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Passion Projects for Independent Reading

As teachers, we often feel like in order to get kids learning, we need to be driving the work of learning. Passion projects will prove you wrong.  

When students complete passion projects, they pick the standards they will target. Students design the project. Students decide how they will be graded and design the rubrics, and students—most importantly—do the real work of learning.

This spring, I dove into the world of passion projects with my students as part of our independent reading program. Students chose independent reading books and designed their own projects to reflect their understanding of their novels through the lens of a chosen standard. We met weekly, one class out of every five, for four weeks to complete our projects.

After choosing independent reading novels, bring passion projects into your classroom by following these five, simple steps:

1. Start with brainstorming.

My students had never heard of passion projects. I started our work by explaining that students would be designing their own projects to reflect their understanding of their independent reading. Students were immediately engaged! 

At first, they were hesitant: “You mean, if I love baking, I could design a cake that reflects my understanding of my book?”


“If I love sports, I could cover a basketball with quotes that show how basketball impacts my character?”


The ideas started flowing. We covered a bulletin board with passion project graffiti throughout the next week as we continued our regular studies. By the end of the week, kids had plenty of ideas to inspire them.

2. Make it standards based.

After a week of informal brainstorming and independent reading outside of class, I handed students a list of the common core standards for reading literature. 

I explained that after a week of brainstorming ideas, it was time to zero in on the skills and standards our projects would focus on.  It’s great if kids can bake a good cake, but for the purposes of this project, that cake needs to reflect understanding and learning, so how would that happen? The standards helped give our projects focus.

For example, several students chose the standard, “I can cite evidence to support an analysis of the text.” No matter the style of the project, the students who chose this standard had to demonstrate an analysis of the text and support that analysis with evidence they pulled from their independent reading books.

Other students chose the standard, “I can analyze how elements of a story interact.” For this standard, students could look at how a character was impacted by his or her setting or a specific event in the novel.

Making the projects standards based grounded student work in focused learning.

3. Let students create the rubrics.

Once projects were decided, students designed the rubrics that would be used to grade their work. 

I modeled rubric writing for my students based on a single standard. I showed them a description for one standard at the level of mastery all the way down to the lowest performance level. Then, I asked students to identify words in my descriptions that changed to show differences in levels of understanding.

Once I was confident students understood the process of rubric writing, I gave them the rest of class to design their own rubrics, helping as needed.

Students handed in their rubrics at the end of class along with their passion project proposals. This allowed me to give feedback and help redirect any students who needed to focus or improve their projects.

4. Check in on student progress.

With a passion project, students need time to work. After brainstorming, designing a standards based project, and writing a rubric, it was now time to let kids do their work. 

Most of the work happened outside of class, but I required two check ins a week in Google Classroom where students simply had to write a sentence telling the class their progress. This wasn’t a grade, but if a student did not check in, I had a chat with that student to make sure he/she was on the right track. Check ins allowed me to address any major concerns with a student and/or a parent before the work was due. 

Seeing other students’ progress also worked as positive peer pressure. Kids were inspired by other kids, and it kept students motivated.

5. End with a gallery walk.

Setting up a gallery walk is easy and allows students to view and celebrate the work of their classmates. 

On the day the passion projects are due (my students had four weeks to complete their projects from the day we started brainstorming), instruct students to display their work on their desks. Computer work can be displayed on a laptop or iPad if you have the technology. Work can also be printed. Large projects can be displayed at student’s desks. 

I played quiet music in the background and instructed my students that this was a silent gallery walk. Then, I gave each student a stack of sticky notes and told them to spend time carefully reading and examining as many projects as they could. On the sticky notes, I told students to leave one piece of specific, positive feedback for their classmate. 

As I walked around and looked at my students’ passion projects the day of our gallery walk, I was amazed by what they produced. The projects were a bit of a surprise. Although I had carefully examined student proposals, all of the work was done outside of class.

Passion projects allowed me to see sides of my students I had never experienced before. My student who was an avid hunter read a hunting guide and brought in deer antlers covered in quotes and analysis. My artistic students found an outlet and connection between their reading and their talent. My history fanatics were able to demonstrate the connections between their understanding of past wars and the events in their fictional novels. The learning was so authentic and deep, and it was completely student driven.

Passion projects reinforced for me that when I step out of my students’ way, they are capable of so much more than I could ever imagine.  Handing over control can be a scary leap, but putting your trust in your students and their natural desire to learn is worth it! 

Product Spotlight:

Click here to see the curriculum I used to guide students through their passion project creation. Enjoy! 

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