Teachers Using Passion Projects to Chase Student Dreams

By JOHN WIRSZYLA

I’ve always thought I’ve had an interesting educational career that materialized out of a series of events. I was kicked out of typing class in 12th grade for calling the typing teacher something I shouldn’t have and ending up being the Physical Education teacher’s “helper” after that. But this at least gave me an inkling of what I wanted to do.

Despite being the student athlete of the year for my high school, I lasted a year and a half at college before being academically dismissed (that .71 GPA didn’t help!). The only reason I was at that college in the first place was because my sister lived nearby. They didn’t even have a teaching major for PE. Two years of active duty in the US Army convinced me of something. Though the traveling part was great, being stationed in Germany and traveling around Europe during leave, I realized that I needed to get back to studying. My fourth semester back was spent in England, my sixth doing student teaching in Vienna. The traveling bug satisfied for a bit, I did a graduate assistantship for my Master’s and then headed back to Spain, where I took up the next seven years of my life working at the Benjamin Franklin International School in Barcelona.

Those were magical times, not only because I could go anywhere in Europe in a matter of hours, but also because, as a new school, with an absolute great group of students and teachers, and being the cool PE teacher, we formed relationships that are still as strong more than twenty years later. Through the power of Facebook and email, students who are now in their thirties and forties credit me with opening up a world of sports and fitness they had not previously been exposed to. Let’s face it, in Spain, soccer (or “Futbol”) was and always will be king, but the ultimate Frisbee, freestyle Frisbee, volleyball and double-dutch I introduced were sports anybody could be the best at. Students loved these sports, getting away from the male dominated and chauvinistic world of soccer and playing and becoming good at lifetime sports that students continued to do today. Without these sports they might never have gotten into any team play, or fitness stuff. It was also a time where I could showcase my skills, having played club level ultimate and spent many hours playing freestyle on the beach with my brother Steve.

What was really cool was that a seventh grade Swedish girl, Sofia, taught me how to double-dutch, which I had never seen or heard of before. Before long, the whole school was double-dutching: we took a team to an international conference, and the confidence that learning how to double-dutch gave a person was amazing. One fifth grade girl, Sara, who had no previous success in PE, told me, “Mr. Chris, when I went to my new school, I taught the whole middle school had to double-dutch!”. Other students went on to play college club ultimate Frisbee; one got her Master’s degree in Olympic History and was the first Western female to be hired by ASICS in Japan; other students have owned fitness gyms and have fitness websites. That validation that I had made a difference in their lives, told more or less continuously through Facebook posts, have stoked in me a fire and a passion that has me motivated to come to work every day, I look forward to it, and never get tired of the look on a kid’s face when they have that “Aha” moment.

Our art teacher at Benjamin Franklin International School was the same way. His passion for teaching kids art was evident from the moment I met him. David bucked the system and had students look toward their inner self, creating sensational art that was out of the mainstream and some of it didn’t please the administration. That art provoked inner feelings to come out, and again, through Facebook, years later his students appreciate the impact he had on their life. So, it seriously disappoints me to see his teaching passion crushed by the “powers that be” who want him to teach the basics, sans personal expression, bland pieces of work that has been done by millions, instead of the soul searching art he championed back in the day.

So, how do we keep that passion? How do we keep the passion for teaching, instead of dreading coming to work? So many teachers have complained they came into the profession ready to change the world and years later complain they have been beaten down by the behavior issues, the constant teaching toward the test, the lack of funds to buy resources for creative ideas, and the low teacher pay. Many leave the profession within a few years. Few come back. It got me thinking. What is it I do to keep fresh, to keep motivated, to renew myself so I can still have a passion for teaching in my thirty-first year?

Part of it is the fact that teaching elementary school physical education is about as rewarding as it can get. When I came back to elementary after ten years, I told my principal in my summative evaluation, “The best part of this year was meeting 450 kids”. Each one is unique, with their own challenges, behavior and personalities. Part of it is because I also teach an elementary physical education methods course at the local university. My students come out to teach at my school, bringing fresh ideas, games and creativity. Another part of it is to do things outside the box to show outsiders that we do more than roll out the ball in class. Applying for grants, writing for the local newspaper and a local magazine, and getting state level recognition for integrating technology and reading into my classes are all things that not only renew me, but keep me on my toes as I show others what can be accomplished as “only the gym coach”…

My former principal, when he first came to our school, called me and said he wanted me to be the liaison between the school and the local paper. It was an opportunity for me to get more involved with what was happening in our school, as I wrote about and photographed events, stories and happenings. I quickly realized we had some fantastic teachers and the things they were doing with our students were amazing, from having them dress up as presidents to having a book character parade to having a yearly cross-cultural festival, learning was taking place. The more that I saw things like this going on from exceptional teachers, the more I felt like I needed to put forth the effort to keep up, to be part of a team that saw our school report card raise to a level that put us right up there as one of the best in the state for our demographics.

