Free Form Friday (or Google’s 20% Time in High School)

My colleagues and I are currently in the second year of my favorite “experiment”.  Last year, inspired by Google’s 20% time, we decided to try a variation of the project with our freshman.  I am extraordinarily lucky because my colleagues are fabulous and we teach an integrated curriculum (Biology, English, Software Applications, and World History).  This means we control the schedule for all of the freshman every morning.  We are able to divide the time up between our classes in whatever manner works best and we do cross-curricular projects as often as possible.

So we decided we wanted to try our own version of Google’s 20% Project, which encourages Google employees to spend one day per week working on a project of their own design.  While we can’t devote one day every week to our experiment, we ended up with Free Form Friday.  Free Form Friday is an experiment- last year we had no idea how it would turn out when we turned the kids loose and we were thrilled with the results.  This year we made a few adjustments and sent the kids off to work.  I’m so excited about the projects they have come up with and can’t wait to see the end results.

Introducing the project to the kids was a lot of fun.  We told them that we would be giving them the option to work on a project of their choosing for the next two marking periods.  There would be no rubric and no guidelines other than their project had to bring together Biology, English, Social Studies, and Technology.  This always got the whispers going.  As we continued, the hands would go up and the volume would rise.  Our students are not used to working without limits or rules and this project is scary for many of them.

Before we answered any of their questions, we shared out fears and what we, as teachers, were excited about.

Some of our fears:

  • that students will not use their time wisely
  • that students will choose groups before choosing topics
  • that students will ask questions we don’t have the answer to

What we are excited about:

  • that students will ask questions we don’t have the answer to
  • that students will amaze us
  • that we will learn from each student

And then we gave them a period to brainstorm individually.  This is important, because we want each student working on something that they are passionate about, so they can’t make groups until they know what they want to focus on for the duration of the project.  This is a very difficult step for many of my freshman.  They want to be with their friends, and how can they ensure that happens if they can’t talk to each other during the brainstorming period!  But we provided notebooks and computers and set them loose.  They had until the next week to post their ideas on our wiki and “pitch” to the rest of their class.  This way, students with similar ideas would have the opportunity to try to work together and other students would have the option to work alone or in pairs if they preferred that.

Watching the wiki over the next week was a lot of fun.  Lots of students pitched ideas and started talking about them in school.  I witnessed students approaching each other about what they read on the wiki the night before, trying to convince a peer that they had similar ideas and could combine them.  So much fun

As of today, all of the students have projects and are working.  We try to have a Free Form Friday every other week, devoting 140 minutes on Friday morning to the project work.  The students have access to laptops and a computer lab, along with various classrooms and our MPR.  But the best part is the work going on outside of class.  Some freshman boys approached a group of juniors who are taking a programming class and asked them to teach them the programming they need for their idea.  Other students are emailing experts in their field of study and networking with scientists/professors.  We have students designing webpages and blogs, Google surveys and data analysis.  It’s amazing!

The students are working on some amazing projects, too.  We have everything from parkour to lucid dreaming.  One pair is studying modern censorship and a scientific study that showed people who read fiction are more emphathetic than those who do not.  Last year a group of girls produced an amazing documentary and website about the culture of beauty – they even interviewed employees at various stores in a local mall about the hiring process.  Afterwards, they interviewed managers at those same stores and learned that the “party line” is not the same as reality in most cases. What an eye opener for them and their classmates!

I can not recommend 20% Time projects enough.  The students are incredibly engaged and the connections they are making across the curriculum are pretty mind-blowing.  And personally, I love that they are working without a rubric.  It’s very difficult for some of the more grade-oriented students, but it’s such a valuable experience.  They also know that at the end of the project they will be deciding how we (the teachers) will assess them.  The grading criteria will be designed by each group for their specific project.  I love this, because it means they get the chance to think critically about their own work, rather than relying on a third-party.

They are responsible for keeping us abreast of their progress after each Free Form Friday.  By the end of the 140 minutes they have to file an update that explains what they accomplished that day and what they plan to accomplish for next time. It keeps everyone accountable without inundating them with extra work. They file the reports in a class binder, according to group, which allows us to access them while also allowing the students to go back and look at the evolution of their project from start to finish.

Free Form Friday is one of the best parts of the year for me and I can’t wait to see the final projects that this year’s group comes up with!  Are some of our students confused about the project?  Of course.  But many of them are also excited.  And slowly, that excitement is spreading.  We have students talking about their projects outside of class time.  They are divvying up work and going above and beyond our “requirements”.  Some of them started planning back in September, after they got wind of the project via the sophomores.  Talk about engaged learners! And even those who are confused can see the value of the project; we have many alum who work or have worked at Google and it’s a job many of our students aspire to.

Do you do anything similar to a FedEx Day or Google’s 20% time in your class?  I’d love to hear about it!

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7 Responses

  1. Your project sounds wonderful. I teach at an independent school that has individual choice of units of study as its core philosophy. From 5-14 our students study their topics, called units. It’s a wonderful way to teach individuals, and see them do all that you just described. Here is a little of what I mean in one blog post I wrote. If you want to know more, I’ll give you the school’s web site. Good for you all for doing this; it works! http://www.teacherdance.blogspot.com/2011/09/critical-thinking-happens-when-students.html

  2. I want to do this!!!! I’m saving this post and showing it my principal. Somehow, I am going to make this happen. Thanks for sharing.

  3. [...] to close, an inspiring post from  The Reading Zone about Free Form Friday, an adaptation of Google’s plan which lets employees spend one day per week working on [...]

  4. You just blew my mind with this post. I’m sitting here as my seventh grader is still working on homework that she started around noon, and my tenth grader is taking laborious notes on her world history book and I’m wishing that they had a program like this at their high intensity school.

  5. We just started this on a two-person 7th grade team. Not exactly sure how to make it work (or let it work), but we are looking forward to developing some sort of a framework in which to let it happen.

    We allow an hour every Friday. Not exactly 20%, but it’s a start.

  6. [...] refer to their books over the course of the year and their reading serves as an introduction to the Free Form Friday project they will complete later in the [...]

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