This post is the last of an occasional series documenting my entry into project-based learning. This semester, my students participated in 20Time, a 12-week experience where they chose a worthwhile project to complete (somewhat) on their own using 20 percent of our class time. You can read more about the path that led to this project here.

Now that the year is done and I’ve enjoyed some hammock time, it’s time to reflect on this 20Time adventure.

When the student speeches were finished in late May, I was 90 percent certain I wanted to give this pilot project permanent status in the curriculum. After talking candidly with different groups of students about their experiences in our last few weeks of school, I’m now 100 percent certain that this project will be a spring semester fixture in my classroom.

My 20Time plans were far from perfect (I’ll chat about some alterations for next year below), but the overall project was definitely worthy of the time it gobbled. First, though, if you’ll indulge me, I want to share three of my students’ 170 projects (Want more? Here’s a list of 50 other unique projects my students tackled.):

TTchapstick1. Balm Buddy is the creation of T.T., a student who sketched, computer-drafted, and ultimately built 32 pocket-sized lip balm keychain holders using our engineering department’s 3D printer. T.T. used online software to draft the model and then sweet-talked our engineering teacher into letting him use the lab after school. A few sheets of plastic later and T.T. had built a working prototype of an invention that could be the Next Big Thing in keyring accessories. (The red is nice, but imagine it as a monkey or koala – cute, right?) T.T. also wrote a business plan and researched patent laws as part of his project.

2. S.G. changed from YouTube content consumer to content creator with the successful launch of her own YouTube channel, Sashagreenbean. In 12 weeks, she posted nine videos – a productivity level many adult vloggers would struggle to match. S.G. is hooked on the medium and plans to continue building her channel and subscriber base this summer and beyond. My favorite is her Mother’s Day post from early May – it’s such a sweet treat and features many of my (adorable!) students:

3. Finally, B.B. dazzled the class with a built-from-scratch RC truck that can race up to 40 mph. Once he popped off the shell, he became a surgeon, deftly explaining the inner spaghetti bowl of wires and connectors. He also designed a single-sheet set of directions in “kid talk,” so middle-schoolers could follow his steps. Finally, he closed his speech with a Hollywood-style video of his truck rounding corners and completing jumps in scenes would rival the latest summer blockbuster.


Several times, I was so impressed with students’ project presentations, I sent “attaboy/attagirl” emails on the sly to their parents. Feedback from the homefront was overwhelmingly positive, as parents enjoyed watching their kids lose themselves in their work. Ah, yes, the power of flow. Here is one parent response I received:

Now, not all of the projects were this successful. In weeks 4 and 5, a handful of my kids (thinking back, probably five or six) approached me with requests to switch projects; I refused in the kindest way, reminding them that their struggles were the whole point of this project. Instead of bailing, we brainstormed. Some were able to get back on track, others weren’t. In every case, lessons were learned.

When projects failed, it was either because the original plan was too grand in scope (solution: scale back and complete one baby step toward the larger goal) or the student wasn’t truly passionate about the project. Several students said they weren’t able to spend any out-of-class time on their projects (which is fine; homework was never a requirement), but I would argue that a student who couldn’t find any extra time in his life to work on the project wasn’t really passionate enough about the selection to begin with.

What the kids had to say:

1. Content creation is hard. My students are consumers, zoning out on YouTube channels, binging on Netflix, trolling through Instagram/Snapchat/Whatnot. Actually creating that content is a whole different thing and many of my students now have a deep appreciation of what it takes to build a blog following or YouTube subscriber list.

2. Distraction-free environments are rare and necessary. Many students said they allowed themselves to be pulled off course by phone notifications or other interruptions, especially when facing the harder parts of their projects. The successful 20Timers learned to turn their phones off or leave them in another room.

3. There’s a passion/productivity curve, and it seems to look something like this:

If my students had known that other people were facing similar highs and lows, they told me it would’ve been a bit easier to ride those first choppy waves to get to the calmer waters of project creation. We didn’t collectively discover this curve, though, until we were midway through students’ reflection speeches.