One such inspired teacher is Mary Strong, AIG coordinator for Cape Fear Elementary School, Rocky Point Elementary School, and Penderlea, in Pender County, North Carolina. Mary recently initiated a concept called “Passion Projects” at the schools. Her idea for this project came through a district professional development where the AIG teachers shared ideas they were using with their students. It was inspirational to see what this project entails, what the students get out of it, and to see the effort and passion that Mary Strong has put into it for her students. In turn, the students get a fantastic learning experience, and get to showcase their project to others in the community. It is a learning project like this the students will remember and will have a huge impact on them.

The concept comes from “Genius Hour” which originated from the giant tech company Google, whose administrators encourage their workers to take twenty percent of their working time to think about, research and present their passions to an audience, as long as the idea could advance the company (for example, GMAIL was developed out of Genius Hour). Mary Strong then thought of Cheryl Hardie Holt, a fellow Pender County employee who has pursued her interest in the field of art, specifically mixed media. Ms. Holt came to CFES to talk to the students about the process of pursuing your passion.

Cheryl Holt has always had a passion for art, but it was more of a hobby as life got in the way. Now that life has settled down a bit, she felt pulled, through a variety of circumstances, to pursue her passion. After a trip to the mountains, she started YouTubing mixed media and experimenting with different mediums, finally making the big step to putting her work on Facebook, where it has been so well received that she is motivated to make her art more of a full time passion. Cheryl realizes that it is a continuous learning process, so she seeks instruction and opportunities to improve her art. Her motto is “Luctor et Emergo”, which translates as “Suffer and Emerge”. One has to go through the painful process of failure before emerging stronger and better. Cheryl Holt took this a step further by taking advantage of an opportunity that arose when John Westbrook, owner of the Burgaw Antique Place, renovated part of his store to accommodate artists who needed a place to showcase their work. Cheryl showed the CFES students some of her art, explained her passion for art, and encouraged the students to follow their passions.

Ms. Strong gave her students the opportunity to think about their passions, about what they wanted to do in life. She encouraged them to follow and research their dreams, and ultimately share them with others. This project based inquiry might possibly be the catalyst that could lead to a rewarding career in a field that sparks passion in a person. Corinne Eaves, for example, during Science Olympiad, competed in an event called “Pump It Up”, which was all about the heart. She was intrigued and started researching the heart, the different parts, the functions, and the diseases. She decided she wanted a career in cardio-thoracic surgery. To have this passion as a fifth grader, to know what you want to do at such a young age, will do well to guide and motivate her as she continues her schooling.

Others in Mary Strong’s group have similar goals or passions. Hannah Hall got interested in playing the piano during music class with Ms. Myhill. They had been doing the recorder, and Ms. Myhill had taped a faux keyboard on the wall. She explained to the students that the keys translated from the recorder, that if they knew the song from the recorder they could play it on the keyboard. The first song she learned was “Hot Cross Buns”. Hannah’s Grandmother has a piano in her house that Hannah practices on. Within a month, she had learned several songs, including Old McDonald, Amazing Grace, and one of my favorites, “Ode to Joy.” When Hannah’s Grandmother asked her how she learned “Amazing Grace”, she replied, “How can I not learn it, Ms. Myhill showed us”. This all in the last month. This girl is going places with her music, it is her passion.

Layna Nixon’s passion is basketball. She wanted to know how she could be a good three point shooter, so she asked her Dad, who is a former high school player. He showed her the correct form, showed her where to shoot from, and practiced with her. Layna wants to follow this passion to “help her team win games”. Layna’s father will be happy to hear this, as he is the coach of her team!

Rachel Robinson has been dancing since she was one and a half years old. She has always known that she wants to be a dancer, and wants to own her own dance studio. Through the Passion Project, she realized she wants to get better, to improve her dance ability, “no matter what it take. I want to express myself through movement and not just through words.” She asked her dance instructors what she could do, and researched various web sites, using this information to work out at home and to have physical activity outside of dance class. This kid knows what she wants…

Nathalie Escalante has a rather unusual passion. She likes unusual facts! “I usually just read about them and remember them, then I can include them in casual conversation”. Some of her unusual facts are, “Banging your head against the wall burns 150 calories an hour” (don’t try this at home!), “Pineapple is really a bunch of tiny berries fused together”, “Some frogs use their eyes to help them swallow” and “Purple was derived from the Latin word for shellfish”. When asked where this wealth of unusual information will get her in life, she replied, “I have no idea what I want to do, but maybe it will help me if I decide to be a writer”. Now, I better go check these facts!

Mary Strong sums up her program like this. ”So many people wait until they retire before they start pursuing their passion. The Genius Hour and Passion Projects are designed to get people pursuing their hobbies and passions at any time in their lives.” So, get out there, and do something about that one thing that makes you happy!

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