It’s beginning to look a lot like…20Time 2020

Around here, mid-January means prepping for 20Time, a spring semester project-based learning experience designed to bring real-world application to English/language arts classroom skills. Basically, students are given 20 percent of class time for 12 weeks to work on a passion project that they choose and their peers approve. (Click here for a free set of 20Time teaching materials.)

Over winter break, Colleen*, a 20Time first-timer, reached out via email with a few questions. With her permission, I’m sharing our conversation, which might help other folks as they set their plan.

As for me, I’m deep in the Year of YouTube project (three vids a week for 36 weeks – ugh, why did I agree to this, again?!!), but I’ve also decided it’s time to face a nemesis, a work of literature that I haven’t ever taught and, I’m embarrassed to admit, ever read. By far, it’s the most requested item teachers ask to be added to my curriculum collection, but I always back-burner those requests. I lie and say I’m too busy to build tools for works that I’m not currently teaching. The truth, though, is that I’m intimidated. I fake-read Macbeth as a senior in high school (yes, that was 30+ years ago and I only vaguely remember there were some witches and an insane woman crying about a spot on her hands or her soul or something like that) and each time I’ve picked up my thrift store copy of the play in recent years I’ve never made it past Act 2. How in the world can I get 16-year-olds to care about an ambitious king and his horrible wife? Well…this is my 20Time 2020 challenge. I’m going to *finally* read Macbeth and pull together some tools to help kids connect to those 11th century Scottish royals. This should be fun, eh?

If you’re participating in 20Time, either with students or as a solo endeavor, please tell me about your project in the “leave a reply” box below. I love hearing about everyone’s passion projects and it’ll help to know Colleen and I aren’t alone in the struggles to come. Now, onto Colleen’s questions:

Hi Laura,
I am about to embark on my first 20Time project with my freshmen students – all boys. I felt ready, but panic is setting in. Start date is just days away now.

First, I am concerned that students will not be able to generate their own ideas. How did you help students with this without giving them too much specific guidance? I have seen both project idea lists (general and specific) you have provided, but I am concerned that if I share the ideas, it will prevent original ideas.

Second, I am concerned about what students will do during the class time on 20Time days? For example, if a student chooses to create a project, like the lip balm holder, what does he/she do during class time to make progress on that project? Or if a student chooses to run a marathon for the first time as his 20Time project, what does he/she do during class time?

Love, love, love everything you do! Thanks for the continued ideas, inspiration, and enthusiasm.

So excited to hear you’re bring 20Time to your classes, Colleen! Awesome! Please know that the panic/uncertainty you’re feeling is completely normal. Handing over that much power to the kids is nerve-wracking and reminds me of when my own children started driving a car. Yes, you know you’ve done all you can to ensure their safety, but they still might drive directly into a ditch. Oh! Try not to let worry overwhelm you, though. I know, it’s hard. I also know that nearly all of your kids will safely reach their 20Time destination, even if there are a few dents in the car when they get there.

Okay, first, your concerns about sharing those idea lists are spot-on. I don’t give access to either of those lists until after the Guppy Tank round. I want kids to authentically choose a project that speaks to them, NOT to choose something from a list that they think will please me. I included the lists in the 20Time download so that teachers could see the sorts of projects my kids have accomplished. I also use those lists for the 10-to-15 percent of kids who will receive a red light from their peers on their first idea and struggle to come up with anything – anything! – that will work. Yes, you’re absolutely right, giving those lists out too early will poison the well of unique creativity. Instead, I talk about the projects I’ve done (ukulele, chin up, YouTube series, etc.) and encourage them to find their own thing. Once the kids realize that you’re seriously going to give them this large chunk of time to work on a passion project, I think you’ll be surprised by their enthusiasm and wealth of ideas. If anything, a lot of my job is helping them scale back their grand ideas into achievable chunks.

Second, part of the 20Time requirement in my class is that the project must have some sort of connection to English/Language Arts. Back when I started this in California, my principal told me I could use 20Time with my students but I had to be able to anchor each kid’s project to something in the Common Core State Standards. Because of this, every project has some sort of ELA angle. For the lip balm holder kid, he researched patent law in class and brought his laptop that had the 3D printer coding software installed. If time had allowed, he also could have worked on marketing, built ads with Canva, read a non-fiction book on engineering or entrepreneurship, etc.

