Critiquing Student Blogging, Genius Hour & Passion Projects

Students blogging about a topic they are passionate about is an example of authentic literacy pedagogy.  Instead of all students reading & researching the same topic, students have the opportunity to select a topic they are interested in and write periodic reflections on the topic.  This approach has become increasingly popular through various names such as genius hour, passion projects or 20% time. (NOTE: If you are interested in learning more about these types of projects, I strongly encourage you to follow @JoyKirr on Twitter, she’s an incredible resource!).   One of the major selling points of these projects is the incredible levels of student engagement seen through these projects. However, there can be significant drawbacks as well. 

The benefit of these approaches is that they maximize students’ intrinsic motivation and immerse them in a literacy rich environment that leverages their curiosity.   A potential drawback of this student-centered approach is that while students are engaged they may not become particularly skilled in evaluating sources, reading critically and thoughtfully organizing writing that generally occurs through more teacher directed projects. 

My students have been doing Passion Projects for almost 5 years and while I had this initial high of maximizing student choice and, in turn, engagement, I have found that every year  I need to tweak the amount of choice I give students. While I have increased student choice in the range of topics students research and formats for showing final learning, I have found that I need to limit the options they have for how they share their learning periodically via blog posts. 

First, I now require my students to connect the broad research questions and sub questions they develop with overarching course principles to guide their research instead of simply  exploring any topic that interest them. Second, I require students to write carefully organized blog posts with claim statements and supporting evidence so that students are motivated to read texts, watch videos and/or listen to podcasts not just for enjoyment but also with the critical eye of a detective looking for evidence.  

I have found that when students are asked to develop and and answer research questions their inquiries becomes more focused and fruitful. Students’ blog posts also become more organized because they now have to carefully provide evidence to support the answers to their research questions instead of just sharing what they learned in the past week.

Therefore, projects that incorporate 100% authentic literacy pedagogy may be highly engaging but not always effective for improving students’ literacy skills. There is a greater likelihood of students being motivated while learning fundamental literacy skills when the student-centered learning also includes challenging tasks deliberately designed by the teacher that push students to carefully organize their thinking & writing.

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