Launching the 20% Project in Education

Reflections on “The Launch”

“Okay guys. Beginning today and on every Friday after today, you will be working on your 20% Project.”


“Any questions?”

Silence. A hand raises.

“Umm, Mrs. Petty? What is the 20% Project?”

“Great question! Why don’t I give you fiftenn minutes to Google “20% Project” to see what you can find.”

Today was probably the most fun yet challenging day of my teaching career. I had the opportunity to open the academic box my high school seniors have been living in and I LET THEM ESCAPE (although some of them wanted to stay in the box and live out the rest of high school in a comfortable pretzel pose). I gave them the opportunity to take 20% of our English class to work on ANYTHING they were interested in.(Click here for an overview of the 20% Project)


They were apprehensive. Many read the write-ups on educator’s blogs, including my own (only most didn’t notice who wrote it). After fifteen minutes, I brought them back and asked them to try to explain what the 20% Project is. Many had different ideas/concepts to which I just nodded and said “Maybe”- totally frustrating those students who can’t handle too much freedom.


I reigned them in and explained that I’d give them this time to pursue anything they’d like- it could be a personal goal/accomplishment, a family goal, a school-wide or community goal. When they asked if I would give them an example I said no. This project needs to be completely driven by them, I do not want to influence it in anyway, although I did suggest they look at some of the suggestions online. I also suggested they really think about the scope of the project- will their idea be able to sustain them for the next four months?


Here is the part where the students started asking lots of specific questions. I asked them to write all their questions down on a sticky note and put in on a Need to Know chart that I posted up on the board. I saw everything from “Can my project be religious?” (yes) to “How much is this worth?” (really?).


Finally I gave them the guidelines. I will not grade the actual project (some students buried their heads into their chests and began rocking back and forth at this). I explained- “What if your project doesn’t work out? Should I punish you for that?”

Next I told them they’d be responsible for “pitching” the project to other classmates, teachers, family members, and administrators in a poster session in four weeks. I would grade the pitch (we just finished a “pitch” with groups- now they understood why). They will also be responsible for giving a five minute speech at the end of the semester REFLECTING on their project and how it went. I will grade that presentation as well.

That’s it- the pitch and the reflection.


I emailed the parents. Many had been at Back to School Night the night before the launch and heard a bit about it. My email explained the project and that many students were frustrated. I implored the parents to help the students brainstorm ideas over the weekend and I gave them the link to the official write-up of the project.


Some students have found their idea! Some are still completely confused and lost (although they admit they haven’t done any research yet). Some have done the research and cannot for the life of them think of anything they want to do (seriously?). Some I’m going to have to have a stern talk with – I am not going to be responsible for the long-term health problems of the student who wants to learn how to eat hot dots and entering a hot dog-eating contest.

I’ve suggested they have their idea by this coming Friday and begin developing their implementation plans. So far, so good.


I’ve never seen the excitement and frustration in students’ eyes like this on the launch of any lesson. It was so awesome to see the students reckon with it in their heads and then slowly start to understand that there was no catch- I truly want them to do ANYTHING. The excitement caught on like wildfire- by 5th period, students were already anticipating the launch after hearing about it from students in the morning classes. As I saw students out on campus that day- they shouted excitedly that they were discussing what they were going to do. SO FUN!

The challenging part? Keeping my mouth shut. As teachers we’ve been conditioned to give them the answers and assist when they are stumped. I want them to figure this out and it is taking ALL of my willpower to not give them “advice.” Except for eating hot dogs.