Don't Just Talk About It | An Epic Yearlong Assignment of Passion
I don’t remember when my friends and I started to say it, but I’m pretty sure it was in high school. It is our go to trash-talk statement, the ultimate challenge. During pick-up football or speedball, in the classroom or at the beach, it didn’t matter. Still to this day, if you are around us long enough you’ll hear someone say it, "Don’t just talk about it, be about it!"
At some point, this saying became part of my life’s philosophy. I think I like it so much because it really is the ultimate challenge. It’s one thing to say Carpe Diem, but another thing to seize it. It’s one thing to say always do what you are afraid to do, but another thing to do it. It’s one thing to say YOLO, but another thing to… YOLO it. In life, it seems many people are comfortable talking-the-talk, but hesitate when it comes time to walk-the-walk.
I hear this all the time from students: they want to do this, they want to be that, but when I ask them what they are doing to make it happen, too often they shrug. Thus the Be About It Project (BIA) was born.
In the beginning of the year, I told my students they had a yearlong project. What they did for this project was totally up to them. They could do whatever they want, with whoever they want, whenever they want, however they want. The only thing I asked them is at the end of the year they got up on stage in front of everybody and give a TED-style presentation about what they did, why they did it, and what they learned. “Chances are there is something you’ve always wanted to do, something your passionate about, so here’s your chance to not just talk about it: Be About It!”
Some of my kids loved the idea, others were paralyzed by choice and hated not being told exactly what to do. I made it worse: so long as they checked in with bi-monthly (video) journals and got up on stage, whether their project was a failure or not, they would get an "A."
So over the course of a school year, students worked on their project. Last week, in front of a big audience, 72 kids got up on stage and presented 58 Be About It projects. I couldn’t have been more proud of them.
I’ve made a Supercut of many of the presentations. I edited it into one big presentation. I love this Supercut because it shows just how much they learned. Listen to the life lessons and words of wisdom coming out of the mouths of sixteen-year-olds.
Here are some of my favorite projects:
Three of my girls volunteered over 300 hours and made a documentary about their experience. I was blown away. They volunteered locally and abroad. They went as far as Costa Rica, without parents and cellphones, to serve!
Another student explored her passion: tattooing!
Alyx sent care packages to soldiers serving in Afghanistan, one of whom was her father. We were lucky enough to have Alyx’s father join her on stage to talk about the meals soldier’s eat in Afghanistan and how much care packages mean to our soldiers. Not a dry eye in the house.
After the presentations, for their last BAI journal on Schoology, I hit my kids with a plot twist:
"That’s it. It’s over and you all did a great job! Now for the Plot Twist: I want you to think about your project, not just today, but over the course of the whole year. I want you to think of success and failure, overcoming adversity, effort, and life lessons. When you’ve reflected on your BAI Project and what you learned, I want you to grade yourself out of a 1000 and explain why you gave yourself that grade. Your grade will be your grade. It will go in the gradebook. I’ve also set it up so you can’t see what anyone else writes until you submit your (video) journal. Have fun!"
Again, I was so proud to see what they wrote. Many lessons were learned. To give you a better perspective on how this project influenced my students, I've included a blog one of them wrote looking back at her journey to become a published writer.
Be About It Project: A Student's Perspective
If there is one thing I hate about high school, it’s the projects. Nothing gets me more annoyed than an assignment sheet filled with directions on how to create your own poster for an Edgar Allan Poe story. For me, it’s much simpler to take an hour long test than partake in a week long project. So when I first got the Be About It Project, it was safe to assume that I was wary about it. I mean, a year long project? This teacher must be insane. But as I read on, I learned that this wasn’t your average English class project. We could choose to do anything we have ever wanted and actually do it. I knew my teacher was actually insane at that point. No limitations, no rules, no directions, it was unlike anything I’ve ever been assigned in school. When I realized this, I warmed up to the idea.
My original goal for the project was to write a novel and send it to a publisher. The only problem being that I am not a novelist and most publishers cost up to $500 to just look at your work. My mom won’t give me money for the movies half the time, let alone a few hundred for a editor to scan over my story. So, I changed up my project. After weighing my options, I decided to write a short story and send it to a free, online publisher. My product was an eight page short story called, "Sunset." I submitted it to the online publisher, Teen Ink, and hoped for the best. Honestly, I didn’t really expect anything fantastic from them. Maybe a participation award at most. But about a week after submitting, I received an email stating that my story had won #1 readers and #1 editor’s choice in their Sci-Fi category! It was insane because someone, who wasn’t my friend, was telling me that my writing was decent. Those awards were a huge confidence boost because it showed me that I am actually good at writing and not just another teenager with a pen. It allowed me to look into the future and see a successful writing career.
When the project was over, I was actually upset to see it go. In my high school career, I can almost guarantee that I will never have an opportunity like this again. This was far more than just a poster board on Poe’s writing or a display on Holden Caulfield, this was real, hands on, life-experience. It taught me that it’s okay to fail, as long as you get back up afterwards. If I had just accepted that I wasn’t a novelist, Sunset would have never been written. Getting knocked down is the easy part, getting back up is what’s most difficult. This project is something that I won’t throw out at the end of the year, along with all my binders. It’s something that I am going to always remember and grow from. In a year, I won’t remember all the essays I wrote or the tests I took, but I can safely say that I will remember this for years to come. It opened doors to the literary world that would have been shut had I not done this project. They say that the journey there is far more important than the destination. This project proves that.
Whether you call it Genius Hour, 20% Time, or make your own brand like I did, you owe it to your students to let them explore their passions and learn about themselves. Show them that learning is lifelong, self-directed, and rarely successful on the first attempt. Chances are your students have something awesome they’ve always wanted to do, we just have to get out of their way.
Until next time,
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Originally Posted on Teched Up Teacher