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6 Student-Centered Projects for the First Week of School

By August 26, 2017October 29th, 202010 Comments

6 Student-Centered Projects for the First Week of School

Don’t Wait to Innovate!

Teachers often begin the school year with team-building activities or a review of the rules and procedures. But what if we began with student-centered projects? The following is an exploration of six student-centered projects you can launch in your first month of school.

Starting the Year with Student-Centered Projects

So, imagine a classroom with 34 students. It’s the first week of school and you have a mix of students who spent the summer owning their learning and doing amazing projects mixed with another group who spent their hours binge-watching Netflix and playing video games. They are strangers right now but at some point, they will be a community. But what do you actually want to accomplish at the beginning?

Chances are, you’d love to see the following:

  • Team-building and social cohesion
  • Review of former content to make up for the “summer slide”
  • Clarifying expectations and going over procedures
  • A general pre-assessment of where your students are at within the standards

Often, teachers begin the school year with icebreakers. For what it’s worth, I’m not a fan of icebreakers. In my experience, extroverts have already broken the ice before they walked through the door and introverts are perfectly happy to let the ice melt slowly. I’ve never enjoyed the small-talk chatter of gathering names for People Bingo, the super awkward human knot, or the “tell me 3 facts about you” activities. But I get it. There is value in the pure joy and laughter in a great icebreaker.

Other teachers spend the first week going over expectations and having students complete pre-assessments. They might spend time in community-building but they know that time is short and they need to get on with the content.

But I’ve found that there’s actually a way to build community, go over expectations, and pre-assess students while also promoting student ownership.

Starting with Student Ownership

If you ask teachers what they want in the long-term for students, you are likely to hear terms like “life-long learners,” “critical thinkers,” and “falling in love with learning.” You might hear something about students being self-directed and independent.

So what if we began the school year with a focus on student ownership?

By starting with student-centered projects, you are making a bold statement that says, “I trust you to be self-directed and I value your agency as a learner.” Rather than sharing 3 items about themselves or playing a game of People Bingo, students can actually share their expertise and passions through Genius Hour projects and Geek Out blogs.

So, what about procedures and expectations? The beauty of a student-centered project is that you can teach the procedures as you go. You might spend 10 minutes going over the procedure grid but then you can clarify expectations as students move from independent to partners to small group to whole class instruction.

The following are a few student-centered projects you can do with your students at the beginning of the year.


#1: Genius Hour (Let Students Choose the Topic)

Genius Hour begins with a simple premise. Give your students 20% of their class time to learn what they want. They choose the content while also mastering skills and hitting the academic standards. With Genius Hour, students own the entire journey. They choose the topics based upon their own geeky interests. It doesn’t have to be a traditional academic area. They might like fashion or food or sports or Legos or Minecraft or deep sea creatures.

They can then match these topics with the standards. Notice that many of the ELA standards, for example, are essentially skill standards that can connect to just about any topic. Students ask the questions and engage in their own research to find the answers. Along the way, they design their own plan of instruction. They decide on the resources and activities. Each student sets goals and engages in self-assessment. They work at their own pace and set their own deadlines.

In the end, students figure out what they will make and how they will share their learning with the world. A word of caution: It’s not a free-for-all. The best Genius Hour projects have systems and structures that empower students to reach their full potential. Even so, there will be mistakes. You’ll have to experiment. But in the end, students are empowered to be self-directed learners, engaging in creativity and critical thinking. In other words, they own the learning.

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A problem-based simulation activity might involve doing a collaborative wilderness survival activity, where students have to figure out what supplies they will take in order to survive a plane crash. It might involve a space simulation, where they have to decide which items they need in order to start a lunar colony or how they might fix a broken item on a spacecraft. You might do something like a Breakout EDU project, where students have to solve problems collaboratively while working within a tight time constraint.

The idea here is that students work collaboratively to decide on their own strategies. They are forced to make decisions, communicate with peers, and learn from their mistakes. It’s a great way to model productive failure and iterative thinking.


#3: Design Challenges (Let Students Own the Creative Process)

I want to see students engaged in creative thinking from day one. This is why A.J. Juliani and I created the LAUNCH Cycle (which we also explored in our book Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student)

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With design thinking, students own the entire creative process from the initial place of awareness through the inquiry, which leads to the research and then into the ideation and eventually into the place where they are creating their prototypes. Note that there is a structure here. However, the structure is designed to facilitate rather than limit a student’s creative voice.

Here’s an example of a design challenge that connects to math:

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#4: Maker Projects (Let the Students Make Their Own Creations)

Maker projects are similar to design challenges. However, they are shorter and based on the idea of rapid prototyping. Check out the following video to see the distinction:

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A.J. Juliani has a great curation of maker projects that he included on his recent blog post:

Best Activities for Students K-2:

1. By far these are my favorite K-2 design thinking activities to use with younger students. It connects DT to Literature via our favorite children stories.

University of Arkansas: STEM Design Challenges Based on Children’s Books

2. Stanford Spaghetti Marshmallow Challenge – Students build towers using only spaghetti, marshmallows, tape and string

3. The Morning Routine – Students redesign their morning routine

Best Activities for Students 3-5:

1. Create Your Own Sport with This Free Challenge: Invent Your Own Sport 

3. Tiny House Challenge: Maker Challenge: Design the Ultimate Tiny House (with video)

4. Stanford The Classroom Redesign Project – Students redesign a classroom

Best Projects for 6-8 Students:

1. Stanford Welcome to Middle School– Students role play how to make transition to middle school easier

2. Back to KG???!!! – Middle-school students rediscover the fun they had in kindergarten

3. Make Your Own Flappy Bird Game (FREE) Time: 20-45 mins

4. Design the Ultimate Roller Coaster:…

Best Projects for 9-12 Students:

1. The Special Olympics – Students develop a sense of empathy for people in the Special Olympics

2. The Classroom Redesign Project – Students redesign a classroom

3. Invent Your Own Sport 

4. Draw How to Make Toast (FREE via TED)

#5: Wonder Week (Let Students Ask the Questions)

The Wonder Week Project is an inquiry-based, week-long project, where students ask questions about anything they find interesting. These are those nagging questions they have that they’ve never had a chance to answer in school. So, students begin with a place of inquiry, with a particular question they are dying to figure out. 

