A Chance to Be the Expert

A Chance to Be the Expert

First graders take the lead on learning during their annual “passions project.”

A Chance to Be the Expert

According to the 1st grade class, everybody has a passion. You just have to find it.

“I’m working on a project about the Washington Capitals,” says Leighton M. excitedly. “I went to a Caps game, and that’s when I started liking them.” He shows off a book he’s been using for research. “This isn’t only about the Caps,” he explains. “It’s also about other teams.”

Meanwhile, Keira C. is concentrating on the iPad she’s using, stopping every few minutes to add footage to the film she’s creating. “I’m making an iMovie,” she says, waving a feathery pink cat toy she brought to school with her. “It’s all about cats.”

At the end of every school year, 1st graders are given the chance to step away from structured curricula and pursue their passion—that one thing that makes them excited and interested every time it’s brought up. Since the project’s inception in 2016, students’ topics have ranged from soccer to photography to animals to computer science. They’re encouraged to do research, moving past the things they already know toward a new understanding of their favorite subject.

“We started this project because we were thinking about all the things that we’ve learned about children’s engagement,” says 1st grade teacher Eve Eaton. “We let them visualize how they want to share their passion with others—we completely stay back on that. It’s great to see them being resourceful and really helping each other out.”

“Kids are inspired when they’re really invested,” adds her co-teacher, Amie Wallace. “We wanted to give them an open space for that. One of the things that sparks kids’ creativity is asking them how they can share their passions with other people.”

The project begins with a class reading of Jacqueline Briggs Martin’s Snowflake Bentley, a book about a farmer who was fascinated by snow. “He figured out how to photograph snowflakes, so you could see the beauty of each one,” says Eve. “We introduce the whole idea of exploring your passion through him and the work that he did, and the kids have taken it in so many directions. Some of them want to make a journal like Snowflake Bentley; some of them want to build something; some of them have sent us videos from home of them doing whatever they’re doing. We had a student last year whose passion was singing, and she made a video of herself singing a song that she wrote herself.”

Oftentimes, Eve says, students are convinced that there’s nothing they don’t know about their passion—and then they are surprised when they discover there’s still more to learn. “One of the best things is when they say very quickly, ‘I’m done!’ and then we push them. ‘You have so much more time,’ we say. ‘Keep looking!’ And that’s when you see that attitude switch into, ‘Oh, wow, I’m not done—I can keep going with this.’”

“One of our little guys told me, ‘I already know everything!’ So we explored it further,” says Amie. “How did he get interested in soccer? For a lot of the kids, when we ask how they got interested, it makes them go back and think about the moment they played soccer in the backyard for the first time or played with Legos in the basement. I also told him, ‘I know soccer’s been around for a long time, but when did it start? When was the first World Cup?’ Because when something’s a passion, we want to know all the details about it; we want to dig deep!”

Sometimes this kind of curiosity can serve as the foundation for student explorations. Zoe D. proudly displays her rain project, which was inspired by questions she had about precipitation. “How does the rain drop down from the clouds?” she asks. “It’s my passion because I’ve been wondering about it, because it’s really cool how the water comes down.”

No matter what a student’s passion is, Amie explains, the atmosphere of creativity and resourcefulness during the course of this project can’t be matched. “The excitement is palpable!” she says. “Every day, the students want to know, ‘Are we having workshop today?’ They absolutely love being the expert on something. And I love hearing them say, ‘Did you know … ?!’”

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