The last English class a senior takes at the high school I teach at is English 12B. Well, it’s the last English class they’ll take if they don’t opt to take AP Literature. I designed the course four years ago with a group of dedicated English teachers based on the idea of Genius Hour made famous by Google. The idea is you give kids a dedicated amount of time in English to work on their passion. It can be mostly anything because everything can be English, right? For example, a student wants to design a fishing net that would help protect an ecosystem from overfishing. How is this English? She has to read the research, analyze, synthesize facts, think, interview, and present. Yes, she had to write a research paper, too. After teaching this class for three years, I’m convinced that any topic can become an English topic.
Students in English 12b spend the first three weeks of the term with me doing traditional English things, such as reading Outliers, analyzing TedTalks and articles, researching, presenting, writing annotated bibliographies and synthesizing sources using templates from They Say, I Say. What sets it apart though is that it is all preparation for their project. They must develop a robust project of passion. They must find something they care enough about to spend the rest of the term invested in, and it must benefit others.
“Think hard about what you are going to do. The worst thing that can happen is for you to start a project that you don’t care about, and you’re stuck with it for an entire trimester. You need to care about your project for you to want to work on it, and you need to work on it a lot to make it good.”
-Advice from an English 12B student
Choice can be a daunting task for kids. Some kids come in with a topic ready to go, others have a few they want to pitch, and some come in without any idea. They become my focus. I need to sit down with kids to lessen their anxiety about this process. Used to being told what to do, they look terrified to make a commitment to a topic for nine weeks. It’s a crucial process and one I love because this is life. They will be graduating in weeks, and everyone is asking them which college they are going to, what are they going to do with their lives, and what are they going to major in? This is their new reality, and they are unprepared because they have never been asked to think for themselves about such vital decisions. I reassure them that it’s ok not to know and look for ways to help them navigate that journey to topichood.
“This is the first class that teaches you how to adult.”
-English 12b student
The second adulting moment is that the class is blended. Students do not need to come to my class every day. If their parent agrees, we can develop a schedule of times to come. Now they must come 50% of the time, but the other 50% can be out in the world: job shadowing, interviewing, interning, building, creating and writing. The list is endless. The blended model is extremely structured with 50% face-to-face time and 50% online. Parents sign waivers and I monitor their activities through work logs and online check-ins. I know I’m simplifying what blended is, but it would take me a whole book to explain all that it entails. Suffice it to say that blended always sounds great to kids until they realize they have to time manage and adult:
“If you’re like me you don’t like doing homework. Also, if you’re like me, you wait until the last minute to do your homework. As nice as it would be for you to be able to do that in this class, it won’t work out too well for you. Working on your project in a timely manner is incredibly important, and there’s so much to do that you won’t be able to wait until the day before to do it. It takes time and effort to do whatever project you want to do, and it’s quite obvious if you put in the effort or if you don’t.”
-English 12b student
There are specific requirements to go blended, and I can take it away at any point: They must have a B, have no more than two missing assignments, signed parent waivers, weekly work logs submitted, and an online presence on Google Classroom and Remind. Kids love the freedom of blended and will do whatever it takes to keep that B in the class. Kids that previously had lower grades raise them to be able to have blended days.
“This class is 100% one of my favorites I’ve ever taken. This class is based on intrinsic motivation, meaning that you’re going to do a project on a topic that you’re actually excited to learn about. You’ll choose your own topic and be so interested in it that you’ll want to do the research…Get excited! You’re transitioning into adulthood and finding out what you really like to do, and this class is a step in the right direction.”
-English 12b student
Ultimately, the process is rewarding for my seniors. They have time to do what they genuinely love while learning essential English skills, but students also learn things about themselves they weren’t expecting. They learn how ready they are for the next step in their lives. Many parents are happy their child had this experience for the first time with the safety net of a high school teacher and while they lived at home. Most kids are surprised at their ability to tackle these assignments with new freedom and feel ready to take on the next steps, while others have a healthy dose of adulting and some of what it holds.
by Karen Reed-Nordwall
Karen Reed-Nordwall is the English Department Head at Groves High School in Birmingham, MI. She is also a Member-at-Large of Conference on English Leadership.