For a kid who wants to run a marathon, maybe she also builds a blog where she documents her progress, films material for a YouTube channel, edits that video via tech she brings to class (all of my classrooms have always been woefully tech-limited), reads a book on distance running, reads a biography of Steve Prefontaine, makes a training booklet for middle school runners, researches the best nutrition plans for runners and builds an infographic with the knowledge she learns, etc.

Really, any project can be linked to the CCSS, so that happily hasn’t been a problem.

Finally, one of the essential elements of 20Time is that you, as the teacher, will complete a project alongside the kids. They love watching our struggles and celebrating our small successes along the way. Before each week’s work session, I usually talk for a couple of minutes about what I worked on in the past week, how things are going, and what steps I’ll be taking in the upcoming week. Unfortunately, I haven’t ever been able to work on my own 20Time project during class because I spend that time circulating, checking in, and helping kids fix flat tires. (See how I looped back the analogy there, eh?) Still, I keep them updated on my efforts and share in my frustrations. They’re sometimes pretty good problem-solvers for me, too.

I know the launch is scary, Colleen, but that’s also part of the fun. Some kids will excel and others will struggle. No matter how their projects turn out, valuable lessons will be learned – for them and for you. Keep in touch and let me know how it goes. Can’t wait to hear more!

*Name changed at her request.
Crown image credit: Pixabay, Public domain

15 thoughts on “It’s beginning to look a lot like…20Time 2020

  1. I am trying this for the first time this year as well! I had/have all the same concerns as Colleen, and your ideas are really helpful, Laura. My students (I only have seven doing this) are giving their 60-second pitches tomorrow and Friday, but I’ve chatted with a few about the area they are thinking of. I am most concerned about getting an ELA angle on my boy who wants to learn to dunk a basketball. One of my FE students is going to create her own bakery item from scratch, and I’m really excited about that!

    Me? I’m learning to crochet and have committed to no fewer than 10 blog posts about my progress (so far? I’m not good at it, it doesn’t come easily to me, and I’m going to have to practice a LOT). Since I only have seven kids doing this with me, my goal is to make a simple project I can give to each of them, like a hotpad or a dishrag, but now that I’ve started, I think that’s going to be more work than I anticipated!

  2. This all sounds great, Carrie! And, yes, the actual learning of the new skill always feels harder than I anticipated and I’m always glad I made the attempt. 🙂 For your basketball kid, maybe he can document his progress like you’re doing with those blog posts? Maybe his could have a video element, too? If you’re willing, please send along the link to your blog when it’s up and running. I’d love to follow your progress.

  3. Ellen Chrismer says:

    Hi Laura, I am a teacher at a continuation high school. I used your resources, and the 20 Time sounds intriguing, but I have a whole bunch of other challenges to deal with, mostly truancy, apathy and lack of time (we only get 45 minutes a day for English). I would love to offer this as an extra credit project for some of my more motivated kids, but mostly I would like to connect with other continuation high teachers who are part of your network. Any ideas? We are pretty isolated in this world. Thanks!

  4. Ellen Chrismer says:

    By the way, I have taught Macbeth with these kids, so I know you can do it!

  5. Hey Ellen,
    Thank goodness for you and the work you do! I taught at a continuation/community day school for just one year before returning to the traditional campus and know that those challenges are significant. An opt-in model for 20Time sounds like a good idea, especially given the attendance issues. Sorry, I don’t know of any other continuation high school teachers, but I’m guessing you might find a network of them in a Facebook Group. I belong to 2ndaryELA on FB and it’s a wonderful community. There’s gotta be something similar for continuation h.s. teachers. Anyone out there have any resources? Let’s help out Ellen.

  6. Hi Laura,

    Happy New Year. I have taught Macbeth many times over the years and It is a complex play. I know you will be able to do this project. Do you enjoy teaching Shakespeare? If you are enthusiastic about the play that will be half the battle. It would also be a good idea for you or your students to do a little research on the real Macbeth and the history behind the play is interesting. Also, real life connections are always good. Your students might be surprised how the drama of high school connects to the play. Happy 20Time.


  7. I’m appreciative of your insights and encouragement, Kendall! Great trails for me to follow here. I finished reading/annotating Act 1 this week, so I’m on my way. And…dang…that Lady Macbeth is twist-e-d, eh?

