Passion-Driven Education

There's no denying the power of passion in a person's life. Passion has the power to change everything. The challenge is to set up schools in such a way that we leverage the individual passions of our students to help them succeed. I've seen the power of a passion-driven education at the Westside Campus of Orange Technical College. In all my 23 years education, I've never been a part of such a passion-driven environment. Almost everyone that attends Orange Technical College comes there because they're pursuing their passion--whether they are pursuing a career in welding, or they are pursuing their GED, they all have a new found purpose that drives them. It is a completely different kind of educational environment. We have very few discipline referrals at Orange Technical College. Administrators don't spend much time supervising bus duty or lunch duty. The students at our school are on a mission filled with passion, and they don't want anything to mess that up. What I have seen and experienced at Orange Technical College is really how education was meant to be… passion-driven. I don't believe our school is the only place where passion exists--not by a long shot--but it is a unique concentration of individuals who are pursuing their passion together.

Passion truly does affect every area of student's educational life. I know of one particular student that struggled on the Reading portion of the FCAT during her sophomore year of high school--she missed the passing score by two points. She was enrolled in intensive reading for her 11th grade year. Just being in the class made her feel stupid. When testing time arrived during her junior year, disaster struck again, and she missed a passing score by two points once again. She was obviously devastated. She was enrolled in intensive reading, once again, during her senior year. As she describes the class, she was the only student in the class that really wanted to succeed. The teacher picked up on the fact that she was different, that she really wanted to learn, and he took her aside and made sure she had everything she needed, and that the class environment wouldn't keep her from getting as much help as she could get in order to pass the test. Well, at the end of the year, she passed the reading test by 10 points. She now qualified to graduate high school. Things didn't work out so well for the teacher that helped her. Her reading teacher was let go at the end of the year because the other students that didn't really want to be in the class didn't make enough progress.

The story doesn't end there, though. The student went on to Lake Tech to be part of their massage therapy program. Massage therapy was something she was really interested in. The student excelled in the program, and she didn't have any trouble reading the textbooks for the class--and these were detailed, college level textbooks. It's amazing how a student's ability to read is directly related to whether or not they are passionate about what they are reading. There was a big movement in the reading world a few years back that called for students to put down their fiction books and focus on informational text. I question this type of plan for two reasons. First, the best way to help a child improve their reading is to get them to fall in love with reading. Many times, falling in love with reading happens through reading fiction stories. Secondly, while reading informational text may help prepare students for the type of reading they will have to do on a job some day, if the informational text is not in an area they are passionate about, they are going to struggle to get through even a couple paragraphs. If a student is reading about their passion, not only are they moving in the direction of the dreams and gaining valuable knowledge related to the vision they have for their future, but they are also, naturally, becoming a better reader. We have to find ways to mix in passion with our approach to educating our children.

But wait, there's more...the story doesn't end there. Through the success she experienced in the Massage Therapy class, the student regained the academic confidence she had lost during her years of Intensive Reading, and she decided to continue to pursue her education at the University of Central Florida, where she is on track to graduate in August 2016 with her Bachelor's Degree. Passion and confidence can make all the difference in the world when it comes a student reaching their dreams.

Two questions occur to me as I'm thinking about this one students story:

1.) Should a teacher that is on the verge of being let go really be tasked with trying to educate such a tough cohort of students--many who have lost confidence in their ability to pass a reading test...who are then surrounded by students who don't really care about the class, and obviously don't want to be there? Should such a teacher be the final hope for senior students to graduate? I would think that such a position would be filled by the very best teacher available, but sadly, in the era of VAM and performance pay, who would want to risk so much with such a tough group? This particular assignment sounds like the perfect position for a principal to put someone he or she is trying to get rid of.

2.) The other question that occurs to me is whether or not a high-stakes, timed, reading test should be used to determine if a student graduates or not? This particular student only improved by 12 points in 3 years, yet she was able to navigate through tech school and a university. The student could obviously read. A timed test cannot gauge how hard a student is willing to work or study. I think we need to reconsider how we use these high/stakes tests, especially in the area of reading. Personally speaking, I love to read, but I'm not a very fast reader. I am constantly having to start paragraphs over because I get distracted and find myself reading but not remembering. I own thousands of books, and at any given time I am reading about 10 different books, but I'm not sure I would do very well on the current high-stakes tests we give our students. We have turned reading into a test to be passed rather than a door of adventure and inspiration to walk through and enjoy. Ok, enough of this rabbit trail about testing and reading...back to passion.

If school leaders want to engineer the education environments that we provide our students with, we should start by finding a method of infusing each child's education journey with the secret ingredient of passion. When we create education environments rich with opportunities and interests that appeal to students, and we allow students the freedom to pursue their passions, wild, unfathomable success becomes possible.

To illustrate this point about allowing students the opportunity and freedom to pursue their passions, I would like to pass along a story that Sir Ken Robinson shared in his book titled, "Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative".

