How Would You Choose to Spend 20% of Your Time?

Padric Foran
U.S. History students at WMS answer this question each semester with a product that reflects their passion.
By Padric Foran, WMS history teacher

The history of Supreme Court jurisprudence, The Battle of Gettysburg, the incorporation of Humanistic philosophy in Renaissance art – these are some historical topics with which I am completely fascinated. It turns out however, that just because I can talk endlessly about any of these, doesn’t mean that my students necessarily share the same interest. As an educator, I want my students to develop a passion for studying history. I have come to realize that this passion is far more likely to come to fruition if students can pursue those topics and time periods that are of interest to them, not to me.

Backed by evolving research on motivation, engineers at corporations like 3M and Google are granted 15-20% of their time to work on projects that they are truly passionate about. This self-driven time has resulted in such products as 3M’s Post-it Notes and GoogleSuggest. In an attempt to bring the same pursuit of passion to my classroom, the 20% Project was developed. The basic idea is that students in 11th grade US History are given 20% of the semester to research a topic of their choice. The constraints are few – as long as it happened in the United States prior to today. The expectations are high – the works the students do is expected to reflect the time spent. The only limit on what students produce in the end is they cannot write a research paper. For their final product, they must “create something” that displays their new knowledge and research.
Since this project’s inception a year and a half ago, some highlights include: children’s books written and hand-illustrated about an immigrant’s journey from Ireland and about the history of Isle au Haut, Maine, a radio program featuring interviews with 5 influential women from the 20th century, 7 large drawings depicting the evolution of the US Space Program, and a movie about the environmental movement in the 1960s.
The goal of this project is to have our students practice and master the skills of historians. Through this project they conduct research, they learn to evaluate sources and work with primary and secondary source material and they produce one-of-a-kind products. As an institution, WMS want to help students realize their passions. For 20% of the semester, students in US History get to pursue theirs.

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