  8. I never read Macbeth, I guess it wasn’t in my school’s list!

    Just dropping some cheers out to you and wish you best of luck on this year’s 20Time! I’m sure you’ll come through with flying colors! Looking forward to reading all about it! 🙂

    GOOD LUCK!! <3

  9. Mitchell David Worden says:

    Good morning,

    I have never actually heard of 20Time before, and it seems like an engaging concept. I’m only a student teacher at the moment, and the closest equivalent I have seen in my field experience was a civic engagement project at a Montessori school: students picked a non-profit organization in their community to work with and research into.

    From a social studies perspective, what would be a good way to introduce this format into the classroom? I am a big advocate for giving students more creativity and freedom of choice, but I am unsure where to begin considering this is a new thing for me.

  10. So glad you came across my blog, Mitchell David. Welcome! My only experience with 20Time is in my English classroom, so I’m not sure how a history teacher would modify. Sorry about that. I can tell you that I was required to hook each student’s project to the Common Core State Standards, which is why each project has to have an English/language arts element – blog, video, instructional pamphlet, etc. For history standards/requirements, you might want to check in with your mentor teacher or department chair to figure out what would be needed to bring this to your classes. I’ve heard of some ELA teachers who require their projects to have a community service element, but I haven’t ever gone that route because I know that not all of my students would genuinely care about that sort of project. Instead, I try to encourage them to choose a project that really comes from their personal interests and we move forward from there. Hope you’re able to find a way to make this work!

  11. That One Teacher says:

    I’m so excited! I taught this two years ago when I was using a lot of your full year curriculum. I always wished you had MacB materials. Now, I’m at a new school after a year off from teaching (what a year to pick), and it’s on my curriculum again. I love it. But I’m so excited to use your materials! They’re always such a fresh and engaging take. Kids love them.

  12. Aw, thanks for this kind note, That One Teacher! Yes, this was the strangest/worst spring semester of all time. Definitely hoping for better days! As for Macbeth, I’m hopeful a few of the tools I built will be helpful. With the craziness of life, I haven’t written a follow-up blog post just yet, but the catalog of items can be viewed here:
    Again, thanks for being part of my blog community. So glad you’re here and heading back to the classroom this fall! 🙂

  13. Jennifer Whitaker says:

    Hi Laura-I was so excited to start 20 Time with my dual enrollment English comp students this fall that I stuck to the plan even in the midst of Covid. While that is producing its own set of challenges, here is a question for what I am facing now: I need to keep them accountable and try to make sure they are working towards their goals. Any ideas for some type of progress checks? I need to put something else in place besides an exit ticket. They have done well with FlipGrid assignments, but some seem to be spending a lot of time “researching” without much to show for it. I don’t want to kill their creativity, but I need to see measurable progress. For context, I teach my students on a semester block schedule, so I have them in my classroom 4 days a week for 110 minutes per day (our school district has begun leaving one day of the week open for us to focus on virtual learning needs, etc.). Once the semester ends around Christmas, they will be done with the course.
    Thanks in advance!

  14. Good to hear from you, Jennifer! Yes, I’ve also found that some kids need more accountability than others. Twice during the 12-week sessions, I do a one-on-one check-in with each student during our work time and/or SSR, depending on the class calendar. It takes some time, but I meet with each kid for a progress report, of sorts. It’s not graded, but it does give me a good sense of which students are using their work session time wisely and which ones are not. For the kids who are struggling, we brainstorm solutions and break the project down into smaller steps. Some students, even high-achieving dual enrollment kids, struggle with organization and those executive functioning skills than come more naturally to others. When they know they’re going to have to meet with me face-to-face (or, mask-to-mask these days), they sometimes get a lot more active. Also, you need to know that some kids will not step up and their projects will fail. As with everything in the classroom, there is no project that will work for every learner in every season of life. So…I guess I’d tell my students exactly what you said in your message (“I don’t want to kill your creativity, but I need to see measurable progress.”) and then announce a meeting schedule. You also could change the end-of-project speech rubric to weight the final grade more heavily toward work session performance and let your students see that rubric now so there are no end-of-term surprises. Hope this is helpful as you make the plan work for your classroom! 🙂

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