"Some weeks before our son started at university in Los Angeles, we went along for an orientation day. At one point, the students were taken away for a separate briefing on program options and the parents were taken to the finance department for a form of grief counseling. We then had a presentation from one of the professors about our roles as parents during our children's student days. Essentially he advised us to stay out of their way and spare them too much of our career advice. He gave the example of his own son who had been a student at the University some years before. He had originally wanted to study the classics. The professor and his wife were not thrilled at the job prospects that a classics degree would open up for him. So they were relieved when at the end of the freshman year he said he had decided to take a major in something that would be more useful. They asked their son what he had in mind and he said philosophy. His father pointed out that none of the big philosophy firms were hiring at that time. His son took some philosophy courses anyway and then eventually majored in art history."

"After college he found a job in an international auction house. He traveled, made a good living and loved the work and life. He got the job because of his knowledge of ancient cultures, his intellectual training in philosophy and his love of art history. Neither he nor his parents could have predicted that path when he started his college studies. The principle is the same for everyone. Life is not linear. When you follow your own true north you create new opportunities, meet different people, have different experiences and create a different life." (Out of Our Minds, page 9)

This story illustrates precisely what education is supposed to be about--not simply learning skills, acquiring knowledge, and working on weaknesses. No, education is also about discovery, passion, and pursuing one's interest with an increasing, intense focus. If we leave these vital ingredients out of a child's education, many will lose interest and see little value in school.

The question for us is this, "How do we engineer an educational environment that includes opportunities for the students to pursue their passions while acquiring the essential skills necessary to complete their education journey? Here are a couple suggestions. This is not an end-all list, but rather a beginning to an important conversation for those who are passionate about the education of our children.

1.) Incorporate the ideas included in the Genius Hour movement. Genius Hour comes from a practice that Google used with their employees. Google gave their employees 20% of each day to work on something they were passionate about that related to the core business of Google. This is how Google has developed so many different innovations related to their online tools and presence. The thought is to allow students a certain amount of time, every day, for students to pursue their passion. Included within this set aside time would be an opportunity to research questions related to their passion, produce a product related to their passion, and then present their passion to the class in whatever way seems most appropriate to the student.

I like the concept of Genius Hour because I believe my own daughter could have benefited from such an opportunity. For various reasons, we home-schooled our daughter from 4th through 8th grade. She truly excelled while being home-schooled. She loved to read, write, and draw, and she was actually writing her own novel during those years at home. I remember her talking about developing characters, writing a prologue, and tirelessly seeking for a stable plot for her story. Much of what she was learning about writing she was learning from reading. She was inspired, and she didn't know that students her age weren't supposed to be able to write novels. She just loved to write, and she saw that the books she was reading contained such things.

Well, as an Assistant Principal at Apopka High School, I was well aware of the high quality teachers that can be found at a public school. I wanted my daughter to be exposed to their expertise. The only hesitation I had with enrolling my daughter at a traditional school was that I knew that the hustle and bustle of "all that is high school" would take over her life, and it would probably push her writing to a back burner. My daughter excelled at school, passing many AP tests, and scoring a 34 on the English section of the ACT, and a 31 on the Reading section, with a composite score of a 29. She loves words, phrases, and figures of speech, and she is constantly attempting to correct my misuse of such in anything I say or write. Sadly, her novel writing was pushed to the back burner. I can certainly understand this--teachers have standards and lessons to cover, and the passion of an individual student has to take a backseat when it comes to making sure all students acquire the necessary knowledge and skills that they need in order to be prepared for their future. I think implementing the concepts of the Genius Hour would have helped her continue the pursuit of her passion. If she could have continued to work on her novel with the expert input from her teachers, she would have truly felt the power of passion filling her sail, and I have no doubt that she would have finished her novel. Even without the Genius Hour initiative, I still consider my daughter to be very fortunate to have been exposed to the professional personalities and expertise of the teaching staff of Apopka High School. My daughter is continuing to pursue her passion for writing and drawing at the college level, and I believe the success she is enjoying is a direct result of her time at Apopka High School.

2.) Increase the number of career technical opportunities at local schools and at the Orange Technical College campuses. Students need opportunities to pursue their passions while at the K-12 secondary level. We cannot afford to squander the passion students have during these all-important years. Every student should exit high school with a career skill that can help them either pay their bills while they are pursuing higher education, or a career skill that catapults them into a high paying technical career.

3.) Explore and incorporate some of the ideas from the book Passion Driven Classroom" by Angela Maiers and Amy Sandvold. I don’t have enough time or space to include much on this in this particular piece, but I will probably write more about this in the future. Suffice it to say, this book is a must read for teachers, administrators, and parents.

In conclusion, we can achieve wild, unfathomable success if we are willing to turn some of our educational philosophies and practices upside-down in order to rediscover the power that passion can play in a student's education and life. I could provide countless more stories of the difference that passion is making in the lives of students at Orange a Technical College, but I'll stop here. To borrow a line from an old friend, I believe the length of this piece has already "punted past the coverage" of my readership of 10.

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Political advertisement paid for and approved by Matthew J. Fitzpatrick, Non-Partisan, for Orange County School Board Chair


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