Give them freedom, and watch them flourish

Supporters of the Common Core Standards claim that the new expectations will prepare students for college, touting certain skills that are needed to succeed beyond the high school classroom. However, nothing within the Common Core seems to mimic the amount of choices that are afforded you when you attend college. Universities pride themselves as a place where you can challenge your intellect, experiment with your interests, and develop your own sense of intrinsic motivation. To achieve this, you’re allowed to pick and choose the classes you want to take, within the limitations of the major you selected. But how often do we see this type of freedom in high school curricula? How much can the Common Core really prepare students for college if they don’t offer the same approaches for students to learn and thrive?

Kelli Krieger at Union Endicott High School is trying to change that. In her 11th grade English Language and Composition Advanced Placement class, she implemented the 20% Project. The idea was made famous by Google and has since been implemented in many other contexts outside of business, including educational settings like Mrs. Krieger’s class. Simply put, 20% of the students’ time is devoted to whatever they want to do. Kelli frames this time with a theme of exploring your passions in life and finding what motivates you by posing a simple question, “What have you always wanted to do?” So every Monday during the spring semester of 2015, students in Kelli Kreiger’s classes were given the freedom to work on whatever they’ve always wanted to do.

The projects ranged from learning the piano to breaking the world record for making the largest amount of mashed potatoes. At the close of the semester, students presented their work in a Ted Talk style presentation. I attended their Ted Talk 20%, and my expectations were blown away. Kelli had briefly shared some of the students’ successes with me prior to the Ted Talk, but hearing the students talk about their projects really displayed what they learned, which was so much more than the typical high school curriculum could provide.

Among the many academic skills that were honed as the students learned the details of their projects, there were two qualities that really jumped out at me as I sat in the auditorium and listened to each student describe his or her journey: confidence and humility. The student who wanted to learn how to make sushi discussed with humor her failed attempts, and in the end shared with the audience the feeling of success when the head sushi chef at a popular restaurant where she was training said he’d serve one of her rolls. Another student who wanted to learn how to play the piano was so sure that he’d be easily stroking the keys to a Mozart piece by the end of the semester, but then realized that wasn’t going to happen. In his own words he said, “It was so much harder than I thought, and I didn’t become as good as I thought I would. But that’s okay.” He then sat down at the piano and played three separate pieces, and played them well. I also saw two students who set out to be “Youtube famous” talk candidly about the serious nature of cyberbullying they experienced, even sharing some of the most tasteless comments that ridiculed their shows. More important, though, the girls rose above the immaturity and read the comments with a tone of confidence that took the power away from the cyberbullies, allowing the audience to see the perils of social media without feeling sorry for the girls.

There were many other projects, and none were more or less impressive than the others. Each student who presented (or at least the ones I was able to see) showed that they took the project seriously, and were able to articulate the failures and successes with an ease that showed how much they learned. And what these students learned was so much more than what we could measure or what can be learned in a curriculum that is filled with close reading and writing assignments and stuff that will get them “college ready.”

It’s safe to say that the skills within the Common Core will certainly, if taught correctly, build confidence in students and show them the importance of having humility. But there is something about learning these qualities through outlets that we choose–and were not simply assigned to us–that gives us a better understanding of who we are and how we handle the world around us. This was obvious to me as I watched these students talk about their work.

So to my readers who are working on their curriculum this summer, please consider implementing something like this with your students. I’ve linked the general idea of the 20% project in my description above, but if you’d like more information, just let me know. And for any readers who have connections to Common Core: Any chance we can fit this project in as an Anchor Standard for all grade levels?