A letter to my students and parents about the 20% Project

Dear Students and Parents of the York School 10th Grade Class,

I hope you all had an adventurous and energizing summer. I wanted to write to introduce myself and let you know a little bit about one of the unusual projects we’ll be taking on this year in English III.

In 2011 we began The 20% Project in English III. This is a major project-based-learning assignment that spans the entire school year and encourages students to pursue a creative interest they would otherwise not experience in our academic program at York.
Before I get into the details of the project, I want to explain why we’re asking students to participate in this activity. For over 20 years a trend in education has been gaining momentum that suggests the role of the teacher ought to shift away from an industrial model where the teacher stands in the front of the classroom to dispense knowledge through lectures, and the students sit to consume the information. Rather than being the “sage on the stage” as some pedagogical experts maintain, teachers increasingly ought to play the role of the “guide on the side.” In this role, the students play a much more active role in how the content and knowledge is acquired. In this model, teachers provide resources, ask questions, and suggest projects for students to explore their content. While I will play the “sage on the stage” role in much of this English class, the 20% project is one place where I will be the “guide on the side.” Put simply, this is a student-centered project rather than a teacher-centered project.

Another crucial element in designing this project is the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About what Motivates Us by Daniel Pink. I can’t recommend this book enough. You can get a taste of it by watching this twenty minute video in which he argues for providing employees more autonomy in business. The book explains why the same principles apply to education.

How does the 20% Project Work?

Brainstorming

At the beginning of the year, students will begin brainstorming ideas for a project proposal. Students may work alone, but I encourage them to work in small teams, no larger than four students. While brainstorming, I will encourage students to make the project “Product Focused.” At the end of the year I want them to have made something that is a completed product. It could be a physical product like a graphic novel or a balloon that takes photos from the stratosphere. It could be an organization such as the tutoring pool Josh Pompan started for his 20% project. It could also be a digital project like a short film or video game. My point here is that I want to quickly move from the idea phase of this project to the producing phase.

Proposal

Once the team has an idea of what project they want to pursue, they begin writing the proposal. This is how the team will “pitch” the project to me and the rest of the class. In this proposal, students will answer the following questions.

  • What is your project?
  • Who will work with you on this project?
  • Who is the audience / user base / client base for this project?
  • Why is this project worthwhile?
  • What do you expect to learn from this project?
  • What PRODUCT will you have to show at the end of the year?
  • What sort of expenses will be involved in your project and how will you cover them?
  • What sort of equipment will you need and where will you get it?
  • What is your timeline for completing (or launching) your project?

The Blog

Each cycle every member of every team is required to write a public blog post where students discuss their progress. They write about what happened over the past cycle, what they learned, what challenges they faced, and what they anticipate in the future. Each blog post must be at least 150 words written in Standard American English and contain a related image that is posted without infringing on anyone's copyright. Students will fill out a simple form that links to their post.

Mentors

I would like to see each team find an adult mentor who can help guide and inspire it. I hope parents will play a role in finding an appropriate mentor for this project. The mentor will serve to offer advice, provide informal leadership, and follow the progress blogs.

20% Days

Throughout the school year, students will have one day a cycle to work on their projects. If students need to be off-campus to work on their projects, they are welcome to do that on weekends or afternoons and use the scheduled 20% time as a productive tutorial period, meeting period, or writing period.

The Final Presentation

At the end of the year, each team will give a five-minute presentation to students, teachers, and community members where they will show off their work. This will be carefully written, choreographed, and rehearsed to produce the best presentation they’ve ever given. These TED-style presentations will be delivered and recorded in the Theater. Here is a two minute video of highlights from last year’s presentations.  

Assessment

Many students and parents understandably ask me about how I’m going to grade the 20% project. I try to de-emphasize the grade because extrinsic motivators like grades tend to discourage the innovation and creativity I’m looking for in this project. Read Drive for more on this. I want them to be inspired by the project itself, not by the grade they’re going to get on it.

That said, I am going to assess students on the algorithmic (objective) elements of the project. A significant portion of their English grade will be dependent on the following elements with rubrics.
  • The Proposal (Is the proposal on-time, and does it address the required questions appropriately?)
  • The Blog (Does the post meet the required length, address the required topic, and submitted to the form on-time? Do you post regularly?)
  • The Product (Did you successfully move from idea phase to production phase, and do you have something to show at the end of the year?)
  • Productivity (Are you spending your 20% time by actively and passionately working on your project? If not, we need to quickly adjust the project so you are working on something that is intrinsically motivating. This is less objective, but if I see students not being productive, I will intervene.)
  • Final Presentation (Does your presentation meet all of the required elements?)

What if my project is a failure?

In this class there is a place for perfection. Vocab quizzes and sentence mechanics come to mind. The 20% Project is no such place.

The world’s best entrepreneurs embrace failure. Read Wired Magazine’s issue on the topic of “failure.”

The only truly failed project is the one that doesn’t get done. I want students to strive to show off a successful product at the end of the year, but I don’t want the quest for perfection to lead to an incomplete project. I want students to follow the advice plastered on the wall of Facebook’s headquarters.


This policy doesn't work in all work-related environments. I wouldn't want to see this poster in the dentist's office or the parachute packing assembly line. But for creative projects where we're trying to innovate, I find this idea compelling. For more on this topic read The Done Manifesto.  

If you feel that your project is a failure, I want to hear about it. What did you learn about it? Think about your science fair project. If your hypothesis was wrong, was your project a failure? Watch Kathryn Schultz’s TED Talk: “On Being Wrong.”

Don’t strive for failure, but don’t be afraid of it either!

I am very excited about all of the different things we’re going to be doing this year in English class, including the Sophomore Speeches and more traditional English-type elements like reading great literature, writing literary analyses, and composing formal poetry. But I can’t wait to be amazed, surprised, and inspired by the innovative projects this year’s sophomores will produce in the 20% Project. If you have any questions about anything, don’t hesitate to email me at kevin@york.org.

Sincerely,

Kevin Brookhouser

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