My 21st Century #20time Epiphany

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I fell in love with project-based learning a few years ago when I went looking for deeper way of doing projects with my Humanities 8 students. At that time, I was doing project work with my students, but it was cookie-cutter projects: posters, PowerPoints, and newspapers…you know what I’m talking about. I gave out the topics and lots of class time and yadda, yadda, yadda. These projects were fine and the kids enjoyed them, but then I still relied on tests and final exams to assess their learning. I felt a disconnect in my assessment process. The kids would show me this great work via the project and then bomb the test. Maybe I could just skip the test? But then how do I get in enough content into the project? Ahh, the worry.

Then I stumbled upon several teachers who incorporated Project Based Learning (PBL) or Genius Hour into their curriculum. I was fascinated. I loved the idea of assessing things like grit, hustle and work ethic. These were, you know, real life skills. My only problem was that even with Genius Hour, while I got critical and creative thinking, I still got the same kinds of projects that students were comfortable with: posters, PowerPoints, booklets. I also found this sense of complacency with some students. You know those kids who want to the take the path of least resistance, or those ones who just want to do the one that gets them an “A.” We’re talking kids without a growth mindset. I was frustrated.

Deep down in my gut, I wanted to make students uncomfortable. I wanted students to seek out a challenge and try to conquer it. It is the 21st century and I knew that students who could collaborate, critically think and creatively think would be the big winners in the job jackpot of the future. Then, lo and beyond, I found this book:

And then this vlog:

And this quote.

And I literally felt the stars align! I knew that #20time was what I needed to embrace.

I stopped everything and looked at my calendar and started deleted boxes and figuring out how I would incorporate it….and now. (For those who you who want to know, this type A personality plans her year on a spread sheet: weeks at a glance, units, lessons, curricular competencies, and lab time…I know I am persnickety one!) I actually decided that I would try #20time, first, with my English 9 students, not my Humanities students. If proven successful (translation, I don’t crawl into the fetal position and cry in front of my students at some point), I would figure out a way to do it with the Humanities kiddos at the end of the school year.

So off I went…into the great unknown…#20time!

What is #20time?

In short, #20time is the allocation of 20% of class time to work on a passion project. The passion project can be directly tied to a theme in the course. In the case of my English 9s, their overarching theme was compassion (I used compassion and ignorance as the course’s theme. Flash forward, in my Humanities 8 class, I tied it to a student-created inquiry question from Social Studies.) If you check out other #20time projects from around the world, you will also see no thematic or obvious thematic curricular connection (check out Laura Randazzo’s blog – In those classrooms, students were given the freedom to pick whatever they wanted to do. Learn to play the ukulele? Sure. Build a robot? Why not? Start up a soup kitchen? Giver!

Regardless of how #20time is used or will look in a given classroom classroom, one thing remains constant. #20time takes all your preconceived notions of project work and throws them out the window. Crash! Bang! Typical projects are teacher directed and generated. A teacher gives a variety of topics to choose from and often a format, or choice of to format, to generate the final projects. #20time is about giving students unlimited choice and 20% of class time to express their unlimited voice. They cannot be spoon fed a topic or idea, nor can they be given a format for the project. Teachers become guides, but have to relinquish the usual control of a project they’ve created. It’s scary…big time scary! But it is so cool!

Before I started the English 9 #20time compassion projects (or any #20time project) I needed to have an end in mind. What skills did I want my students to come out with on the other end?

I began with an examination of the curricular competencies I wanted students to develop mastery of. I would build on all the curricular competencies in class via other units, but the #20time unit would culminate with their learning of these competencies:

  1. Synthesize ideas from a variety of sources to build understanding
  2. Access information and ideas for diverse purposes and from a variety of sources and evaluate their relevance, accuracy, and reliability
  3. Assess and refine texts to improve their clarity, effectiveness, and impact according to purpose, audience, and message
  4. Use and experiment with oral storytelling processes
  5. Think critically, creatively, and reflectively to explore ideas within, between, and beyond texts

It was an English class, so I wanted their final projects to involve writing, which we had been working on over the course of the semester. #20time projects end with a Ted Talk, so synthesizing and refining texts would fall into that category. I also wanted students to research and research well, so that would fall under accessing information. The speaking process for the Ted Talk could be oral storytelling. Reflecting could be writing reflections on the process. Done! Easy, right? Not exactly. It was still up to the students to have something to write, research, speak and synthesize about.