Lessons I’ve learned:

1. If they’re doing it, I have to do it, too. Students agreed that the fact that I was doing my own 20Time Project added a ton of value and motivation to their experience. If I’m going to keep using this in my classroom, I’m going to have to keep trying new things. (What’ll it be next year? Drawing? Roller derby? Juggling fire?)

2. They will surprise me. Some of my highest academic achievers painfully struggled (which I sort of expected from those Excellent Sheep), while some of the kids with the lowest academic scores just killed it (which I didn’t expect at all). In every class, I had at least one moment of wonder when a lower-achieving kid presented a marvel of a project. The takeaway? I need to build more authentic hands-on learning opportunities throughout my entire year, not just for 20Time.

What will I change?

1. Add better accountability. I tried a mid-point check-in with my juniors, but it took me more than three class periods to conference with everyone. Unfortunately, that’s time in my calendar I just don’t have, especially since I’ve already carved out three days for Guppy Tank presentations and 12 days for work sessions. So, taking a student’s suggestion (thanks, Mackenzie!), I’m going to assign Accountability Teams. At the 4-week and 8-week marks, those teams of four students will be given class time to meet and show teammates what they’ve been working on, what they’ve accomplished so far, and what they plan to do with the remaining time. My hope is that seeing what other students are creating will motivate those who are losing steam and the teams can help brainstorm pathways around roadblocks. And, yes, I’m going to assign the teams (at least one high-, medium-, and low-performer per group) rather than allow free-choice groups.

2. Add a Support Our Bloggers day in the computer lab. Many students built blogs or channels, but it’s disheartening to labor over a post only to have no audience. A “like” or encouraging comment goes a long way in making a blogger feel like he isn’t talking to a wall. Next year, I’ll work in a surprise lab day about halfway through the project, posting a list of blogs/vlogs on my class website and an assignment to read/view and comment on at least three classmates’ entries. I think this will be a good shot of motivation for that large group of content creators.

3. Celebrate with some sort of end-of-the-project gallery. We were able to glimpse the projects as screenshots during the students’ speeches, but everyone really wanted to see/touch the tangible items that were created and/or explore the digital channels/pages. Maybe this will look like a science fair or tradeshow with booths in the multipurpose room? Not sure yet, but I know I want to have some sort of wrap-it-up experience.

The Takeaway:

Why do we go to school? It’s not (surprise!) to learn specific poetry terms or mathematical formulas. We’re at school learning how to learn – and we should want that learning to continue all our lives. This project took students’ nuts-and-bolts skills and provided an opportunity to use those tools in a meaningful way. It’s entirely possible that the seeds planted in this spring semester will grow into future passions and, hopefully, careers for my students. We must use the power of our classrooms to foster this kind of growth.

The kids (mostly) loved 20Time, parents unanimously loved it (lots of affirmations and not one complaint email/call – when does that happen?), and I definitely loved it because I learned so much about my students and about myself. That’s what I call a win.

Teach on, everyone!

[UPDATE: During my 20Time adventure, fellow teachers in both the real and cyber worlds asked many great questions and requested that I put all of my materials together in one convenient spot. You can now click HERE to access all of my 20Time blog posts and free materials in one grab-and-go location. Hope this packet is helpful!]

Join the conversation! 21 Comments

  1. Fan. TASTIC. 😀
    I wonder if I could get my admin to let me give this a chance next year…any pointers for my presentation?


  2. Thanks, Techlady! Glad you’re game to give this a try. For admin., I would emphasize the fact that 20Time is research-based on the work of Daniel Pink and Google-certified teaching teams. Tell them that your school should be filled with innovators, not dinosaurs. And feel free to point ’em to this blog as an example of what can happen when we give teens the structure, motivation, and time to pursue their passions. How could they say no? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Laura,

    I continue to be amazed and inspired by everything that you do. Even though I teach at the middle school level, I am a HUGE fan of your TPT materials. Thank you for allowing me to use so many of your materials as I navigated this 20Time journey with my GATE 8 Language Arts classes. I, too, was blown away by what these amazing young men and women could do and the incredible passion with which they worked.

