We want to make learning as authentic as possible, as much as we can, yet this can be really challenging sometimes. Student-designed projects have risks and rewards. They can also be some of the most powerful, real experiences we can offer our students.

Though it seems hard to believe, the school year is quickly coming to an end. Final units are wrapping up. Field days and field trips are being planned. Evenings are filled with the final round of concerts and a series of banquets and awards ceremonies. In my classroom, students are preparing their final presentations of the year. The sixth, seventh, and eighth graders in our gifted program have participated in 20-Time projects this year, and in a few short days, they’ll be sharing the results of their work. There is excitement, anticipation, and even some nervousness in the air as they put the finishing touches on their multimedia presentations, practice their openings, and review their blogs. But these are different than other project presentations we’ve done in the past.

This time, some of them are going to be speaking openly about failure.

The idea of 20Time became really clear to me at Teaching & Learning 2014, when Dr. Tony Wagner* talked about the critical need to develop innovators: People who use knowledge in new, creative ways to solve problems. I took the idea home with me, did some research of my own using sites like this, and after spending time planning and preparing, introduced my students to it this year. I was hoping it would be a useful, powerful learning experience for my students. I had no idea just how powerful it could be.

With students designing their own projects, I was afraid some might choose projects that were too narrow for the time they were being given. The opposite has proven true; many students designed projects that were much richer than the time they had available to work on them. One student was going to write and film a full-length movie; my cautions that such projects take the professionals in Hollywood years to complete fell on deaf ears. A couple of students decided to write full novels. Just about every student had big plans and dreams for the project.

One of the most important elements of 20Time is how much the work mirrors what adults do routinely. In the “real world,” projects have to be adjusted. Students quickly learned that there were going to be challenges and hurdles to overcome with their projects. Those whose projects required working closely with a mentor often found that schedules didn’t match, and it was hard to get together to work. Other students realized that their original project was too big for a nine-month timeline and plans had to be scaled back. The filmmaker recognized that adjusting the project to a quality script was a more realistic expectation. Both novelists began to understand that finishing a rough draft in nine months was admirable. These are genuine, authentic kinds of challenges that we all face in completing projects in our lives, whether it is for work or our personal lives.

The real-life experiences haven’t been simply adjusting schedules or even project goals. Failure can happen. For gifted kids who have been able to easily soar through any assignment or project, this is a scary prospect. My sixth graders completed two semester-long projects this year, so they faced the risk of failures earlier, when first semester projects wrapped up in December. Two of them classified their fall semester projects as failures, and one even opened his presentation with the words, “Mrs. Ebner has told us we can fail at these projects, and I’m proof of that.” He went on to share a series of events and missteps that led him to declare the project a failure. Then he shared the lessons he’d learned through those failures. The learning went well beyond his stop-motion animation project, and he’s applied that learning to his current project of developing patterns for a marching band program.

My eighth graders have struggled the most with the possibility of failure. About a third of the class has been telling me for the past month that their projects are failures. In their blogs and conversations, they’ve discussed how they didn’t reach their ultimate goal, which they automatically deem as “failure.” I’m continually questioning that judgment. I keep asking, “Think about where you were in September. Now look at where you are now. Have you grown? Have you learned? Are you closer to what you set out to do?” They are taking another look at their projects and considering where they have been successful. Some are determined to finish out their projects over the summer because they are so invested in the project and want to complete it for themselves.

As I’ve read the kids’ final blog entries and guided them through preparing their speeches, more and more I’m impressed with how real 20Time is. Students own their projects. From the project design to these final reflections and presentations, the successes and failures are theirs. The lessons learned through these projects go well beyond our language arts standards. The 20Time projects have helped all of us keep the learning real.

*For more information about Dr. Wagner’s work on developing innovators, check out this blog from his website.

Photos: Taken by T. Ebner, May 2015.

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