Because our course theme was compassion and ignorance, I asked students to come up with a charity or individual they felt exuded compassion, but has been taken for granted or has been, to some extent overlooked. It was a meaty topic and not just, “pick a charity from the list” topic. They had to have a personal connection to the charity/individual, and the charity/individual had to be local.

Here’s the first kicker. Over the course of several weeks, students had to research and interview a representative from the charity or the individual themselves. One of the parameters was research in the form of local, relevant research. That meant had to talk to living, breathing people, or at least email them directly. Scary stuff for students who text or snap their bff’s with said bff one meter away from them (I’m not exaggerating). This was the uncomfortable I mentioned previously. Communication is a tough sell, but insisting on local, relevant research and topics/individuals who they were personally connected with meant they couldn’t just Google the answers to their questions or Bing search the good work Leonard DiCaprio does for climate change. So, student students created questions of interest and went to work contacting charities or individuals. I didn’t contact them for them, but I did give them time, in class (what I called their “20time day” on Wednesdays) to use the school phone or their own devices to make contact. I would also help them troubleshoot other means of contacting their person or charity. My job was facilitator and helper. Then, students compiled their research and had to come up with an exotic way to highlight their research.

Here’s the second kicker. The way they highlighted the research had to be in a format that was new to them. They couldn’t just throw all their information into a PowerPoint or create a poster. No Sirree! They already knew how to do that. #20time is just as about learning to build, create or make something new as it is working on curricular and core competencies. So, then, over several weeks, students had to learn how to build, create or make their projects and then try to have it ready by the due date.

Here’s the third kicker.  The project might not get done by the due date and that’s okay, because…wait for it…the project isn’t going to be assessed.  

I’ll give you a second to take that in…

You heard me correctly.  The project isn’t assessed. They will celebrate their journeys, but they won’t hand them in.

Then, here’s the fourth kicker! Students put the projects aside and write amazing Ted Talks…a 3-5-minute final exam Ted Talk.  Passionately presented in a speech style, at a lectern (minus the red, circular carpet…darn…I really need one of those), and complete with PowerPoint projection behind them.   They would look just like the pros at but I let them have a cheat sheet because I’m such a nice person.  We’re talking, massive, intimidating presentations, 11 weeks in the making.

You’re sold right? Probably not yet. This is a lot to take in. And it would be, like, way easier to just chuck an exam at them, right? Don’t.

But wait, you say, I still can’t let go the fact that the projects aren’t assessed? They’ve spent hours and hours on beautiful projects and you don’t have the decency to mark them???

I felt the same way at first.  Here’s the poop! Go back up to the curricular competencies.  #20time isn’t about the project, it is about developing the skills (in BC, curricular and core competencies) needed for the 21st century.  The projects, then, become the avenue for the skills.   Without the avenue, students won’t have a route to the skills.  

And I tell my students that.  I leave nothing for the imagination. I don’t suddenly drop a bomb on them…oh yeah, by the way, that model ship you made. I’m not marking it. Surprise! I tell them that the project won’t be assessed.  I explain to them all the skills I will be assessing.  Do you know what that does? No mark on the project becomes an incentive for them to try something creative without fear of failure. If I were to mark the project, the objective would change. It would become about what Mrs. Schinkel wants and deems good. Blech! What do I know about model ships? Instead, I want to be a high school version of Bill Gates meets 007 meets Ethan Hunt: “Here’s the challenge if you choose to accept it.  Be creative.  Make a plan.  Collaborate your way through problems. Get fired up.  Don’t lick your wounds. Make it happen!”

My rustic learning map on the board. I checked off each step as the class went forward. Next year, each student will have their own. (I’m always reflecting and looking for ways to make things better next time.)


When students are given choice and voice, they buy in. Plain and simple.  When you let them sit in the driver’s sit, you’ll get even more buy in.  When you let them drive for the entire journey, you guessed it, you’ll get even more buy in. Winner winner, chicken dinner!

