Passion Projects helped keep local students going through rough school year, and into summer

By 
M.P. Regan
Wednesday, July 15, 2020
Brain unfreeze

Reese Jensen, 12, displays a re-creation of the opening slide of her Passion Project she presented to her Dillon Middle School class this spring. M.P. Regan photo

The 2020 portion of the 2019–20 school year proved tricky for local students, who were shunted out of their classrooms and into remote learning situations by the coronavirus pandemic.

But tapping into topics they felt most intensely about to create Passion Projects helped some Dillon Middle Schoolers forge deeper connections to what inspires them most and make the most of the unusual circumstances—and help propel their learning into summer.

“It definitely gave me something to do during the quarantine,” said Cohen Hartman of a giant mural he painted on his bedroom wall celebrating his love of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team for his Passion Project.

“It sparked my sisters’ interests, too” said Hartman of his siblings, aged 8 and 10.

“Now they want to put all kinds of stuff on their walls.”

Part of the curriculum for Becky Telling, who teaches sixth and seventh grade English at Dillon Middle School, the Passion Projects inspired students to explore the subjects that most interested them.

“Passion Projects are a selfdirected challenge students willingly embrace,” Tellling informed the Dillon Tribune of the projects she has had her students do for years, but which seemed particularly vital this year, when students were physically disconnected from their classrooms, teachers and one another.

“She listens what you are trying to tell her, and helps you go through it, step by step and is encouraging,” said Reese Jensen, 12, of Telling’s approach to helping her students find the right subject for their Passion Projects.

“With this project, you got to pick your own topic,” added Jensen, who chose a doozy— “How the Brain Learns and Remembers,” which she turned into a PowerPoint presentation.

“I shared it with class during Google Meet. It took about 15 minutes, but I had a time limit of three, so I jumped over some subjects,” said Jensen of a presentation inspired in part by a 600-page book her mom, a teacher, read while study ing for her master’s degree in education.

“This was interesting to do and fun,” said Jensen, who also found the complex interaction of different disciplines involved in the topic challenging and rewarding.

“I am taking a break now. This was very hard,” said Jensen, who plans to take on another tough topic in a future science project on the physical workings of the human heart.

Getting students to take on projects beyond the limits of their skill sets and knowledge bases so they could expand them forms an essential part of Passion Projects.

“By learning more about a passion, students explored, researched, navigated, became frustrated and disappointed but had a better understanding that failure is a valuable aspect of learning and life,” noted Telling.

“The hardest part was when something looked like it should work, but it didn’t and I had to go back over it again and again to figure it out,” reported 14-yearold Alex Jorgensen of a vital part of the learning process he went through while pulling off his Passion Project—coding a new video game called Spotted.

“I play a lot of video games and thought it would be interesting to design one. It’s definitely a little tougher than I thought it would be,” conceded Jorgensen, who said having something he was so inspired by become part of his regular school curriculum helped push him through the tough spots.

“Having it as a Passion Project really helped a lot, I could do whatever I wanted for it, do something I like,” said Jorgensen.

“I had more of a reason to do it, and it wouldn’t be taking away from school time,” said Jorgensen, who plans to keep coding games during the summer.

“The projects students pick allow them to learn new skills related to their passions,” stated Telling.

“Our middle school students planned, executed, and accomplished these projects during online learning. These projects created multiple ways for kids to shine and show their strengths while showcasing diversities and teaching vital 21st century skills.”

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