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Learning With a Passion



Program Empowers Second-Graders to Pursue Their Interests

For the past several years, Durham Academy second-graders have taken part in a year-long initiative called Passion Power Hour. Inspired by the notion that academic engagement, intellectual growth and creativity are improved when students are empowered to choose their own course of study, the program fosters student-driven learning at an early age by encouraging students to design projects based on topics that interest them.

Passion Power Hour begins in the library, where Preschool/Lower School librarian Michelle Rosen leads second-graders in activities to help them devise their topics and compile lists of research questions that their projects will address. From there, students pursue their passions at their own pace and toward the goals that they’ve articulated, working under the supervision of their teachers, in dedicated hour-long class sessions every two weeks. They can draw on a vast array of resources and materials to explore their interests — from library books and periodicals, to iPad apps like Seesaw and Epic and Makers Empire, to good old-fashioned interviews with subject-matter experts.

And student projects can take a variety of forms. A student who wants to learn an instrument might study videos to hone their musical skills, while a student concerned with the possibility of their favorite animal becoming extinct might research population numbers and brainstorm ways to raise awareness about protecting endangered species. Another student with an interest in geography might recreate a famous landmark out of Lego bricks. Projects culminate in a final presentation in which students demonstrate their newly acquired skill or artifact, as well as teach their peers about their research — what sparked their interest initially and what challenges they faced along the way. Students present their findings to their class or to the whole second grade, or in some cases, to the entire Lower School. And then, it’s time to dive into a new interest, or perhaps further explore a previous project.

As this video shows, Passion Power Hour is a favorite part of many second-graders’ school day, but it also aligns with Durham Academy’s long-term Strategic Vision goals. It prepares students for life by teaching them skills like collaboration and communication that they’ll continue to apply going forward; it meets the needs of all learners by allowing them to design their project goals and pace as they see fit; and it facilitates innovation by putting up-to-the-minute educational resources in the hands of students.

The Passion Power Hour project was recently awarded an Innovation Journey Fund Grant (see page 34), which will provide teachers with additional resources and increase the frequency of the program from biweekly to three times a month. Beyond that, there are hopes that it can one day expand to all four grade levels in the Lower School.

“When I was little, I wanted to be an astronaut. So I really like space and learning about it. I also really like making presentations and working on stuff on my iPad, so making a presentation about space worked out. I made a presentation all about the planets and stars and the sun. I did most of the research on an app called Epic where it lets you choose what things you’re interested in and then you could just tap on the books to read them. I searched a lot of things about space and had a lot of fun.”


“I learned that wolves get killed because the population is rising too high and that there’s not a lot of black panthers left in the world. Hunting animals for their fur, whiskers and other body parts is not a good thing. And for the world, animals help a lot of stuff in nature, including trees, which help us. So we need to stop killing the environment by killing animals.”


“I like doing research about cats a lot. I'm a big cat fan. I’m making a cat board game. It’s called Fix the Cat. The goal is to answer the questions correctly and collect the cat tokens, and if you collect all of them you win the game. I made the tokens in Maker’s Empire. There are two types of questions: Manx cat questions and American shorthair cat questions. The most fun part was in writing the questions, I got to learn the answers to the questions, so I know more about cats now.”


“In Passion Power Hour, I learned how to knit. I think I just wanted to learn something new that I didn’t know, and my grandma does it, and she taught me the basic steps on how to do it, and that got me interested in it. Knitting is hard at first. You go through a lot of challenges. The hardest challenges were getting your hands to make the moves right. At first I looked at books and then I eventually figured out that looking at a video would be easier. It gets easier as you go because you’ve learned how to do it and what to do, and you just keep going through it. And eventually you can make anything you want and turn it into anything.”