For the English 9 projects, I didn’t choose a charity or inspirational person for them. Man, there were days when I just wanted to throw an idea at some of them because they procrastinated like it was nobody’s business! But I had to be patient. I couldn’t expect students to connect, personally and deeply to a topic I, the teacher felt personally and deeply about. I had to be about them and only them. So, instead, we conferenced and brainstormed, and sometimes we conferenced and brainstormed even more.  Through the conferencing, my job had to be to be that of Professor Positivity, at your service. No idea is ever considered a bad idea in #20time. Even though, in my heart of hearts, I thought an idea might not be a really good one or I had a better one, I had to check my opinion at the door and encourage any and all ideas that crossed my path.   I had to let them try.

Additionally, every week, students had to reflect, on FreshGrade, about their journey.  Sometimes, we conferenced on FreshGrade too. Soon, students realized, though, that the kids around them who had made their choices and started the research process, were leaving them in the dust and they were losing important project development weeks, so that often pushed students to make it happen, so to speak.

For the Humanities 8 projects, students honed on their favourite unit from the year and developed an inquiry question to base their hypothesis and subsequent research on.  Instant buy in when students get to choose what they want to examine more deeply.  But let’s talk about the projects that they may or may not finish.  In a Humanities class, focussed on copious amounts of reading and writing, imagine the excitement when kids are told they get to highlight their research in any way. They could build something, make something, or create something.  I had students forge blades because their research was on medieval weaponry. I had two girls learn how to knit because they decided they wanted to knit the flags that represented the countries where the Black Death spread.  Another group learned to work with clay and paint in order to mimic Renaissance art styles.  They got to play. They got to work with their hands. They got to be creative. It was cool.  These are the future critical and creative thinkers employers want to have on staff.


According to Growing Tomorrow’s Citizens in Today’s Classrooms, meaningful, challenging tasks helps shape cognition, asking student to consistently reflect develops metacognition, celebrating all growth and achievement fosters hope, highlighting strengths over weaknesses increases self-worth, and constantly and consistently showing learners how their efforts are directly linked to overall improvement cultivates a growth mindset (Erkens, Schimmer, & Vagle, 2019).

Self-regulation is an important 21st century skill.  In #20time, students are challenged to build or create something new (developing cognition). They reflect on their process, progress, challenges and set goals (developing metacognition). The entire comes to class and shares projects (complete or not) in an informal, chips and cookies, show and tell day (inspiring hope). Students are given the assurance to develop grit and hustle (developing self-worth). Measuring growth and improvement in all the skills is what is assessed (which is growth mindset).

We shouldn’t take self-regulation for granted and #20time encourages its development.

Skill development & Assessment

I’m big on gradeless assessment. #20time and a gradeless mindset are like potatoes and gravy, sunshine and good moods, pumpkins and Halloween…they go very well together.#20time helps eliminate the “I give up” mode so prominent in teenagers’ brains.  In #20time, it is okay to try-fail-try again, try-fail-try-fail-try again, and try-fail-give up-reset-try again.  The projects themselves are not assessed, and the pressure of making picture-perfect, pretty projects that can become a huge burden for kids, mentally, is gone.   The class and I had many conversations about overcoming challenges, grit, reflecting, researching, writing well, as important life long skills, and those were the skills I assessed using a learning scale over the course of the 12-week unit.

Standards based learning scale I developed with a gradeless mindset in mind.

I tied each of these areas to curricular competencies by way of backwards design.  That is, I took the curricular competencies and core competencies, and decided how students could go about working towards mastery of them, and then I assessed them using a learning scale.   I gave authentic, descriptive feedback throughout the journey so that students could see what they strengths and weaknesses were and I gave them the chance to improve.  For example, after students presented their 60 second elevator pitches (an important step for students in which they complete and share with their classmates around week 5 or 6, what they found in their research, what they plan to do for a project, and how they will complete the project), I gave them feedback on their speaking skills (posture, manner, voice, etc).  This was integral, formative feedback they could use when they started practicing their Ted Talk. It’s really important to me that students have the path to be successful. That includes authentic feedback and scaffolding of instruction.

As another example, I mentioned how I get students to reflect each week on their learning.  When they reflected, I shared with them where they are on the scale for reflections and I give them feedback on what they were missing and how they could improve in that skill next week. Using FreshGrade was an integral part of this process. FreshGrade is digital assessment and portfolio system in which communication of student learning is shared between all stakeholders: parents, students and the teacher. So while one might argue that a student might ignore the feedback and simply settle for Developing, for example, keep in mind, again, that the parents are involved and witness to the reflections as well. Additionally, students buy in a lot more when they know that assessments are not averaged and when the feedback is right there, front and center. Parents would often chime in if my feedback suggested that the student wasn’t answering all the suggested questions for the reflections. That was a win-win for the student.

