Eighth-grader Grace Cushing beamed alongside her posterboard presentation in the Germantown Hills Middle School gym during an open house Oct. 30.
After all, she'd been talking about happiness all evening. It's the subject of the book she's writing as part of a new project in teacher Tabitha Cooper's class, which dedicates one day each week to a pet project.
"It's going to be everyone's views on happiness and what makes them happy," Cushing said.
And the young writer has learned working on her largest literary project to date, "It's the little things. It can be coming home and (you) get to see your cat."
Cushing's happiness research, including information about depression and suicide, was among dozens of presentations in the middle school gymnasium. From a saxophonist who recorded his own interpretations of classic video game theme songs to a star athlete who started a neighborhood book club, eighth-graders in Cooper's English classes chose projects based on their interests.
"They've given one day per week to work on something that a student is passionate about in hopes of creating something amazing or perfecting something in the world," Cooper said, a tall task for 13- and 14-year-old students.
One 40-minute class period of every five — usually Fridays — is dedicated to research and development of their projects, logging their progress and offering critiques to their classmates.
"It's OK to dream big. … There will be many failures along the way and many roadblocks."
The 20 percent time program — which produced Post-Its and masking tape at 3M and Gmail and Google News at Google — is new to Germantown Hills students.
As part of a pilot program funded by the district's Parent Teacher Organization and Board of Education, grades five through eight are integrating 120 Chromebooks into classrooms.
Parents, grandparents and community members browsed through booths dedicated to informative projects such as living with heart defects or immune disorders to creative undertakings like digital replications of the school building or investigations into Bigfoot's existence.
"She definitely looks grown up," Stephanie Greening said as her daughter, Amanda, dressed in black slacks and a white button down to match the professional chef serving as her mentor, poured samples of tomato bisque soup. "I think that it's important to get kids excited about learning. She spent a lot of time getting ready for this."
While the idea behind the program is for students to spend one-fifth of class time on the projects, Cooper admits more than half of the work happens after students leave the building.
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"Ultimately they don't realize that it's a team effort, and they're learning life skills that they wouldn't learn in these walls under a traditional educational classroom," Cooper said.