Monday, January 9, 2012

My Google 20% Project

This summer, I got to attend the Google Teacher Academy in Seattle. I came away with multitude of ideas for my classroom. I had one idea inspired by Google's "20 Percent Time" policy. If you aren't familiar with Google's 20 Percent Time, in a nutshell, it is that Googlers can spend 20 percent of their work time (and resources) on a personal interest project. The idea is to give their employees more autonomy in their work environment and foster more motivation/inspiration for creative work.

With that in mind, I wanted to motivate my students in the same way. I was implementing too many other new concepts/projects in the first semester to add this into the mix. I decided to work the project through in my head for a few months and introduce it in the second semester, which began last week. Coincidentally, almost the same day I introduced my project, AJ Juliani blogged about his 20% project.

I introduced it to my 7th and 8th grade Accelerated English classes as a "20% Project". Initially, I didn't cover the Google part (and, for the record, Google isn't the only company to do this, nor was it the first company to do it) right away. I explained to my students that they can do any project they want related to English and use 20% of their class work time (or 1 day per week) to work on that project. The other 80% of their time should be devoted to assigned work. Since these classes are also flipped classes, having plenty of in-class work time would not be a problem.

I didn't say how the students would be graded or even if they would be graded. I told them I only ask that they blog about their progress weekly. I gave them no rubric, no accountability lecture, nothing. Just said that I'm hoping to get some creative and unique projects from them.
My 7th graders were the first to learn about the project. Tons of questions began to fly. What do you mean any project we want? I threw out a few ideas (screenplay, documentary, etc.). How do we tie it to English? My answer was, "Why don't you just decide what it is you want to do for a project, and I'll help you tie it into English?" I didn't want to tie their hands at all. There were a lot of questions about what they could do, but not one single question about grades, points, rubrics or anything. I was surprised and impressed that my students were already embracing the idea.
My 8th graders had the same initial response. Really? You mean, we can do anything we want? Yep! Finally, a student asked, "How many points is this worth?" I just responded, "I'll get to that." and moved on. The question didn't come up again. Later in class, while the students were working on their current assignment, I pulled the student aside and explained to her why I don't want her focused on a grade. I just told her to focus on the project and have fun with it. She got it once I explained "the research" behind it. Quite simply, I told her, I want this to be an outcome or learning goal and not a performance or grade goal.

My 7th graders have really taken to it. As a matter of fact, they are spending more than 20% of their time on their project right now. I'm allowing them some time to develop that balance. I love to see them excited, but I don't want them to forget their assigned work.

My 8th grade was a slightly different story. About half of them were immediately excited to get started. The other half were working diligently on their poetry anthology due at the end of the week because they were behind on their work. During class today, there was a group of 3 girls looking at a laptop screen and one said, "He's so cute." I wandered by and saw a Google Image Search of the boy-of-the-week. I reminded them to re-focus on their work and one of the girls blurted out, "20% project!" I treated it light-heartedly this time and said, "I'm confident you'll come up with something better."

I'm sure this will be a problem for a few of the students. And, I can probably tell you exactly which ones will try to take advantage of the freedom. How I will handle that yet, I don't know. If it becomes a problem, I will have specific conversations with those students.

I'm excited to see what projects the students come up with. I'm also hopeful the students will learn to balance their time between multiple projects. They already do that with my flipped class, but this will add a level of independence they've not had the opportunity to explore. So, as I take on this adventure, I'll blog more updates. I may also share some of my students' blogs, with their permission, down the road. In the meantime, I'm going to sit back and enjoy the show!


  1. Interesting! I'm sure you'll post follow-ups about how the project is going?

  2. (This is the public radio reporter who visited your class, by the way... for

  3. How's the project going? I started something similar in my class a couple of weeks ago, but didn't approach it as a "project." Can you let us know what type of projects they are working on? I have 6th graders.

  4. Thanks for the interest. The project is going well in some regards and disappointing in other regards. Some of the projects are creative. I have one group writing a movie, a girl writing a novel, a girl writing a poetry anthology (she set the goal of 1 poem a week), another making a poster collage of the parts of speech using magazines, one boy writing a dub step, and that's just a few.
    Some of the disappointing aspects, I had one student really pushing me to know how she'll be graded. I finally gave in and told her she would not be graded. She became adamant that wasn't fair. Her logic was that she was working hard and she knew others were not and she didn't believe she shouldn't get rewarded for that.
    Other students are taking advantage of it. When they don't feel like doing their work, they pull up their 20% project and pretend to make progress on it.
    I'm letting it go where it wants to go. I'm going o have kids make presentations on what they did at the end of the semester and I'll see what they accomplished. In the meantime, I'm going to trust them.

  5. Mr. Cockrum,
    I'll be excited to hear about their progress too. I'll be curious to hear how it goes to give a whole semester to do their work. I do something like 20% time. We're calling it genius hour, but we share a project as soon as it's done and then go on to another one.

    I'm sure some of your more productive students will blow others away with their projects. However, isn't that true for all of us? Everyone works differently with a variety of gifts and motives. I will definitely look forward to your post after they present. Thanks!


    P.S. I have a link to this post on my genius hour index.

  6. Will you post a reflection on how it went and what you'll do differently this next year?
    Did you set aside time each week (such as a specific day each week) or did you have them work on it during any down time in the flipped class?

  7. I'd love to hear how the projects went and what you would do differently as well.

  8. Thanks for sharing this! Fascinating. Honesty much appreciated.