Reflections with next steps. Doesn’t have to be too wordy. Just has to be supportive and allow them to level up in the next reflection.

Online reflections are powerful connecting tools. Sometimes, what is unsaid in the classroom, can be said in the digital landscape.  And regardless of what they achieved over the ten or so weeks of reflecting, they were always informed of the learning scale assessment as a guide for improvement, and scores were never, ever averaged. If, by the end of the ten weeks, a student was writing reflections at an Applying level, then it didn’t matter if they wrote five of their first reflections at Beginning. They showed improvement, and at the unit, were assessed as such.

Students were also asked to provide a quote that represented their learning for the week. These, then, in turn, could be used for the PowerPoint portion of the Ted Talk.

Final Thoughts

#20time could be used with intermediate to high school and in any subject: Science (what if students came up with some kind of novel, green solution to a school’s waste problem), History (what would Europe be like had the Black Death not struck it?), Geography (reorganize the downtown core of Prince George to make it more accessible for persons with disabilities), Drama (write a play about human rights), Foods (create and market a new food item), Social Justice (how can students create a movement to end climate change)…The possibilities are endless but the parameters are clear.  Give students voice and choice. Become the facilitator, not the spoon feeder.  Encourage but do not assess the final project. Examine the curricular competencies you want to assess and integrate them into the folds of the #20time experience.

It won’t be an easy journey. There were times during my first #20time experience that I wanted to fold up my notes, chuck them in the garbage can, and tell the kids to Fuhgeddaboudit! There will be students who leave their projects to the eleventh hour. There will be students who take weeks (it will feel like years) to come up with a topic or project idea because they would rather the teacher would just give them an idea. Put on your poker face and get through it. At the end of the journey, when students show their projects you’ll see the pride. You’ll hear the “wows” from other students.

Check out the pictures above. I have a story for every picture but I’ll keep the detail brief: the Renaissance art duplicated by a duo of Humanities girls, the wooden replica medieval shield, the actual forged gladias (we had to get special permission from admin to bring that one in), the girls who learned how to knit so they could knit flags but never got one complete (but learned and loved knitting as a result! They found it calming, especially for the student who dealt with major anxiety issues), the stamp created by a student who loved his elementary school teacher and wanted to show his love by making and giving him this stamp (if that doesn’t make you cry, there is seriously no hope for you), the SPCA comic book that even the SPCA thought was really cool, and the cutting board made and given to Guru Nanak’s Free Kitchen at Christmas (that kid could not stop smiling when he delivered it). At the bottom, are two examples of Ted Talks. Every single student presented their Ted Talks. Every kid. Both classes. No one skipped. They all showed up. They loved it!

Get out your phone and take photos because you will want to keep the energy in the room forever. (And get out your hanky because you just might cry…I know I did.) If I could bottle any day in the last two semesters, it would be show and tell day for #20time and the Ted Talk presentations. I almost forgot to assess them while watching the Ted Talks because I was so amazed and impressed that they poured so much of their heart and soul in to their work. And so many reflected on how this way of learning with freedom, with voice and choice, had such a positive impact on them as learners. No three hour, sit down exam can do that. No way.

So, give #20time a go. If you want to collaborate, shoot me a message or email. I’m happy to help or lend advice. I plan on doing #20time again next year. I’ll be sure to share how the journey goes. Oh, and if you do do it, get a red, circular carpet for the Ted Talk presentations.  Let me know where you bought it. I could really use one too. 😉


PS And one last thing…do a #20time project with the students. Write reflections. Share your projects with the class on sharing day.  Be a part of the experience. I wrote a readers’ theatre play for Northern Bear Aware. It was hard work and challenging. It was neat to work alongside the kids and collaborate with them, too.

2 thoughts on “My 21st Century #20time Epiphany

  1. Thank you, thank you! It has been so hard to find material about 20 time projects that isn’t the same old stuff. I am going virtual with my first 20 time project next week. Wish me luck!


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