Eating the Elephant


I realized this morning I have been remiss in my blogging efforts. I have retreated into my first love…writing in journals. There is something about a slim Moleskin notebook and my favorite pen that just gets me. I am of that generation where computers were just emerging and everything was still done old school paper and pencil. I use technology when it is important and helps extend something I want to accomplish, but I am not a “tool for the tool’s sake” user. Hence most of my reflecting and ideating exists only in my journal collection. Recently though, I have been asked about some of the interesting happenings in my classes and when I was looking for one of my blog posts to send links to, I saw I had not posted any of those thoughts or resources.

One of the projects I am known for in my school district is the 20 Time Project (Innovation Hour). In the past two years, it has continually refined. Last year was my most successful group of projects yet. I learned the importance of showing students what resources are out there and helping them figure out how to get them. Project-Based Learning is the darling of school focus right now, but I don’t think the powers that be often think about how difficult PBL can be in a public school. Public schools have very little monetary resources for anything other than testing and remediation, are mired into a lockstep curriculum and often have staffs not quite as willing to go maverick when faced with punitive backlash if test scores drop. There is the added layer that many of the teachers in public schools have been there a long time and are used to weathering the storm of new vernacular and hot approaches. Not to say there are not great administrators (I have been particularly lucky) and forward-thinking educators out there, but it is the exception not the rule. I also think teachers can get overwhelmed because they try to eat the elephant all at once rather than little bites at a time. Beyond the resources and regulation, there is the basic structure of a public school with its desks in neat rows, white walls, strict bell system and industrialized view of education. All of this from environment to curriculum stack the odds against the success of PBL in public schools. It can work, but it takes a lot of patience, planning and willingness to adapt everything…sometimes on the fly. It works for me, but that is because those requirements are pretty integral to my character.

So, you are probably thinking blah, blah, blah, where are the resources? In thinking about the 20 time successes and failures over the past two years and what I have seen thus far this year, there are some definite must-dos and some still sort of gray, maybe this will work with this group of students, maybe not areas. I think one of the most important things you can do to get this project off the ground is communicate to parents clearly about every aspect of the project. I send a parent/guardian letter home the first day of school. Here is mine (adapted from Kevin Brookhouser’s original).


The very next thing that has to happen is immersion of students into the world of what 20 time can be. I do this through TED Talks, examples of entrepreneurship, volunteerism, passion-based projects…just everything you can get your hands on. Below is a link to my Youtube channel for 20 time inspiration. Feel free to subscribe; I update it when I find or create a new resource for 20 time. There is also a link to a previous post where I outline TED talks I use and how I use each one.

Honaker’s 20 Time Youtube Channel

Resources for Innovation Hour project

Something new this year I really liked was speed dating during brainstorming. Basically, after a couple of weeks of talking about the project, looking at inspirational ideas and viewing advice from last year’s students, we made a list of a few of our ideas and why they were important to us and then we moved around the room with stopwatches. Each student rotated through each other with only five minutes to introduce their ideas and respond to each other. This got the creative juices going and by the time we came back together as a large group, they were excited. This led into them starting to think about their pitch proposals. Pitches are an integral part of the process because it forces students to think about the viability of the project and to start doing some of the research necessary to any project’s success. They must pitch “Shark Tank” style and also provide a hard copy of the outline of their proposal. Each audience member fills out a praise and possibilities feedback form as exit tickets.

Pitch Requirements:

  • Outline of Project- what are you doing?
  • Who will you work with
  • Why is this project worthwhile- personally important to you, beneficial to society, passionate interest
  • Who is your audience/client base
  • Estimated budget (must show you have researched actual costs)
  • Timeline- how will you complete your project incrementally (think backward design, what is your end goal, move back from there)

Often after pitch proposals, students adapt and change their projects. The next class after proposals, I teach them how to set up their progress blogs and for their first post they must respond to all the feedback they received. This allows them to take a deep look at what their peers, community members and teachers thought about their idea. At their hearts, many students want to make the world better and sometimes when I introduce this project, they think they have to do something service-oriented. This year alone I had conversations with three students who pitched projects that were altruistic, but I could tell their passion was not in it and this type of project is never successful if the student does not love what they are doing. This is the moment when you have to step in as the guide and make them really question their purpose for choosing a particular direction to ensure they land on something they will not hate after two months of working on it. My students use WordPress blogs because I am familiar with the format, but you could use whatever you are comfortable with. The blogs are incredibly important so you can keep tabs on student progress, give them feedback and see the cool stuff they are doing. Blog requirements are outlined in the attached parent/guardian letter.

Once you get to this point, it is pretty much smooth for the next couple of months. My students get every other Friday to work on their projects and I spend those class periods helping them write grants, reading and responding to their blogs and floating around to check in on their work. These are very self-directed classes so they offer lots of freedom for the teacher to have individual contact with the students. Around November students are required to compile a status report. I implemented that last year to alleviate the problem of getting to the end and finding the project will not work out. It is a sanity check for myself and the students. It also makes them take a hard look at challenges they faced, how they overcame or didn’t and where they are on budget.


Last year, I realized that shortening the projects to one semester hindered some of my groups from finishing what they started for a number of reasons. My first year students complained a full year was too long so I went to a semester with presentation in the Spring. When it started becoming apparent some groups would not finish in December last year, I adapted. The groups that finished before break could have their 20 time Fridays throughout January and February to prepare presentations and tie up final project requirements. the groups that needed more time could continue actual project work , but would need to complete presentation and final requirements outside class. It worked beautifully. The kids that needed more time to finish their Frisbee Golf Course (funded through a student-written grant) construction had it, the young lady working on zoo murals with 4th graders (funded through a student-written grant) had it and the group that completed their Out of the Darkness walk and fundraiser had time to wrap up their presentation and final requirements. The extra, flexible time allowed students to finish up whatever way made most sense for them. Projects wrapped the week of April 14th. Students turned in all final requirements and participated in our school’s Titan 21 Exhibition night to present to the student body, as well as faculty and community members.

20 Time wrap-up

Requirements for the end of 20 Time projects:

  • Final video reflection describing outcomes and advice to next year’s 20 timers, 3-5 minutes
  • Final presentation at Titan 21 night April 14th, must be interactive
  • Final reflection on 20 Time model- blog that outlines what worked and did not work about the project, not yours personally but 20 time in general (timetables, pitch proposals, class time, blogs etc.)

In two years through these projects, our community has gained a set of murals on permanent display at Mill Mountain Zoo, a Frisbee Golf course, two novels published through Lulu, a suicide awareness club at HV, an Instagram channel about the beauty of Roanoke and myriad other amazing accomplishments. This project continually shows me what school could be. Below is a link to my collection on Digital Is, an incredible website from the National Writing Project that houses resources for teachers. NWP awarded me my first grant for this project that helped buy our first video camera to record all this great work. I will be forever grateful!

Digital Is 20 time collection


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