    I am attaching a link to the video of what my students decided to tackle (that is, if you find yourself with 6 minutes of free time).

    I hope that you are able to enjoy a restful and relaxing summer. I’m sure the ukulele will come in handy!


  4. Abraham,
    My pleasure! Glad the materials are finding a place in your classroom.

    Your students are adorable and I love the wide variety of projects they pursued. I gotta tell ya, 20Time has me excited for our country’s future. Imagine if every campus had a way to harness all of this youthful creative energy…we could move mountains…and build satellites…and cure diseases…and end global hunger. Dang! We might be onto something BIG here.

    Let’s both enjoy this well-deserved summer season and juice those batteries for the fall. It’ll be here in a wink!
    🙂 Laura


  5. Laura,
    My students recently finished their 20 Time Projects as well. I agree with you, I will 100% incorporate it into my curriculum again. I loved the feedback from the students and parents. I found the same things you mentioned above about the achievers, accountability, and passion/productivity.

    The students finished the project with a presentation in the auditorium. That may have been the best part! The top projects/presenters were voted by their peers to present again in front of a larger audience, almost like a TED Talk. It was a great close to the projects.

    I definitely have things to fine tune for my projects next year but I’m looking forward to what the next group will come up with.

    Your blogs were a huge help for my jumping point into the project. Thank you!


  6. Wonderful, Lisa! It’s so great knowing that our experiences aligned – and I love your TED Talk component. We used TED as a model for our in-class speeches, but you really took it to the next level. Awesome!


  7. What a great way to encourage creativity and productivity. I imagine that this will be life-changing for some of those students who aren’t used to classroom success. Thank you for sharing!


  8. This is awesome! I have been searching for PBL activities for my English class for years. I am going to explore this with my “encore” class (English 1 repeaters) this year. Thanks for sharing.


  9. Thank you!


  10. I’m excited to get started with this concept with my sixth grade GATE class. I mentioned to them today that we will be starting something that will give them autonomy over their learning. I am trying to build suspense. I think it will be great. Thank you for sharing all your resources, what a time saver. You are an inspiration!


  11. Oh, I love to build anticipation with them, Lori. My freshmen have already started asking about 20Time because my sophomores, apparently, don’t have anything else better to talk about than last year’s English class. 😉 Have fun with your 6th graders!


  12. Laura,
    I have a few questions about 20 Time in your room:
    What materials do you provide?
    When carving out time for this did you eliminate/reduce SSR?
    Did you allow any of your students to work in teams or pairs?


  13. Hi Amanda,
    Great questions! I actually don’t provide any of the materials. I have three Chromebooks in my room that students can borrow, but I tell them that if they want to have a tech-dependent project they need to bring their own laptops/tablets. There are lots of writing-based projects they could choose if they don’t have access to a device, too. To make time, I do have to carve away a few of the SSR sessions, but mostly I boiled down The Odyssey, which has 24 books/chapters. Now, we study only 12 chapters and I just summarize any important info. from the parts we skip. It hurt to make those cuts at first, but I’m so glad I did because the passion projects had a much larger impact on many of my students than an extra scoop of Homer would have. Finally, I didn’t allow any students to work in teams and I’m going to continue that policy. Two classmates won’t have the exact same passion/interest, so one would be compromising. Also, I like the accountability that the solo project creates and I’m required by my district to have each student give an individual speech (no teams allowed), so I use the TED Talk-style 20Time wrap-up speech to fulfill that requirement. Last year, it worked beautifully and the speeches were some of the most interesting ones I’ve seen in my career.