From there, they move into research. They might go online and look for answers on websites (and, yes, I think Wikipedia is great for this) or look at YouTube videos. They might contact experts in the field and send out emails or even do video conferencing. Eventually, they share their answers through a blog, video, or podcast.

Think of Wonder Week as a shorter and tighter version of Genius Hour.


#6: Geek Out Blogs (Let Students Build an Audience)

The idea is simple. Students write topical or thematic blogs in the topics that they geek out about. We go over examples of blogs (which exposes students to high-interest non-fiction reading) and they look at trends. They see foodie blogs, skateboarding blogs, sports blogs, fashion blogs, gaming blogs, car blogs, history blogs, science blogs, etc.

 Next, they create a specific themed blog. They define the driving interest as well as the audience. From there, they begin writing blog posts in various formats:

  1. They choose the format, including video, audio, and text.
  2. They choose the topics of the posts.
  3. They engage in research and share their findings with the classmates.
  4. They create posts that range from listicles to Q&A to interviews to human interest stories to persuasive pieces to instructions on how to do something.

With Geek Out Blogs, students get to own the entire writing process, from finding a topic and an audience all the way into research, writing, editing, and publishing. They get to choose the format and the genre of each post. And ultimately, they get to be the experts.


A Community of Makers

When you start the year with student-centered projects, you set the tone for students to become self-starters and self-managers, which is something they will need for the rest of their lives. They learn how to think like entrepreneurs:

But it’s more than that. When you start with student ownership, you are sending the powerful message to students that it’s okay to be known and that their passions, interests, and expertise are valued in your classroom. So, as they feel known and trusted on an individual level, they are able to share their ideas with classmates. From here, you grow into a tight classroom community where your students are able to recognize and appreciate the diverse range of interests and talents. And when that happens, you begin to grow into a community of makers.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • John Spencer, YOU are inspiring me to do great things in my 5th grade classroom! I am definitely going to incorporate a few of the ideas above this year. Gamification and these ideas seems like the perfect marriage of autonomy and creativity. You should check out the #xplap community; you’d find your people there!

  • Great ideas to share with my learning community! Thank you.

  • Alexandria Whitmer says:

    Just stumbled upon your blog and I’m loving the idea of implementing all these maker projects in to my classroom! This is my third year teaching and my first two years, I did the spaghetti/marshmallow tower with my 4th graders.

    My favorite is the projects related to the stories! The ‘egg drop’ was on my list of challenges to do, but thanks for making the connection to a children’s classic (Humpty Dumpty!) and providing a link to the STEM challenges related to children’s books!

    Question about the tiny house.. I currently teach 5th grade, but at a pretty low performing school in Compton. As I watch the video, I worry that it might be too complex for them? Should I let them go for it anyway? Or should I build up to it? Or perhaps there’s some modifications to be made?

  • Laura Park says:

    I’m one of the guilty ones that started the year with an ice breaker activity in my classroom. I did the People Bingo and actually liked that the kids were moving around, talking to other kids.
    I’m inspired by your post to try some of the Maker Challenges. I’d like to start with the spaghetti marshmallow tower challenge with my 2nd graders. I think my students will have so much fun! Thanks for your inspiration!

  • Leah Jaeger says:

    I just was introduced to your blog and became so excited to find that others agree with these projects to promote student ownership! I am guilty of starting with get to know you activities when I first started teaching. I found that a lot of the kids already knew each other and just wanted to finish the game. However, now I strive to grow my kids together through projects in the beginning of the year. I have come to find they are so much more confident and work more independently after!

  • kamlesh malik says:

    I am newly introduced to your blogs and I was exploring so many resources in your blog. a I just want to start using technology based projects for students learning.I have set up my 8th grade Science class for projects with technology .

    I want to start with maker Projects for one unit and one Design Challenges as a midterm grade assessment. I think it will be a success.

  • Natalie L. says:

    This blog post really resonated with me, especially being in the first few weeks of school! I teach 5th grade and this is my fourth year. Like you mentioned, I too have never been a huge fan of icebreakers, but still did them. This year I did the Spaghetti Tower instead, which they all loved. I felt I learned so much more about my students the first day with this team building activity, than my usual “two truths and a lie” icebreaker.

    Under the #4 Maker Projects the 3-5 “Create your own Sport” seems like an awesome project and something my class would love since many of them are athletic and into sports. I also like the idea of having students reinventing the classroom. Not only would that be fun and engaging for the students, but also very informative to the teacher. The students design could inform teachers of their needs, their creativity, and so much more. I’m sure some student ideas could be made a reality in the classroom. I’m always amazed by students creativity and I know all of my students would come up with great ideas that I would never think of!

    Thank you for the great ideas, can’t wait to implement them in the classroom!

  • Kathleen says:

    Thanks so much for these resources, John! I know it’s one of your older posts, but I was excited to share it with our teachers as we think about weaving more independent projects into whatever learning environment the fall might bring. My lower elementary teachers are clicking on the “Best Projects for Students K-2” and it seems those links are out of date. Any chance you have an updated version of this post with active links that I could share out? Thank you again, and I hope you and your family are safe and healthy!

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