how does this translate into the classroom?
Well, it’s my feeling, and I’m not alone, that I also may be missing something essential in my students when I dictate the terms of the discussion. I know that I have something to offer students, and that they need to gain some essential skills in my classroom, but I also know that it is ridiculous to believe that what drives me will ever necessarily drive them. I know that, for the most part, I am not teaching future English teachers. And I know that when students can control what and how they learn, they think deeper, work harder, produce better products, and achieve a higher degree of understanding that they carry with them into future courses and into their lives.
And so this is how the #20Time Project Works: For the remainder of the school year, I will be giving students 20% of their time (half a period once a week – we’re on an A/B block) to work on a long term project of their choosing. During this time, and in any outside time they may need, they will research, practice, create, and reflect on the progress of their project. They will demonstrate their ongoing learning for me (Language Arts Learning) by documenting their research and composing a series of reflective blog posts about their progress on the project. They will plan the project, set benchmarks and goals, choose and coordinate with a project mentor, and present their progress, successes and failures in a 5-minute public presentation modeled on the TEDTalk.
The possibilities for this project are more or less limited only by the interests, curiosity, and creative thinking of my students.
Escaping Stale Modes of Thought and Practice
I started thinking about trying 20% Time in my classroom sometime around Thanksgiving. By that point in the semester, it felt to me that the routine in my classroom had gotten very stale. We were at the time midway through a class reading of Cry, The Beloved Country, a book that I had begun the year excited to teach. Compared to many books in the curriculum, Paton’s is contemporary in language and relevant in theme. I thought for sure it would be a winner in the student engagement department. By Thanksgiving, we were at the beginning of Book III and the 4th week of discussions and activities, and it had become clear to me that most everybody (including me, at times) was just going through the motions. I had to stir things up. I had to find a way to connect.
Enter #20Time. A colleague of mine (the same one who turned me on to Weebly, in fact) mentioned the concept in a discussion of my general malaise and my desire to create more authentic learning experiences. A quick Google search brought my to the excellent 20 Time in Education website, and I was hooked immediately. I spent a lot of time between Thanksgiving and semester’s end reading information and testimonials online and trying to wrap my mind around what 20% Time would look like in my classroom.
I also talking vaguely to the students about the possibility of an open-ended student-directed project. Reactions were mixed. Some students’ knew immediately what they would study. They stayed after class to tell me about their project ideas and hounded me for more information than I was willing (or prepared) to give so early on. Other students were wary. Despite their admitted lack of authentic engagement, they had grown quite comfortable with their ability to “Do School,” to go through the motions of teacher-directed tasks and complete assignments as directed. The more I talked with the students about 20% Time, the more it became clear that, for both of these groups, the Project was a necessity.
This is my first attempt at #20Time, so I am a bit nervous about the whole thing. My classroom is already, for the most part, a student-centered environment. I do my best to create lessons and activities that push students to do the hard work of putting ideas together. I don’t lecture mutch, I rarely give notes, I’ve never clutched too tightly to the reigns of my classroom. But even for me, the idea of relinquishing so much control to students to discover their own best practices for learning, of 28 students working on 28 different projects at 28 different paces with 28 different goals….It’s harrowing.
- Students will work once a week in class on their projects, and will compose one reflective blog entry about their progress every other week. (On alternating weeks, students will be writing a free-choice blog. More on this soon.)
- In early February, students will pitch their project ideas to me, their classmates, and an invited group of other teachers, parents, and community members.
- I will hold periodic conferences with students during #20Time, in order to check on progress, give guidance as necessary, and give students the opportunity to practice vocalizing their ideas, struggles, and questions in a one-on-one presentation.
- The semester will end with a formal TED-style event in which students will present (again, to a broad audience) the culmination of their work.
As I was rolling out the guidelines for the projects to students on Thursday, one student said, “Mr. Brewer, you should do a 20Time Project, too!” I told him that #20Time was my #20Time this semester.
The Journey Begins.
Image credit: “Acceleration of the Mind 0006” by agsandrew [CC-AT-NC-ND-3.0]
EDIT: The original version of this post had incorrectly credited Joy Kirr with the creation of the 20 Time in Education website. That site is the work of Kate Petty. Joy Kirr (@joykirr) is the curator of the equally invaluable Genius Hour LiveBinder. The post has been updated to reflect this correction.