    Hope this helps clarify how I run the show. Feel free to let me if other questions/concerns arise. Good luck!
    🙂 Laura


  14. Thank you for sharing your PBL journey! My school is a PBL magnet and we dedicate at least one day a quarter to completing a school-wide PBL. Most of the projects seem meaningful at first, but there were still some kinks (buy-in, accountability, etc.). Other than the school-wide projects, I’ve never ventured into doing a true PBL in my classroom. This inspires me. Thanks!


  15. Wow, a whole school event, Kim? I sorta love the idea, but know that at my large campus (2,500+ kids) things could easily unravel. Large scale is tough, but this definitely is a beautiful project to use with our own classes. So glad you’re considering it! 🙂


  16. Thank you so much for your detailed posts and free packet! I proposed this to my staff and our entire high school is going to do 20Time during our intervention period! I present your prezi tomorrow to the students and we’ll start in our groups in a week.

    I see in previous comments you provided no materials – was that a challenge if a student had an idea but no means to get the materials? Also, if a student chose a wood-building project or sewing project, for example, did they bring the materials and work in your classroom? Or did you ask to see if they could go to the shop or FACE classroom?

    I know we will have kinks but our staff is so excited to do such a fun and inspiring project!

    Thank you, as always, for making us all better educators!!!!


  17. Terrific, Chantel! A school-wide 20Time experience? Now that just blows my mind!

    Okay, so my decision not to supply any of the project materials (the “stuff”) needed by individual kids was purely a practical one. I’m not given a classroom budget, and I didn’t have the means to buy all of the various pieces and parts that kids might want to use. I was able to cobble together six Chromebooks from teacher friends in the hallway who were willing to share their tech, but one of the basic rules for the project was “if you’re going to need it, you’re going to have to supply it.” This included computer access because I couldn’t guarantee that every kid who needed a Chromebook would get one.

    I teach in an affluent area, so many of the kids were able to bring their tech and supply their own hard materials. For kids who didn’t have resources, I encouraged them to choose a project that didn’t need a lot of stuff, such as turning a well-known short story into a screenplay, writing and illustrating an anthology of original poetry, storyboarding a graphic novel, etc. Also, kids were required to plan out their in-class work session each week (about 45 min.) so that they had a piece of their project they could do in class. If a kid was welding a sculpture and making a YouTube video documenting the process, he couldn’t very well weld in my classroom. Instead, work session time in that case might be editing video clips, finding legally available background music, and/or maybe researching other famous welding artists and techniques. My students stayed put in my classroom during the work sessions, though I would occasionally let a student or two work outside if they were at a particularly noisy or messy part of their project. I didn’t let students go work in other teachers’ classrooms because those folks had their own classes to run, though the timing of your full-school project should allow for much more flexibility. I would worry that unsupervised kids will waste their work session if they’re all running around to other spots, though, so that’ll be something to monitor.

    Finally, I can’t help but wonder if ALL of your teachers are going to each complete their own 20Time project as well? A big piece of my success, I think, is that fact that I was working on a project right alongside my students. The modeling of my successes and candid discussions of my failures was huge in terms of motivating my kids to stay focused. *Fingers crossed* that your staff is really on board with this important piece.

    In all, I say, GO FOR IT! This is what education should be about – using all of these skills kids have acquired over the years to make something great. Have an awesome (and exhausting and frustrating) time! 🙂


  18. This is great! Thank you so much for responding right away and during this busy time of your own back-to-school madness! I truly appreciate it!

    Take care and we’ll let you know how it goes!


  19. My pleasure, Chantel! Have fun with it. 🙂


  20. I have ALWAYS loved your materials – and stumbled upon your 20Time this afternoon. After several hours of reading and scheming, I am SOOOOO excited to implement my own version of this in my classroom this year. Thank you for your time AND willingness to share with those of us who have the ideas, but not the nuts and bolts!! I appreciate your generosity to share those nuts and bolts with us!! I have been dragging my feet about getting ready for this school year, and now I am pumped!! Thank you!!


  21. Awesome, Christy! So glad I could be the fire under your feet. Go get ’em! 🙂


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